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    When One Billion Is the Right Amount

    Posted by Coffee November 1, 2013

    Poker, like life, is a game of incomplete information. The uncertainty of what the other player holds forms the foundation of every poker player’s obsession. Every poker player keeps a mental list of hands they wish they’d played differently, one way or the other. Inevitably, the reason for these regret hands boils down simply to the notion that the player lost, either through a weaker hand or a strong hand played too weakly. Most players end up cursing the sky, the poker gods and the game itself for their bad luck.

    However, the guys at onebillionhands.com have decided that they have better things to do. Dave Thornton, Jay Greenspan, Emilio Seijo and Lukasz Gieron have pooled their considerable intelligences in order to develop an answer to the whims of variance. Combining decades of experience in statistics, internet development and analytics, these four men have created a way to quantify exactly how cold those coolers really are, and how big the bullets you just dodged were.

    I spoke with Dave Thornton, CEO, this week in order to better understand the value of the team’s software. Essentially, the need for the development grew out of frustration over the inadequacies of pot equity.  Pot equity is terrific for measuring the change in expectation from one street to the next, but says nothing about the effect that each card had for the players still in the hand.

    The software works by taking the situation present on each street of a given hand and comparing the situation to OBH’s massive database of past hands in order to find comparable situations. The software then determines how many big blinds the player lost or won in comparison to an average player in the exact same situation. The resulting discrepancies tell a more complete story about a particular player’s path through the tournament.

    For example, consider the case of Mark Newhouse’s presence in the November Nine this year. Newhouse will begin the day as the short stack, but based on the expectations, the variance and his overall magnetism for the dreaded cooler, it is somewhat miraculous that he is still in the tournament at all. OBH’s software determined that his prescient folds during three key hands saved him 60 big blinds of value. Given that he is starting the final table with a mere 18 big blinds, it is fair to say that his play on these three hands likely determined his placement in this year’s Main Event.

    This sort of analysis is particularly useful for the tournament setting, because chips are a non-renewable resource in tournaments. There is so much more of a survival element in tournaments, so saving chips that would usually be lost or gaining more chips than usually would be won can make huge differences in a player’s expected value for tournaments. In essence, tournament mistakes are far more devastating that cash game ones, so the margin for error in a player’s decision-making is much less.

    This software also touches on the vagaries of Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker. Sure, we would all like to know what the other person has before we make our decisions, but no longer can that effect be merely stated in terms of “gain” or “loss.” Instead, we have a quantifiable number based upon what the team calls Spot-to-Spot Luck Scores – measures of the total number of big blinds that cards dealt either helped or hurt the player.

    OBH has parlayed its software and its expertise into a very important and, frankly, unenviable role for the live broadcast of the final table (Monday, November 4, 2013 – 8 PM ET). Since the broadcast is live and will be involving actual people without the benefit of editing, ESPN and Poker Productions has called the team in order to provide information for the commentators to use during the breaks in the action. Essentially, all four team members will be working feverishly to capture, analyze and present the data from recent hands to the broadcast team.

    Even more dauntingly, the team will have to analyze the data as it comes in from the broadcast. The Nevada Gaming Commission monitors the broadcasting of hands and results very closely due to the amounts of money involved. Therefore, the team will probably be feeling as though they are working during the wee hours of a Jerry Lewis telethon.

    However, Dave Thornton isn’t worried about that. He sees the last ten years of poker’s history, from the Moneymaker boom to Black Friday, as merely a prelude to the sort of advanced consideration poker will soon be receiving in terms of analytics. Poker retains the capacity for a more complete picture of the mathematics behind the cards – it is not unreasonable to expect sabermetric-type calculations of player ability and statistically-formulated player rankings are coming in the near future (in comparison to this column, which reminds of the AP College Football Poll).

    With these sorts of improvements, more money, recognition and interest would come from the public at large. A second boom, perhaps a sustainable one, would catapult poker back into the heat of the limelight. If the WSOP became akin to March Madness in terms of juggernauts at the table and underdogs attempting to unseat them, real drama might be possible, instead of the choppiness that occurs when a former world champion or another big name goes down to the felt without any buildup or presage.

    In the meantime, as you watch the final table, take note of the new improvements during the breaks. The Onebillionhands team will be working fiendishly in order to provide you with some real and heretofore unknown insight into this game of ours. The people in front of the camera are going to be polished and ready, but the people behind it are, too – and it is important to pay attention to the men behind the curtain once in a while.

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