September 24, 2008

Peter Brooksbank

LEWISBURG, Pa. – A few, simple calculations can make you a better poker player – or at least define the odds in Texas hold 'em and other games of chance.

A little luck and a good poker face go a long way, too, but math often determines the best course of action, according to Peter Brooksbank, an assistant professor of mathematics at Bucknell University.

"Most of the top poker players have had no training in mathematics, but if you don't know some basic principles, you have no chance of being a long-term winner," he said.

Brooksbank gave a lesson on the basics of hold 'em and how to use math to your advantage at a colloquium series talk and mock poker tournament Tuesday night at Bucknell's Elaine Langone Center. About 75 faculty, staff and students attended, and about 20 put their poker skills to the test.

Intersection of math and computer science
Poker is a personal interest for Brooksbank, whose research interests lie in the intersection of mathematics and computer science. The talk was the first colloquium presentation in at least 25 years to be given by a math professor, according to Slava Yastremski, an associate professor of Russian literature and film who coordinates the talks. Usually, professors discuss their research at such events, but Brooksbank – who studies algebraic algorithms – wanted to find a way to get participants interested in the applications of math.

"I'm by no means an expert in poker, but we'll just let that slide," he said. "The math department has been under-represented in faculty colloquia. It is pretty difficult for us mathematicians to talk even to each other. The irony is mathematics is all around."

In hold 'em, the most popular form of poker in the world, players are dealt two cards each, known as hole cards, which they may play with five community cards to make the best five-card poker hand they can. The strategy comes in when players decide when and how much to bet or whether to fold, check, call or raise.

There are 2,598,960 possible hands in poker, but some types of hands are more common -- and therefore less valuable than others, Brooksbank noted. For example, a flush beats a straight in poker because you are roughly twice as likely to be dealt a straight as you are a flush. 

Brooksbank showed the audience clips from the movies "Casino Royale" and "Rounders" to illustrate his points then asked participants to answer four scenarios based on size of the pot, number of players and the likelihood they would be dealt a winning hand. The audience entered guesses into remote "clickers" and Brooksbank's computer calculated the results.

The value of bluffing
Brooksbank also explained the value of bluffing when the odds clearly are stacked against you.

"Does mathematics have a role to play in bluffing strategy?" he asked. "Math is everywhere."

Ellen Herman, an assistant professor of geology at Bucknell, said she found it interesting that poker players make calculations, whether intentionally or not.

"I learned that I'm not very good at statistics calculated in my head, and I should probably practice that," she said.

Jeff Bowen, an associate professor of physics who described himself as "not much of a poker player," said he knew a thing or two about bluffing, but the  idea of "pot equity," or building your investment in the game to match your probability of getting the winning hand, was all new.

Contact: Division of Communications

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