CMU prof finishes in the money at World Series of Poker, takes lessons into the classroom

July 16, 2018

Carnegie Mellon University professor Larry Pileggi with his daughter Hannah behind him during the 2018 World Series of Poker Main Event tournament in Las Vegas. (Photo from Larry Pileggi)

Larry Pileggi finished in the top 3 percent of players at this year’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, walked with about $37,700 and went toe-to-toe with some of the top pro players and didn’t blink.

But Pileggi doesn’t consider himself a gambler.

Pileggi, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, doesn’t play poker for the thrill of winning money.

He plays it for the math, the game theory, the psychology of trying to decipher what his opponents are thinking about him.

“For me, it’s the competition,” Pileggi said. “Physically, I can’t play racquetball or golf, so this is my sport.”

Pileggi suffers from neuromuscular condition that causes weakness in his arms and legs.

He’s been in a wheelchair for 35 years.

Even playing poker can be a challenge for him. Tables are sometimes too high or too low. Some have bars underneath that block his wheelchair. Pileggi has a hard time stacking his chips. His wife or daughter often join him at tournaments to help.

The World Series of Poker Main Event tournament was exhausting, Pileggi said. He made it into the fifth day, finishing 311th out of about 7,800 people who entered the tournament. Days lasted 12, 13, even 14 hours.

Pileggi said he grew hungry at the tables just from the calories his mind was burning off analyzing hands.

“Sitting and thinking doesn’t seem like a hard thing to do, but it really is,” Pileggi said. “You make one mistake because you’re tired or something and you’re out of the tournament.”

Pileggi dropped from the tournament after a few hands didn’t go his way. His chip count dwindled from a high of more than 900,000 as the blinds got bigger. When he was down to about 500,000 chips, he lost it all on one hand.

The abrupt exit shocked Pileggi.

But Pileggi had some good hands. Once, he was dealt pocket Aces. The flop turned up another Ace, a Two and a Three. A Four joined the hand.

Pileggi kept betting as others at the table folded. After the river, a Ten, only he and another player remained. Pileggi bet. The other guy went all in. Pileggi figured the guy was holding a Five, making a straight to beat his three Aces and folded.

“I’m pretty sure that I did the right thing,” Pileggi said.

Pileggi was reading the player’s body language the entire hand. He tried to get in the man’s chair, inside his mind, to think like he did.

“When I bet on the river, he acted a little bit like he was unhappy about that,” Pileggi said. “And pros don’t give off tells like that.”

Pileggi asked himself how he would play if he had a Five in his hand. It was the same way the other player played.

“There’s no way to be sure that he didn’t have a Five,” Pileggi said.

The showdown at the poker table is similar to how Pileggi thinks about teaching. When he’s planning a lesson or lecture, he tries to put him in the seats of his students.

Pileggi has published more than 300 papers and a handful of books. He holds 29 patents related to integrated circuit and computer chips.

But he’s known on campus for his poker playing.

Pileggi has been at the final table of televised tournaments a few times, enough for current and prospective students to recognize him. Sometimes conversations that start off about integrated circuits end with trading poker tips. At this year’s commencement, a graduating student came over to meet Pileggi, even though he had never been his professor.

Pileggi even got the chance to play against a pokerbot designed by his colleague Tuomas Sandholm. The two played 12,000 hands as Pileggi trained the artificial intelligence.

“I beat it; it beat me sometimes,” Pileggi said.

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