Day 184: The computer scientist plays poker

Coming July 15.

Time for another preview of my forthcoming book, The Man Who Signed the City. Up today is Avi Rubin, a computer scientist, cybersecurity expert, and poker player.


Rubin looks so young, he once had a Las Vegas casino question the validity of his photo ID, and there is something childlike in his enthusiasm for poker. On the day we went to Delaware Park, when I arrived at his house I found him already in his car, sitting impatiently at the end of the driveway. Once we were at the casino, the closer he got to the poker room the faster he walked. I half expected him to break into a trot.

His plan was to play a cash game in the morning, then enter the casino’s noon tournament. In a tournament, the entrants vie for prizes awarded to the top finishers. Prize money in most daily tournaments is modest and the players risk no more than the entrance fee, so tournaments tend to attract more casual participants and poker tourists. But in a cash game, the players vie for each other’s money, and because there is no limit to how much can be won, cash games attract professionals for whom a casino is the office. Soon after Rubin sat down at one of the games in progress at 9:30 am, a pro in a black T-shirt called it a day holding more than $4,000 in chips. Rubin was happy to see him go. You do not win that much money at a small-stakes table unless you know what you are doing.

Texas Hold ’em is the game you see on cable television poker shows. In Hold ’em, each player tries to make the best five-card hand out of two cards dealt facedown and a set of five communal cards faceup in the center of the table. The cards come in four rounds—first each player’s facedown cards, then three communal cards (called “the flop”), followed by a fourth (“the turn”), and finally a fifth (“the river”)—with betting after each round. Texas Hold ’em rewards a good head for odds and a good memory for what everyone else does in the course of the game. Cautious at first, Rubin spent several hands sizing up the other players. He guessed that at least three were professionals. They had substantial chip stacks and cool, appraising faces, and they were not making mistakes. Still, after about 45 minutes he began winning some pots and seemed to be holding his own. He played well for another 45 minutes, until he tried to bluff with a weaker hand, failed to fold when he should have, and lost $240 to one of the pros. On a break soon after, he said of the player who had just beat him, “I should have realized he was strong. But every time I bet, the pros on the other side of the table were raising me and I was folding, and I was getting a little fed up. So, they got in my head a little.”

He checked his iPhone. Years ago, he had invested in Apple stock at a great price. Now he noted that the company was up $5 per share in morning trading. He chuckled. “The good news is I’ve made more on Apple this morning than I’ve lost here.”