Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
“I don’t play poker.” The protagonist of “The Crack of Doom”, a wonderful installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1956, says these words to a friend near the start of the film. As it proceeds, we find out why. When he was younger, his life was shaken up by the game. He got some bad beats at a poker session, lost his buy-in, and, his ego hurt, decided to buy back into the game and recover his losses. But it was night, his bank was shut, so he took four thousand dollars out of a ten-thousand dollar stack that had been given to him for official purposes. In case he lost it, he intended to pay it back the next morning by dipping into his savings account, where he had nine thousand dollars. Well, he lost it. So he went home, looked into his passbook, and found that his wife had withdrawn all their savings. He woke her up to ask her what had happened to it, and she tearfully confessed that she had blown it up in the stock market. (A more foolish option than investing in poker, if you ask me.) Our man was devastated. He faced humiliation and possibly jail for his behaviour. He was, effectively, a thief. He was doomed. Unless…
You got it. He went back to his office, took the remaining six thousand dollars and went back to the poker game, where he found himself, as the title suggests, on the crack of doom. I shall give no more away, you have to watch it for yourself. (The film is online in two parts, you can see it here: 1, 2.)
The form of poker they were playing in the film was five-card stud, which is rarely played these days: Texas hold ‘em is the most popular form. But apart from that, if you adjust for inflation, the film seems like it was made yesterday. Every regular poker player will find echoes of himself in the film: the compulsive need to get back to the table, the belief that a good run is just around the corner, the despondency on our hero’s face as he loses, and loses, and loses. We’ve all had sessions like that.
I’ve written in an earlier piece—‘The Beautiful Game of Poker’—about how poker is essentially a game of skill. The skill comes in being a winner in the long run, but in the short run, luck plays its part. People chase gutshot draws at a cost that is not justified by the pot odds and catch it on the river, 82 suited kicks the ass of AA after a pre-flop all-in is followed by a flush on the flop, a flopped straight is beaten by a runner-runner full house, bad beats pile up on bad beats. The thrill of being part of this action is similar to any other casino game where there is no skill involved and the odds are against you—roulette, for example.
Many poker players, such as me, disdain most other casino and card games—we treat poker as both a science (of mathematical probability and expectation) and an art (of reading people and navigating the shores of human behaviour), and certainly not as pure gambling. Not all poker players are like that. I play poker regularly in Mumbai and Goa, with different groups of people, and many of my poker buddies are in it for the thrill of gambling. They know the numbers, they understand the skill aspect of the game, but they don’t come to the tables because they value the intellectual and sporting challenge, but because they need their fix. They’re addicted.
In his recent book, What’s Luck Got to do With it?, Joseph Mazur speaks about how “recent research, using PET scans, suggests that pathological gamblers, alcoholics, and drug addicts have similar patterns of neural activity when exposed to their individual addictions. [...] PET scans of pathological gamblers show increased levels of dopamine during play and even more substantial increases during high-risk, high-stakes playing.” Such gamblers find it hard to stay away from the tables; they focus on their winning sessions and ignore their losses entirely; and they have weird notions of the lady we spend our lives wooing: Luck.
There are two fallacies in particular that help gamblers rationalise their behaviour. One is the Monte Carlo Fallacy, also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, or the “law of averages.” As this post on the subject defines it, this is “the belief that the likelihood of a random event is influenced and/or predicted by other independent events.” For example, a roulette wheel comes up black five successive times, so you decide to bet on red because red “is due.” Or you flip an evenly weighted coin eight times and it lands on tails each time, so you figure that it surely must land on heads the next time it’s flipped. (The probability remains 50%; coins don’t have memories.) Compulsive gamblers fall prey to this fallacy all the time, telling themselves that their luck has been so rotten that things will surely change now, and that a good session is due. Of course, if they’re playing roulette or any of the casino games where the house has an edge, or if they’re playing poker without regard to its mathematical aspect, they are bound to lose in the long run, irrespective of the winning sessions that are inevitable (like a coin landing on heads five times in a row if you flip it long enough), and that they’ll selectively remember to justify their continued gambling.
The other fallacy is the Hot Hands Fallacy. This is the reverse of the Gambler’s Fallacy; in Mazur’s words, it is the tendency to “expect long runs of the same outcome to continue.” For example, if an evenly-weighted coin lands on tails eight times in a row, you expect it to land on tails the ninth time as well. If you flip a coin long enough, there will be successive streaks of the both tails and heads coming up too many times in a row for it to seem random, even though it is exactly that. Mazur writes, paraphrasing Amos Tversky, “People reject randomness and the mathematical expected number of runs because the appearance of long runs in short samples seems too purposeful to be random.”
I see this all the time in my poker sessions. Often, a losing player will get up from the table and say something like, “Yaar, aaj mere patte hit nahin ho rahe. Better not play any more today.” Or if he’s winning, “Today is my lucky day. I can feel it. And I have a good feeling about these cards.” And then he plays 85o and flops a straight, reinforcing his belief that luck is on his side. (If the flop is AKK, he folds and forgets that he had a ‘feeling’.) In Goa a couple of months ago, I sat at a cash table where a loaded gambler repeatedly called down a young man’s raises with shit cards, all the time saying things like “I shouldn’t play these cards, but I’m only playing them because you’re in the hand. My luck is running well against you.” He kept sucking out in outrageous fashion, and the youngster, a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike with curly hair, was sucked out of three or four buy-ins and went away shattered, his poor girlfriend in tow, unable to hang it out for the long term in which the fish’s ass would certainly have a hook through it.
In most facets of life, an irrational belief in luck is harmless. When it comes to gambling, though, it can cost serious money, and destroy lives. Mazur quotes an old Arab proverb in his book: “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come out with a fish in his mouth.” The truth, especially when it comes to poker, is that if you throw a gambler into the sea, he will be eaten by sharks.
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Just as we seek patterns where there are none on a roulette wheel or a poker table, we construct those narratives in life as well. The world is maddeningly complex, unfathomable and tragic. (Why tragic? Well, we all die and that’s that: there is no greater meaning or purpose behind the randomness of nature that created us.) To comprehend it, we try to fit everything into patterns, and build narratives that help us make sense of it. Some of these narratives happen to be true; many, when the truth is beyond us, are not. Religion is an example of this—but even though religion is irrational, it is perhaps necessary for a weak species like ours, which makes it rational to be irrational for many of us. But I’ll write about that some other day.
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Previously on Viewfinder
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)