The argument about whether poker is sport or not has been going on for a while now. There are strong arguments from both sides. Some call poker a game of luck. They believe that’s what it is and that’s what it always be. Others see it as a competitive activity resembling traditional sports, minus the physical activity.
While the lack of physical activity in poker can’t be denied there is another point of intersection that certainly exists. We’re talking about the application of analytics that’s present in both traditional sports and poker. Some of the best sports teams out there heavily rely on crunching numbers to prepare for upcoming games. They use the gathered data to set up their formations, figure out the best lineups, and much more.
Serious poker players do the very same thing. When not at the tables they crunch numbers. They are trying to locate weaknesses of their opponents and areas where they could improve their own game. Like with traditional sports, the bigger the sample the better the results.
Traditional Sports and Analytics
Numbers and statistics have a prominent role in nearly every aspect of modern-day sports. However, their application is best visible in the process of drafting players. This is when data experts need to shine and show what they know.
The market for players in popular sports is a huge one. Finding the right fit for the team of one or two players that will fix the biggest leaks can be a painstaking process. Without the help of analytics most of it is just pure guessing and gut instinct. With analytics there are concise numbers demonstrating one’s abilities in different areas. No longer will teams spring out big money for the proverbial cat in a bag. Before they bring someone in as either a free agent or a draftee they want as much reassurance about what to expect.
Apart from drafting players, analytics are also very useful when it comes to determining a team’s efficiency. This can best be seen in the NBA where several cameras installed in nearly every arena track movements of every single player. With this information teams can figure out what needs changing and how efficient particular players are during the game. From speed to passes and shot trajectory everything is converted to numbers and graphs.
Analytics in Poker
Unlike baseball or basketball poker is an individual effort. Therefore, there is no need to draft players or analyze team play. That said, analytics still play a crucial rule in the game of poker. The best players out there are the ones who learned to read and interpret the numbers and then adjust their game based on those interpretations.
In traditional sports, different players have different physical capabilities. Some run faster, some jump higher, and some just have a hell of a shot. With poker skills may be a bit harder to define, but there are still many parameters that are more or less universal.
Speed can be compared to one’s bluff frequency, for example. After collecting a big enough sample of hands on a player you can figure out how likely they are to bluff in different situations. If they are particularly fast you need to adjust your game and be ready to go to war with them without premium holdings. Some players are very solid but also very tight. That means they will not give up their chips easily, but also they won’t be very likely to call you down with a light hand. We could list dozens if not hundreds of examples here.
The bottom line is, crunching numbers is essential for success in poker. Trying to figure out your opponent on the spot can work – just like a coach could look at his opponent’s lineup at the last minute and come up with a plan. But those coaches who prepare ahead of time will usually come out ahead.
Stats Provide a Clear Advantage in Online Poker
While exact live poker statistical analysis is largely impossible unless you have access to everyone’s hole cards online poker is a different beast. Third-party tracking software combined with online poker rooms giving access to all player hole cards involved in a showdown individual players can build a database on opponent tendencies and personal weaknesses. It’s Moneyball for poker geeks. Reviews state that some major poker sites like PokerStars and Ignition Poker try to make it difficult to use tracking software while others allow it largely unchecked.
Surplus of Information
There is another similarity concerning analytics in sports and poker, and that’s a surplus of information. With modern technologies capable of capturing so much data, sports analysts and poker players are facing the same dilemma: What to do with all this info?
Knowing a lot about your opponents is good. Knowing too much, however, can become confusing. You’ll often end up with so much data that you just don’t know how to use. That’s why it’s equally important in sports and poker to focus only on the important stuff and cancel out everything else. For the most part, all the extra information that just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere is white noise. It seems interesting on paper, but it is, in fact, just a distraction.
Poker May Not Be A Sport, But Analytics Blur the Line
The debate on whether poker is sport will continue in the future. There will never be an answer everyone will accept. However, there is absolutely no doubt that poker players and sports coaches and managers heavily rely on the data analysis.
Analytics are a crucial part of both poker and traditional sports and that can’t be denied. As we move forward we can expect that data analysis will only become even more important in both of these areas, clearly proving sports and poker today have more in common than many are willing to admit.
Josh H is the owner of Beat The Fish, a resource dedicated to honest coverage of the poker industry.