Michael Binger had a big summer between his third-place finish at the World Series of Poker and earning his Ph.D.

Michael Binger with his money-making tools   Credit: Krista Zala, SLAC

A few hours before dawn on Friday, Aug. 11, 29-year-old Michael Binger shocked the professional poker establishment by taking down some of its biggest personalities to win third place, and a cool $4.1 million, at the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. 

Binger is a recently minted Ph.D in particle physics, a degree he earned at Stanford, studying the head-splitting calculations involved in quantum chromodynamics.  Though you would think people with a background in math and physics would flock to poker, Binger is something of a novelty in the game of Texas hold ‘em. He has been playing live poker semi-seriously for about six years, even taking a year off grad school to support the habit. He’s not only been able to support himself with his winnings, but he’s also reportedly been able to fund some of his own research.

When did you first get interested in poker?
As a child I played ante-poker with my family occasionally. Then, in high school, I would play with friends once in a while. It wasn’t until graduate school that I went to one of the card rooms and played some real poker for small stakes. I started going back every week or two and learned to play Texas hold ‘em. Gradually, I started taking it more seriously and upping the stakes.

What spurred your interest in physics?
I was always into math and science, though I didn’t really know much about physics until high school. In high school, I read my first popular physics book at the same time I was taking classes with a really great physics teacher. It just sort of went from there.

Poker players and grad students seem to keep the same hours. How did you find time to do both?
Well, there were definitely a lot of compromises. I did three years of grad school, took a year off, and then did three more years. I probably would have finished much quicker if I were not distracted playing poker. My publishing rate would have definitely been better.

How much of poker is luck and how much is math skill? Did your background help you at all?
In the short run, luck dominates, and in the long run, skill becomes much more important. The way I first approached poker was from a probability and statistics point of view: It was helpful to know the odds of getting dealt certain hands.

Math is definitely in the background of poker, but it’s only one part of it. A lot of players are mathematically minded, but they put too much stock in that, and so they aren’t very good players. It’s not an entirely mathematical game.  It’s not solvable by a computer, and there’s not an exactly perfect model. It’s based on an infinite number of variables.  It’s not just the odds of having the best hand, drawing the best hand, the size of the pot, or other numerical factors. There are non-numerical elements such as, “Did that guy just get beat really bad his last hand?” or “Did he just get into a fight with his girlfriend? Maybe he’s aggressive now, and prone to making dumb plays.” There are so many things on display during the game that you have to be watching and thinking about.

Playing good poker is half art and half science. 

How did you celebrate after the World Series?
A friend of mine had a bunch of family and friends watching me—about 25 people—and one of them had a magnum of champagne. We started drinking that in my hotel room at about 5:30 in the morning. After that, I went to bed. When I woke up, I spent the day at the pool. Then we all went out to the Voodoo Lounge, had a nice dinner and a bunch of really nice bottles of champagne. Then we went to a show at the MGM Grand and hung out until people crashed out that night.

They didn’t make you pick up the tab, did they?
Oh, of course they did. I don’t think I’ll ever spend $5,000 on one dinner again. 

Any future plans in physics, or are you a full-time poker guy now?
I think I’m going to be traveling and playing the big poker tournaments, trying to make a big score. There is only about one major tournament a month, so I think I can do part-time poker and part-time physics.

You worked on supersymmetry and the Higgs boson. Care to make a wager at what the Large Hadron Collider will discover when it comes online in 2007?
Gosh, I have no idea.  I think we’ll all be surprised at what it sees. I’m one of those people who believes that supersymmetry is a very compelling idea, although nothing is said and done yet. This is going to be one of the most exciting events for a while, though, so I can’t wait to find out. 

Alright then, what odds do you give to the Higgs particle and supersymmetry?
I would say there’s about a 50/50 chance of a Higgs boson or several Higgs bosons.  There’s maybe a 30 percent chance that supersymmetry will be observed. Then again, there’s probably a 40 percent chance that we’ll find something we never even thought of.

Originally published September 13, 2006

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