In memory of Gary Carson

In early March poker author Gary Carson passed away.  I didn’t know him personally, but his impact on Carsonmy thinking about how I approached the game of poker was profound.  I’m very sad to learn that he’ll never write another brilliant poker book.  To adequately explain to a non-poker player what Gary Carson did, I have to explain a little bit about poker and how I became a student of the game.  I don’t think my experience was unusual.

Over the past 10 years, if you became fascinated by poker there was a wealth of material available to you.  Many people start out by buying poker books, and they immediately start learning the probability foundations of the game: how to compute the odds of making the best hand, how to tell whether or not you should raise, and if such actions are profitable given your odds of winning the hand, etc.

And then, a lot of people get stuck.  Why?  They get stuck because when you play poker, you typically play it against other humans, and humans are often irrational.  They have moods, and those moods manifest at a poker table where they have their money or ego (or both) committed to a game in which there’s frequently only one winner, and the other person gets to lose in close physical proxiity to a number of other people.

Sometimes the mood of the table turns distinctly irrational, and sometimes it’s permanent with a set of people or even a particular card room.   When one person does it at a table, the rest of the table looks hungrily at his or her money.  But when it becomes the way a number of players play, it’s downright disturbing to a math-oriented poker student.   Poker writers tend to shy away from giving advice in these situations because it’s no longer rational behavior.  I remember poker author Lee Jones suggesting you just “hunker down and play your best cards.”

And this is where a lot of people get stuck.  You can spot them, too.  They have a good hand broken by someone playing trash and they stomp off.  Or they stand up and walk away from the table muttering “I don’t know how to play against them.”

Carson did, though.  He described these scenarios as some of the juiciest situations, and devised a coherent way of explaining how to navigate your way through these situations and how to probabilistically exploit them for maximum profit.

For myself, this was a revelation that allowed me to see the math redeemed as an explainer of irrational human behavior, and to really enjoy these situations when every other player at the table appeared to look lost.  A table full of lunatics would start raising and re-raising everything.  Other players would groan and reluctantly call feeling frustrated while I felt entirely comfortable.  Carson’s insight into the game was unique (at least to me) and not what I found in another entire shelf of poker books.

The world is emptier for his absence.

His family has not designated a charity for memorial gifts, but suggests you give to one of your own choosing.