Monday, October 25, 2010

Physicists & Poker

Wile E. Coyote, GeniusYou might have heard something last week about an article in the November issue of Discover magazine about physicists and poker. The article is titled “Big Game Theory” and is by Jennifer Ouelette. You can read it online by clicking here. There was also an NPR segment on the article over the weekend, which you can access by clicking here.

I happen to have a particular interest in this subject. While I never studied physics too intensely -- only had a couple of classes that didn’t really take me beyond an introduction to the subject -- my father is in fact a physicist, and as a result I’ve always been somewhat curious about some of the many areas of inquiry physicists pursue.

What was it like being raised by a physicist? Well, I used to joke about how Dad didn’t mind me watching the Wile E. Coyote-Road Runner cartoons as a kid, but simply could not let me see the coyote run off the side of a cliff, hang in mid-air for a few seconds and perhaps hold up a sign, then drop from the sky leaving a puff of smoke behind without delivering an explanation of the impossibility of such applesauce.

The joke (only partially embellished from the truth, I maintain) perhaps suggests something about how physicists see the world around them -- namely, as a place where explanations really do exist for most physical phenomena. Some of these explanations, such as why a coyote can’t hang in the air like that, are not difficult to discover. Others are less obvious, but even there the physicist will pursue acceptable methods of inquiry in the effort to discover such explanations.

That’s the idea -- of the physicist being a puzzle-solving, rational interpreter of the world -- Ouelette advances in her article, her main point being to suggest that such a mindset appears to be especially well-suited to poker.

“Perhaps poker appeals to physicists because it is an intricate, complex puzzle,” writes Ouelette, noting how poker is “steeped in statistical probabilities and the tenets of game theory.” Since it often turns out that “the best players evince a rare combination of skills in math, strategy, and psychology,” it isn’t that surprising to find a number of physicists doing well at the tables.

Ouelette refers to Michael Binger, perhaps the best-known and most successful poker-playing physicist, whom you’ll recall finished third at the 2006 WSOP Main Event behind Jamie Gold and Paul Wasicka. She also makes reference to a few others, including Michael Piper and Liv Boeree, while also mentioning Chris Ferguson who has a Ph.D. in computer science.

She additionally spoke with the Dutch player Marcel Vonk, another physicist who won a WSOP bracelet in an event I happened to cover this summer, Event No. 54, the last of the $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em events. As the tournament reached the final stages, we became aware of his background in physics and his website. I wrote a little about Vonk’s background in a post here back in July.

Vonk certainly played well in that event, although experienced some good fortune, too -- including during heads-up play versus the strong David Peters -- on his way to conquering the 3,844-player field.

Vonk confirms Ouelette’s suggestion that those who become physicists may in fact be especially well-suited for poker.

“The skills required are similar,” says Vonk, noting that they include “mathematical abilities,” being able to “spot patterns and predict things from them,” and “patience” to keep working at difficult problems that may take multiple attempts to solve.

The article goes on to make a few more points that most poker players will find familiar. It’s good to know probabilities, but one shouldn’t get too carried away with emphasizing the “math” of the game. Poker is a game of “incomplete information,” so we can’t perfectly calculate everything, anyway. And bad beats or “statistical anomalies” will happen, something any physicist worth his credentials well understands.

All in all, an interesting piece that makes some decent observations. The only deficit I can see -- beyond the fact that Ouelette is really only scratching the surface of this subject -- is her suggestion that poker tourneys began to “flourish” in the 1970s when “thousands of how-to books” appeared. (About three decades off there, I’d say.)

I say she’s only scratching the surface -- indeed, the article only represents a small portion of the writing and research she did. Over on the “Cocktail Party Physics” website, Ouelette has additionally published a lengthy blog post, titled “Physicists Put on Their Poker Face,” in which she shares a great deal more from her piece that didn’t make the final cut -- more discussion of probability and game theory, more quotes from her interviewees, etc.

I will have to send these links along to my Dad the physicist and see what he thinks about them. Maybe reading these pieces will get him wanting to play poker with me.

However, for my sake I might be better off avoiding getting involved in a game with him. Might well end up like this:

Wile E. Coyote

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Blogger bellatrix78 said...

As a poker playing physicist I would have to agree that there are the initial conditions for them to be a succesful poker player.
But you still need the extra willingness for risk to really excel. Yes, cookbook strategies might get you money in the lower stakes, but not higher.

I have many colleagues that are interested in poker. Not one considers it gambling, as in no matter what in the long run, you'll lose, but they actually consider it a pure game of skill. However, from the home game I go to, there are many, many variations. While there aren't any donks per se, there are people that are very rigid in their play and can be read easily (if not exploited optimally).

Nice article, Sean Carroll (Ouelette's husband) also blogs over at Cosmic Variance and has blogged about playing poker before (although it was a bit bad beat whiny, iirc).

10/25/2010 5:00 PM  
Blogger Rakewell said...

Perhaps my earliest awareness of Michael Binger was when he made a WSOP final table in 2008, and Mean Gene wrote this great line for the PokerNews mini-bio of him: "Now living in Las Vegas, Binger holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford University, where his research focused on such topics as quantum chromodynamics, supersymmetry, and the Higgs boson. You will not confuse him by throwing out phrases like 'flop texture.'"

10/25/2010 5:01 PM  

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