The Richest Poker Game of All Time

I just read a book titled The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time. The book tells the story of a rich Texas banker who, on a bit of a lark, challenges some of the world’s best poker players to increasingly higher stakes limit hold ’em games over the course of several years. His advantages include a precocious mind and an enormous bankroll, much larger than any of the professionals could quickly and easily put together. This situation forced them to pool together their resources and form “The Corporation” in order to play him in heads-up play (as that is how Beal, the banker, wanted it).

The final amounts of dollars won and lost aren’t really important. What is important is that a relatively untrained amateur was able to find ways to reduce the advantage of professionals who had been playing for years, to the point that the end result was something of a toss-up. Beal took a sabermetric approach of deep analysis to the game, co-writing a computer program (in BASIC, which made me chuckle) to perform statistical analysis of hold ’em, and, although it is not explicitly stated in the book, appears to have found that professionals do not play optimally. This is not a surprise — each decision point in poker has a fair number of branches, and players have imperfect and incomplete information at their disposal. However, it is intimated that some of the professionals make decisions that can be quantitatively described as “incorrect” — unfortunately, the details are glossed over in the book.

Another way that Beal’s game evolved was through the use of devices like a timing buzzer in his shoe (to randomize his reaction time), along with a modified wristwatch to serve as a random number generator. The former I found particularly interesting — I had heard that ‘tells’ were not really as significant as they were made out to be, and that proper strategy was of paramount importance. Yet, it appears that this (along with other measures) had some effect on the pros who played him.

The story of the richest poker game of all time seems to validate some of the ideas presented in another book I read recently, The New Brain. The author, a neurologist at GWU, makes the claim that most people, with motivation and dedicated, effective practice, can reach a level of mastery that is about 95% of that possessed by the geniuses and masters in a particular field. In other words, Woody Allen was right — 90% of life is just showing up. Anecdotally, this appears to have some weight behind it. This would seem to imply that underachievement is primarily a motivational problem, not an aptitude problem, and honestly, I would not really disagree with that.

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