What Big Brother Canada can teach you about poker strategy
Fans of eviction-based reality TV shows are quick to recognize how these "games" overlap with poker.
Ultra-competitive shows where players are pitted against one another and removed until a single winner remains uncannily mimic the familiar trajectory of poker tournaments. The searing ambition; the swinging fortunes; the impassioned departures. It's all there.
Kevin Martin of Team PokerStars was once just a poker player who happened to enjoy reality TV shows. Then he appeared on one. And eventually, on a second stint in the Big Brother Canada House, he experienced what it was like to be the actual winner.
So who better to ask about the overlap between reality TV and poker than Kevin Martin - who also pledged to teach us how tactics employed to win these reality TV shows can bolster our knowledge of poker strategy?
After competing on the third season of Big Brother Canada, Martin had a chance to be one of eight returning contestants for this year's fifth season. Those eight joined a handful of newcomers to all outlast one another for 70 days in the Big Brother Canada House and cinch the $100,000 prize.
"It was totally wild," Martin explains. "About two weeks before the show started taping they called me and asked if I wanted another shot.
""The chance to test myself was just something I couldn't say no to."
It was a freeroll, but not necessarily an easy choice for Martin to make. As a full-time poker player and Twitch streamer with a growing following, it wasn't necessarily the best time for the 24-year-old to be sequestered from the outside world for the better part of three months.
But being a poker player, Martin also knows something about shot-taking. He's also familiar with risk and reward, and how you need to put something in the middle, so to speak, to get something back.
Ultimately it was a rollercoaster ride for Martin: more adrenaline-pumping that even the most swing-filled poker session imaginable.
"The highs and lows that you experience in that house are unbelievable," he explains.
This time, after making enough correct moves and enjoying a streak of good fortune, the endgame went Martin's way, and his victory in May this year was watched by over a million viewers in Canada.
This only leaves the question: did any particular strategies learned at the felt help Kevin Martin win Big Brother Canada?
Listening to Martin discuss the show, it's almost as though he's describing a high-stakes tournament.
"It was an environment where you can't trust anyone!" he says. "Every time you talk to someone, you have to wonder if they have ulterior motives. You know everyone is looking out for themselves -- everyone was always trying to make a plus-EV play, to maximize their return."
Just as in a poker tournament where opponents occasionally make unorthodox moves, so, too, did Martin encounter players occasionally doing things that were not necessarily the "correct" way of going about things.
"Toward the end, there were a couple of people making moves that were minus-EV. One wonderful lady admitted she stopped caring about her own game and she just wanted to get me out," he admits.
"You have to dodge land mines," Martin continues. "Sometimes people are making crazy, irrational plays that can hurt you, and you have to get through them somehow and get to the end."
Such plays can heighten variance, an understanding of which in poker obviously helped Martin on the show.
"In a tournament, you must play well to win, but you must run well, too. Same thing on the show - there are a lot of twists and turns, and you have to stay mentally calm in tough spots."
Some of those twists on the show came in the "Power of Veto" competitions, which depending on the contest suited some players better than others. "If you were playing one and the competition happens to fit your abilities -- that's very lucky," Martin notes.
Not only that, but the rules of the game sometimes involved "literally pulling chips out of a bag" to determine one's opponent for a challenge. Talk about the luck of the draw.
Unlike during his first try on the show when he kept his background as a poker player secret beforehand, Martin's identity as a professional card player was known to everyone from the start of his second go-round on the show.
Martin therefore soon learned others' ideas of poker players, including how a few had thoughts of them being "shady" or "always bluffing and lying." For others, the knowledge of his background put them on heightened alert around him, suspecting his eagerness always to seek out "optimal" plays against them.
"Sometimes I did struggle with certain people," he explains. "If you're playing too hard... if you're trying to "gamify" the system too much, people can see through it and see you as phony. Sometimes I had to put the brakes on a little bit and calm down."
They say poker is a game of people played with cards. Hearing Martin talk about it, something similar could be said about the games on reality TV shows.
"If you treat the other house guests like poker chips or chess pieces,
that's going to put a big target on your back," he says. "It's a social game so you have to use your social relationships."
The experience on the show reaffirmed for Martin a couple of other, more general truths about what it takes to succeed in poker tournaments. One is the importance of endurance and being able to stay mentally strong for long periods of time.
He describes the show as "70 days of mental beat-down," wearing several down by the end. "You could see it on their faces," he says.
Martin recalled something similar when at the World Series of Poker last year. When multiple days deep into a tourney, "you just see people start to break down and make poor decisions."
The importance of preparation also served Martin well on the show. During those two weeks between his accepting the invite and the start of taping, he watched every previous episode and wrote down every single challenge. By channeling his energies into observation and imitation, he was able to keep any feelings of vulnerability in check as well as actively see his trajectory improve.
"I thought of how I could optimally beat every single challenge that could come my way. In terms of challenges, I was maybe the most prepared house guest in the history of the show!" Martin grins.
"Preparation won me Big Brother Canada," Martin has since concluded. "The experience really affirmed that idea for me regarding poker. If I really want to achieve the things I want to do in the poker world, I've gotta put in those hours of study every week. And for anything you want to achieve in life, grit and determination are just so important."
We'll see where Martin's incredible reality TV experience takes him, poker-wise - and we'll be watching, too, as he streams his own reality show playing poker over Twitch.