to real life in an interesting way. The author is a young man who
has made millions of dollars playing poker professionally.
How I See the World
A young poker player sent me a long message recently. He is 16 or 17 and is crushing $1-$2 no-limit hold'em games online, and he wanted my advice on whether he should go to college. He doesn't want to go, but his mom wants him to. I didn't think much about the message at the time, and I responded with a quick: "Yeah, go to college." However, it got me thinking about my own mental development, and how college helped me grow into who I am today.
In high school, I would always race through work without ever really understanding the concepts behind what was taught. I continued this way through my first two years of college, when I was more interested in drinking than studying.
But at the beginning of my third year, I was required to choose a major. One of my friends was doing engineering, so I decided to give that a try.
Becoming an engineer made me much more dedicated to school, not because I loved it, but because I'd become challenged for the first time in my educational career. Engineering requires not only tons of thought, but tons of time.
I would like to say that I understood everything instantly in my engineering classes. I did well, but not phenomenally, the way I had the previous few years, but things clicked for me when I was teaching calculus.
I always had used brute-force techniques - just try something until it works - but by then I was tutoring partial differential equations. I needed a deeper understanding of the material because there were some very smart kids in the class who not only wanted to be able to get the right answers, but to understand all the theory.
This is tough material; just getting your head around the various operators and equations is hard enough, and gaining a deeper understanding of all the equations and operators is much harder. If first-year calculus is like a marathon, partial differential equations are like doing the Ironman Triathlon blindfolded.
So, I had to devote plenty of time preparing to teach. One evening, I'd left all of my prep work until late the night before, and I had to master Newton's law of heat flow. I thought, "What the hell is this talking about?" It was late, and I was completely lost. Wondering what was going on, and thoroughly frustrated, I looked up some other books about the subject and, in particular, Newton. What I found was how he discovered the equation. All of a sudden, in the library at 1 a.m., it all clicked. Everything I'd learned in my life made sense.
I'd realized that math is just an approximation of the world around us. Before, I'd thought that people had discovered these equations and they were the dead truth. That simply was not the case at all. Instead, people saw phenomena and then explained or approximated it with math.
I went from being a very good student to a top student. When I learned something new, I didn't see the equations as perfect truths, but rather as mathematical models of the world. For example, when you say that you're going to meet someone on the street corner in 10 minutes, you don't worry about any of the thousands of people who might bump into you, or the nerve-stimulation thresholds in the muscle fibers in your legs. Somewhere in your head, you have a rough empirical algorithm for the time it takes to walk a certain number of city blocks.
In engineering, the math is tougher and more precise, but a lot of it is the same. Describing electrons moving through wires, strummed guitar strings, ocean movements, and heat flows in rods is all the same problem to me, because the math behind them is all the same.
So, how does this pertain to poker? Well, poker is like that, but far simpler. The math you use in poker models is often simple probabilities, not partial differential equations. When I'm playing
Poker is an intensely personal, emotional thing. Bluffing all in doesn't feel like a random-variable blip any more than taking a beautiful girl out on a first date feels like a random money redistribution from your wallet to the restaurateur's.
That's what I learned that night in the library: Math isn't about magical correspondence, it's about function. Understanding that it's all approximations - but very useful ones - is what enables you to run the best restaurants, build the best cars, and make the most money at poker.
Click on the source above, or 'HERE' for my web version to listen
to Brian Townsend talks about making a rare tournament appearance
and his recognition after appearing on GSN's High Stakes Poker.