The American Physical Society—the largest professional organization for physicists in the United States—once held its annual meeting in Las Vegas. From the city’s perspective, the meeting was a fiasco. The assembled physicists shunned the usual casino delights: showgirls, blackjack, roulette, craps, and copious amounts of alcohol. Plus they were lousy tippers. Vegas made so little money, legend has it, that the society was asked never to come back. The physicists could do the math, you see: They knew the odds were stacked against them in the casinos. That’s why physicists aren’t the gamblin’ kind.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom hasn’t met my husband, Caltech cosmologist and poker fiend Sean Carroll, who happily spends hours on end in poker rooms. It started in 2004 after he read Positively Fifth Street, James McManus’s account of covering the World Series of Poker (WSOP) for Harper’s Magazine. McManus got so caught up in his reporting that he entered the tournament on a lark and ended up winning $247,760. Intrigued, Sean began lurking around poker rooms to watch the play, becoming a “railbird,” in poker parlance. He bought a few instructional books and played a bit online before venturing out to the Hollywood Park Casino just outside Los Angeles.
Hollywood Park has a seedy, vaguely disreputable vibe. The occasional fistfight breaks out late at night, and the fast rate of play can be intimidating for a new player (a “fish” or “dead money”). But there are also plenty of unskilled (often inebriated) players whose strategy seems to be “Call everything—you might get lucky!” That first night, Sean walked away $250 richer, and hooked on poker.
Later that year, Sean played in an informal poker tournament in Chicago (organized as a fund-raiser for presidential candidate John Kerry) and found that there were three other physicists among the participants. One of them, string theorist Jeff Harvey of the University of Chicago, won the tournament. He had learned the rules of the poker game being played from his teenage daughter just the week before, and he has been an avid player ever since.
One poker-playing physicist is a statistical anomaly; two is a coincidence; three, and it might just be a pattern. Michael Binger placed third at the 2006 WSOP main event, two months after earning his physics Ph.D. from Stanford University, and walked away with a cool $4.1 million. He has since played all over the world, racking up six tournament wins and an additional $2 million. At a tournament in San Remo, Italy, last spring, the final table included two more physics gurus: Michael Piper and Liv Boeree, former classmates at the University of Manchester. Piper placed fourth and Boeree won, pocketing 1.25 million euros—about $1.6 million—for her trouble.
Perhaps poker appeals to physicists because it is an intricate, complex puzzle, steeped in statistical probabilities and the tenets of game theory. The best players evince a rare combination of skills in math, strategy, and psychology. “Both physics and poker attract people who like to solve multifaceted problems,” says Marcel Vonk, a Dutch-born physicist at the University of Lisbon, who claimed his first WSOP winner’s bracelet this past summer in Las Vegas, beating out 3,800 players to win $570,960. “The skills required are similar: mathematical abilities, the ability to spot patterns and predict things from them, the patience to sit down for a long time until you finally achieve your goal, and the ability to say, ‘Oh well,’ and start over when such an attempt fails miserably.”
Most poker-playing physicists don’t consider poker to be true gambling. In craps or blackjack, Sean explains, you’re playing the casino (the “house”), and thanks to a slight statistical edge, the house always wins in the long run. What self-respecting physicist would accept those odds? But in poker you are playing against other people; casinos typically take a cut of the pot. Luck may be a factor, but poker is more a game of skill than of chance. “When played by a professional, poker is not gambling,” insists Eduard Antonyan, a former physics graduate student of Harvey’s. “While you can get unlucky for extended periods of time, eventually, if you’re good, you’re going to profit.”