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Pythagoras, Pi and Poker

Chris Ferguson is the new breed of player who uses math calculations, game theory and Internet resources to gain an edge over old-style, instinctive gamblers.


LAS VEGAS — The contrast between the two players facing each other at the final table of the 2000 World Series of Poker championship event last spring was striking.

T.J. Cloutier, a beefy 6-foot-3, at 61 looked every inch the former Canadian Football League player he is. Clad in a golf shirt and beltless slacks, and sporting a neat cap of curly graying hair, Cloutier peered at his cards through aviator-style glasses. He coolly stared down his opponent as he placed his bets, inhaling deeply on cigarette after cigarette.

His 37-year-old opponent, Chris Ferguson, resembled an enigmatic modern-day cowboy with his slender 6-foot-1 frame, black Stetson pulled low, full beard and long chestnut hair. Reflective sunglasses made his expressions unreadable as he pushed piles of chips forward, pausing occasionally for a swig of bottled water.

More than age and style separated the two competitors, one of whom would walk away with $1.5 million and the championship title to poker's premier tournament. Cloutier is an old-school Texas road gambler who learned his trade in the days when guns were sometimes brought to the table to settle a game's outcome. Ferguson has a doctorate in computer science/artificial intelligence from UCLA, and calculates all his poker moves mathematically.

Los Angeles Times Friday May 18, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Casino location--The Bicycle Casino is in Bell Gardens, not Gardena, as stated in a SoCal Living story Monday about poker.

Ferguson's rise to the coveted final table of the World Series of Poker--something he'll try to reprise as the 2001 contest begins today at Binion's Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas--represents a coming of age for a new generation of technologically sophisticated players who are a growing presence in California and Nevada card rooms and tournaments.

Among the gamblers who will each pay $10,000 to join the tournament, a cutthroat game of No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em that ends when one player has captured all the chips, is a scattering of computer programmers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers. They'll be using their training in statistics and game theory to try to gain an edge over "seat of the pants" players in a game that, despite its outlaw past, is at its core highly mathematical.

Though tech-oriented players represent just a small fraction of the thousands who populate the card rooms on any given day, their influence in the poker world goes beyond their numbers. They are changing the way the game is played: laying out new strategies in books, designing software simulations, raising the bar for other players. And they're winning competitions.


"It used to be the only way to become good at the game was to play over a long period of time. That's why in the past there used to be very few world-class young players," said Michael Zimmers, 42, co-organizer of an annual Las Vegas gathering of poker players who participate in the Internet newsgroup, or RGP, as it is known. (To find RGP, AOL users, for example, can do a keyword search for "newsgroups," then enter the newsgroup name.)

"The use of mathematics, probability and online poker resources can greatly accelerate the learning curve. So while there's no substitute for experience, you can certainly come up to speed faster," said Zimmers, a Cupertino, Calif., graduate student and former software developer.

The game is attracting young people such as Patri Friedman, 24, who said that until he saw "Rounders," a 1998 Matt Damon-Edward Norton movie about two twentysomething poker players, he had "never even thought of it as a game of skill before."

The Sunnyvale, Calif., computer programmer and grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman grew up playing a lot of games and helped run the bridge club at Stanford University, where he graduated with a degree in math. After he became interested in poker, Friedman researched the game on the Internet, read books about it and started playing in California card rooms.

Friedman, who showed up at a recent poker tournament wearing a fluorescent yellow smiley-face print bandanna over his curly dark hair, said he's not interested in pursuing the game full time--he wouldn't find it fulfilling and is busy with a computer project--but he enjoys it as a hobby.

Spencer Sun, 28, an amiable player who won last year's $240,000 Tournament of Champions poker event at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, also came to poker from the game of bridge, which he played on the Internet while studying computer science at Princeton.

A fellow online bridge player got him interested in poker five years ago, and over time he began to play live games in card rooms in the Bay Area, where he works as a consultant to a start-up company. He also attends tournaments with friends he's met through the RGP newsgroup.

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