Friday, November 16, 2012

A (Nate) Silver Lining for Online Poker

Have been hearing a lot of folks in the poker world noting with varying degrees of surprise that Nate Silver -- the statistician and analyst who received a lot of attention for his uncannily correct predictions regarding the 2012 presidential election -- is in fact a poker player.

I was vaguely aware of Silver following the 2008 election, having read a couple of articles reporting that his predictions that year had proven accurate. But I admit I didn’t really start paying attention to his “Five Thirty Eight” site (which in 2010 started to be hosted as a blog on the New York Times site) until just after Black Friday, April 2011.

That’s because in the immediate aftermath of Black Friday, Silver wrote what I thought was one of the best and most thorough explanations of what had happened in an article titled “After ‘Black Friday’: American Poker Faces a Cloudy Future.”

The article not only reported on the DOJ’s action (the indictment and civil complaint), but offered a smart overview of the brief history of online poker in the United States. I actually assigned the article to my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class that semester as a way to get them up to speed on what was happening, as Black Friday introduced kind of an unscheduled detour in the syllabus right at the end of the semester.

In the article, Silver mentions his own experience playing online poker, which in a lot of ways mirrored my own. Silver’s best years online came during the “boom” (from 2003-2006), after which he notes how the games became more competitive in the post-UIGEA environment. He even says he earned most of his income playing during those years (never quite the case for me).

I continued to follow Silver’s non-poker writing after that, and thus was aware of all of his different rubrics and methods of compiling poll data as the 2012 election approached. That’s when we started seeing various attacks on Silver being launched by those not in agreement with his consistently maintained position that Barack Obama was very likely to win.

As happened four years ago, Silver’s predictions proved accurate, with Silver correctly forecasting how all 50 states would vote in the presidential race.

Silver has a new book out titled The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don’t which I’m interested to read, in part because the book finds Silver returning to writing about online poker in a chapter titled “The Poker Bubble.” There he apparently breaks down and explains the economics behind the “boom” and how so many players -- like himself, and like me -- were able to be winning players online during that 2003-2006 era thanks to the abundance of losing players then among the player pool.

Now everyone’s looking to Silver for his thoughts on, well, anything he wishes to think about. He weighed in on the whole American League MVP debate a couple of days ago, explaining at length how the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout deserved the award over Detroit’s Triple Crown-winning Miguel Cabrera. (Cabrera won.) He also offered thoughts on various topics in an online Q&A this week for Deadspin, including answering a question about the possible legislative future for online poker.

In his response, Silver said his “hunch is that the poker community probably underrates how difficult it is to get ANYTHING done at the federal level, especially in the near term.” However, he’s more optimistic regarding what might happen down the road, thanks to “the intersection of the need for more tax revenues, poker having become increasingly mainstream, [and] better lobbying efforts on behalf of the poker community.”

Silver also adds how “the demographics of poker tend much more toward people who can ‘afford’ to gamble,” a point he presents as an argument in favor of legalizing poker before things like the lottery or other strictly chance-based forms of gambling.

Makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Of course, when it comes to making sense, Silver’s been pretty much gold of late.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Michael M. said...

I also started following Silver during the 2008 elections. His best political analysis came during the primaries, when he took sparse polling data, augmented it with demographic and economic data, and correctly forecast many of the primary and caucus results. Silver foresaw how the small but real edges Obama had in organization in smaller states would offset and likely beat Hilary Clinton's edge in bigger states. Silver's 2008 primary/caucus analysis really set him apart from the pack, in a way that his still impressive predictions of the 2008 & 2012 general elections does not.

11/16/2012 12:23 PM  
Blogger Sean G said...

I also followed Silver in 2008, and learned a lot about him then. He earned a bit of "fame" as a baseball statistician, grinding through their data in a way that impressed sports fans and writers. He also used to be a pretty steady 2+2 forum poster, so he's no stranger to our world of commentary and community. Glad to see he's finally earned some serious mainstream recognition, even if it comes with a politicized downside.

As for his comments on legislation, I do like to think he's going to be as accurate with these predictions, but unfortunately there's no polling data on what the House and Senate might do, so I can't credit his forecast on these issues as much as the presidential races.

11/16/2012 2:46 PM  

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