Online Pokerer Plays Big in Election Politics

@FiveThirtyEight on the art and science of reading presidential tea leaves

by , Oct 23, 2012 | 1:31 pm

PresidentTracker: One of the world’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 at the WSOP in 2011.
(Photo: PokerListings)

Plenty of talk about polls as we head into the homestretch of our 2012 US Presidential election. Who’s up, who’s down, who asked what and margin-of-error how? Just remember: no matter where you are on the political spectrum, in the horserace journalism of it all, the mainstream media are primary beneficiaries of a tight race. At least that’s what I keep telling myself after making some rather significant wagers on essentially a “gut” feeling that the national economy was improving and no way more than 43 percent of Americans would vote for a guy who strapped his dog to the roof of a car.

But proper analysis is apparently not so simple.

No wonder so many pundits are looking to a former online poker semi-pro to tell us who’s the best bet for president.

Nate Silver, 34, is author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t … and he’s all the rage among the politerati these days. His book apparently brings multi-level thinking taught by hand histories into the political sphere. And in doing so, Silver puts online poker on the same level as other imperfect but predictive sciences such as hurricane tracking and counterterrorism. (And nobody seems to be laughing at the comparisons!)

The Signal and the Noise came out the chute in September on the New York Times bestseller list, where it’s currently #15 among all non-fiction books. And at the time of this posting, the book ranked #1 on Amazon for books about math, #1 for technology, and #2 for politics and social sciences.

Coinflip Politics? Picking the American president is kinda like drawing to a flush — either you’re gonna get there or you’re not.

As a political analyst, Silver is something of a statistician evaluating statisticians — employing a methodolology that attempts to aggregate multiple polls, giving weight to each one based on previous accuracy.

As an online poker player, Silver wasn’t exactly supernova elite — I’m not even sure if he has a profile on PocketFives — but he did play enough online poker in the early boom years for his biggest loss to be about $75k (at the time nearly a third of his roll). Silver also specifically credits the UIGEA for pushing him into politics.

In 2008, he nailed the presidential results in every state but Indiana, and went 35-for-35 in Senate races. By 2009, Time magazine called Silver one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But it’s 2012 where the Chicago-based blogger behind FiveThirtyEight (named after the total number of votes in the electoral college) is becoming a household name. He appeared earlier this month on Piers Morgan, last week on the Daily Show, and Friday will be on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. (The opening guest, coincidentally, will be longtime online poker lover Barney Frank.)

Though I’m still holding out hope for an eff-you-dirty-GOP landslide, I probably shouldn’t hold my breath for personal economic recovery by way of Obama covering a 12-point spread. I mighta known better, too, had I been paying closer attention to Silver before hearing him a couple weeks ago on NPR, where they get a little more in depth about presidential polling and (about 30 minutes in) how poker factors into the science — his art — of accurately forecasting elections.

NPR Fresh Air: October 10, 2012

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