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, and see if you can win one of their colossal jackpot prizes. Pick a color 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 poker.

Poker has a long history, starting 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 of players around the table who are all trying to do the same thing. The difference between poker and, say, blackjack, however, is that a variety of decisions and choices need to be made to progress through a game. Instead of simply winning or losing, poker players can choose when to make a move instead of simply winning or losing, using skills or educated guesses to apply their chips. This level of skill required makes poker utterly different from other casino games and has opened up a whole discussion around the science of poker and whether it can be exploited.

For instance, players have zero control over the cards they receive at any time throughout a game. If the game ended firsthand, then there would be no natural science. The clever part about poker is that the game is split into different phases. For example, the outcome can alter dramatically, and players can 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 correctly 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 traditional player always comes out better off. The science behind this lies in the fact that, despite the chance for a player to 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 patterns and rules govern even the decision around the first hand.

Most of the time, casino poker is played with six 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 isn’t going to work. What does work, however, is the odds theory. Odds theory refers to the chance of all possible outcomes happening and can be used to make an educated bet. For example, if a player has a pair of aces, and there’s another ace on the table, then the chances of another player holding another authority or more are 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 tournaments or televised poker, you’ll notice that some players sometimes have odd approaches to games, sometimes not interacting with other players, sometimes chatting, and sometimes shouting. This is where behavioral science comes into play and can be used to 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 plenty of exploits can be used to get a different reaction out of other people, even total strangers. It’s why businesspeople wear suits, and 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/bullying campaign 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 not to react the next time you win something in any situation, and you’ll find it’s pretty tough. Imagine winning the lottery and trying not to cry, laugh, cheer, raise your heart rate or even twitch a single face muscle, and you’ll realize that it takes a lot of practice to maintain a good poker face. Good players will use the tiniest reactions to judge whether you’ve got a good hand, and many will even study anthropology, medicine, or psychology to understand how we react in good or harmful situations. Now you know why people wear sunglasses, hats, and other wacky clothing.

Naturally, a few detractors of the ‘poker is a science’ idea was proven completely wrong in 2015. A supercomputer was tasked with ‘solving’ Texas Hold ‘Em, with millions of scenarios and outcomes played out. The computer software was able to get the decision right every time and become unbeatable by any human. 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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