MIT “Poker Theory and Analytics” Course Made Available to Public

Posted on July 24th, 2015 by Jon Pineda
MIT poker Kevin Desmond Poker Theory and Analytics

MIT grad student Kevin Desmond taught a poker theory and analytics course in January, and through the university’s open courseware program the class is now available to the public for free. (Image: calvinayre.com)

MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is where many of the world’s brightest minds have studied, which is why the poker community is abuzz after the university released a course free of charge to the public titled “Poker Theory and Analytics.”

The eight-lecture syllabus covers everything from basic strategy and pre-flop analysis to tournament play, poker economics, game theory and decision making.

Taught by Kevin Desmond, a finance grad student in the Sloan School of Management, the course ran January 3rd through January 30th and is now part of MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, a website that makes video lectures and course materials public.

So why is MIT interested in teaching poker to its students? According to Desmond and faculty advisor Paul Mende, poker theory and strategy has real-life business applications including investment management, trading, and any other careers that routinely requires calculating risk.

Trading Poker for Wall Street

“I spent several years playing poker professionally while studying finance as an undergraduate,” Desmond said. “I chose to join Morgan Stanley as a trader… my transition into trading was very seamless as a result of my experience playing poker and interest in game theory concepts.”

PokerStars was eager to assist MIT, creating a private league online for the class to call home. Players were challenged to compete in daily turbos, a weekly tournament, and a live tournament at the conclusion of the four-week syllabus.

Desmond devoted the most lesson time to pre-flop strategy, an area that causes many blunders for both novice and amateur players. But upon reviewing Desmond’s lecture notes, it didn’t take long to realize this is no standard run-of-the-mill poker tutorial.

From utilizing Nash’s game theory and equilibrium strategies to build fold tables through equations like “EV = Fold Equity + Showdown Value” and “Fold Equity + Blinds multiplied by (1 – Villain Call Percentage), viewers of the OpenCourseWare lesson are quickly reminded they’re watching a course at MIT.

All For Fun

Of course, Desmond’s course didn’t use real money for the turbos and tournaments, as online gambling is illegal in Massachusetts.

Students competed against one another using pretend money, but with real prizes on the line including an Apple TV, GoPro camera, and PlayStation 4, all of which were donated by businesses.

While some might believe using fun money inadvertently lessens one’s ability to assess and act on risk, Desmond disagrees. “I think there are a lot of ways for students to extract the benefits from poker without the need to risk money,” the instructor said.

MIT Blackjack Team

While MIT is primarily known for its distinguished alumni which includes 81 Nobel laureates, 45 Rhodes Scholars, and 34 astronauts, the school has also been long-associated with the gambling industry due to the MIT Blackjack Team.

Beginning in 1979 and continuing into at least the early 2000s, MIT students and professional gamblers routinely used card counting techniques to beat casinos at blackjack tables around the world.

Casinos have since required dealers to shuffle playing decks more frequently and switch between multiple decks to diminish the efficiency of card counting, but the practice still continues today.

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