Is Poker a Science? How Players Use Mathematics to Their Advantage

Is Poker a Science? How Players Use Mathematics to Their Advantage
Is Poker a Science? How Players Use Mathematics to Their Advantage

Caption: Matt Damon in Rounders

If poker was about luck, players sitting at the final tables of the world’s biggest tournaments would be completely different every year. Those who believe the game is determined by whichever cards peel off the deck would find it hard to explain how Stu Ungar and Johnny Moss both managed to win the World Series of Poker Main Event on three separate occasions, and how Jess Alto reached the final table of the tournament seven times. In reality, there is a lot of science and math involved when it comes to mastering the game of poker.

Poker Being About Luck Is a Common Misconception

People who don’t play poker and only know about it from seeing it in the kinds of movies we review here at NewsDio – – such as John Dahl’s Rounders and Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale may think that success in the game is all about having the best hand. Because these pictures can only show a certain number of hands, and to make it obvious who has the best cards, the winner of the game is usually the person with the strongest hand.

These films need to make poker accessible to all viewers, including those who have never played the game before. In Rounders, this is usually done through Matt Damon’s character’s narration. In Casino Royale, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd acted as the layman, with Giancarlo Giannini’s Rene Mathis explaining what was going on in each hand to her. The level of detail that these characters go to within the movies is limited, however. Therefore, they are often restricted to explaining which hands are more valuable.

Caption: Bond won with a straight flush.

In the final hand of the high stakes tournament in the highly-rated Casino Royale, reviewed at, there is an exceedingly unrealistic scenario in which four players at the table have extremely strong hands and all decide to go all-in on them. As the dealer asks them to reveal their hands, the strength of them increases as the viewer follows the action around the table. The first player has a flush, which is followed by a full house, then a better full house and, finally, James Bond’s straight flush.

A situation like this is unlikely in real life, and a viewer who hasn’t played the game before may think that the main reason that Bond won the game was because he got lucky on that hand – although in this scenario, they would be right to think so – the odds of hitting a straight flush are 72,192/1.

How Numbers, Probability, and Memory All Play a Part

Of course, a lot of poker does come down to the luck of the draw. Holding the nuts is far more advantageous than having a sub-par hand, but the person with the best cards each time is going to change from hand to hand. Players can’t control what cards they are going to be dealt, but they can manipulate a number of other variables to skew the odds in their favor. The main way to be successful at poker is to milk as many chips from the opponents as possible when you have the nuts and to bet the other players off their draws when you have a less than optimal hand.

If a player has stayed in a round until the flop has been dealt in the middle of the table, the first thing they calculate is their number of outs. This refers to the cards which would give them an unbeatable hand. For example, if the player is holding a nine and a ten of hearts, and the flop is the jack of hearts, the seven of hearts, and the ace of spades, the player has a number of cards which could give them an extremely strong hand. One more heart would give them a flush, and an eight would give them a straight. This means they have 13 outs.

At that point in time, the player has nothing and would be beaten by a pair of aces or jacks. However, their probability of hitting something huge would give them a good reason to bet big after the flop. The odds of hitting a flush on the flop from two suited cards is 118/1. However, the odds of hitting a flush on the turn or the river after flopping a flush draw is 4/1. Experts are well aware of the odds in various situations and measure their bets carefully to offset their risk.

Another important factor that expert players consider is their position on the table. The person who acts last in each hand is at a distinct advantage, so they are likely to play a much wider range of starting hands. A player who was first to act in the hand is only going to make it past the flop if they are sitting on a monster, so it is easier to guess what these players may be holding. Experts also use their memory to recall how certain players acted in past situations. If the opponent has been noticeably conservative but is now betting large amounts, it probably means they have something.

Starting Hands Provide Experts with More Information than You May Think

The starting hand is where players make the decision whether to invest in a round or not. More often than not, experts will muck non-optimal hands pre-flop so that they don’t waste any chips. As touched on above, the range of starting hands changes depending on table position. Generally, though, players will be looking to play the hands listed at, which include high pocket pairs and high suited connectors. By playing hands like these, players increase their odds of hitting strong hands. When playing pocket pairs, for example, there is a 16 percent chance of hitting two pair on the flop.

Of course, you can’t always wait for premium hands. Therefore, when the stakes are lower or when there are fewer opponents, players will opt to play a much wider range of hands. In doing this, it makes it harder for their opponents to get a read on them.

With the vast array of factors and variables involved, poker can’t be narrowed down to an exact science. However, players can give themselves a better chance of winning by calculating their odds, playing strong starting hands, and taking advantage of their position in a round of betting.


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