The poker player wasn’t bluffing.
He went all-in and won. He raised the pundits, and they called. Whatever zinger you prefer, the winner of Outlook’s 16th Crystal Ball election-prediction contest is professional poker player Matt Matros.
“I accept this victory on behalf of all the bettors out there who make educated guesses for a living,” Matros wrote in an e-mail.
A card sharp with a Yale University mathdegree whose career winnings exceed $2.3 million, the 35-year-old Matros narrowly bested a field of pundits and political strategists that included Fox News analyst Juan Williams, Washington Post political ace and poll-watcher Chris “The Fix” Cillizza, and Christina Bellantoni, political editor of PBS’s “NewsHour.”
Matros’s system? Remembering that people generally “go with the devil they know.”
“I did try to push my picks a little toward the Democrats because I thought specifically that Obama would pick up undecideds closer to the election,” Matros said. “I never seriously considered that it would shift so far to give Mitt Romney the electoral college.”
This year’s Crystal Ball contest pitted pros vs. amateurs — specifically, those who watch politics for a living against those who make predictions of a decidedly nonpolitical kind. The pros did well: Kudos to National Journal Hotline editor in chief Reid Wilson and Bellantoni, who were close runners-up. Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of the social news site Reddit.com, had the best electoral vote prediction, but he lost his chance at the title with his forecast that the Democrats would regain control of the House.
In the end, the poker player’s hand turned out to be stronger than any of his competitors’. Guy Kawasaki, a technology entrepreneur, might have won — if only his electoral vote prediction (280 for President Obama to Matros’s 303) had been better.
Outlook used the following criteria in throwing contestants off the island: We first eliminated anyone with a clearly wrong prediction, such as forecasting a Democratic return to power in the House. Then we looked at the all-important presidential categories, and Matros took the lead there. He held on, doing well across all seven categories.
Like the New York Times’ Nate Silver — a gambler turned political blogger whose baseball predictions led Matros to bet on the Tampa Bay Rays at 150 to 1 in 2008, the year they reached the World Series — Matros never believed talking heads who said the 2012 election was neck and neck.
“Those people couldn’t conceive of anything but the idea of the race being 50/50 or a lock for one guy or the other,” he said. “Those of us who deal with probabilities for a living know how silly that is.”
While his win gives Matros bragging rights until Outlook’s 17th Crystal Ball in 2014, he doesn’t expect to look for work picking political winners. He’s busy enough at the moment: He plays 50 tournaments a year and is working on a novel after publishing a memoir and directing a short film.
Still, he says professional bettors may have an edge in the predictive arts.
“I’m not an expert at politics, I’m an expert at betting,” Matros said. “That’s far more important.”