Maths whiz holds all the aces
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. 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.