A popular expression in poker is that "you don't play the cards, you play the player."
The adage refers to the belief that successful poker playing, especially at the highest levels, is about reading opponents and psychological gamesmanship rather than merely figuring odds.
While there's certainly truth to all that, Bill Chen, the winner of two championship bracelets at the current World Series of Poker being held at the Rio All-Suites Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, is proving that superior mathematical analysis is still a handy skill to bring to the table.
The poker World Series, a string of 45 tournaments held over seven weeks, culminates with the Texas Hold 'em World Championship July 28-Aug. 10.
Chen, who has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, first won a limit hold 'em $3,000 buy-in event about two weeks ago and incredibly, followed that with another victory in a short-handed no-limit hold 'em $2,500 buy-in tournament just a few days ago. Together, the two championships paid Chen more than $786,000. In addition, he has had three smaller World Series cash-ins so far for nearly $25,000.
While other poker professionals certainly have impressive academic credentials - Chris "Jesus" Ferguson also has a Ph.D. from Cal and Andy Bloch is an MIT graduate - few stress the use of mathematics at the table as strongly as Chen.
Currently a resident of suburban Philadelphia, Chen is known for his postings at poker Internet sites where his views sometimes read like a lecture in graduate-level math. And later this month, he has a book scheduled for release, The Mathematics of Poker, he wrote with fellow player Jerrod Ankenman.
Much of what Chen and Ankenman advocate revolves around mathematical probabilities and game theory. And a further indication that the two seem to know what they're talking about is that as of yesterday, Ankenman had reached the final table of a limit hold 'em $3,000 tournament.
Even though the current poker World Series is on track to break all its own records for participation and prize pool money - through 21 tournaments, $41.5 million has been awarded - top pros continue to win bracelets, although most of those victories have come in specialized high buy-in games that scare off the less sophisticated Internet crowd. The eager amateurs in Vegas prefer the familiar no-limit hold 'em events.
Lee Watkinson, a highly regarded pro who had never won a bracelet, got his first in a pot-limit Omaha $10,000 buy-in. Afterward, Watkinson told tournament staff that he planned to use some of the $655,746 in prize money to help care for aging captive chimpanzees.
Chip Reese, a Poker Hall of Fame member, took the inaugural HORSE $50,000 buy-in event that was specifically created to attract the world's top players. The tournament featured five variants of poker and produced a final table that included Doyle Brunson, T.J. Cloutier, Dewey Tomko, Phil Ivey and Bloch. Reese's haul was nearly $1.8 million.
And Allen Cunningham won his fourth bracelet while outlasting a field of 1,670 in a no-limit hold 'em $1,000 buy-in with rebuys tournament (meaning that players were permitted to purchase additional chips at certain stages) and collected $625,830.
Anne Arundel County accountant Steve Dannenmann, who finished second in the world championship a year ago, winning $4.25 million, is having a quiet World Series so far this year.
Dannenmann said yesterday he has played in "about eight or nine" tournaments but has yet to cash in and will be taking a break.
His best chance came over the weekend when he played in a no-limit hold 'em shootout $2,000 buy-in where players must eliminate everyone at their table to advance. Dannenmann found himself heads-up with Tournament of Champions winner and World Poker Tour analyst Mike Sexton. After a seesaw 1 1/2 hours, Dannenmann was knocked out, just missing the money.
The first female winner of a mixed event this year was Clare Miller, who took down the seniors no-limit hold 'em championship for players 50 and older. Miller, 61, from Alamogordo, N.M., collected $247,814 and also became the first woman to ever win that title, which last year was captured by poker pro Paul McKinney at age 80. firstname.lastname@example.org