In between being an author, a scholar, and a teacher, Brandon Adams finds time to sit in some of the biggest cash games in the world. When he’s not teaching Applied Game Theory at Cambridge, writing Broke: A Poker Novel, or preparing to receive his PhD in business from Harvard, Brandon plays anything up to $1,000/2,000 NLHE and PLO with the likes of Sammy Farha, Brian Townsend, and the other Bobby’s Room regulars. This week he found some time
to sit down with us.

Justin Shronk: You’re known as one of poker’s “math guys.” First, how important do you think all the math jazz is in poker?

Brandon Adams: The whole “math vs. feel” thing is way overdone at this point. To be good at poker you have to be a smart person – relatively immune to stress – who has developed, over a period of years, a knowledge base about poker hands and player tendencies that you can draw from quickly.

That is pretty much the end of the story. The “math guy” moniker has been applied to people, like me, who have the background and temperament to examine poker issues in depth. People who have this ability are not necessarily good poker players.

JS: Secondly, with that kind of playing style (“mathy” for lack of a better word), what types of players do you find it hardest to play against?
BA: Personally, I find nits (extremely tight players) the hardest to play against in a ring game setting. That’s why I’m in favor of no-limit games with big antes; it forces one to be a bit artful to win. Thankfully, the tide is turning towards ante games in no-limit, at least for the bigger games.

JS: At the stakes you play (up to the $1k/2k NLHE/PLO game in Bobby’s Room), you could easily be getting yourself more media attention and popularity – is media attention something you care about at all?
BA: I get way too many text messages, emails, and phone calls as it is. Attention is not something I crave at the moment. I recently quit blogging, though maybe I’ll pick that up again if I start running good. If you’re famous, you have to constantly explain to everyone what you’re doing and why you’re doing it — I don’t have the energy for that.

JS: Your background is in Economics and you’ve used some Econ theory to write about the poker world. Is there a parallel between the recent trend in the economy and the perceived “recession” within the poker economy (tournament fields shrinking, cash games drying up, people going broke)?
BA: The poker economy is in terrible, terrible shape, and I think it will get worse. It’s definitely true that the poker economy moves in step with the real economy. Poker players tend to take risks in the real economy as well, and risk takers are the first ones taken down in tough economic times.

The big factor that I think people are missing these days is that there are way more people than ever before who perceive themselves to make their livelihood from poker. When thinking of drains from the poker economy, now you must consider not only the ever-growing rake, but also the collective living expenses of all the people who consider poker their livelihood.

This amounts to millions of dollars every month that is taken out of the flow of poker money, and we are not getting offsetting inflows from sponsors or recreational players. Full Tilt and PokerStars effectively channel a small portion of recreational players’ rakes to high profile pro players; without this channeling, perhaps 80% of high profile professionals would be broke (as it is, the number is around 50%).

“Broke” is the ultimate pejorative term in poker, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Most pro poker players I know aren’t playing for money so much as lifestyle. A lot of pro poker players in the modern era win huge amounts but spend so much supporting their lifestyles that they run out of money.

These players are “broke”, but they’ve essentially achieved their objective of funding a certain lifestyle. The only players who are truly “broke” are those that have destroyed their capabilities along with their bankrolls.

JS: I still link people to the article you did with Aaron Brown for Bluff where you used some Econ voodoo that was over everyone’s head to come up with a fairly reliable figure for luck against skill in the main event – do you really think that kind of thing can be quantified or was that more of an exercise in theory?
BA: Of course it can be quantified. Harrah’s is pretty open with their data; at some point, someone will do great work in this area. We were just looking for a starting point. The problem now is stability — findings from the 2004-2005 era won’t apply for 2007– but this is always a problem in academic finance and the work gets done anyway.

JS: You are definitely not afraid to get involved in the side action (cross booking, prop bets, putting Shronk into WSOP events), which seems contradictory to the level headed, logical way you approach everything else. When you’re prop betting, is it just for the action and the enjoyment, or are you applying the same concepts you do in poker, and really trying to gain an edge and make money?
BA: I’m usually looking for an edge. That said, I advise poker players against prop bets. I learned a lesson about prop bets from Durrrr — he once pointed out that everyone he knew who frequently did props went broke. We could argue why this is true, but I was struck with a thought as soon as he said this — as poker players, we are typically skirting the edge of ruin whether we realize it or not, and by taking on gratuitous variance in the form of prop bets, we are bringing our risk of ruin near 100%.

JS: If you had to stop playing poker forever, but could back five people for the rest of their careers, who would you back (and maybe why)?
BA: Kenny Tran, Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, Nick Schulman, Matt Hawrilenko. It’s interesting that all of these guys approach the game a bit differently — Matt’s the academic, Phil is the philosopher, Nick has the street smarts, Kenny is the Jedi, and Durrr is the ADD kid from Jersey who might be the best example we have of a poker prodigy (recall that he won $1 million in a day when he was nineteen).

JS: You’re currently teaching “Applied Game Theory.” Explain to us proletariat what exactly that means.
BA: From 2004-2007, I taught Behavioral Finance to undergrads at Harvard. This year I decided to mix it up a bit by designing and co-teaching a new course on Applied Game Theory (I co-taught this year with Andrew Woods). We had a few courses that covered toy games of the type found in The Mathematics of Poker. Jerrod Ankenman (co-author of The Mathematics of Poker) led those lectures, and Matt Hawrilenko was there to participate in the discussion. Tom Dwan (Durrr) actually showed up for one of the lectures, but he was distracted, having lost $425,000 online just before the class.

The first part of the course laid out basic game theoretic concepts, using the Ken Binmore text, Playing for Real. Then we moved into applications, which ranged from warfare to trade negotiations to environmental policy. And then I had to throw in three classes on poker, plus one on the use of artificial intelligence in poker.

JS: Ok, one topical question – what are your thoughts on the WSOP final table delay?
BA: Gary Wise asked me the same question. My response was, “I think it’s good for poker.” Poker on TV is not like other sports; the more poker you watch, the less interesting it becomes. I welcome innovations of this type that could potentially spice things up.

JS: So, in the high-limit cash games (especially online), there seems to be a big movement from NLHE to PLO – why do you think so many players are switching over?
BA: PLO is intellectually more complex and it’s more of an action game. In no-limit without an ante, the correct strategy is quite tight. In pot-limit Omaha it is correct to play more hands, and the hands that one is supposed to play vary a lot from situation to situation.

JS: Ok, now it gets easy, short answer segment – Name a guy you really don’t like to play against.
BA: Ziigmund.

JS: Who is the best NLHE cash game player right now?
BA: Kenny Tran

JS: Where do you see poker in five years?
BA: Wow, I really have no idea. It depends on what happens outside the US. I suspect that Europe and Latin America will have an even faster cycle of boom and bust than America had, so, if we are going to get true growth, it will have to come from Asia. I don’t know enough to say whether or not this is likely. I suspect that the outlook for the biggest games is good because they are a great outlet for the ego, and there are an increasing number of people with big money in the world.

JS: And finally, do you actually own any pairs of jeans?
BA: A couple, but I don’t wear them too often.