The Great Debate

The Great Debate

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Is poker art or science?

By Nick Wealthall.

Art is dead.

Science has won. It’s just that not everyone has accepted it yet.

Almost everything can be reduced down to a simple equation. And it's not just the obvious stuff like a microwave oven or a car engine, either. It's the romanticized stuff too; like writing a tune, or a novel, or even who you’re attracted to.

In Hollywood studios, blockbuster movie scripts are created according to a strict framework (that they like to call an algorithm, because it sounds smarter). This goes way beyond the traditional three-act structure. It’s based on endless testing of audience members emotional responses, which allows them to gather data. When Michael Bay makes a Transformers movie, he follows the template exactly. He just misses out all the character development bits and adds a massive talking robot riding a robot Triceratops that goes around twatting things for an extra half an hour.

In sport, we used to marvel at a player's moments of magic, or natural talent. Now we know it’s all created by tens of thousands of repetitions on the training pitch, enhanced by a cocktail of cutting-edge drugs. It can also all be measured. The sports media and armchair warriors can react against analytics in sport as much as they like, but in the end data wins because it’s tested to destruction. Its conclusions are repeatable, unlike our subjective, flawed judgement. Science wins, like it or not.

So how do you feel about the magic leaving our world? Did they take your mental paradise and pave over it with a data driven parking lot?

I, for one, welcome our new geek overlords, and will serve them faithfully.
If we can produce programs to create a script or a tune, and if we can objectively measure the productive value of a football stepover or the empirical attractiveness of a face, what chance does any kind of art have of existing in poker?

Poker is a game bound by mathematical precepts. We know there are 52 cards. We know how many we can see and how many remain and we know what those that are unseen are. We can ‘bound’ the problem in poker and try and find extra information to solve the problem, which is always the same – what 2 cards does that bluffy little shit across the table have this time?
Poker’s journey has been one of demystification.

Because it started as a gambling game, and because all those who won at it were actual cowboys (as well as a few accountants who no doubt bought cowboy hats to fit in), it had a mystique as a game of chance that could be beaten by those who had mastered a few exciting skills. To outsiders, the most tangible poker skills of any live game were a great 'poker face', the gift of the gab to manipulate people into decisions you wanted, and the ability to ‘soul read’ other players.

It was these almost mystical abilities – the art of the game – that drew me to poker. Maybe it did you, too. The idea that through the force of my character I could stare other players down, out-think them, out-talk them. That I could share some of the magic the great players had, learn their tricks, and maybe one day even reach their level. That promise, that excitement, those secrets that I was starting to understand but that to the rest of the world looked like magic – that was the early juice that powered my first years of poker frenzy.

Of course what the great players knew years ago, that we all know now, was that poker is a mathematically mostly solvable game. The big winners like Johnny Moss and Doyle Brunson might not have known about range and combinatoric thinking. But they did know that a pair of Deuces was a mathematical favourite over Ace-King, that No Limit was set up to favour aggression due to the magic of fold equity, and how you could leverage your equity in a pot through semi-bluffing.

To the players we saw as artists, poker was always a solvable problem: not through magic or talent, but through work, repetition and testing.

It’s tempting to see poker today as a game of data, maths and numbers. Even players at low limits have HUDs running online to spit out all the information on their opponents they need. Thinking about the range of possible hands your opponent can hold in terms of the specific combinations of cards available to him and the likelihood of each one isn’t sexy, but it works.

When maths whizzes started dominating poker, the shout was, ‘Let’s see them do it live and under pressure!’ Now, they have all the money, and it’s Phil Hellmuth’s soul reads and white magic that are the joke.
But none of this means poker isn’t an art or a pursuit without flare or romantic qualities.

Poker is played by humans, and to have an edge, every players mission is still to understand his opponent better than they understand you. To get inside their head and adjust. That’s why not every mathematician is a great poker player, and why most never will be.

Just because you can understand the process you can go through to analyse a hand, doesn’t mean you’re any closer to doing it under pressure or at the top level. It takes a real understanding of the flow of the game, of how your opponents are adjusting, and how they’ll react to your next move to be a truly great player.

When Jungleman or Ike call down a bluff with Queen-high because they know the number of combinations of hands they’re beating, in that exact spot, against that particular opponent, in that precise moment in time – that’s more stunning to me, and more beyond my comprehension, than seeing someone’s eye twitch and guesstimating you might be winning and being right.

I mean, it doesn’t beat white magic. But apart from that, it’s pretty damned cool.

Poker is a marriage of art and science, of bounded numerical problems and of human flaws, insecurities and moods in the moment. You can see it as art or science. But you can never see it as anything other than unique.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists