Physics Envy

By Sean Carroll | June 13, 2007 4:49 pm

Steven Levitt Celebrated economist, James Bates Clark Medal winner, and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt is having a good time, and doing pretty darn well, at the World Series of Poker. (Via Marginal Revolution; here’s Levitt’s own blog.) I am willing to go on record as predicting that he will not do as well as physicist Michael Binger did last year.

I’ve been reading a bit about game theory and the mathematics of poker, and have lots of great theories, including an elaborate analogy between poker and quantum mechanics. Here is one theory: physicists (and I imagine economists, too) will end up being much better poker players than mathematicians. The reasoning is that No Limit Hold’em is an incredibly complex system; not only can we not derive a dominant strategy in closed form, we can’t even prove any very useful theorems about realistic games. So game theorists and mathematicians study simplified systems about which they can actually prove theorems. They can do pretty well in figuring out strategies at a showdown (just two players), but early in the hand at a full table there’s almost nothing they can say. It becomes a question of which approximations to make and which models to choose for your opponents. That’s much more the purview of physicists and economists, who are forced to get their hands dirty in the real world. (A corollary: phenomenologists and astrophysicists will be better poker players than string theorists.)

Why am I not at the WSOP myself? Good question. I’m totally going next year.

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  • Aggie

    Hi Sean – Is your poker-quantum mechanics analogy something along the lines of a projective measurement being made once all the cards are put down on the table?

  • Sean

    No, the measurements only happen when someone folds/calls/bets. The point is that all of your opponents are in a superposition of states, each of which is straightforwardly calculable given the measure on the space of hands and a model of the opponent.

  • lylebot

    Approximating models of people’s behavior is something all humans do naturally. You don’t have to be a physicist to be good at that—frankly, I suspect scientists are worse at it on average, considering the higher rates of autism and Asperger’s among them.

  • Dave Bacon

    In my experience, the thing about mathematically sophisticated players (who don’t have much other poker experience) is that they calculate odds and so end up putting too much emphasis on straight odds calculations. On the other hand, give them a class in game theory, and watchout!

    BTW, in your quantum analogy, I suspect that you could get away with a classical probabilistic model just as well, although things like “contextuality” seem certainly to be important in poker. A good question: can entanglement allow for impoved coluding strategies in poker? Entanglement can be used to communicate, so technically it’s not cheat :)

  • Sean

    Dave, the invocation of quantum mechanics is purely for PR purposes; it’s really all about classical probability. But thinking of your opponents as being described by a state vector is actually pretty useful.

  • Count Iblis

    And if we live in a multiverse, then the superposition really exists. There are then an infinte number of poker games where you have the same cards while the opponents have different cards.

  • Jeff Harvey

    Care to put some money on that corollary?

  • Sean

    Sure. Bring it on, brane-boy.

  • Jeff Harvey

    OK Mr. poker-quantum-mechanic. This summer, in Chicago. Me and
    the boys will be waiting for you.

    And I know you like to test out your theories, but leave the cat alone.
    It could get messy otherwise.

  • Ian B Gibson

    The thing about the WSOP in particular is that since it has ballooned in popularity over the last few years, the bad players now so far outnumber the good players that one of them will almost inevitably win the main event every year from now on, through sheer weight of numbers. Observe the string of nobodies who’ve taken the title in recent years, basked in their brief moment of fame, then disappeared back into the obscurity from whence they came.

    So if you’re planning on testing your hypothesis with real money, I’d suggest entering some of the less popular tournaments, or better yet, avoid tournaments altogether and concentrate on regular games.

  • Rock Howard

    When I learned to play poker back at CalTech we had a saying which was “The cards change!” This quip was reserved for occasions where someone whined about not staying in to hit some draw. The idea, of course, is that you want to make the right decision given the situation at hand and not dwell on the “coulda woulda shoulda” of the hand as it actually plays out. A true Quantum Physics concept at work!

    I actually created a book outline for “Quantum Poker” that combines this concept and a few other related concepts with some novel ideas for randomizing your play. (Humans are generally pretty bad at randomizing their actions, but injecting some randomness into your game definitely helps your poker results.)

    While I am a winning player over my poker “career”, I haven’t come close to building up a serious bank roll or winning a major tournament. Otherwise I might get serious about finishing my book concept. Feel free to let me know if you think this is a book that has to be written. Personally I think it would sell about 50 copies, but maybe I am not thinking straight about this.

  • Dylan

    He appears to have done rather poorly – so instead of envy, you physics boys can crow still louder about your man Michael Binger’s conquest last year.

  • Josh

    AH, the amateur tournament. Those running the WSOP really need to cut down on letting any Joe Schmoe on the street join the tournament if he can front the cash. Not to say that there aren’t plenty of intelligent people who can figure out good strategies, but I’d much rather see a Dan Negreanu vs. Johnny Chan showdown at the end than this year’s luckiest amateur vs. this year’s next luckiest amateur showdown.
    Maybe institute a minor leagues system? Earn your pinstripes before playing in the majors.

  • Matt

    “Dave, the invocation of quantum mechanics is purely for PR purposes; it’s really all about classical probability.”

    Ah, the inappropriate invocation of quantum mechanics for PR purposes is making me dizzy! Isn’t that best left to these guys?

  • Sean

    Matt, trust me, if everyone came to appreciate my quantum-poker analogy, the total amount of understanding in the world would go up, not down.

    Rock, I had exactly the same book idea. Obviously someone will end up writing it, the idea is overdetermined. That doesn’t mean anyone will buy it.

  • beajerry

    It’s all about the poker-face in the end.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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