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

  • 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

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    There are perhaps 20 key probabilities like these that have guided every serious player for generations. The odds of hitting your hand haven't changed; that won't happen as long as a deck consists of 52 cards. What has changed are the odds of an opponent's playing the odds in a predictable manner — and that has forced all pros to rethink their game. "If you're not willing to go all in with bad cards, you'll never win," quoth the Maven.

    What the old guard is learning is that the new breed raises and reraises more often despite holding marginal cards. They rely on online software, which tracks every move and provides instant feedback on how a player is likely to respond to a raise. The data show that betting big on once-in-a-blue-moon odds will work — but only if you play often enough. So the online players have perfected an aggressive, all-out style. Many old-school players won't accept the new math. Why risk your tournament life on a marginal hand?

    It's a fair question, and one that strikes at the core of why players who cut their teeth online are so much more aggressive. If the long term is defined by, say, a thousand tournaments, that was a lifetime for pros, who could compete in maybe 30 live tournaments a year. But when you play online, you can play 30 tournaments a night. Getting knocked out means little; you make up your losses by going to the next game and letting the long-term odds work for you in a relatively short time. Online players play the same way in a live game: they are more willing to risk their tournament life with an all-in bet. And old pros like Hellmuth and Brunson have been caught off guard.

    Not everyone agrees that the Internet crowd is taking over. Some noted veteran card players, including Mike "the Mad Genius" Caro, insist that the new style breaks down in a live game, in which shuffling your feet too quickly, glancing at your chip stack at the wrong moment or talking too much at the table are tells that will hurt you more than bad cards. Says Caro: "I know I'm pretty much alone in this view. But I actually think these Internet kids are easier to read."

    The Old-Timers Retool
    And yet the young players are also the ones wearing the winner's bracelets. Joe Cada won last year's Main Event and nearly $9 million at the age of 21. He became its youngest winner ever, supplanting Peter Eastgate, who won in 2008 at 22. Eastgate took the title of youngest champ from Hellmuth, who had held it for 19 years.

    With so many players willing to put all their chips in the middle with bad cards, it might sound like a chance for a pro to win easy money. But in tournament poker, you can't go back to the bank; when your chips are gone, they are gone. Even a skilled player who rarely bluffs and bets big on only the very best hands, with odds 4 to 1 in his favor, becomes a 5-to-1 underdog to survive 20 such hands in which players force him to go all in. "It's become a crapshoot," says Brunson, who made a living by playing hold 'em almost exclusively for 45 years. Today, he says, only 10% of his play is hold 'em. He will nonetheless be back at the Main Event this year, but he doesn't expect to get to the last round: "I don't think you will see a name player at the final table again."

    That might be hyperbole. Poker pro Phil Ivey, 34, made the final table just last year. And the veterans are going back to school. To turn his game around, Hellmuth is desperately trying to embrace the Maven's statistics and has been meeting with Brandon Cantu, a 29-year-old two-time champion, and other young guns regularly for months.

    The old guard has some newfangled ideas of its own. Hellmuth has hired a "mind-set coach" named Sam Chauhan, the Tony Robbins of Vegas. He's an inspirational sort who instructs his clients to wear a rubber band on their wrist and snap it every time they have a negative thought. Chauhan is busy repairing the psyches of about a dozen poker veterans, and about half go to him because of their struggle with the new aggressiveness. "When you have a negative thought," he says, "the main thing is not to live there."

    Is he making a difference? Well, shortly after beginning to work with Chauhan, Antonio Esfandiari, 31, who hadn't won much of anything in four years, finished 24th at last year's Main Event and cashed for $352,832, one of several old-timers to break their long droughts. In March, Hellmuth finally broke through to a final table, earning $117,000 for his sixth-place finish at the World Poker Tour Bay 101. When Hellmuth enters the Rio this year decked out as a mixed-martial-arts fighter — his latest in a string of Main Event grand entrances — the math brats will be waiting.

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