Preposterous Universe

Thursday, May 06, 2004
The World Series

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars mentions something I should have known (and tells some gripping stories in the process): the World Series of Poker (WSOP) is going on in Las Vegas this very moment. Like lots of people, I played some five-card draw with family and friends when I was young. But I never became really interested in poker until last summer, when I read James McManus' Positively Fifth Street. Talk about a gripping story: McManus is a writer and amateur poker player, who was given the assignment by Harper's of writing a story about the WSOP. Being an impetuous type, he took his expense-and-advance money and used it to enter a satellite tournament (a cheaper way of trying to play your way into the main event, rather than just ponying up the $10,000 entrance fee). Remarkably, he won the satellite, and more remarkably, he kept on winning -- all the way to the final table, where he finished fifth and took home over $200,000. (The book is fascinating and annoying at the same time, due to the authors self-absorption. If you want a more balanced view of the world of professional poker players, try The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez.)

To gauge my ignorance, I didn't even know that real poker players didn't play five-card draw, but rather Texas Hold-Em. It's a simple game at heart: everyone gets two cards dealt face-down that only they can see. Then five cards are dealt face-up in the middle of the table; each player makes the best five-card poker hand that they can, using their own cards and the five on the table. The complications only arise in the betting process, which happens after the first two cards are dealt and after each card thereafter.

Not so complicated, right? But of course it's incredibly complex when you get into it. The secret of the allure (and challenge) of poker is that it's a game of incomplete information, the kind game theorists love to think about. You know the cards you already have, and you (should) know the probabilities of various further cards coming your way, but you have to infer your opponents' hands from tiny hints (their bets, their positions at the table, their personal styles, etc). Texas Hold-Em is so popular because it manages to accurately hit the mark between "enough information to devise a consistently winning strategy" and "not enough information to do much more than guess." The charm in such games is that there is no perfect strategy, in the sense that there is no algorithm guaranteed to win in the long run against any other algorithm. The best poker players (and there are a good number of people who earn their living from poker, so it's by no means "gambling") are able to use different algorithms against different opponents, as the situation warrants.

I'm sure that professional game theorists have analyzed poker to death, but I haven't ever seen any technical work on the subject myself. David Sklansky has written a book called Theory of Poker, but it doesn't get into all the fun game-theory aspects. (For actually learning poker strategy, the acknowledged classic is Super-System by Doyle Brunson et al.)

I have played a few times in casinos, in Los Angeles and (once, late at night, in the midst of a cross-country trip from California to Chicago) at the Bellagio in Vegas. But you can play at any time online; my favorite site is ultimatebet.com, although there are several alternative sites that I haven't looked into closely. One of the nicest features of poker is that it is a perfect meritocracy; anyone can do it, and your success depends only on your own skill, not on help from anyone else. At the casino you will sit down at a typical table with people older and younger than you, men and women, blacks, whites, and Asians, gays and straights, extroverts and introverts. Some of the world's best players grew up as pampered bourgoisie, others were Vietnamese boat people. For some reason I haven't been playing that much lately; I fear my poker time has been taken over by blogging. (Neither one of which is very lucrative, at my level of skill.)

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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