The Science behind poker

Walk into any casino, or indeed log onto an online casino website, and you’ll be met with an array of games that all have one thing in common; literally anyone can win thanks to chance. Now click here to take your chances at Mega Reel, see if you can win one of their huge jackpot prizes. Pick a colour in Roulette and you’ve got just over a 49% chance of winning, play a hand of blackjack and you’re odds go even further down, or stick a coin in a slot machine and enjoy odds sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, for the bigger jackpots. There is one black sheep in the casino however, that takes more than a visit from lady luck to win, which is of course poker.

Poker has a long history, starting life as a simple card game played throughout the Middle East, then Europe, before being brought to the US and turned into the game we know today in the Southern US, notably in and around the Mississippi river.

The premise of the game is similar to other casino card games. Players need to build a winning hand, using a combination of cards that is better than those of their competitor, which in poker’s case is the collection players around the table who are all trying to do the same thing. The difference between poker and say, blackjack however is that there are a variety of decisions and choices that need to be made in order to progress through a game. Instead of simply winning or losing, poker players can opt when to make a move, using either skills or educated guesses to apply their chips. This level of skill required makes poker completely different to other casino games, and has opened up a whole discussion around the science of poker, and whether it can actually be exploited.

For instance, players have zero control over the cards they receive at any time throughout a game. If the game ended at the first hand, then there would be no real science. The clever part to poker is that the game is split into different phases. Take the traditional form of Texas Hold ‘Em for example, the outcome can alter dramatically, and players have the option to be part of a play, or sit it out and wait for a better situation. This is where the first real bit of poker science comes into play, the decision making aspect. Naturally, you’ll need to be aware of all the rules of poker and capable of understanding what happens with each possible combination of cards, so we’d suggest learning how to play properly before applying any science.

In a scenario where every hand is played, versus a scenario where players are very conservative in how often they decide to wager, the conservative player always comes out better off. The science behind this lies in the fact that, despite the chance for a player to simply bulldoze their way through a game and get a few lucky hands along the way, players who decide not to go even with a semi-decent starting hand are more likely to win. The science of conservatism vs liberalism in poker is explained pretty well here, but just shows that even the decision around the first hand is governed by patterns and rules.

Most of the time, casino poker is played with 6 shoes, and in the online world via the use of Random Number Generator software, so trying to either count cards or apply maths and processes of elimination aren’t going to work. What does work however, is odds theory. Odds theory refers to the chance all of the possible outcomes happening, and can be used to make an educated bet. For example, if a player is on possession of a pair of aces, and there’s another ace on table, then the chances of another player holding another ace or more is lower than if there wasn’t an ace on the table. Calculations can get pretty complex, but by figuring out the probability of outcomes with a bit of practice, players can decide whether it’s worth betting or folding. Who said anything about chance?

The science behind poker isn’t just limited to probabilities and chance either. Away from the cards, the way players interact with each other is a massive part of the game, and sometimes more important than what’s happening on the green baize. If you watch tournament or televised poker, you’ll notice that some players will have sometimes odd approaches to games, sometimes not interacting with other players at all, sometimes chatting, sometimes shouting. This is where behavioural science comes into play, and can be used to actually give players an advantage.

Poker brat Phil Hellmuth often uses a variety of bullying, screaming, swearing and verbal abuse to win

How we look, act and deal with other individuals is all down to our personalities, but there are plenty of exploits that can be used to get a different reaction out of other people, even total strangers. It’s the reason why businesspeople wear suits, and why millions are invested every year into pseudo-sciences like neuro-linguistic programming and courses designed to give us the upper hand in things like business deals. Dressing well, exuding an aura of power and going on the charm offensive / campaign of bullying could be the difference between someone treating you like a shark, or someone folding their hand as they believe you could be a better player than them.

Then there’s the poker face. Yes, even this famous technique is completely built on science. Simply put, try to not react at all the next time you win something, in any situation, and you’ll find it’s pretty tough. Imagine winning the lottery, and trying to not cry, laugh, cheer, raise your heart rate or even twitch a single face muscle, and you’ll realise that it takes a lot of practice to maintain a good poker face. Good players will be using the tiniest reactions to judge whether you’ve got a good hand or not, and many will even study anthropology, medicine or even psychology to understand how we react in good or bad situations. Now you know why people wear sunglasses, hats and all sorts of other wacky clothing.

Naturally, there are a few detractors to the ‘poker is a science’ idea, but they were proven completely wrong back in 2015. A supercomputer was given the task of ‘solving’ Texas Hold ‘Em, with millions of scenarios and outcomes played out. The computer software was able to not only get the decision right every time, but also become totally unbeatable by any human, and the first estimated beating it would take would come after more than a human lifetime of play. If this isn’t evidence that poker isn’t just about chance, then we don’t know what else is.

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