The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has gained something of a reputation for gambling prowess. The MIT Blackjack Team famously won hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1990s, its exploits colorfully portrayed the bestselling book Bringing Down the House. Now, thanks to the Internet, everyone can tap into the school’s mathematical brilliance to sharpen their gaming skills.
MIT has opened its course “Poker Theory and Analytics” to the public this summer. As part of MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiatives, anyone with an Internet connection can access the 11-lecture course, which includes videos of class lectures, a syllabus, and PDFs of class notes.
Class teacher and finance graduate Kevin Desmond believes that the same strategic thinking that is vital for positive returns in poker is also important in other areas of life. For example, a better understanding of risk management can help investors plan their moves. Desmond offers himself as a prime example; he plays poker at the professional level while working as an analyst for Morgan Stanley.
The class has two objectives: mastering the basics of poker and analyzing factors that other players often ignore. Those factors include seating arrangements, opponents’ betting and raising patterns, and hypothesizing future behavior based on past conduct.
During the live class, which was taught in January, students played about 5,000 hands of poker, which is comparable to one year of in-person poker, according to Desmond. The games were played using an online program pitting students against each other for fake money. Students who made it to the top of the leaderboard were given prizes, ranging from an iPad Air to signed copies of poker books. The course ended with a live tournament that gave out $3,500 worth of non-cash prizes.
Guest speakers were also featured in the class, including Bill Chen, a professional poker player, Matt Hawrilenko, a Princeton graduate who won more than $1 million at the World Series of Poker in 2009, and Aaron Brown, chief risk manager at AQR Capital Management.
If the class gains enough of a following, perhaps next summer Lady Gaga can teach her poker face. But don’t count on it.