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In several episodes Data is shown to dominate at poker, most notably in Times Arrow part II where he is able to win large sums of money from 19th century poker high rollers.

How was data able to be so sucessful without being able to read the players? Playing purely by the statistics of each hand is easily exploitable and would most likely be noticed and leveraged by a professional.

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    "Playing purely by the statistics of each hand is easily exploitable" How so? Just play the optimal mixed strategy. Then you can only get beat by collusion. (or in the long run your gain might be too small to beat rake, if your opponents play well enough) – CodesInChaos Apr 22 '12 at 19:55
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    Do players need to read their opponents's emotions when playing online poker? – R. Martinho Fernandes Apr 23 '12 at 1:07
  • I would venture to say that 19th century poker sharks, while better than fish of the time, would easily be beaten even by pros of the earth 21st century. – user11521 Jun 26 '15 at 16:59
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First of all, that emotion thing goes both ways. He doesn't exhibit any sign whatsoever which could hint how good his hand is. Riker described this once as the perfect Poker-face.

Then, when Data plays Poker the very first time, he tries to play exactly like you propose and loses horribly. But Data is not a dull automaton. He learns! He can very easily compute what the chances of winning are, and has (apparently) learned during the times playing with his shipmates some good heuristics how to properly apply his information about winning chances.

Another very important point is: He is not afraid of losing. I believe this is a very important asset in Poker.


About cheating

I was thinking about the "cheating" argument, and I'm not convinced. Around time 23:35 he says:

It was not my intention to deceive.

To the bellboy, when discussing how he managed to win. While deception in this context is not exactly the same as cheating, it still goes hand in hand. Since deception would help his cause just as cheating would, stating that he didn't intend to indicates that he won honestly.

How could he even survive the first couple rounds, without a big capital?

Data is quick to bet his communicator which one of the Poker players describes of family heirloom and trades for an entry capital of three Dollars. I would argue that they suspected him to have more valuables that he would be willing to sell.

Regarding this, the bellboy says:

Oh sure, they play easy at first not to scare off the marks, [..]

so it would appear they let Data win a couple rounds first, giving his internal heuristics time to adapt. With a starting capital of three dollars he probably couldn't have gone far otherwise.

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    Also, while Data has no emtions of his own he is likely able to observe their effects on others. Through careful observation he probably could pick up on another's tell. – Xantec Apr 22 '12 at 13:13
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    @Xantec I agree; while Data might not be able to interpret generalized emotions, he could very easily notice specific "tells" and correlate them with the opponents' subsequent actions. – Mark Beadles Apr 22 '12 at 14:19
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    @MarkBeadles Didn't he even list out someone's tells in one of the later episodes? – Izkata Apr 23 '12 at 0:57
  • Good answer. And it's not just that he is afraid to lose; it's that losing doesn't phase him. Where as humans are subject to emotional swings over big hands, typically. Data can keep on trucking without missing a beat. – peacedog Apr 23 '12 at 20:37
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I'm surprised no one has given the obvious answer: Data cheated. We saw in "Casino Royale" that Data has sufficiently fine motor control to roll sevens at will in craps. It would take much less control than this to execute a convincing false shuffle, and in fact we saw him do this in "Cause and Effect". Data could probably track the motion of cards when others shuffled and predict card distributions if not perfectly, well enough to gain advantage.

Data also could mark the cards, nicking or scraping them in places where the busy pattern on the back would cause a human not to notice. Or he could observe and remember minute nicks and scrapes already present on the cards that are too difficult for a human to memorize.

Under normal circumstances, Data's ethical subroutines would have inhibited him from cheating, but we have seen that he is capable of bending or breaking the rules if a higher objective would be served. Data disobeyed orders and put crewmen at risk in "Redemption II" in order to expose the Romulan influence in the Klingon civil war. Data phasered colonists and destroyed an aqueduct in "Ensigns of Command" to convince the colonists that they must submit to relocation. Data lied to Picard and the other officers to prevent the xenophobic aliens from killing them all in "Clues".

In the "Time's Arrow" episodes, the overriding threat was the Ophidians actions in Earth's past and the time portals that enabled those actions. Data needed resources in order continue his mission, and could have concluded that cheating a few gamblers was an acceptable means to that end.

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    Any canon on that or is that an opinion? – AidanO Apr 23 '12 at 8:55
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    Riker wonders if Data's stacking the deck in "Cause and Effect", and later in the episode he does by giving the whole table 3s and three of a kind due to a subconscious message. – Toomai Apr 23 '12 at 11:39
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    @Toomai: Yes. But that's explicitly stated to have been subconsciously. I would have a really hard time accepting that Data is a cheater. It doesn't fit his personality at all! – bitmask Apr 23 '12 at 17:30
  • @Toomai Thanks for that reference; I've added it to the answer. – Kyle Jones Apr 23 '12 at 19:05
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    In "Clues", he acted on Picard's previous orders. He was still obeying. – bitmask Apr 24 '12 at 12:47
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First and foremost, Data's positronic brain has some pretty serious computational power. He does tend to call on the Enterprise's computer for in-depth simulation, but I think the odds calculations inherent in poker would be child's play for Data to work out real-time. When you or I watch poker, we get a real-time, heads-up display of percentages for each player in the hand. These are based on the cards they hold, the cards still in the deck that could "make" that player's hand into the winning hand, and the chances of a card or card(s) yet to be dealt being one of those needed. Data would get much the same thing, only limited to the cards he can see, and given all the knowns the calculations would be infallible unlike human mental math.

Second, the poker face; Data has no tells. While he can approximate human motions, as an android his face simply doesn't have all of the muscles needed to convey all the subtleties of emotion that human faces have, which can betray us. The "muscles" (servos and actuators) that he does have are under his conscious control; he's programmed for a few "scripted" movements but these are so common that it would be difficult to use them to gain any information. Everything else that moves in Data's face is because he wants it to.

Third, yes, Data learns. Starting out with just his odds-calculating abilities, Data was a sucker for a bluff bet, because he makes what he sees as the best play given the current odds and assumes all other players will as well. So, his weaknesses are what he'd see as a "bad beat" (playing and winning a hand with very slim odds, that the player should have folded given known information), and a "bluff bet" introducing false information regarding the other player's confidence that Data would trust. As the series progresses and Data plays more, he begins taking additional meta-gaming information into account, such as a player's looseness/tightness, aggressiveness or passiveness, historical bluffing average (you don't usually know when someone has successfully bluffed unless they tell you, but you virtually always know when someone tried to bluff unsuccessfully), etc etc. This eventually makes him a very competitive player among his home group, and he can extrapolate his experiences as an average-case when playing against anyone new.

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