Nate Silver: 'Playing Poker Makes You Tougher in Politics'

Published on 7 July 2013 by Pokerlistings 250

Political analyst Nate Silver blew up in a big way when he correctly predicted the outcome of every state in the last US federal election but what people may not know is that he's as passionate about poker as he is about politics. Silver actually made a living playing online for a number of years and now he's at the World Series of Poker looking for his first big score. Silver speaks to about the differences between poker and politics and how being good at one can help you with the other.

[Nate Silver] Yeah, so I made a living for a couple years playing poker, mostly online, mostly limit hold'em actually. But the games were really soft I think from 2004-2007, so I kind of left my consulting job to go write about baseball and play poker. I fortunately got out again to do other things before Black Friday. But no, poker is kind of a big part of my life story.

Being in situations where, you know, you are under kind of media scrutiny in the elections and so forth, and this seems... I think it's not easy. I think a poker tournament's a really stressful situation, but you learn how to kind of perform under pressure. I mean, if you're physically tired, you're still trying to think through things. Sometimes you have to slow down your thinking a little bit. But I think that helps. It's not that there's no pressure, but that you're better at handling it.

The good thing about poker is that if someone's full of shit, then you call them, right? Or you raise them, right? In politics, there's so much politics in politics. In poker, it's about how you play your hand, and you get lucky of course. But they're very different types of mentalities, I think. I do think actually having played poker makes you tougher in the political climate because you're like, "Look, people are going to be dumb, and they're going to be very hubristic and full of themselves about being dumb. And no matter how much you tell them they're dumb, politely or impolitely, they're not going to really wise up. And so in the long run, you make a bet, you lay down your wager. In the poker table, it's more convenient, but that's why you know in politics when I kind of threaten to bet this blow-hard pundit, Joe Scarborough, everyone was offended by this notion, whereas in the poker community, if you have a difference of opinion, you settle it by actually making a wager and testing your ideas and seeing who's right. So it's important in my kind of psychology, I think.

The key kind of skills that are mathematically-based in poker are number one game theory, so you understand, "Am I hard to exploit in a certain spot?" And number two really is estimation, right? It's knowing kind of what your equity is with a certain flop, against a certain opponent. And those things I think are good for mathematical thinkers. Sometimes the tactics: the tactical part, the data play, that's more challenging, so you have to kind of slow down be more deliberate with your actions, I think.

The way that professionals', especially the kind of high-limit nosebleed stakes, no limit game has evolved is very, very sophisticated. I think if you look kind of back at how people might have played poker seven years ago or something, right, the kind of ABC style is actually quite bad because it's very predictable. You have to bluff some. You don't want to bluff too much, but what people wouldn't understand is that most players - maybe not anymore - but certainly five to ten years ago, most players were not bluffing nearly enough. They were playing much too tight, not mixing their play at all. So I think people understand now that a somewhat looser and more aggressive style is not just kind of an adjustment, but almost necessary. You have conceal your strong hands and have a whole range that you're playing in different ways to play optimally.

I think it can be hard to make a living as a tournament pro unless, you know...the guys who are good at this are getting sponsorship funding and other ways to market their brands. It's not pure poker. It's a tough life now, you know, I think maybe in the main event where it's both a soft field and you're very, very deep. The longer the tournament goes, the more the skill ledge grows. Then there are guys that are going to have that pretty high ROI. But if you're grinding out tournaments where two thirds of the field are professionals and you're travelling to Europe or Australia to do it, I think there are very few players in the world who are really coming out ahead.

I mean, it'd be really cool to make a deep run to win a bracelet. At this point, I'm technically a recreational player. You know, I can afford to do this, but I have other ways to earn a living too. It would be just a really good accomplishment. You don't get so much pure competition like you do in poker as much. It's something that kind of always has haunted me a little bit. When I was actually playing for a living, I kind of never played tournaments really. I was like, "Well, it's a waste of my time. I can make 300 bucks an hour playing on my computer, right, so why would I waste time at a main event when those fields are probably very, very soft?" And now it's a tougher field, but it would still be a real...It'd be a lot of fun. It'd be a great accomplishment.