Beware the physicist at your poker table

Beware-Physicist-Poker-TableMichael Binger won $4m at the 2006 World Series of Poker. Liv Boeree won $1.6m at the 2010 EPT San Remo, where Michael Piper also placed fourth. Looking at these three, you’d probably say the only thing they had in common was they all thought Boeree was drop dead gorgeous. (We’re not saying Liv’s conceited, just that she presumably has two working eyes and a mirror.)

Actually, all three of the above players are physicists, and physicists are apparently mad about poker. (Have to ask math and science whiz Calvin Ayre about this someday.) According to a recent article in Discover Magazine, it turns out that the same focus on probability, statistics and modeling that physicists employ in the lab is equally valuable when applied to the felts.

According to Marcel Vonk, a physicist at the University of Lisbon and a WSOP bracelet holder: “Both physics and poker attract people who like to solve multifaceted problems. The skills required are similar: mathematical abilities, the ability to spot patterns and predict things from them, the patience to sit down for a long time until you finally achieve your goal, and the ability to say ‘oh well’ and start over when such an attempt fails miserably.”

To clarify, math skills alone won’t cut it. Physicist Jeff Harvey believes that “chess is like classical mechanics. Poker is like quantum mechanics. In chess, there is only one right move. In poker, there is no single right move. There is a probability distribution of right moves.”

Of all gambling’s forms, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that physicists opt for poker over, say, craps or blackjack. No pesky ‘house edge’ to contend with. And while luck is an element in just about everything, as another physicist put it: “When played by a professional, poker is not gambling.”