Math Poker Day: Students learn when to hold ’em
By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau
Mathematics instructor Huy Dinh is known for his sense of humor. He makes his classes fly by on the strength of jokes, even corny ones. For example: “You have to be odd to be number one.” Or “Dear Algebra, please stop asking us to find your X. She’s never coming back and don’t ask Y.”
For the recent Poker Day, Dinh and his colleagues ratcheted it up a few notches. As they were dealing cards and cracking jokes, their students were applying the probability and statistics concepts of Expected Value, the Gambler’s Fallacy and the Law of Large Numbers and Counting, according to Associate Professor Ben VanDerLinden Department Chair in Mathematics for Secondary and Higher Education.
The semiannual event, inaugurated last spring, lasted for six hours in its most recent iteration and included three tables of Texas hold ’em and one table of blackjack. More than 180 students participated with approximately 30 students playing for one hour each although some students stayed longer. Dinh, VanDerLinden, Jeff Springer, Molly Elmer and Nick Schoonover dealt cards. Joshua Denis, President of the Math Ed club, and Jonah Beaumont, a faculty adviser, also participated.
“It is a 100 percent so much better to learn that way,’’ said sophomore Luz Cardenas. “It helps with double-checking my answers and when estimating. I know with poker I have to use math skills to know what will happen with the next card coming. It helps me think about proximate answers.’’
A pre-med major from Phoenix who was studying for her pre-calculus final, Cardenas enjoyed seeing faculty members in an unfamiliar setting.
“Playing poker with professors dealing makes me see them differently,’’ Cardenas said. “They are serious in class; they are your professors and you have to respect them. But at the same time, seeing them there having fun with the students, interacting and teaching them in a fun environment is definitely a different perspective.’’
Computer science major Jeremy Mog concurred: “It is fun to see the professor as a person instead of a teacher.’’
The freshman from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., goofed on his Texas hold ’em hands a couple of times.
“I learned that going all in without looking at your cards is probably a bad idea,’’ he said. “You would be surprised how many times it has worked in the past.’’
To increase those odds for students, faculty members distributed a chart with the ranking, frequency and probability of various poker hands.
“We also give hints based on probability,’’ said Dinh, who makes similar applications in the classroom.
For example, he asks the students this question: “If you drop their backpack on the floor and a pencil rolls away, what is probability that the pencil will roll no farther than 2.5 meters away?’’
The answer: 95 percent.
Among the changes in the second running of Poker Day was the introduction of “firmer’’ rules and the inclusion of the Math Ed club. A persistent aspect was the building of community away from the classroom.
“It was a chance to do something fun,’’ Dinh said. “Even though we instill humor in the academic setting, this is different. One reason I really enjoy it is because it involves all the staff members in the math department. And involving the Math Ed club gave them a chance to not only interact with our students in a different way, but also perhaps help recruit more students to the Math Ed club.’’
The event was timed for the same week that probability was introduced in the MAT-144 College Algebra and MAT-154 Application of College Algebra classes.
As a finals wrap-up, students seeking help from Dinh are greeted at his office by a door covered in math humor and references, some collected by Dinh and others provided by colleagues who appreciate his sense of math humor.
“Humor definitely eases the stress of math,’’ Dinh said. “And the other thing that eases the stress is to relate it directly to something students encounter, like poker.’’
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Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.