Psychologist wins world poker championships

Jerry Yang, a 29 year-old psychologist and social worker who works for a fostering agency, has won a cool $8.25 million at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Yang put some of his success down to his training in psychology, but do psychologists make better poker players?

There’s no direct evidence that they do, despite what they might try to tell you at the table, but some research suggests they might have an advantage in a few of the key skills.

A study by Paul Ekman and colleagues [pdf] found that clinical psychologists are among the best professions at detecting deception in others, with academic psychologists coming just slightly behind.

In terms of dealing with the interaction between social influence and risky financial decisions, a study by Dr. Andreas Roider found that psychologists made, on average, three times as much money as economists and physicists in an online trading game because they were less swayed by the ‘herd instinct’

The scientific paper [pdf] contains an interesting snippet:

Maybe it does not come as a surprise that when we look at selected fields of study, physicists perform the best in terms of “rationality” (i.e., performance according to theory) and psychologists the worst. However, since “rational” behavior is profitable only when other subjects behave rationally as well, good performance in terms of “rationality” does not imply good performance in terms of profits. Indeed, the ranking in terms of profits is just the opposite: psychologists are the best and physicists the worst.

In other words, psychologists were better at understanding how people actually behave, as opposed to how they should behave if they were choosing the most mathematically correct strategy.

How much this applies to a game influenced heavily by chance, is, of course, another matter.

Link to Forbes article on Yang’s win.
Link to ScienceDaily on psychologists’ skills in lie detection.
Link to Medical News on psychologists as traders.
Link to Science News article on detecting deception.

3 thoughts on “Psychologist wins world poker championships”

  1. If we can compare poker (which is a game-something defined by the rules that prescribe it) with “game-theory”, that part of mathematics involve in the formal analysis of conflict and cooperation, we can surely say as is actually seen in the scholarly evolution of game-theoretic analysis, that there is much more than “rules” formally treated beyond the confines of the game, even poker: emotions, how we detect them and react to them in others (theory of mind)…and presumably according to that psychologists are devoted to study how humans behave, so they have, i believe, certain advantage becuae of its natural instinct and learnings.

  2. Is it a reasonable thing, I ask you, for a grown man to run about and hit a ball? Poker’s the only game fit for a grown man. Then, your hand is against every man’s, and every man’s is against yours. Teamwork? Who ever made a fortune by teamwork? There’s only one way to make a fortune, and that’s to down the fellow who’s up against you.
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  3. Psychiatrists come a close second to secret service agents in detection of deception, and even secret service agents get things right only around 65% of the time, where 50% is a random guess. Slightly better than chance, but is it significant?

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