Announcing ArkFab's First Working Paper : Thermodynamics and Poker

There's a more technically oriented discussion at TopOc

The current version of the paper can be found here.

I'm releasing the work I've done thusfar on a fun problem. A while back, I got the idea to investigate how the entropy of a poker tournament evolves with time. In thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of how 'spread out' energy is amongst the states available to it. When the energy in a system is concentrated in one place (like a hot cup of coffee in a cold room), the entropy of the system is low. When the energy is spread out (a few hours later, both the room and the coffee are the same temperature) the entropy of the system is high. Although originally defined for distributions of physical energy, entropy can be defined more generally to study arbitrary distributions - for example the distribution of capital, in the form of chips, between players in a poker tournament.

Just by looking at the formal structure of the game, you can tell some things about how entropy behaves. For example, it is formally required that entropy falls to zero with time. On the one hand, this is a fancy way of saying, 'one person will eventually win the tournament'; on the other hand, it is interesting to consider that this is the exact opposite of what happens in the physical, thermodynamic world. The entropy of a closed thermodynamic system necessarily increases with time: hot coffee in a cold room will cool down, but warm coffee in a warm room will never heat up. However, the entropy of a closed poker table necessarily decreases. It has a second law of thermodynamics that runs in the opposite direction from ours.

But the natural and artificial worlds which complexity theory studies shows us that there are often interesting system-level properties not immediately obvious from a formal description of its subsystem. Simply conducting thought experiments is not necessarily enough; an ounce of real-world data is worth a pound of theory.

It was somewhat difficult getting access to the data I needed. Although online gaming sites keep records of their tournaments and provide them on request to participants, they strictly do not share them with non-participants. This has been a roadblock for others who wish to study tournament data as well. Next, I tried citizen science. Citizen science is the involvement of people outside of the mainstream scientific community in participatory research. It has been successfully used, for example, in monitoring animal populations, and folding proteins. Given the seemingly low commitment (a few minutes to request a tournament history and forward the email), I assumed that I could get copies of tournament histories volunteered by the players themselves.

Reality was a bit different, and the mixed reactions I saw made me think about the way in which I think about and communicate science. I am used to a world in which people love to show each other the numbers they've been crunching, but a lot of people don't live in that world. A common response I encountered was, What's in it for me? It is an interesting question, how do we justify a decentralized, volunteer-based science infrastructure to prospective volunteers? A closely related issue, I think, was what I saw as widespread devaluing of pure research and misunderstanding of why people do it. I often encountered the question, What do you expect to find? Well, I don't really know. If I knew what I was goingto see, I'd be a lot less interested in looking, right? It's entirely possible that I'd find nothing, but also possible that I'd find something cool if I looked at it right. Communicating through these hurdles seems nontrivial.

On the other hand, I did get some interest, and a handful of tournament histories. My sample size is still too small to make definite claims, but it has still given some interesting results, and perhaps insights into how the system responds to perturbations. I have also had the opportunity to have some interesting conversations (for example, is entropy properly normalized by multiplication, or by addition?). I'll let you know if there are any updates! And if you have any tournament histories you'd like to share, let me know by emailing ThermoPoker(at)