Interview with Chris Ferguson
By Dana Smith
I met Chris Ferguson at the World Series of Poker, but I could just as easily have run into him on the dance floor or in the halls of academe. He's one well-rounded guy, this man whose nickname is "Jesus." With his long wavy hair, well-groomed beard, and polite demeanor, Ferguson possesses that rare attribute, "presence." A doctoral student at U.C.L.A. with a major in computer science (artificial intelligence), this computer Merlin also works his wizardry on the tournament circuit and makes mambo magic on the dance floor. Although the erudite Ferguson is far from synthetic, we began by discussing artificial intelligence
Chris Ferguson: The basic idea of all artificial intelligence is to get computers to perform tasks that humans are considered to be good at. Vision is one of them. You can put a picture on the computer screen, but it's very difficult for the computer to determine whether the image is a table, a cup, or a poker chip. That is still one very difficult problem in computer science. Another one is language recognition -- to be able to speak into a computer, have it write your words on the screen and have some understanding of the meaning of those words. Accomplishing these tasks would be typical of artificial intelligence. More trivial tasks may be things such as playing poker.
Dana Smith: There are some voice recognition programs on the shelves today, but computer scientists hope to take them one step farther into understanding what you're saying?
CF: "Understanding" may be too strong -- it's quite difficult to find a word to express the concept. There are different degrees of understanding. For example, it's quite easy for a computer to look up a word in the dictionary and find its definition -- the hard part is putting a word in a context and understanding its meaning within that context.
DS: Sometimes, even we humans have that problem! What are you hoping to accomplish with your Ph. D. degree?
CF: Eventually I plan to work for a company on Wall Street, analyzing stocks or trading.
DS: Do you also use the computer for poker practice?
CF: Poker is just a sideline with me, and I play it more for the challenge than the money. But yes, I do a lot of work with poker on the computer. I analyze situations, trying to simplify the game by making certain assumptions and then solving them to arrive at some basic rules that are useful in natural play.
DS: You've been very successful in tournaments. Have some of your computer generated rules helped you?
CF: Absolutely. I don't have a lot of time to spend at poker since that isn't what I do for a living, so I decided to primarily play tournaments because I felt that the competition in them would be the greatest. I figure that the best way to learn to play better is to play against the top players -- I learn best by playing against the best.
DS: I first saw you play last year at the final table of the WSOP $2,000 pot-limit hold'em event when I sat in the bleachers next to your girlfriend, Cathy. Although I was rooting for Tom McEvoy, I couldn't help but notice your fine play against such notables as McEvoy, David Ulliott (the winner), Chris Truby, and Eskimo Clark. A few days later when I was rooting for my hometown champion, Norm Michaud, at the final table of the $3,000 no-limit hold'em event that Max Stern eventually won, there you were at the final table again.
CF: I placed sixth in that pot-limit event and seventh in the no-limit hold'em tournament. But my highest finish at the WSOP came a few days ago when I placed fourth in the $2,000 pot-limit hold'em tournament, which was kind of disappointing.
DS: That wouldn't be disappointing to a lot of other people!
CF: I can understand that and I'm not unhappy with my overall performance. It's just that I've made it to the final table at the WSOP six times and not making it once to the top three is disappointing.
DS: Still, you've made a good name and some money for yourself at poker. What do you do for your primary income?
CF: I am a research assistant and I've also done consulting work for the California State lottery and the Bureau of the Census, as well as for individuals. Of course, I also make a decent amount of money at gambling, although that isn't my primary focus.
DS: How did you get into gambling?
CF: Even back in the fourth grade, I was playing poker and in high school we played it a lot. Early in my college career, I took occasional trips to Las Vegas where I played $1-$2 and $2-$4 games. By playing very tightly, waiting for extremely good hands, I found that I could make $4 an hour. I played for the challenge, to see if I could make a living at poker, and if you call $4 an hour a living, I discovered that I could do it.
DS: And then you made a jump?
CF: Yes, but first there's another part to my background: My father, Thomas, teaches statistics and game theory at U.C.L.A., so when I was young we always played games in our home. He continually analyzed games or invented new ones, so I grew up with a very strong background in gamesmanship. My mother also has a Ph.D. in mathematics, specializing in the field of topology.
DS: Sounds as though you come by your game skills naturally -- maybe it's in your genes?
CF: I don't think there are any genes specific to playing poker (laughing). Of course, Jack Keller and his daughter, Kathy Kolberg, and Doyle and Todd Brunson, may prove me wrong on this one.
DS: How did you go about taking the step up to higher limits?
CF: I came into a large amount of money through by winning a big blackjack tournament. At that point, I said "Well, I've made some money here, so now I can expand." I never expected to make money instantly at poker, of course, especially since I hadn't been playing against the best opponents (I apologize to my high school friends for saying this.)
DS: There are no world champions among your high school buddies?!
CF: Not yet. Anyway, I knew that since I hadn't been playing at a very high level it would take me a while to hone my skills.
DS: You must've sharpened up quite a bit: You won a big one at the Legends of Poker.
CF: I won the $300 no-limit hold'em event at the Legends and I've also taken titles in about five other tournaments, including one or two in lowball. I've also been pretty successful in the best all-around player finals, placing second at the Legends last year and second in the best all-around playoffs the year before (I won a car for that finish).
DS: Now let's change the music and waltz over to your other interest, dancing.
CF: I've been dancing for about nine years and ran the U.C.L.A. ballroom dance club for three years. I do all the ballroom dances ... the foxtrot, waltz, tango, mambo, but these days I mostly dance the West Coast swing, the latest form of swing dance. If you've watched "Happy Days," you know what the swing was like in the '50s.
DS: Hey, Chris, I lived the '50s!
CF: Well, the swing is still a living dance -- it changes all the time -- as opposed to some of the ballroom dances that are somewhat old and aren't done socially as much anymore. You meet great people dancing the swing.
DS: Is dancing a good way for a poker player to keep in physical shape?
CF: I guess it helps, although I don't consider dancing to be getting a lot of exercise. I used to play basketball and volleyball, pick-up games -- now that was a lot of exercise. But my body got too beat up and I don't play much any more. Dancing is a totally different world than poker, although I do know some great players who dance. Mike Sexton, for example, is an excellent dancer and used to teach dance.
DS: Have you entered dance contests?
CF: I've competed in some contests, mostly Jack and Jill events. In a Jack and Jill contest, men and women enter the event individually. Your dance partner is selected at random, so that you don't know ahead of time who you'll be dancing with or what the music will be. You can improvise and it's a lot of fun. I've also competed on dance teams and there you must be very precise. There might be eight couples on the team doing a single routine to the same song and you are judged in part on your degree of synchronization.
DS: Seeing you around the poker world, one gets a different impression of you than the "real" Chris Ferguson. With that hair, the black clothes and black Western hat, you look like one of the desperadoes in the old movies. What's with the garb?
CF: What are you saying here, that I look like a long-haired bum?! Seriously, it's part of an image for poker. Outside the poker world, I never wear a cowboy hat. Without it, I may look more like a university professor than a poker player. It's nice to have the image of being a good poker player, but some people think that they want the image of not being a good player, believing that the opposition will try to outplay them and they can take advantage of that. In poker, there seems to be a lot of misdirection. For example, players who don't know me may think, "That guy wears a cowboy hat. He probably plays a lot of poker but he doesn't understand the mathematics behind it." (I apologize to those cowboys who do understand the math.) That perception of me would be dead wrong.
DS: You're right about that! Comments about poker?
CF: Some people might think that there is one basic way to play poker, but there isn't. There are many different styles of play. Two people may be dealt the same hand, play it quite differently, and yet both will be successful. In tournament poker, you have to have a long attention span, be very concentrated, be aware of what's going on -- and remain very focused.
DS: You seem to tango quite smoothly in your three diverse worlds.
CF: Yes, and I enjoy them all although there is very little crossover among them. I guess I'm partly trying to fill the void that was left when I stopped playing sports. When you take up something new, you have to give up something old.
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