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MIT Offering Course on Poker Theory This Winter

Mathematics Ph.D student Will Ma teaches to 150 students

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Will MaCardRunners pro and MIT Ph.D student Will “HalcyonDays” Ma has found a way to put poker onto a syllabus.

In the aftermath of online poker’s shutdown in the United States, the 23-year-old was looking to meet more people and talk about the game he enjoys. So, he proposed and was awarded his own three-week course on poker theory.

“I think there is a lot of interest in poker in the academic community here,” Ma said.

There are 150 people playing in the class’ online league on PokerStars.net. Students need to accumulate just 10 points in the virtual home game in order to pass the course. No tests.

Ma hosts three in-person meetings per week, where he gives PowerPoint presentations during a 90-minute time slot.

He also gives prizes as incentives, which includes private coaching from fellow poker pros Mike McDonald, Cole South and Tom Marchese.

According to Ma, his poker theory class is likely the first of its kind at the school, but he is hoping that he will be able to teach one again or that one of his students will keep the course going in the future.

However, right now, Ma is not the only one exploring poker as a learning tool. There is a poker bot competition and class at MIT that attempts to gather data to teach a computer to teach itself how to play cards.

Massachussets Institute of TechnologyAccording to Ma, you don’t have to tell a computer that pocket aces is the best hand in Texas hold’em — it will deduce this from playing.

Many students sit in on lectures from both courses.

At some point Ma may have his students square off against a poker-playing machine created by his colleague’s course.

“I think that would be really exciting,” Ma said. “I’m hoping my class will kick his class’ ass. We’ll see.”

According to Ma, the computer world pretty much already has unbeatable programs for heads-up limit hold’em. Beating a full-ring tournament is a different story, he said, since a machine would have a hard time spotting the fish at the table.

Despite being able to gain interdisciplinary knowledge from poker, Ma admitted that there is one caveat.

“A lot of academics is learning from your results. If you did something that works you should do it again. But, in poker, that isn’t always true. You can get lucky and it might be bad if you do it again. This is the biggest caution with poker becoming a mainstream class. This is the biggest hurdle when teaching this class; you have to convince people that just because you did something and you think it works a bunch of times, doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.”

Ma, who at one point took a break from school to play poker for a living, tries to keep his class from thinking about the money.

There is no instruction on how to move up stakes or build a bankroll. He isn’t allowed to advocate that people can make a lot of money from playing and should leave school.

However, Ma has received a lot of emails asking about the lifestyle of a professional poker player and how much money can be made in the industry. He is going to address the questions in his last lecture, and advise his students against “taking all their money and going to play poker with it.”

He said he doesn’t know what percentage of his class would leave school for cards if given the opportunity.

“If the number is high, I might get in trouble with MIT,” Ma said jokingly.

Follow Brian Pempus on Twitter — @brianpempus