Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Dostoevsky is Not Considered Summer Reading (Pt. II)

As I mentioned before, I want to discuss three ideas of interest to poker players that come up in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. The first concerns the human tendency to see patterns where they don't exist.

Alexey Ivanovitch is not the only character in The Gambler who becomes obsessed with roulette. Other characters are shown succumbing to the lure of the wheel, the most colorful being Granny. Granny is the grandmother of the family for whom Alexey works as a tutor, and for the first half of the novel most members of the family appear impatient to see Granny die and leave them her estate. Without warning, Granny suddenly appears in Roulettenburg -- in good health, at that. She’s a bit eccentric and certainly enjoys the discomfort she has produced by appearing so unexpectedly.

“I want to see everything here,” Granny tells everyone, and soon has made Alexey take her to the casino. Within minutes she’s at the roulette table. After a rapid tutorial from Alexey about how the game works, she’s ready to play. Before placing any money down, they watch as the wheel lands on zéro. Alexey explains to Granny that if one bets on zéro and it hits one wins 35 times the bet. “Why don’t they stake on it, the fools?” she asks. “There are thirty-six chances against it, Granny,” Alexey explains. “What nonsense,” she replies, and fishing out a friedrich d’or from her purse orders her servant to “Stake it on the zéro at once.”

Her bet concerns Alexey, who with the appearance of rationality explains “Granny, zéro has only just turned up . . . so now it won’t turn up for a long time. You will lose a great deal; wait a little, anyway.” “Oh nonsense, nonsense” says Granny. “If you are afraid of the wolf you shouldn’t go in the forest.”

After losing three times running, Granny decides to stake two friedrichs d’or and the zéro hits. Much to Alexey’s dismay, she bets as much as is allowed on zéro again and loses. Undeterred, she bets on zéro yet again. “Zéro!” cries the croupier, and once more she’s won a bundle. Alexey describes how he felt upon realizing the zéro had hit three times within a dozen turns: “I felt that at the moment my arms and legs were trembling, there was a throbbing in my head.” Granny puts the bulk of her winnings on rouge, wins again, then announces “That’s enough! Home! Wheel my chair out.” All told Granny had staked five friedrichs d’or and was now leaving the casino with about 220 times that, an amount nearly equal to that of her entire estate.

There are a few different ideas present in this episode familiar to poker players (e.g., running well, playing one’s rush, boldly taking risks, hitting longshots, etc.), but the one I find most interesting concerns Alexey’s claim that since the zéro had recently hit it was less likely to hit again in the near future. Earlier in the novel Alexey describes players who “sit with papers before them scrawled over in pencil, note the strokes, reckon, deduce the chances, calculate, finally stake and -- lose exactly as we simple mortals who play without calculations.” Alexey instinctively knows these players are self-deluded. He knows that one turn of the wheel has no bearing whatsoever on the next. Nevertheless, he still advises Granny against betting on zéro since it had so recently hit.

In Small Stakes Hold 'Em, Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth discuss the tendency for poker players to believe how the cards are dealt in one hand actually affects how they will be dealt in the next hand. “The human brain is terrific at identifying patterns,” they point out, though sometimes -- especially when playing poker -- “people see false patterns that they believe are real.” “Most gamblers,” they claim, “tend to ascribe meaning to purely random, independent events.” Have you ever (like Alexey) allowed the appearance of such false patterns affect your thought process during a given hand? If you are human, you probably have.

Just today I had newly arrived at a $1/$2 limit table where I was dealt Jh 3c in the BB. A late position player raised, the SB called, and after a moment I decided to let it go. Sure, I’d be getting 5-to-1 by calling, but I knew zilch about the other two players. Besides, I didn’t want to get in trouble here on my first hand and thereby create an unwanted table image from the get-go. I folded and watched as the flop came 9h 3s Jd. The SB called bets on both the flop and turn, then after an Ace came on the river fireworks erupted and the pair capped. Both had big slick and so chopped a huge pot -- $25 or so -- although they ended up only coming out even on the hand after the $1 rake (precisely what I had put into the pot).

Before I had time to grieve my missed oppportunity, I chuckled to see I’d been dealt J3-offsuit once again in the small blind. “When most people play poker,” write Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth, “they tend to expect that which has recently occurred to recur.” Hmmm . . . . As I waited for the action to come back to me I couldn’t help thinking how attractive J3 looked. Would I dare? Luckily for me, a raise and reraise kept me from pursuing my relationship with this garbage hand any further. (And yes, the flop did not bring a J or 3 this time.)

Barring six limpers (and thus even greater odds than the previous hand offered), I probably would’ve let the hand go again, but not for the correct reasons. Rather, I felt like Alexey did after seeing the zéro hit the first time -- it somehow seemed less likely to flop two pair (or something else favorable, like trips) because it had “only just turned up . . . so now it won’t turn up for a long time.”

Nonsense! (As Granny would say.) Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth say the same thing in a different way: “The cards dealt on any poker hand are, for practical purposes, completely random and independent of the cards dealt on any previous hand.” The odds of my flopping two pair hadn't changed an iota. They remained about 1 in 49 -- the same as every other hand where one holds two unmatched cards.

Granny herself eventually shows that she, too, can’t resist believing in false patterns when she returns to the casino and loses all she won and then some, mostly by betting on zéro. She would have done well to heed the advice of Miller/Sklansky/Malmuth: “Stop your pattern-recognizer before it goes haywire by telling yourself, ‘There is no pattern! There is no pattern!’”

In my next post I'll say something about how The Gambler illustrates another “mind game” poker players often experience, namely the way the game can cause us to shut out past and future and live only in the moment.

Photo: “Roulette ball,” Ralf Foletschek. CC BY-SA 3.0

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