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Nate Silver Q&A: “Poker is a Good Skill To Have in Life”

Statistician Nate Silver has been on one hell of a heater over the last six months.

In that time Silver and the team behind his blog FiveThirtyEight.com successfully predicted the winner in all 50 states during the U.S. Presidential Election, he released the best-selling The Signal and The Noise and become a bona fide geek god to the mainstream media in North America.

Silver is also a poker fan. A big one, in fact. He actually made a living playing online poker in the mid-2000s and played the WSOP Main Event in 2011.

Nate Silver: Poker is a Good Skill to Have

The 35 year old has actually been itching to get back into poker and so when Crown Casino asked if he’d be interested in playing the 2013 Aussie Millions he jumped at the opportunity.

Aussie Millions 2013
The 2013 Aussie Millions

We sat down with Silver before he played Day 1c of the 2013 Aussie Millions Main Event to get his thoughts on playing $10,000 buy-in tournaments, his election success, poker ranking systems and more.

PokerListings.com: Why did you decide to play the 2013 Aussie Millions?

Nate Silver: It was a combination of things. I get a lot of things in my inbox – especially after the election. I heard from Crown and they were like “You should come play in this tournament. You can go to the Aussie Open, vacation in Australia.”

It didn’t sound so bad considering it was the middle of January and like 20 degrees in New York. It wasn’t too tough a sell.

That said, poker was very instrumental in my life for a couple years. I kind of left it unfinished. I stopped playing during a pretty bad losing streak.

I went on to do things that turned out very well but at some point I’d like to get some closure by making a deep run in a poker tournament or something.

PL: Do you actually play any poker when you’re at home?

NS: I play a $20 buy-in home game [laughs]. I was telling some high roller friends the other day that I play a $20 home game and they were like “Oh you mean $20,000?”

It’s still fun though. You can learn things. The players aren’t necessarily that good but there is this weird quality that because you’re under no illusion that they are all that good you kind of learn how certain players think. I think one mistake poker players make is to assume everyone else plays the same way that you do.

Nate Silver
Nate Silver at the 2013 Aussie Millions.

You can develop this masturbatory playing style where you’re really just playing against yourself almost. You’re trying to optimize playing against yourself instead of taking advantage of players who don't understand stack size and others who call everything.

Other than the home game, New York really isn’t a great place to play poker. Atlantic City and Foxwoods are all three-hour trips so you don’t make it out there that often.

I wish we had a poker room somewhere in the city.

PL: You’ve played a couple major tournaments now. Do you feel comfortable playing a $10,000 buy-in tournament?

NS: I think so. I’m trying to figure out what makes me feel comfortable. The couple times I’ve played the Main Event I would literally fly in the night before and I think that’s probably a mistake. There are fatigue and jet-lag factors.

I’m also in a place where I’m more financially comfortable after the election so I can focus more on just trying to play really well. I think it’s an advantage I might have.

Also surviving the pressure of the 2012 election, which in some ways felt like being at a final table or something, could also help my game.

PL: You’ve gotten a ton of mainstream attention since the election. What’s that been like for you?

NS: I enjoy it for the most part. It kind of comes with the territory. You can’t say “Oh I’m really glad my book is selling but I don’t want anyone to recognize me on the street.”

Nate Silver
Nate Silver on the Colbert Report.

You can’t pick and choose that. It just kind of happens to you. The only time it’s annoying is if I’m running late for the airport and someone will be like “Hey aren’t you Nate Silver?”

It makes it difficult to steal their cab [laughs].

I’ll put it this way: I think it’s good that people are recognizing someone that is into the numbers and stats and kind of a self-professed geek. I think sometimes I get attention that should really be applied more to ideas than to people.

Some of it is undeserved in that sense. You become a symbol, which is a bit strange.

PL: What do you think the American public misunderstands about poker as a skill game?

Daniel Negreanu and J.P. Kelly
Poker pros good. Full Tilt scandal bad.

NS: In some ways I think the American understanding of the game is actually more advanced than some places. I did a radio interview with Australian media this morning where the host expressed a very negative view of poker. It was sort of this sinful, gambling activity.

I think because it became so popular and so mainstream in the U.S. that people are maybe better versed in how they view it. You still encounter people who get Blackjack and poker confused. They ask me if I can count cards.

It’s been really good having pros who are ambassadors for the game though. Obviously things like the Full Tilt scandal don’t help.

Hopefully by playing in these events I can say, “Look, poker is something that is a good skill to have in life. Or rather it teaches other good skills.”

It’s a really great way to develop your quantitative sensibilities and apply game theory and practice. You can also develop your estimation and people-reading skills.

I don’t think people realize how rich the game can be.

PL: You famously created a system to forecast Major League Baseball player performance. Do you ever look at poker and wonder if something similar could be done?

online poker
Nate Silver didn't utilize data-mining software when he played online.

NS: I’m reading that book Kill Everyone where they’ll develop models that come up with equilibrium solutions in certain situations. They are limited situations, like pre-flop and push or fold type of stuff. You could do a little bit with it I think.

One thing I regret is that when I played regularly online is that I didn’t look at the data. I wonder if you could do more fun, data-mining stuff.

Like for instance, if someone pauses before they raise. You could get really specific tendencies. I maybe should have done more of that.

In theory I also think that’s slightly evil.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how I can play my hand in such a way that I’m unexploitable, which is not easy to figure out to begin with but to actually apply that in a tournament setting, where you have incentive to preserve chips, is a very challenging problem.

PL: Let’s talk baseball for a minute. Is there a particular baseball prediction that you are most proud of?

NS: Probably the time we had the White Sox to go 72-90 in 2007. I kind of like the White Sox, so it was nothing personal, but the local media interviewed Scott Podsednik and he was like, “Who are these Baseball Prospectus guys and what the hell do they know?”

Then they finished 72-90.

It’s fun when people hate on you and then turn out to be wrong. That’s why the election was, in the end, fun.

nate silver south by southwest
Nate Silver at SXSWI. Photo: Randy Stewart.

In poker you’ve got guys who are always on your case or hating on you and sometimes you bust them and it’s satisfying, right?

That’s not always the case though. Quite often they’ll bust you or you never really have a climatic encounter.

The election is a very rare circumstance in politics where people were very dug in but then you got the satisfaction of having this certain outcome.

I think that’s why it resonated with a lot of people. It’s because in a lot of fields there are people who just kind of bullshit and end up being wrong forever and never have to be held accountable for it.

PL: There were a number of poker players who made money betting on your election predictions? Does that kind of thing ever make you nervous? 

NS: I try to differentiate on the blog when I think a prediction is more solid. We do things where we pick the Oscar or the NCAA tournament pool. Those are varying in sophistication but it’s hard to beat betting markets in general.

I really do think with the politics stuff we were more sophisticated than the markets. I don’t say that lightly.

Phil Hellmuth
TV pros win millions but how much do they spend on buy-ins?

I don’t mind if people take my advice on that stuff. I worry about other stuff where people go on ESPN wondering who is going to win the Super Bowl and I’m like, “I dunno, the Patriots probably. They have Tom Brady.” I hope people don’t bet on that kind of thing.

It’s just kind of finger in the wind stuff.

PL: Do you have any thoughts on the way poker rankings work? There are obviously some flaws with going entirely by tournament results.

NS: I’ve seen some attempts where people are kind of doing the Bayesian poker rankings but the problem is that you don’t have a sense for how many tournaments people enter.

If you talk to enough pros, you’ll learn that other pros, who have maybe won $2 million in a year also spent over $2 million in buy-ins.

If you don’t have that denominator for how many tournaments players are entering it becomes very tricky.

Maybe that data collection will improve but realistically you have 700 people entering at the last minute, it’s hard to collect everyone’s name. It is difficult to judge that, especially in tournaments where there is a huge amount of luck involved.

PL: Are there any other major tournaments you’d like to play?

NS: There are plenty of times during an election year when I can’t play but over the next year I’m going to have a little more free time. I’m going to play here and in the WSOP in Las Vegas in the summer and maybe Europe in the fall.

It would be fun to play a couple major events a year. At some point I’m going to have to make a run in one of them or it will just become pathetic. If I bust out early every time I’m sure I’ll get frustrated.

I feel like I have a deep run in me at some point. I’m not sure if I’m hugely +EV but I don’t think I’m –EV either so I’m breaking even and having a lot of fun.

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