Academics and Research / Magazine

Prof applies statistics and probability to study of poker

Ask DU statistics Professor Robert Hannum how invigorating he finds the study of probability, data collection and quantitative analysis, and he can’t bluff.

“I freely admit there are many areas of statistics that I find dry and boring,” he says. “That’s part of the reason I ended up doing statistics of gambling and game theory.”

Hannum has applied his top-shelf knowledge of statistics and probability to the study of poker. While some professors toil away at microscopes and dusty volumes, Hannum studies the math behind flops, value bets, pot odds, full boats, pocket rockets and the nuts. And his conclusions have led to him playing a pivotal role in criminal trials around the country.

In 2008, law enforcement stormed a Greeley, Colo., poker game and arrested organizers. The ensuing charges contended that the organizers — in running weekly games with a $20 buy-in at a local bar — were running an illegal gambling operation. Enter Hannum, who testified as an expert witness. Calling upon his extensive research on the subject, Hannum argued — as he did in subsequent trials in other states — that poker is a game of skill, not chance, and therefore doesn’t meet the legal definition of gambling.

“It’s not like we’re saying chance isn’t involved, but we’re saying it’s predominantly skill that determines the outcome,” Hannum says. “Players determine what other players’ cards are, who’s bluffing, how much they’ll bet, whether they’ll bet at all. Most hands don’t even go to showdown.”

In the Colorado case, Hannum’s testimony resulted in a jury acquittal. But the prosecution appealed, claiming Hannum should not have been allowed to testify because a 20-year-old state Supreme Court case already had established poker as a game of chance. The appeal was accepted, although the defendant, Kevin Raley, cannot be retried.

Anthony Cabot, a Las Vegas-based gaming attorney, collaborated with Hannum on Practical Casino Math, a reference book on gambling law. Cabot praises Hannum’s contributions to the gaming law field and says lofty math concepts are the casino industry’s backbone.

“The gaming industry is based on statistics, which results in a positive financial benefit for the casino industry,” Cabot says. “Robert has effectively provided the courts and the regulatory bodies the proper framework for understanding the statistical nature of the industry.”

One might assume such knowledge would have Hannum frequenting casinos and poker nights. Not so. He says deeper knowledge of gambling has made the pursuit less appealing to him, not more.

“I might sit down at table games, but I’m doing it for background research,” he says with a chuckle.

Hannum adds that the dream of going to a Colorado casino or spending a weekend in Las Vegas and coming back with more money is, for the most part, a delusion. Though it is possible to win in the short term, it usually doesn’t happen that way and, except for a few rare situations (such as a highly skilled poker player), it certainly doesn’t happen in the long run. He says it’s best to view gambling as an endeavor in which losing money is inevitable, and that the money lost (hopefully a small amount) is nothing more than entertainment dollars.

“It should be viewed the same as going to the movies: a certain amount of money spent for a certain time period of entertainment,” he says. “In the long run, you’ll lose money gambling. There just aren’t that many situations in which the player has the advantage over the house.”


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