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The use of mathematics in poker


Those who have played poker long enough over the Internet or in land-based casinos, know all too well that it is just a myth that this is a game of luck. Obviously, chance plays its part, but the very fact that some players win much more often than others and dominate them when they sit down at the same table suggests that there is more than meets the eye.

Aspiring poker players are always trying to determine whether they have the qualities necessary for being successful in this competitive industry. One thing that they know about poker is that you need to be capable of calculating your odds quickly and factor in new elements all the time, therefore having some mathematical knowledge. The better you are at mathematics, the easier it would be to come up with the right numbers time after time, so at least in theory you should enjoy spectacular results.

The truth is that you need to know the numbers and you can’t afford to base your actions on instinct, with complete disregard to what such calculations suggest. On the other hand you can’t expect to be a stellar poker player just because you were the first in your class at mathematics. Celebrated mathematicians will probably fail miserable at high-stakes poker in both tournaments and cash games, when pit against professionals who don’t have the same mathematical knowledge and abilities.

The reason is that knowing the odds and making precise calculations is important, but represents just the tip of the iceberg. There are other qualities that poker professionals need in order to withstand the test of time and they have more to do with their character rather than academic trading. Knowing that you are favourite to win the hand makes no difference if you don’t know how to play your cards according to your table image, your opponent’s track record and a multitude of other factors.

Psychology is every bit as important as mathematics and the best proof is that the vast majority of the hands are won without the winner revealing his cards. As long as you can project a certain image you don’t even need to have the better hand and this is not something that mathematics can help you with. Discipline and the ability to play at the same level regardless of upswings and downswings are critical for enduring success, with most players losing their entire bankroll when they go on tilt.

A cool mind, the correct approach to the game in general and money in particular are also qualities indispensable for anyone who aspires to compete at the highest level on day. The bottom line is that you need to be a decent mathematician to be a good poker player, but mathematics alone won’t make you the best.