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7 Million Reasons to Learn Game Theory

Computer Science alumnus Chris Ferguson's passion for game theory made him a star on the televised poker circuit.

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By Alison Hewitt

Published Sep 4, 2008 2:40 PM


With a father who taught game theory and probability at UCLA, Chris Ferguson '86, Ph.D. '99 was probably born to be a poker champion. You might even say the deck was stacked in his favor.

Although Ferguson obtained a bachelor's in computer science and a Ph.D in artificial intelligence at Westwood, gaming was always in his blood. He began playing poker and throwing cards in the '70s, and spent his free time as a college student devising and running mathematical poker models on computers.

And has it ever paid off. Since he began playing poker fulltime in 1999, Ferguson has won about $7 million. So far this year, he's garnered more than $1 million. But there's still a scientist inside the cardsharp.

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"Around 1994, I wanted to understand poker with the exactness that a chess player would want to understand chess," he says, adding, "Instead of spending hours and hours playing and noticing patterns, I can study some of these things from a game theory standpoint. I don't have to test them at the table ... I've done most of the math at home."

Ferguson's father, UCLA Mathematics Professor Emeritus Thomas Ferguson, recalls socializing with UCLA's well-known game theorist Lloyd Shapely. "He had two sons about the same age as my two sons, and they played a lot, including games that Lloyd invented," the elder Ferguson remembers, noting that the games probably buoyed and spurred on Chris' interest in game theory. "He developed a very good intuition for game theory, which probably has exceeded mine."

Thomas Ferguson says his son has long been dedicated to understanding games. "When he learns something, he likes to stick to it until he does it right," Thomas Ferguson notes. "Like when he learned to throw cards. We have a lot of cards stuck in our ceiling," he joked.

Deal Yourself In

Chris Ferguson gives tips at his Web site for readers well-versed in poker and smart enough to understand him. And watch him in action in a series of videos that demonstrate his card throwing prowess versus fruit, vegetables and even flying snacks.

Actually, Ferguson's card-throwing skills are so sharp, he can slice vegetables from across the room.

"I've been doing that basically since I was 12 — I learned to throw cards and threw them at my brother," Ferguson says, laughing. "One day I decided to use a carrot as a target, and lo and behold I cut it in half."

Ferguson also wins big on sartorial style points. In what was originally a ploy to keep competitors from pegging him as the analytical-student type, he plays tournaments in a broad-brimmed black cowboy hat, and often sports dark sunglasses and a black trench coat. Not really academic attire, but he might take off the coat and retire the black hat one day.

Although many people know him only as a poker player, Ferguson loved the academic environment at UCLA so much that he spent 18 years here earning his degrees. Perhaps it's no surprise that one day he'd like to become a professor of game theory.

"I feel like the university environment is really where I belong," says Ferguson, despite his current residence in glitzy Las Vegas. "I really do enjoy teaching. But that's not going to happen yet. I still have some poker to play."

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