World Series of Poker: Attack of the Math Brats

How a generation of number-crunching online upstarts has come to dominate high-stakes professional poker

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Gregg Segal for TIME

Jason Lee, center, is among the aggressive new players whose pushy online style of play has put the old guard on the defensive

Phil Hellmuth Jr. may be the world's most decorated gambler, and when it comes to what old-timers call the Cadillac of poker — Texas hold 'em — his record 11 World Series of Poker championship bracelets are tantamount to a royal flush. He won the game's biggest prize, the World Series Main Event, in 1989 and is among the top lifetime money winners, with more than $6 million in World Series event prizes. But last year it all began to fall apart. Hellmuth, 45, lost money and failed to make the final table of even one tournament for the first time in more than a decade.

Was it his cards? No, Hellmuth says, pacing the floor of his suite at New York City's Plaza Hotel. He blames the new breed of math nerd, those guys using a mountain of sortable data from the millions of hands played online to dominate the game. "The reason I won 11 bracelets is my ability to read opponents," he explains. "These new guys are focused on the math. And they are changing everything."

That's not hyperbole. Poker has a new, hip image, thanks to loads of TV time and bona fide celebrity players, and a century of theory about how the game is played is in flux. Texas hold 'em was once a highly textured battleground for intuitive strategists — in some ways more akin to bridge than five-card stud. Math whizzes, like computer scientist Barry Greenstein and artificial-intelligence expert Chris Ferguson, began to change the game almost two decades ago by using probability theory to their advantage.

In the past few years, hold 'em has evolved again into a hyperaggressive contest for betting bullies who risk all their chips at bizarre moments. The new breed of player seems to ignore the cards in his hand and instead bases his bets on patterns discovered by playing countless online hands. It didn't take long for the best online players to figure out how to use that data in live play, and they have come to treat even the most prestigious live tournaments like just another online table. That's when the poker world got rocked.

The World Wide Web of Poker
David Chicotsky, 30, plays as many as 35 online tournaments at a time by night and runs a poker school on the Las Vegas Strip by day. Chicotsky, who has won $2 million in the past three years, is known as the Maven. When the online style moves to the table, he says, it leaves "old-school players in absolute shock." Hellmuth isn't the only one. Doyle Brunson, 76, who took hold 'em to Las Vegas in the 1960s with fellow Texans Amarillo Slim and Crandell Addington, hasn't won a bracelet since 2005. Johnny Chan, 52, who won back-to-back Main Events in 1987 and '88, has had such a long drought that the industry magazine Bluff recently called him "completely irrelevant." Ouch.

At the root of all this is the spectacular growth of Internet play. An estimated 33 million Americans over 21 played poker in person or online in 2009 for fun or money. In the past eight years, the global online-poker market, measured by the revenue of poker websites, has gone from almost zero to $4.9 billion in 2009 despite a vigorous anti-online-gambling lobby that has slowed the growth of the industry in the U.S.

Texas hold 'em is easily the most popular poker game in the world, accounting for 87% of online play, according to PokerAnalytics.com The passion for the game will reach its apex July 5-8 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, site of the first round of the 2010 Main Event, with a prize that could reach $9 million. Celebrity regulars like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Ray Romano are expected to mix with some 6,500 other players at 378 tables in 100,000 sq. ft. (9,300 sq m) of convention space.

The entry fee is stiff: $10,000. But make no mistake — this is an everyman affair. Roughly half the contestants will get there for a lot less, having won an online satellite or live local tournament where first prize was a seat at the big table. Former accountant Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's his real name), 34, is the poster child for amateur success. Moneymaker qualified for the 2003 Main Event through a $39 online satellite tournament and wound up taking home first prize: $2.5 million. That year, ESPN began positioning TV cameras so home viewers could see every player's cards, which transformed televised poker from unwatchable to gripping — and further fueled the explosion in play. Stories like Moneymaker's have stoked interest in hold 'em tournaments. At the World Series Main Event, the number of entrants leaped from 839 in 2003 to 8,773 in 2006. With more players and greater visibility, the events are seeing even bigger purses. The top prize at the Main Event jumped from $1 million in 1998 to a peak of $12 million in 2006.

The rules of hold 'em are simple enough. Players get two cards down (in the hole). There is a round of betting. Five more cards will come, face up, and players share those cards. First the dealer turns up three cards (the flop), then one card (the turn) and then a final card (the river). There is betting between each deal. In tournament hold 'em, every player begins with the same number of chips and plays until they are gone — or he gets them all. Certain odds have been committed to memory since the game was invented in Robstown, Texas, nearly 100 years ago. You are 4 to 1 to win with any pair in the hole against a lower pair; you have just a 1-in-15 chance of hitting a flush when dealt two cards of the same suit.

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