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GUY RAZ, host:

Jeff Harvey is a professor of physics at the University of Chicago, and he plays a regular poker game with friends and colleagues. And a few years ago, he decided to invite one of his graduate students, Eduard Antonyan, to play one night.

Professor JEFF HARVEY (Physics, University of Chicago): There's this home game that a buddy of mine organizes and I invited Eduard and one other graduate student to come play, because we're always looking for new victims. But it didn't really work out that well because - well, actually, Eduard and I were the last two players in this tournament and he beat me, so - took my money. We didn't invite him back after that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: They didn't invite him back because Eduard was so much better. In fact, the only player who was even close to matching him was Jeff Harvey. And that may have to do with the fact that they were the only physicists at the table, string theory to be precise.

Now, around the same time in California, the science writer, Jennifer Ouellette, also watched some physicists play poker. In this case, it was her husband and his friend. And they were good. They were really good. And she wondered, is this a fluke?

Ms. JENNIFER OUELLETTE (Science Writer): But then I started realizing that, in fact, there were a lot of poker-playing physicists, some of whom have done quite well, which is Michael Binger who placed third in 2006 at the World Series, won like $4 million. There's a few others that have also won some major international tournaments playing poker. And it turns out there's close to a dozen that I know of and probably more.

RAZ: Now, after some digging, Jennifer Ouellette came up with a theory and she wrote about it in a recent issue of Discover magazine. And the theory goes something like this: The skill set of a physicist is ideal to winning at poker.

Ms. OUELLETTE: I mean, if you think about it, they build models of the world. And when my husband talks about how he plays - how he approaches poker, he's attempting to model the players based on their style of play, their betting patterns, you know, their bodily ticks and the little clues that they give. And he's using that to build a model in order to kind of predict them a little bit better. And then he gauges his play. He makes his decision on how he plays based on how he models the other players.

RAZ: You write that poker is an intensely complicated game, right?

Ms. OUELLETTE: Yes.

RAZ: But can you explain why? I mean, we're talking about 52 cards, some are good, some are bad, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: So why so complicated?

Ms. OUELLETTE: Well, you have to think about probabilities. If you think about just one - if you just throw in one die, for example, in the game of crabs, if you just throw one die, you've got six possible outcomes. If you've got two dice and all the different ways of combinations they can get for combinations, then you've got a few more outcomes.

When you've got 52 cards, there are actually over 2.5 million possible five-hand combinations. And then you have to figure that you're trying to crunch these numbers with incomplete information. You don't know what the other players have. So it's a very, very complicated game.

RAZ: Now, clearly, there's now way you could possibly crunch all those numbers in your head. A physicist can't do it. Rain Man can't do it. But Jennifer Ouellette says physicists have an advantage over the rest of us because they deal in probabilities many times a day. And then, of course, there are other skills that come in handy as well.

Prof. HARVEY: Analyzing complicated systems, analytical thinking, mathematics and...

RAZ: Not only that, says Jeff Harvey, physicists are also especially equipped to fight something called tilt.

Prof. HARVEY: Tilt - when you kind of start playing badly because things are going against you.

RAZ: And Jeff's grad student, Eduard, who now wins thousands of dollars in a day in online poker, calls fighting tilt crucial to a good poker game.

Mr. EDUARD ANTONYAN: It's like one of the major components.

Prof. HARVEY: And in physics, you know, you have to be able to sit down and work on a long complicated calculation, they may often take you weeks or even a month. And sometimes, at the end of it, you realize your approach is wrong and you have to throw it out and start again.

Being able to deal with kind of extended periods of bad luck or things not going well is something that's also required to be a physicist.

RAZ: And in fact, the most famous physicist of all time was a bit of a player himself.

Ms. OUELLETTE: Einstein, by the way, actually enjoyed gambling. He went to Vegas and actually, you know, played crabs and played blackjack and...

RAZ: Oh, he did?

Ms. OUELLETTE: ...indulged in the poker tables, yes. In fact, he met Nick the Greek. And Nick introduced him to all his gambling buddies, and knowing that they wouldn't know who Einstein was, introduced Einstein as Little Al from Princeton...

RAZ: Really?

Ms. OUELLETTE: ...controls a lot of the action around Jersey.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: But he wasn't kicked at it because he knows counting cards, right?

Ms. OUELLETTE: No. No, he wasn't.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's Jennifer Ouellette. Her new book is called "The Calculus Diaries." She spoke to us from our studios at NPR West.

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