Published: Sept. 26, 2016

McKell Carter, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience is interviewed and filmed by Quentin Domart, a French journalist directing the documentary.

Professor McKell Carter discusses his research with a documentary crew at CU Boulder's Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium. (Photo courtesy of Teryn S. Wilkes)

A CU Boulder researcher will appear in a French documentary that delves into the minds of world-class poker players.

Assistant Professor McKell Carter of the Institute of Cognitive Science studies how social information influences the decisions people make – for example, how our knowledge of what other people are likely to do influences our own behaviors. He is especially interested in understanding how a particular area of the brain called the temporal-parietal junction helps us predict other people’s behaviors. His expertise will be part of the 52-minute film, Poker Mind

The documentary will examine the main brain areas involved in decision-making, said Quentin Domart, a French journalist directing the documentary.

“We tried to find the best scientist for the movie, regarding the profile of our player,” said Domart, adding that he searched in Europe and the United States. “McKell is really focused on the same questions as we are.”

Those questions revolve around why Davidi Kitai, a professional poker player from Belgium, is such a great player and how he makes quick decisions. Kitai, previously the No. 2 top earner in the professional poker circuit, is known for his uncanny ability to read his opponents and detect when they are bluffing. 

Davidi Kitai participates in research to be highlighted in a documentary while researchers look on. (Photo courtesy of Teryn S. Wilkes)

Davidi Kitai participates in research to be highlighted in a documentary while researchers look on. (Photo courtesy of Teryn S. Wilkes)

 Earlier this month, Domart, his cameraman and Kitai, came to CU Boulder’s Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium (INC) to meet with Carter and several other INC researchers. As part of the study, Kitai went into the INC’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, and researchers measured his brain activity while he played a simple poker game. Later Kitai did some tabletop psychological tests.

Carter says working with Kitai is a great opportunity to view how the brain works when it is highly tuned to read other people. In other areas of his research, Carter often studies neurodiverse populations, such as individuals with autism.

The INC study won’t result in sweeping statements about why Kitai is a such a successful poker player, said Carter. This is because further scientific testing is required to understand the vast number of factors that can affect players and the outcome of poker games, Carter said.

“Scientifically, there’s a lot more to study in order to get the full picture,” Carter said. “But with this piece of a larger possible view, we’re trying to have some fun and understand things we see in everyday life.”

Carter said another possibility of what makes Kitai a very effective player may be his physical presence.

“He stares at people in a way that we are guessing makes them worry,” Carter said. “He is a very intimidating fellow.”

RMC Découverte, one of the main documentary channels in France, plans to broadcast Poker Mind, Domart said. The film, which should be completed in 2017, is also expected to air channels in Canada, the United States, Germany and Sweden, he added.