We talk to Vanessa Rousso about her take on ‘Game’ theory – taking decision-making to a whole new level
A mere 24 years of age, Vanessa Rousso, a.k.a. Lady Maverick, is one of the game’s most exciting young players. New York-born Rousso, a dual citizen of America and France, kicked off her tournament career during summer break from law school. Using her stratospheric IQ to good effect she’s picked up $678,534 in winnings in just a couple of years of play and was unlucky to bubble the 2006 WPT Championship’s fi nal table when her A-K lost out to James Van Alstyne’s A-J. Vanessa
Your name is associated with game theory. What is it and where did it come from?
Game theory is the study of strategy and strategic decision making, and it’s not limited to poker. A game is any kind of interaction where people’s interests are necessarily opposed, so that when I win something, you lose something. Nations, animals, companies, even our genes, all play games and the only thing that changes are the rules. Once you become an expert in understanding the commonalities that exist in all games – the certain central aspects of rules that conform to all games – you’ll be able to figure out the best way to act in a very short space of time whenever you encounter any game interaction.
It does involve maths; for instance, in a given situation you may think the best way to act might be to call onethird of the time and fold twothirds of the time – but as you don’t get a chance to act three times on the same hand, what do you do? You have to figure out a way to randomise your behaviour, by looking at the second hand on your watch, for instance, and if it’s between 0 and 20 you call and if it’s between 20 and 60 you fold.
So is game theory a defined form of the chaos theory?
Well, there’s also a lot of logic in game theory. One of the big things I use is inductive and deductive reasoning – or backwards deductive reasoning. In addition to regulating my own behaviour to make other people think certain things, I look at things other people do. For instance, pre-flop my opponent looked like he was going to fold, but he decided to raise. Then, on the flop, he smooth-called and bet out on the turn when a flush draw appeared. I then look at the whole course of behaviour on the hand and put myself mentally into that person’s shoes and, using that backwards logic, I can limit it down to one of two or three hands that person has. These kind of logical things are the kind of games I’m playing in my head when I play.
So when your opponent bets out on the turn you’re working out whether they’re betting for value or to knock you off the pot?
Exactly. Some of the ways I might figure that out is by looking at the size of their bet, their betting history, how many players are in, how dangerous the board is and whether there are straight or flush draws out there. And I’ll look at my own table image. If I’m really aggressive they’re going to have to bet bigger to get me off a pot and I have to factor that in. If they’re tight I have to augment their bet. If they’re betting 20 percent of the pot and I’ve decided to project a really tight image that day, I can pretend they’re actually betting 40 percent of the pot because they’re thinking I’m so tight I’d get off the pot for 20 percent. The more I play the more factors I can integrate into my analysis.
Players such as Bill Chen focus heavily on the maths. Does game theory stop at the point where the maths becomes irrelevant?
The toughest game theory problems are extremely mathematically complex. But in poker I think that the margin of benefit, the extra added value of being able to do crazy Chen-level maths doesn’t add up to a lot of extra dollars over the course of a career. I’m not that worried about working out the complex mathematics of every decision, even if I enjoy it as a fun exercise in mental acuity, and I don’t think it’s that relevant to the bottom dollar. It’s great that we have people out there who can work out the rules which the rest of us can then memorise! You can be an excellent poker player and not understand the maths at all.
My boyfriend Chad Brown (second place finisher at the NBC Heads- Up Championship) is not a maths guy, he’s a ‘feel’ guy – he understands people and intuition. On the other hand Bill Chen got two bracelets at the WSOP from applying his skills.
How would a relative newcomer approach game theory, and are there basic texts that you’d recommend?
I can’t recommend any because they don’t exist! But I am creating an online interactive simulation that will be launching in the next six months. I’m working hard on it and it’s going to be called Vanessa’s Game. It’s something that’s going to be totally new in the poker world and everyone’s very excited about it, because it’s something that’s going to reconceptualise how people learn poker. One thing I’d recommend is for people to pick up Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War (Sun Tzu was a master of military strategy in 5th century BC China).
The book is about the strategy involved in war, which is just a macrocosm of interpersonal conflict generated to the inter-nation level. War can be seen as a series of battles and experts develop strategies for achieving success in the long run over short-run conflicts between opposing parties. Well, what’s a poker career? It’s a long-term war. You could say that any tournament is a war and any hand is a battle or even any hand is a war and any betting street is a battle. Buy it, read it, and replace the word ‘war’ for ‘poker tournament’ and see if you can extrapolate those lessons for poker. If you’re dedicated enough to do that you’ll be a successful poker player.
13/9/06 2006 Borgata Poker Open, Atlantic City $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em; 1st, $285,450
20/7/06 37th World Series of Poker 2006, Las Vegas $5,000 Short-Handed No-Limit Hold’em; 8th, $61,955
18/4/06 WPT Championship: Fourth Annual Five- Star World Poker Classic, Las Vegas $25,000 No-Limit Hold’em; 7th, $263,625