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Maths whiz holds all the aces

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No poker face: Nate Silver's card playing secrets

Nate Silver, the statistician who almost exactly predicted the outcome of the US election, shares his card secrets.

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Poker players often search for an opponent's "tell" – a mouth tic or an eyeball twitch, perhaps – to help read their chances of success. Nate Silver has a different game plan for this week's Aussie Millions poker tournament.

The 35-year-old American is feted as a mathematical whiz-kid and will try to outwit his opponents when he hits the table at Crown Casino on Tuesday by calculating and revising, with each new card dealt or bet made, exactly what cards a rival may hold.

The information-gathering skills and obsessive data analysis he applies at the poker table have also helped him become a household name in the US, where he tipped the winners in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election, plus 35 Senate seats. To prove it was no fluke he did it again last year, correctly tipping all 50 plus 31 out of 33 in the Senate.

Statistical analyst and keen poker player Nate Silver brings an unusual set of skills to the Aussie Millions.

Statistical analyst and keen poker player Nate Silver brings an unusual set of skills to the Aussie Millions. Photo: Justin McManus

He has also developed a highly regarded prediction model to identify talent and trends in America's major league baseball, and was listed in 2009 by Time magazine as one of its 100 most influential people.

He shuns the prospect of using his talent to earn riches via professional sports punting or poker play, instead focusing on political analysis as his bread and butter and using poker as a stress release.

His seeming clairvoyant ability is highly sought by the major political parties, but Silver is adamant he prefers to remain an independent commentator.

"Even though I have political views, I'm here as someone who is trying to analyse politics, not as someone who is trying to influence politics," he says.

"We're taking publicly available information and applying some statistics that are not simple, but they're not complicated either. It's not rocket science."

Silver says lessons learnt at the poker table can be applied to politics. "One thing about poker play is that because you have the experience with probability, chance, skill and luck in a very visceral, hands-on way, it makes you much better at developing intuitions for other fields," he says.

With his successes in baseball prediction, could Silver pick this year's AFL premier? In a word, no.

"In sports like baseball and cricket, you mostly have one player acting at a time and you can isolate the actions in a very precise way. In most football codes, everyone is on the field at once acting in a more fluid way," he says.

Silver says the key to making more accurate predictions about anything from politics to sport and even the weather is "to reduce the gap between how good we think we are at making predictions and how good we actually are".

"The easier way is becoming a little bit more humble about our predictive powers. People want quick-fix solutions and that's usually not how it works," he says.

7 comments so far

  • Good luck to him. There is more to poker than probability alone. David Sklansky one of the most well known and respected poker mathematicians has written books about using probability in poker. Maths is no defense against a player who may hold only a moderate knowledge of probability and who also possesses the ability to analyse a poker astutely.

    Commenter
    Patrick
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 29, 2013, 12:35PM
    • Skill in poker, and your ability to read other players pays off in the long run. In just one tournament however Mr Silver can make all the right plays and lose all his chips in a hurry just because someone else got lucky. Have a browse through YouTube for collections of videos of amateurs smashing the poker pros. I know if I played 10 tennis matches with Roger Federer I would lose every single one, by a very long way. But heads up against poker pros like Phil Hellmuth or Daniel Negraneau the amateur will beat them some (but not most) of the time.

      Commenter
      Michael
      Location
      Adelaide
      Date and time
      January 29, 2013, 1:28PM
      • Skill in poker is mainly an appreciation of the probabilities, whether via explicit calculation or an intuitive appreciation of the situation. Reading tells helps no doubt, but it's overrated, especially when you are up against the nose-bleeders who play in big money events. Try reading Helmuth's tells!

        Maths will pay off --in the long run --in cash games, if you get enough chances to smooth out the variance (ie if you have the bankroll). In a tournaments luck plays a far larger role, so Silver is actually at a disadvantage, vis a vis, Helmuth, Negreanu, Hansen &c or the numerous local tourney players) in this kind of event. Experience, instinct and luck pown maths in a tournament.

        Good luck Nate, you'll need it.

        Commenter
        James K
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 29, 2013, 2:26PM
      • Nate would be well aware of this, given that his entire job revolves around sample size. The lower the sample size, the less accurate his work.

        Commenter
        Regularchap
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 29, 2013, 3:39PM
    • No amount of statistical expertise will help in a major poker tournament like this one. Maths is useful in Poker for normal cash games, and for the long term outlook. For example, knowing that you have a 5 to 1 chance of winning if you make the call, while the pot is paying you 11 to 1 on that same call, is a great long term play because when you win that 1 time in 5, you are getting paid 11 times for your troubles. This is a mathematically sound play, but has little effect in a fast play tournament with a bunch of lunatics going all-in before the flop is even shown yet.

      It is has been said that it is much harder to just make it to the final table than it is to win at a final table. The luck involved in making it to the final table is the same as guessing heads or tails correctly 14 times in-a-row!

      However, if his luck holds out and he manages to guess heads or tails 14 times in-a-row (i.e survive the lunatic players), and makes it to the final table, then skill and expertise will be more of a factor to help win at the final table.

      So in all seriousness...I wish the guy good luck in this tournament because he will need plenty of it.

      Commenter
      Mo
      Date and time
      January 30, 2013, 8:24PM
      • You may be mistaking a multi-day live tournament for a $1 buy-in online tournament. That said - it does take a lot of luck. Apparently Mr Silver went all-in with pocket kings, and ran into the only better starting hand - pocket aces. I'm sure he could figure out the probability of that, but it wouldn't have helped him...

        Commenter
        PhilN
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 31, 2013, 9:49AM
    • i played with Nate on two separate tables during the event and he handled himself very well. i'm sure we'll see more of him.

      there's no question that maths forms an important part of poker. there are certain situations that require it. some situations late in a tournament require complex icm calculations that I'm sure Nate is exceptionally good at.

      but there are a hundred other important skills in poker, and by far the most important skill lies in being able to accurately range an opponent in a given situation. this requires a knowledge of betting patterns, player tendencies and the ability to 'soft focus' during a hand to pick up timing and other tells.

      if Nate can acquire these skills through experience, he may become an exceptional player.

      Commenter
      thewillo
      Location
      wishiwasstillthere
      Date and time
      February 09, 2013, 5:42PM

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