Are poker players smart? Wow, what a question — and the answer depends almost entirely on definition and perspective.
If you’ve ever heard a group of high rollers discussing poker strategy — a conversation essentially in a foreign language based on years of experience combined with hours of study and some furiously difficult calculations — then, yes, poker players are clearly some of the smartest people on the planet.
But maybe if you ask the porter at a hotel hosting a poker tournament, trudging thanklessly back and forth to the same room to rescue a poker player trapped on his balcony for the sixth time that weekend, poker players are not quite so smart. Sometimes the exceptionally gifted can do the dumbest things. Smartness in one area does not guarantee smartness in another.
Moreover, it’s a fact that poker is played by millions of people from almost every country in the world, and its players form a near complete cross-section of all populations. It therefore follows that smart people play poker and not-so-smart people do too.
Perhaps the question is better phrased as are winning poker players smart?
In that sense, we probably still can’t say for sure. It depends, first of all, on what we mean by “smart”?
According to Dictionary.com, there are 14 adjectival definitions of “smart”, ranging from “clever, witty or readily effective”, through “socially elegant; sophisticated or fashionable” to “saucy; pert”.
When Triton Poker mandated that players at the final table of its £1 million charity tournament dressed smartly, in business suits, Bryn Kenney showed up in a New York Mets baseball shirt. Aaron Zang, who won the tournament, wore a white T-shirt with a print of the Mona Lisa. Suffice to say, if by “smart” you mean dressed like a businessman, poker players are not, as a rule, smart.But in the context of the original question, we can probably take “smart” as its second adjectival definition: “having or showing quick intelligence or ready mental capability”. And this is a short way to describe a lot of poker players.
Poker is a game of strategy, and successful players in strategy games usually have the kind of mental acuity that you find in people who also score well in intelligence tests. Poker players process a great deal of information very quickly. They make situational assessments; they pick up on subtle suggestions and hints; they can formulate and execute plans on the fly; and they are flexible enough to abandon them at short notice and take alternative tacks.
All of this is consistent with what most people would consider “smart”. The best poker players do all of this most accurately and most reliably. They are therefore the smartest, right?
In some way, yes. But the universally accepted measure of intelligence tends to be IQ, or “intelligence quotient”, which is a score that represents “how you compare to your peer group in: language, reasoning abilities, processing speed, visual-spatial processing, memory and math”. This is not a perfect crossover with poker skills.
To take one example: in discussion of his early life, Shaun Deeb has described working as a server in his family restaurant and being able to take orders, tot up totals, work out tax and service without needing to write anything down. His extraordinary numerical agility, entirely innate, is certainly consistent with a high IQ. Yet Deeb is also well known for his stream-of-consciousness posts on poker forums, where his concern for punctuation and grammar is clearly minimal. He is fiercely “smart” when it comes to numbers, less so when it comes to commas or capital letters.
And that latter part might mark him down on an IQ test, but it doesn’t matter one bit to his poker playing. He’s one of the most versatile and best.
But does a high IQ even guarantee someone is smart? That’s far from certain too.
“A high IQ is like height in a basketball player,” says David Perkins, who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was quoted by the Yale School of Management’s Center for Customer Insights. “It is very important, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal. There’s a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there’s a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ.”
The Yale study also references the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, Research Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who argues that “cognitive capacity is best understood in terms of multiple intelligences, covering mathematical, verbal, visual-spatial, physiological, naturalistic, self-reflective, social and musical aptitudes”.
There’s no doubt that successful poker players, at least in the live environment, usually need to combine mathematical, verbal and social aptitude, which tally with Howard’s definition of smartness. But even though plenty of the skills map onto poker, plenty others have little or no relation to the game we all love.
If it’s been said once, it’s been said a million times: poker is the game that takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. And it follows that “being smart” is not a bar to entry to the game. You really can learn the rules in about as long as it would take you to read this article. (Head on over to PokerStars School to get started.)
Poker is truly one of the most democratic games around, and there is almost nothing stopping anyone playing. While many people learn from friends and family, with matchsticks as stakes, you can also play for free on PokerStars. There are thousands of “Play Money” games. You don’t have to deposit anything. There’s absolutely no reason that anyone should be deterred from playing poker. Sure, you’ll encounter plenty of smart people doing the same, but there’s no reason to feel overawed. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Hey smartass, stop asking the same question over and over. We’ve been through it. It depends on what you mean by poker players, and it depends what you mean by smart.