Once a physicist: Liv Boeree
Liv Boeree is a professional poker player and winner of the 2010 European Poker Tour
Why did you decide to study physics?
Science always fascinated me the most at school, and I particularly liked physics. When I was about seven years old, my mum and I would go out and look at the stars, and she would try to teach me what she knew about astronomy. After that it was just a matter of getting books and becoming more interested in it.
How did you become interested in poker?
After I graduated from the University of Manchester in 2005, I moved down to London. At that point I did not know what I wanted to do, although I knew I did not want to continue into research science. Then I saw an advert for a reality TV show called UltimatePoker.com Showdown, with the tagline "Can you use your deception and skills to win £100,000?". I thought it sounded like fun, so I entered and they accepted me as one of the five contestants. We were taught how to play poker, and after I met some professional poker players and saw how they lived, I thought "Wow, this is an awesome job – that's what I want to do".
What does it take to be good at poker?
Poker is a very beautiful game because it encompasses so many different skills, including psychology, analysis, memory and mathematical ability – although the mathematics is not actually that hard, as it is really just some basic statistics. Being able to keep your nerve, and to detach yourself from what you are actually doing – especially the amount of money you are playing for – is extremely important as well. And, of course, there is the luck factor: you might be playing the best game of your life and still not win. Usually, though, the odds will play out in your favour in the end if you are a better player than your opponent.
What has been your best tournament experience so far?
The European Poker Tour in April, when I won €1.25m, was definitely the best. I also had a really good run at the World Poker Tour championships in April 2009, where I played my way into the main event and then won $40,000. Now I am gearing up for the World Series of Poker Europe, which takes place in London at the end of this month.
Do you play for fun anymore?
I find it very hard now when some of my non-professional friends invite me to play "just for fun". People expect me to play at a higher level, so I find it very difficult to just relax and not try to play my best. When I am playing in a really big tournament, it is my job and I take it very seriously. I approach it like a sportsperson would approach a match.
Some people have problems with gambling. Do you see this as a big issue?
The problem definitely does exist. Lots of people think they are going to turn professional, but to do that you need to be very dedicated and have the discipline to play within your means. Also, it is always a good idea to have another source of income; even the so-called professionals often have a "proper job" outside of poker. So yes, people should be aware that there are dangers, as with any form of gambling or investment. I see entering a poker tournament as a high-risk form of investment. People invest in the stock market too, and that is also a form of gambling.
Has your training in physics helped you?
Absolutely. Physics teaches you to think in an incredibly analytical way, and having an analytical and mathematical mind helps enormously in poker. Similarly, the ability to think clearly under time constraints is important during physics exams, and it is exactly the same in poker. If you are playing in a tournament, you often do not have a long time to make complicated and important decisions, there is a lot of money pressure and everyone is watching you – often on TV.
Do you still manage to keep up to date with any physics?
Unfortunately, no. It is terrible how much my knowledge has slipped. I tried to do an integration the other day and I thought "Oh, God, I can't remember this". But I am still incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to study physics at Manchester. Some people ask me why I bothered going to university, now that I have ended up playing poker. I always respond that, well, first of all, I did not know that I would be doing this, and second, even if I had known, I would still have wanted the opportunity to get a fantastic degree in a fascinating subject. I keep hearing horror stories of declining student numbers in physics departments and it is such a shame, because it is an important subject, and it has certainly helped me enormously.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World.
last edited: February 23, 2016