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Monday, May 14, 2001 | Print this story

Pythagoras, Pi and Poker
Chris Ferguson is the new breed of player who uses math calculations, game theory and Internet resources to gain an edge over old-style, instinctive gamblers.

By ANNE COLBY, Times Staff Writer

    LAS VEGAS--The contrast between the two players facing each other at the final table of the 2000 World Series of Poker championship event last spring was striking.
    T.J. Cloutier, a beefy 6-foot-3, at 61 looked every inch the former Canadian Football League player he is. Clad in a golf shirt and beltless slacks, and sporting a neat cap of curly graying hair, Cloutier peered at his cards through aviator-style glasses. He coolly stared down his opponent as he placed his bets, inhaling deeply on cigarette after cigarette.
    His 37-year-old opponent, Chris Ferguson, resembled an enigmatic modern-day cowboy with his slender 6-foot-1 frame, black Stetson pulled low, full beard and long chestnut hair. Reflective sunglasses made his expressions unreadable as he pushed piles of chips forward, pausing occasionally for a swig of bottled water.
    More than age and style separated the two competitors, one of whom would walk away with $1.5 million and the championship title to poker's premier tournament. Cloutier is an old-school Texas road gambler who learned his trade in the days when guns were sometimes brought to the table to settle a game's outcome. Ferguson has a doctorate in computer science/artificial intelligence from UCLA, and calculates all his poker moves mathematically.
    Ferguson's rise to the coveted final table of the World Series of Poker--something he'll try to reprise as the 2001 contest begins today at Binion's Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas--represents a coming of age for a new generation of technologically sophisticated players who are a growing presence in California and Nevada card rooms and tournaments.
    Among the gamblers who will each pay $10,000 to join the tournament, a cutthroat game of No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em that ends when one player has captured all the chips, is a scattering of computer programmers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers. They'll be using their training in statistics and game theory to try to gain an edge over "seat of the pants" players in a game that, despite its outlaw past, is at its core highly mathematical.
    Though tech-oriented players represent just a small fraction of the thousands who populate the card rooms on any given day, their influence in the poker world goes beyond their numbers. They are changing the way the game is played: laying out new strategies in books, designing software simulations, raising the bar for other players. And they're winning competitions.

* * *
        "It used to be the only way to become good at the game was to play over a long period of time. That's why in the past there used to be very few world-class young players," said Michael Zimmers, 42, co-organizer of an annual Las Vegas gathering of poker players who participate in the Internet newsgroup, or RGP, as it is known. (To find RGP, AOL users, for example, can do a keyword search for "newsgroups," then enter the newsgroup name.)
    "The use of mathematics, probability and online poker resources can greatly accelerate the learning curve. So while there's no substitute for experience, you can certainly come up to speed faster," said Zimmers, a Cupertino, Calif., graduate student and former software developer.
    The game is attracting young people such as Patri Friedman, 24, who said that until he saw "Rounders," a 1998 Matt Damon-Edward Norton movie about two twentysomething poker players, he had "never even thought of it as a game of skill before."
    The Sunnyvale, Calif., computer programmer and grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman grew up playing a lot of games and helped run the bridge club at Stanford University, where he graduated with a degree in math. After he became interested in poker, Friedman researched the game on the Internet, read books about it and started playing in California card rooms.
    Friedman, who showed up at a recent poker tournament wearing a fluorescent yellow smiley-face print bandanna over his curly dark hair, said he's not interested in pursuing the game full time--he wouldn't find it fulfilling and is busy with a computer project--but he enjoys it as a hobby.
    Spencer Sun, 28, an amiable player who won last year's $240,000 Tournament of Champions poker event at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, also came to poker from the game of bridge, which he played on the Internet while studying computer science at Princeton.
     A fellow online bridge player got him interested in poker five years ago, and over time he began to play live games in card rooms in the Bay Area, where he works as a consultant to a start-up company. He also attends tournaments with friends he's met through the RGP newsgroup.
     For his part, Ferguson--esteemed by his peers both for his poker proficiency and his kindliness--honed his playing skills in the mid-'90s with Internet games, software simulations and regional tournaments. His mother, Beatrice Ferguson, has a doctorate in mathematics, and he learned game theory from his father, Thomas Ferguson, a UCLA professor emeritus in mathematics, who brought home strategic games such as Nim and Reversi--a forerunner of Othello--for him and his brother to play when they were growing up.
     Today, strategy is his profession. He's a part-time swing trader for a Westwood stock-trading firm, where he buys and sells bargain-priced technology shares for profit. He relaxes by doing competitive ballroom dancing with his girlfriend, Cathy Burns.
     And the rest of the time, he plays high-stakes poker.

     Tough Test of Poker Theories

     For Ferguson, the fourth day of the Binion's Horseshoe championship last year was a rigorous test of whether his poker theories would hold up under extreme conditions. Everyone but Cloutier and Ferguson had been knocked out. The two men seemed evenly matched, as control of the chips shifted between them.
     Then Ferguson was dealt an ace and a nine. Cloutier bet $175,000, and Ferguson raised him $425,000. Cloutier responded by going "all in" with the rest of his chips, raising him $1.7 million.
     Should Ferguson call Cloutier's bet, or should he fold? If Ferguson lost the hand, Cloutier would have a 10-to-1 lead. But if he won the hand, he would clinch the tournament.
     Cloutier looked on placidly. Like other top players, he's a master at controlling his emotions during a game and is able to outlast other competitors who may crack under the pressure of a high-stakes tournament. His expertise has earned him millions on the poker tournament circuit. A San Francisco Bay Area native who lives in Richardson, Texas, when he's not on the road, he's known as an instinctive player with decades of experience who can expertly "read" his opponents to determine the cards they're holding. He treats poker as a job.
     Ferguson, a soft-spoken poker theoretician nicknamed "Jesus" for his appearance, considered his odds. His gentle manner and polite reserve belie an aggressive style of play. Ferguson approaches poker almost as an academic pursuit and says the gambling aspect of the game holds little appeal for him. Instead, each of his poker moves is highly calculated. Literally.
     The game theory that guides his decision-making hand by hand is a type of mathematical analysis for selecting the best available strategy in a game or real-world scenario. It can be used to minimize one's maximum losses or maximize one's minimum winnings. First postulated in a 1944 book, "The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior," by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, it is practiced by military, business and economic strategists.
     In Ferguson's realm, it suggests, for example, that you need to call a bet--match the money put into the pot by another player to keep playing the hand--often enough so that your opponent can't run over you by bluffing all the time. But you don't want to call so much that your opponent can make money by only betting when he has a strong hand.
     "Game theory says that you have to randomize your plays in such a way that your opponent can't figure out what you have and can't exploit you," said author David Sklansky, who touches on the subject in "The Theory of Poker," an influential poker book that advises players how to think about the game.
     Ferguson also draws on a type of mathematics called Bayesian statistics, in which a formula is used to help determine what cards other players might be holding after each new card is dealt and after every round of betting.
     He routinely calculates the expectations of success for every card and betting combination he might encounter. But not at the card table. Like most mathematically inclined players, he works out his strategies away from the card room.
     "I sit at home and model the game and decide what I'd do in a given situation," Ferguson said. "The game I'm analyzing is not even poker, but simple games that isolate the concept I'm most interested in. For example, on the last betting round, what hands should I bet and what hands should I bluff and call with?
     "I might make the same moves as other players, but for different reasons. I try and play a game where even if my opponents know how I'm playing, they can't take advantage of me."
     Ferguson knew that his ace-nine hand was only borderline from a mathematical standpoint. But he decided the amount he had already invested in the pot made it worth the risk of calling Cloutier's bet.
     "I thought there was a very small chance that I had the best hand. And if I had the best hand, I was giving up a lot more by folding," Ferguson said. So, removing his hat and mirrored glasses, he paused for a long moment and then went all in, bringing the pot to $4.6 million.

     Intent on Improving Their Game

     Not all tech-oriented players take the game's mathematics to the lengths Ferguson does, and few have so much at stake. But many spend time thinking over their moves, figuring probabilities on hands they've played and debating the merits of various strategies with their Internet friends.
     "Poker players in our circle are always trying to improve their games," RGP's Zimmers said.
     The younger players are aided by the proliferation of poker-strategy books in the last few decades. In the 1960s, there were only a handful of books in print on all of gambling; today there are hundreds on poker alone. Many are available only through specialized bookstores such as the Gambler's Book Shop in Las Vegas and Internet sites.
     "You have the advantage of a whole library of scholarly thought that's going to teach you how to avoid some of the mistakes that most of us had to learn on our own," said Peter Ruchman, Gambler's Book Shop manager.
     "Super/System: A Course in Poker Power" by Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, an instinctive player who respects the mathematics of the game, is considered one of the best books on the game. Published in 1978, it contained the first computer poker simulation.
     "Hold 'Em Poker," written by Sklansky in 1976, was the first book on a type of poker that today dominates play in California card rooms such as the Commerce Casino in Commerce and the Bicycle Club Casino in Gardena. Sklansky's "Theory of Poker," another classic, explains many of the game's mathematical concepts.
     Even as their books help teach younger players the game, the older players are adapting to the changes their computer-savvy competitors bring, logging on to the Internet to keep up with RGP newsgroup discussions and play online poker. Still, as newcomers find their way onto the veterans' turf, some of the old-timers, including Cloutier, bemoan the studied moves and lack of "street smarts" of their newer opponents.
     Most new players, in fact, get a kind of "Poker 101" education when they move from Internet games to the casinos and often lose money in the beginning. Call it the price of tuition.
     That's because success at live poker depends on being able to read other players' "tells." These are the unconscious mannerisms--a quick glance away from the table or a soft clucking of the tongue--that can signal to an observant player what someone is holding. It's also important to learn to control your own tells.
     Some step out of the virtual world and into the casinos in August, when RGP newsgroup competitors meet in Las Vegas for several days of tournament poker and general merriment at an event called BARGE--the Big August Rec.Gambling Excursion. BARGE started in 1991 as a casual hotel-room poker game with a handful of RGP contributors who were in Las Vegas for a technology conference, and became an annual event that last year drew 220 registered players.
     The BARGE event has spawned smaller RGP gatherings around the country. In Southern California, poker author Lou Krieger started ESCARGOT, or Experimental Southern California Recreational Gaming Outing and Tournament, held every February at different local casinos.
     People who have played only online in mock, real-time games on the Internet Relay Chat service--IRC Poker is a starting point for many "techies"--also need to learn the finer points of betting in live games and tournaments. Learning how to consistently scoop up the biggest pots when real cash is at stake takes some practice.

     Luck Is Basic to the Game

     But no matter how much time they log at tournaments or in front of their computers, veteran players and math "brainiacs" alike are beholden to one element they can't control: luck. It's an integral part of the game, tying it to the rest of the gambling world.
     Luck, in fact, was decisive in the last round of the high-stakes showdown between Ferguson and Cloutier last spring.
     After he called Cloutier's bet, and with the pot at more than $4 million, Ferguson's mathematical detachment appeared to dissolve. He looked nervous, or perhaps just tired after 12-hour days at the tables.
     With all the betting completed, the two men turned over their cards. Cloutier's was revealed to be the better hand with an ace and a queen, making him a 71% favorite to win. But the five community, or shared, cards still to be dealt would settle the question.
     The first three cards, the "flop," as they are called in Texas Hold 'Em, were a deuce, a king and a four and strengthened Cloutier's lead. The fourth card, the "turn," a king, gave Cloutier a pair of kings with a higher "kicker" than Ferguson. Cloutier appeared to be a sure bet.
     But when the last card, "the river," was turned over, a yell could be heard.
     And with that statistically improbable card, which gave him two pair, Ferguson won the championship title and the $1.5-million top prize. Cloutier scored nearly $900,000 with his second-place finish, and the rest of the pot was divvied up, in decreasing percentages, among the next 43 players.
     After the game was over, Cloutier told Harper's Magazine writer and fellow championship finalist James McManus, "There's a lot of luck in poker. And if you're gonna play this game, you better get used to that."
     Today, Cloutier and Ferguson are back at Binion's, where daily tournament events with buy-ins of $1,500 to $5,000 have been going on since April 21.
     Cloutier hopes to finally win the one major tournament title that has eluded him, and Ferguson is looking for a repeat win that would make him one of the few players to capture the title more than once.
     Mixed among the pros and semi-pros are more casual players who don't have the years of experience of a Cloutier or the math skills of a Ferguson. Is there any hope for them, either here or in the smaller games?
     "In the long run, the better players will take the most money," RGP's Zimmers said. "But in the short term, anyone can get on a lucky streak."

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