All-in for online poker

Today, more twenty-somethings are starting to change the face of online poker, bringing their math and statistics skills from the classroom onto the virtual table.

Scott Campbell, ArtSci ’10, played online poker while at school and used his winnings to help pay for living expenses. Most people who play, he says, are not big winners.
Scott Campbell, ArtSci ’10, played online poker while at school and used his winnings to help pay for living expenses. Most people who play, he says, are not big winners.

In 2003, Chris “Moneymaker” Bryan won the World Series of Poker. He qualified for the series through an online poker-playing site, and was the first non-professional player to ever win the series.

Bryan, who was 28 at the time, came onto the poker scene out of nowhere. After his win, online poker exploded. Today, many of the top online poker players are still in their 20s.

For example, Viktor Blom, a long-time high stakes online poker player, has played in 10 of the biggest poker pots in online history; however, he’s only 20 years old and began playing with only $50 in an online account. With the introduction of players like Blom, the image of the average poker player is changing.

In fact, a growing number of poker players are university students, and some even our fellow classmates. These students are using their own math and statistical skills to become strategic and competitive players.

Scott Campbell, Queen’s alum and ArtSci ’10, said he’s been playing poker for two years and started with his friends early on in his university career.

“I learned how the game works without really knowing what I was doing,” Campbell said. “I created a strategy for myself, and I thought of the game logically—I figured out that the math is not that hard. You’re basically just counting the cards and assessing the probability.”

While at university, he began by paying $50 into an online account and playing small stakes games.

“I figured out how to beat those players,” he said, adding that he slowly started increasing the stakes and building his bankroll.

Campbell said young people are often better at poker because they have more time and don’t have any bias from past experiences.

Young people are also more likely to begin playing simply for the fun of it, he said, and most of the young people playing are university students who are approaching the game in a more strategic and clever way.

Also, he said that poker is very enticing because it’s a way to make money with complete freedom.

“I can do it wherever I want, whenever I want and it’s fun.”

He said the money he makes from playing online poker, on the website, helps him to pay his living expenses. He also used poker as a means to make money in place of a summer job.

Although poker has allowed him to apply his learned skills and make him money, Campbell still cautions about poker’s addictive nature.

“I don’t think I am addicted, but I definitely see many of the negative implications that gambling has. I have had friends that have made lots of money but they do become lazy as a result,” he said.

“Every now and then you need a reality check-—you need to regain a sense about how much money actually is worth because when you are playing all the time, you lose hold of that reality,” he said, adding that while he wouldn’t recommend poker to everyone, many are still capable of finding a balance.

“[In school], I only played when I had free-time—you don’t need that much money to live as a student, so I didn’t have to, you know, play to get by,” he said.

“There were definitely times when I procrastinated in the library, but I didn’t ever spend an immense amount of time online.”

Although it’s hard to judge how much he typically makes because he plays multiple tables, he’s experienced winning and losing extreme amounts, he said.

“I once won $11,000 in one day … The most I have ever lost in one day is $9,500.”

He said most people who play poker online do lose money.

“Most people who play are not winning players—some people practice forever and not win.”

Campbell said he attributes success to many different factors, like the ability to read the actions and patterns of other players.

“Strong players will always change their frequencies so you will not be able to read them as easily … At any given time they will have more hands to play.”

Campbell said to increase the odds of winning, paying attention to every action of the table is important.

“There are going to be one or more players in a pot … the action pre-flop (who raised, who called, etc.) is going to determine a range of possible hands,” he said.

“As this range narrows alongside the progression of the hand, the percentages will become more narrowly defined to you. From there you can get a more specific equity to their hand range, and as that equity becomes more determined you can make more educated decisions as to whether you are going to raise, bet and fold each time.” Campbell said he learned to play through practice, but that you need a wide range of skills to play well.

“If you are more mathematically inclined, you will be good at smaller stakes because you need those math skills. It becomes more of a psychological game in the higher stakes—math will only get you so far.”

Both luck and skill contribute to being successful, he said. “Luck will add variance to your win rate, meaning you will have swings with respect to your wins and losses, and skill will put you in the best position possible to put your money in with higher equity.”

Today, there is a plethora of mathematical database programs available for serious players to collect player data by saving hand histories. Campbell said these programs formulate exact frequencies over large sample sizes of what hands players will influence in certain positions. This allows you to get a more defined hand range rather than an estimated one.

Glen Takahara, associate professor of statistics, said gambling and probability have a long history.

“It was gambling which initially spurred interest in the study and application of probability early on in the 17th century,” he said. “Gambling games are set up so that the probabilities of various actions are fixed, usually in favor of the house; but in poker, no one is representing the house.”

However, Takahara said probability might not be useful with poker.

“Probability and statistics are used to explain structure patterns over long periods of time. So for any given deal, you have a 50/50 chance of winning—it’s not really telling you if you are going to win or lose.”

Going into poker with a mathematical strategy may not necessarily work to your advantage either, he said. Knowing probability or statistics could give you an edge in some ways, he said, especially with the introduction of the online programs that collect player data as a means to track players and their odds. He said these analyses of data would be more sophisticated than statistics methods learned in a classroom because playing poker becomes more of a real-time prediction.

“Observing is key—observing what player x does in a given situation. You are trying to detect patterns over time, whether the player is bluffing or not, and using that knowledge to make your own choices in the game.”

Takahara said there are simple strategies one could adopt while playing to increase profit.

“While your chances of winning in any given hand could be smaller, if you were to play continuously for two days, at some point over that period, you could be up,” he said. “It would be strategic to simply stop playing at that point.”

Although poker clearly allows us to use many different skills learned in school, Takahara said he doesn’t think all students would benefit from it. “There is an inherent downside to it because it is a very involved pastime.

For students, it can detract from their studies,” he said. “I do know of a few students who have played, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.”

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