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Discovering Jennifer Ouellette

October 20th, 2010 by Jessika

(Photo by masochismtango via Flickr)

Poker is such a fun game. You intently stare across the table at your opponents. Does anyone have a better hand than you? Does anyone know you have those pocket Kings? You take a quick glance at you two cards just to make sure you do have Kings. The intensity in the room is palpable. You place a conservative bet and hope no one can read you. It comes to the last round of betting and it’s down to you and your good friend. You reveal your cards and barely win. (Your friend has a pair of Queens.) A smile stretches across your face as you rake in your winnings.

By now you are wondering why I am rambling about gambling.

This week I read “Big Game Theory” by Jennifer Ouellette, a short Discover magazine piece about poker-playing physicists. I had never read anything by science writer Jennifer Ouellette until this week. Ouellette’s writings run the gammut from physics, to calculus, to game theory and probability, and even to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Much to my surprise, though, I found “Big Game Theory” incredibly interesting. I saw the movie 21 a year or so ago, so I am well acquainted with the concept of counting cards. But I had no idea that poker players used game theory to play their hands. I certainly had never employed game theory – at least probability – to my poker playing. This piece made it seem like there is much more to poker than the basic rules, and I now really want to find a book on the topic. Maybe I will take a trip to Vegas soon.

Professional poker players can win a lot of money. Ouellette mentioned a physicist who had won $4.1 million two months after earning a Ph.D. from Stanford University. I hope that paid for all of his loans. I sure could use it to pay off mine. (J-school isn’t cheap.)

While not every poker player makes big bucks and luck does some times play a role, there definitely seems to be an art to playing poker. John von Neumann developed game theory in the 1920s, analyzing poker hands to look at the bluffing behind the game. Ouellette suggested early on in the piece that physicists seem an unlikely lot to play poker, citing the year the American Physical Society held its annual meeting in Vegas where hardly any physicist gambled, drank or spent money. This set up, though, doesn’t really seem to show why we should be surprised to see physicists playing poker.  A single event doesn’t define the group of people. Maybe the physicists were far too engrossed in physics to care about losing money at the slots.

“One poker-playing physicist is a statistical anomaly; two is a coincidence; three, and it might just be a pattern,” wrote Ouellette in the piece.

She goes on to say that the world of poker does have a surprisingly high number of physicists who player. But why? She suggests that it’s because like physics, poker is a complex puzzle waiting to be solved. It’s much more complex than one would have originally guessed, combining math, strategy and psychology. Whatever the reason, physicists, like her husband Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll, have an affinity for the game. Many successful players develop their own strategical balance to the game, mixing both the theoretical and practical.

On the same day the Discover article was released, Ouellette wrote about it on the group science blog Cocktail Party Physics in “Physicists Put on Their Poker Face.” This piece is by no means a blow-by-blow of what to expect in “Big Game Theory.” She talks about the behind the scenes process of pitching, researching and writing the piece. She even mentions some of the big name poker houses she’s been to with her husband, namely the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

As a piece on it’s own, it’s pretty good. But when you accompany it with the “Big Game Theory” it’s even better. The two stories together give you a much bigger and better picture of why some physicists don’t like the statistical odds of poker and yet others relish in it. In addition, both pieces really show how complicated poker is. It’s not as simple as I once thought. The blog piece especially conveys this message of complexity. Specifically, she cites an example from her husband’s blog, Cosmic Variance. Which pair is better? A Jack and 10 suited? An Ace and 7 unsuited? Or a pair of sixes? The answer depends on how many opponents you have.

But even the most experience poker players still get thrown by the math.

“[Jeff] Harvey admits that one of his classic errors is ‘calling when I think I am beat for other reasons (betting patterns, tells, and so on),’ but he calls anyway because ‘the math says I should. At times like that, I need to pay less attention to the math,'” wrote Ouellette on the blog.

No strategy is perfect. But I would at least like to know and play enough to have a strategy.

Before I end this entry, I did want to mention one other interesting article from the issue of Discover magazine. Hugh Herr’s journey in “The Bionic Man” is both fascinating and inspiring. In 1982, Herr was climbing with a buddy in New Hampshire when a storm struck. They got disoriented and lost their way.  After three days in freezing temperatures, they were finally found. Both Herr and his friend were severely frost bitten losing multiple digits and limbs. Herr had both of his legs amputated below the knee.

Nearly 30 years later, Herr has legs again. Legs that he developed. He now runs nearly 2 miles every day. He developed his high tech limbs after dissatisfaction with the technology. So, he decided to get a PhD in biophysics and started iWalk, a prosthetic limb company. Herr’s prostheses look far from human, and his company’s newest development, the PowerFoot One, is the world’s first robotic ankle-foot prosthesis.

It’s amazing how far technology has come. Herr’s technology will help give people their legs back. They will be able to walk and run, something many people could only dream about. I can’t wait to see what Herr’s company develops next.