Former online poker pro Nate Silver now a trusted political polling expert

Jon Sofen
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Posted on: October 26, 2020 9:45 pm EDT

You probably know of Nate Silver as the FiveThirtyEight polling expert who uses analytics to project a winner in U.S. political elections. But before he became known as one of the top — and polarizing — political polling experts, he was a successful online poker pro.

As the November 3 presidential election nears, Silver is, in essence, hoping his set will hold up against a gut-shot straight draw. If not, he’ll lose more than just a massive pot. He’ll lose much of his credibility.

Right or wrong, Silver’s reputation as a polling expert is on the line come next Tuesday, as is his website, FiveThirtyEight, the site he founded in 2008. The former poker pro uses a comprehensive polling model, which is based on a cumulative score from numerous polls, to project winners.

In 2016, his model gave Democratic candidate and former First Lady Hillary Clinton a 70% chance of winning the presidency. But she ended up losing in an upset to reality TV star Donald Trump, who is now up for re-election.

As poker players know, a 70% shot doesn’t always win. Your flopped top pair against bottom pair sometimes loses. But most people struggle with understanding probabilities. As a result, Silver was under fire for “predicting” a Clinton victory, even though he didn’t make any such prediction. He simply gave Clinton a higher percentage chance of winning than Trump, based on his polling model.

With that said, he simply can’t afford a similar outcome this time around. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives former Vice President Joe Biden an 86% chance of ousting Trump from office. If the favorite doesn’t come through, fair or not, Silver stands to lose much of the credibility he’s built up over the past dozen years.

And he certainly does have a ton of credibility among pollsters and political pundits. In 2009, he was named one of the World’s Most Influential People by Time magazine.

In a previous life

Before FiveThirtyEight’s rise to fame (the website is now owned by ABC-Disney), Nate Silver was a highly successful online poker pro. And he’d probably enjoy today’s game given the newer focus on game theory optimal (GTO) considering he’s big into analytics.

From 2004-2006, during the height of the poker boom era, Silver played regularly on PokerStars and earned a living playing the game. His game of choice was no-limit Texas hold’em cash games, and he played them at some of the highest stakes online.

But poker has since changed, which forced Silver into a new career path. Limit hold’em has dried up. There aren’t many LHE games anymore, even online. In the casinos, you’ll find the occasional limit game, but only at stakes too low to interest a pro such as Silver.

He still occasionally plays cards and will once in a while mix in a poker reference on his Twitter account (@NateSilver538) that has over 3.4 million followers. Although he earned a nice living playing cards years ago, it’s difficult to think he’d have been better off sticking with poker. FiveThirtyEight has millions of followers and he’s become quite wealthy from the site he founded 12 years ago.

Featured image source: Flickr