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The teacher becomes the student

Happy New Year!

As I begin a new year, I'm looking back on the end of my 2012.

In November, I played the Asian Championship of Poker (ACOP) in Macau and was fortunate enough to do very well in the series. I won the first event and nearly final tabled the main event, finishing in 13th place. For me, that was a pretty big turnaround because my results in live events hadn't been too stellar in 2012.

Before November, I felt like I'd hit a plateau as a poker player. I needed a jolt to move to the next level, and thankfully I have a group of fellow players I can turn to for advice. When I returned to Taiwan from the U.S. after graduating college, I opened a poker school. It was an actual, physical school. We had a classroom with 30 computers and gave lessons day and night. There was far more demand for spots in the school than we had available, so we had to institute an application process and choose the students we thought were the most likely to succeed. I was really shocked, because a lot of people that applied to our school would be viewed as geniuses by society. Almost all of them were straight-A students with impeccable academic records.

One guy that came in held the Guinness World Record for multiplying numbers. He claimed to be able to multiply 13 digits by 13 digits. I wasn't fully aware what this meant, so I started him off with four figures by four figures--like, 8972 times 4956 and he'd literally answer me more quickly than I could type the numbers into a calculator. Eventually we worked up to 13 digits by 13 digits. Even adding in decimals, he could still do it faster than I could with the calculator!

So, as I was dealing with this poker "plateau," I read an interview with Matt Hawrilenko where he talked about his game theory-based approach to poker. I'm also friends with Terrence Chan and we chatted about some basic game theory concepts. I'm not really good at math and I didn't pay too much attention in my econ class back in college, so I knew what game theory was, but didn't understand it. I definitely still don't understand it completely, but I definitely have a better picture of it. Thankfully, the guys in my poker group are much better mathematicians than I am and they painstakingly laid out these really detailed concepts and explained them to me bit by bit.

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Nowadays the games on PokerStars are getting tougher, especially at the higher stakes. There are less recreational players and more experienced players. I didn't have to do too much to beat the recreational players. And when I was playing somebody who was really good, more often than not, it would turn into a leveling war--he's thinking this, so I'm going to think that. By taking this approach, a lot of times you're over-thinking your decisions. For one, you're never really sure what sort of emotional state your opponent is in, or if he's really capable of operating that many levels deep. A lot of times it's a guessing game, and you can get really frustrated when things aren't going your way. If you apply game theory, you don't have to worry because in every single situation, there is always an optimal play to be made. Discovering the optimal play in each situation is much like breaking down a puzzle backwards. For example, if I'm bluffing a specific hand on the river, how many combinations of real hands do I need to have on the previous street for me to be capable of betting this amount on the river? So instead of thinking, "Should I bet this river? What does he have?" you try to develop a distribution of how your hands will be played in this given situation. And once this distribution is laid out properly, according to the theory, you won't be able to be able to be exploited, no matter what your opponent does. Right now there isn't any software for me to verify this, so it's still an ongoing process of how to master it, but game theory has totally given me a different approach to how I look at poker.

So far, my results have actually been pretty horrible! I'm definitely applying a lot of things wrong, but what I like about what's happening right now is that I feel like I'm thinking again. I'm thinking hard when I play and I'm thinking more even when I'm not playing. Throughout the whole year, I was kind of just playing on autopilot and if I didn't do well, I'd get frustrated. Nowadays, I feel like I'm becoming a student again and it really excites me. Poker feels more like an art and I'm starting to appreciate how truly complex this game really is.

It's been amazing to work with a group of such great minds and incredibly rewarding to teach them poker over the last few years. Now it's almost like my students are the ones teaching me.

Raymond Wu is a member of Team PokerStars Pro

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