WSJ: Amateurs Have a Good Shot at Winning This Year’s World Series
from The Wall Street JournalBy CHRISTOPHER F. CHABRIS
On Monday, this year’s final table of the World Series of Poker “main event” will begin in Las Vegas. After two days of play, the winner will walk away with $7.68 million. Nor will the runners-up do too badly, with prizes down to just over $1 million for ninth place.
In recent years, as poker has become ever more popular, nonprofessionals have been entering high-stakes games in growing numbers. When the World Series tournament began in July, there were thousands of amateurs among the 6,420 players who ponied up the $10,000 buy-in.
Now there are seven pros and two amateurs remaining. All are men; the two amateurs are 61 and 72 years old, while the oldest pro is 36. Does this mean that players with day jobs are at a huge disadvantage in poker?
Not necessarily. In poker, amateurs still have a good shot at coming out ahead of the best players. Top golf and bridge tournaments are mostly limited to professionals, but both games have special events that pair up pros and amateurs. In chess, where skill predominates over luck in determining outcomes, it’s front-page news when the world champion finishes in the bottom half of a tournament, as Magnus Carlsen did earlier this year.
One way to think about the relative importance of skill in different games is to estimate their number of skill levels. Chess has about 14 skill levels, with each level corresponding to a 200-point rating difference. Mr. Carlsen, for example, is rated about 2,850, while the lowest-rated beginner is at 100. In the Asian game of Go, there may be even more levels. Backgammon, which has fewer possible board configurations and includes the random element of dice, seems to have fewer.
It’s much harder to estimate skill in poker. Statistical rating systems work best with one-on-one contests, and data from poker tournaments don’t include the players who didn’t win any money, which is about 90% of the field. Just counting up how much money players have won will give a distorted picture of skill, since it doesn’t account for how often those same players entered tournaments and left with nothing.
Poker has more random elements than backgammon, but this doesn’t mean that it requires less skill. In many ways poker is a more complicated game, testing a wider array of mental and social abilities. Because players have cards that no one else can see, concealing one’s own state of mind and guessing how other players are feeling can make a difference. The crucial role of bluffing vastly complicates the mathematical basis of the game, increasing the range of possibilities that players must consider when making decisions. And the large sums of money at stake, combined with the fact that a hand with a 98% chance to win can still lose, make controlling one’s emotions a key skill.
In the long run, skill will win out in poker. But the long run can be very long indeed, much longer than most players realize. In the short run—and a single poker tournament is a very short run—the chances of an amateur besting a pro are excellent. In fact, they are even higher than the chances of an ordinary grandmaster beating the world champion in a single chess game.
This is precisely why the World Series of Poker is able to collect $64 million in entry fees and return almost all of it in prize money. Magnus Carlsen should stick to chess if he wants to win as often as possible, but if he should decide to take up poker, his odds won’t be that bad.
source: Wall Street Journal
reposted by Chandler Bator
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