Science Meets Poker: The Journey of Alex O’Brien

The family name O’Brien sounds very Irish, as a matter of fact five local players with that surname are competing on Day 1c of the 2024 Irish Open Main Event. But Alexandra O’Brien is actually from Germany and resides in the UK. She won her trip to Dublin during the special live-recording of the Poker In the Ears podcast for the 300th edition at the Hippodrome Casino in London, where she can be found competing in tournaments once in a while.

O’Brien is a science writer and poker enthusiast, who earned her first recorded live poker score back in February 2015. The following years feature very infrequent tournament cashes because the early years of being a mother contained very little sleep – a bad recipe for staying focused in a card game that requires the utmost attention to do well.

On November 2, 2023, her maiden book “The Truth Detective: A Poker Player’s Guide to a Complex World” was published after four years of research, plenty of headaches, and numerous changes to the content. It won’t be the last book for this accomplished science writer, who is used to putting the virtual pen to paper in her actual job. However, none of those were quite as long as the 288 pages of her first ever book, which bridges her day-to-day musings with her second big passion: poker.

She doesn’t consider herself a poker pro but said it “depends who you ask” before clarifying further.

“I am a hybrid player. I have one foot firmly in science writing, and one foot very heavily in the poker world. I definitely see myself as a hybrid player with a very serious attitude to poker. But if you ask my friends and family who don’t play … oh, she is a world champion!”

If you are diving into this book and expect to find the secret to playing pocket jacks from the cut-off with a stack of 27 big blinds some thirty spots away from the money bubble, you will be disappointed. The Truth Detective is more of a hybrid between science and story telling about which lessons from poker can be applied in all other areas of life.

“I want the poker world especially to understand that I am very passionate about my writing in science, but I also love the game and clearly I will also travel for it even on Easter, leaving my husband and family at home.” Her proud husband even confirms he bought an easter egg basket for himself, which made her laugh while sipping a cup of coffee an hour before the start of the Irish Open Main Event Day 1c.

Alex O’Brien at the 2024 Irish Open

Her family understands the passion now because the results are coming in after devoting serious time in studying. For example, she attended a Pokercode bootcamp in Austria last year to give her a better understanding of poker, providing a large confidence boost in her knowledge of the game.

“When I enter certain fields now, I feel like I have a certain edge. Yesterday, for example, I entered the Main Event satellite on Wednesday. I immediately knew it was a milestone tournament and there were a few people on my table that didn’t know the format even three hours in. There were 51 tickets and I got my ticket when there was still 34 of them left, so it was very early on”.

In July 2023, O’Brien crossed an item off her personal poker bucket list and participated in the World Series of Poker Main Event. A total of 10,043 players wagered $10,000 in hopes of becoming the new World Champion but her journey ended rather early and in frustrating fashion. Still jet-lagged from the flight across the North Atlantic Ocean to Las Vegas, she busted on her Day 1 and was devastated, yet appreciated the learning experience.

The pinnacle experience of her poker career so far was a harsh lesson and reminder of how it all started, but especially in the last few years she has learned a lot about the game theory.

When O’Brien now enters tournaments, especially here in Ireland, she is a bundle of joy and many that don’t know her might think she had too much sugar in her coffee. “However, the game face came on as soon as the cards are dealt. But people probably get the wrong idea because I am generally just so happy to play. And I think that is the only way to play this game anyways, because the moment you don’t feel one hundred percent, it’s not gonna work out because poker is so demanding mentally and physically.”

So where did it all start and how long has she been playing poker for? That was pretty much spot on nine years ago. She had been dabbling in the odd £30 tournaments in London and reached many final tables, when one of the dealers asked her if she was going to play in the upcoming WPT National London series with higher buy-ins. That thought had never crossed her mind, because it was such a “big grown up event” and she “had no idea what I was doing” because back then, all the online teaching sites didn’t exist.

Instead, she googled YouTube videos heading into Day 2 to figure out how to play in the later stages of tournament. “I found Daniel Negreanu, who told me that jack nine suited is not a good hand.”

Finishing inside the final four tables came with a modest £690 cash prize, more than three times the buy-in. To reward herself for the deep run, she bought a piece of art from a local graffiti artist called “Pure Evil” and it’s been in her apartment ever since as a reminder of the early beginnings in poker. She may also have a bet to wear a dirndl in case she makes a major live poker final table.

The idea of the book also came as a collection of serendipitous moments at the poker tables, as the usual table chats had revealed her background as science writer became better known. Many of the players she was familiar with suggested to “just write a poker book” (because that is obviously the easiest thing to do out of the blue.) Considering that her writing by then was shorter than a novella but longer than an article in a newspaper, that was a whole new world and the thought took a while to sink in.

What followed as a random idea turned into a journey of more than four years, because that’s how long it took to go from first draft to the book getting final approval in one of the most well-known publishing houses in science. And Alex is very adamant that her book is not really just about poker.

“I am very clear about who I am, and I have tried to make that clear in the book. The premise is that this book is not a poker book in a traditional sense; if you want to learn how to play certain hands or a specific strategy, this is not the book for you. There are hundreds of other brilliant writers out there that can do that out there and you should buy their books.”

The more she had been reading, the more she realised that there is actually a lot of science behind these skillsets. “In my head, this Venn diagram appeared and you see the overlap between the two fields. Woah, this is actually interesting. So I put this in a proposal.” For a non-established writer, it would be nearly impossible to find a publisher but, since it was mainly a science book, three different publishers were interested.

“I went with the publishing house that published some of the biggest non-fiction science bestsellers in the world and I am so glad that I did, because the focus is really on science. You may expect to read lots of poker, but it is really not. I know it has poker in the title but the publisher decides.”

The poker aspect more refers to anecdotes from the tables and then goes deep into science and scientific research, “aiming to showcase how to make better decisions in real life by approaching it through a poker player’s mindset, this is what this book does for you.”

In a nutshell, many strategies and thought processes that work at the poker table can be applied to all areas of life. And certain situations can be more advantageous for oneself or the other person you are dealing with – a business partner, friend, family or acquaintance that you only meet very occasionally When leaving the emotions out of it and just focusing on making the best decisions, the outcome becomes less important.

Alex O’Brien at the 2024 Irish Open

The initial research – interviewing more than 50 people and reading hundreds of studies – took a long time, almost as painstakingly long as the six weeks on the road all over the world felt to promote the book once it was published. But the final outcome was incredibly rewarding in multiple ways. Some of the biggest names in science – who Alex highly admires – wrote glowing reviews, much to her delight as getting that kind of recognition in her field is an incredible achievement.

In poker she also made headlines as well but it was more about the little things that counted the most, for example players recognising her at the tables or people she had never met telling that they gifted the book for Christmas. There was also that one big moment at the Global Poker Awards a few weeks ago in which her book made the final voting round, but she had no expectations whatsoever to win.

A second book is already planned and the groundwork for it will be done “after the summer camp in Las Vegas”. Hopefully it will just take two years instead of the four from the first one. The book will be an extension of sorts but take a closer look at sports psychology by the former triathlete. Her personal interest in Asian cultures will play a particular role this time.

“I basically want to write a book that takes me to South Korea.”

For further details on the second book, you will have to wait at least a couple of months. As far as her exploits in the record-breaking 2024 Irish Open €1,150 Main Event are concerned, I unfortunately have some bad news. She made it through Day 1 with 37,000 in chips, which was nine big blinds for the restart. After grinding a short stack beyond the first break, Alex busted some 30 spots outside of the money and a new piece of art will have to wait now, too.