Sunny Mehta was once known for having one of the best mathematical minds in poker. How he will take his talents to the New Jersey Devils.
The New Jersey Devils are one of the best teams in the NHL year in and year out. But any more pro sports team is willing to go to great lengths to gain an edge over their opponents. The Devils have newly minted an analytics department, a team of number-crunchers tasked with advising coaches and general managers.
That’s becoming common practice these days. What’s unique about the Devils case is who they hired to head their analytics department: former professional poker player Sunny Mehta, a man who built a reputation in mathematics by creating poker probability models.
Who is Sunny Mehta?
He doesn’t have the name recognition of celebrity poker players Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson or Vanessa Selbst but Mehta built a stellar reputation over seven years on the professional felt. He first started playing in 2003, launched a professional career in 2004, and moved to Vegas in 2005.
• New Jersey Devils analytics chief Sunny Mehta is a former pro poker player
• Devils and 76ers co-owner Josh Harris and David Blitzer signed a sponsorship deal with Party Poker earlier this year
• Philadelphia and New Jersey have America’s second and third-largest gambling industries
There he met prolific poker writer Ed Miller; the two later collaborated on a book titled Professional No-Limit Hold’em: Volume I. The book proved to be his coming-out party, occupying a position as an Amazon bestseller and establishing him as one of the most respected minds in the game.
After leaving pro poker in 2011 he impressed many hockey minds as a regular contributor to Irreverent Oilers Fan, an NHL blog with a unique focus on advanced analytics.
The precise reason that the Devils hired this mystery man (at least from the perspective of the sports world) is that his poker background allows him to see things that conventional hockey minds miss. Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello raved about Mehta’s ability to see the unseen:
“In my opinion, he’s already added value in some of the ways he looks at things… You can always look at things in a different direction and then you have to make the final decision, but I don’t think you should ever have a closed mind to anything.”
Poker and mathematics
Blackjack has long been the favored card game of mathematicians, with many of the game’s greats including Stanford Wong and Ken Uston making gambling news by translating their Ivy League mathematics educations to the casino.
Poker on the other hand, is usually associated with psychology and manipulation rather than the crunching of numbers. It’s a game for cowboys and frontiersman, not statisticians. But on closer look that characterization is completely false.
Success in poker certainly has to do with making your opponent think you’re strong when you’re weak, and vice versa. But at the end of the day, it’s about reading the cards on the table (as well as those in your hand) to reasonable determine the hands which your opponents have.
A successful poker player uses process of elimination. If a card is one the table, it means that his opponents don’t have it. But they could still use the card to construct a great hand, if their cards are also strong. In order to be really good at this you need to construct complex mathematical models to determine probability.
Mehta did exactly that in seven years as a professional poker player and writer, and he will now combine those skills with a long-standing passion for hockey in his new career as the Devils chief of analytics.
The New Jersey-Pennsylvania gambling axis
It’s fitting that the Devils would hire a former poker pro to head their newly formed analytics department. New Jersey is one of only three states with legal online poker rooms in the US.
Co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer also own the Philadelphia 76ers, an NBA team located in neighboring Pennsylvania, a state whose casino market has overtaken New Jersey to become the second-largest in the country by terms of revenue.
Both the Devils and 76ers have sponsorship agreements with PartyPoker, the biggest licensed online poker network in the country. The two owners have made a reputation for themselves as risk takers, going forth with a partnership that was discouraged by the gambling-skittish NBA and NHL.
Company CEO Scott O’ Neill had this to say about the deal: “this is our flag in the ground that we do things differently… We’re looking for groundbreaking opportunities with companies willing to take chances.”
Will these two moves (the PartyPoker partnership and the hiring of Mehta) help poker become more mainstream in American society and business culture? Millions of Americans play the game and there are several celebrity poker players, but it still remains heavily restricted. The online variety is illegal almost everywhere.
It’s going to take a long time to crack America’s puritanical ice with regards to legal poker, but it looks like the process is well on its way. California looks close to legalizing online poker, Pennsylvania will likely sign off on it sooner rather than later; even hotbed of conservativism Texas has flirted with the idea. The bold actions of Josh Harris and David Blitzer can only add fuel to the proverbial fire.