Monday, January 30, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

Quad jacks beat quad nines in my 'Poker in American Film and Culture' classI mentioned last post (on Friday) my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, as well as another class taught by Professor Bruce McCullough over at Drexel University, titled “Poker, Probability and Decision-Making.” When I spoke with Bruce about his class, we talked about various teaching strategies, including the relative usefulness of having students actually play some poker in our classes.

If you take a look at our Betfair poker interview from last week, you’ll see us discussing the various topics Bruce’s course covers, including probability, expected value, Bayes theorem, odds and outs, Sklansky's Fundamental Theorem of Poker, decision trees, expected utility, prospect theory, bankroll management, and more. You’ll also see Bruce describing having set up weekly tournaments online for his students to play, and really it made a lot of sense to me that he had them playing poker as a way of immediately applying various ideas from their course.

In my course, I have the students play a session of poker in class just one time early on primarily to help them understand the rules of the various games -- draw, stud, and hold’em -- that we’ll be reading about and watching being played in films. Not everyone who signs up for the course is a poker player, and indeed even those who are don’t always have a lot of familiarity with five-card draw or other variants.

I mentioned this strategy here a few months ago, sharing an especially boring handout I provide the students detailing the rules of the various games. Knowing that actually handling cards and chips and having to play hands can be much more instructive than simply reading a sheet describing the rules, our little session does a good job getting everyone at least somewhat familiar with the games.

Last week we met for the second time and so as I’ve done before we went ahead and had our day of playing poker in class. I shared on Twitter last week a remarkable seven-card stud hand that occurred in which two students put in a number of bets to force others to fold, and by the end both had incredibly drawn four of a kind. One had quad nines and the other quad jacks.

We all marveled at the hands, and I tried to convey just how unlikely it was for this to have occurred. After all, I was introducing the game to just about all of them, so most had no frame of reference to help appreciate just how crazy a hand it was. I insisted on taking a picture (see above), just to chronicle the moment.

“What are the odds?” I was asked, and I had to tell them I didn’t know. I’ve seen a couple of different attempts to calculate it, both coming up with different yet similarly long odds against. (If any math-minded folks want to work it out exactly, please do -- my students and I would be grateful.)

One reason why I want to make sure the students realize quads over quads is hardly an everyday occurrence is because we are going to be reading a number of stories and watching some films (both clips and entire features) in which these sort of improbable hands are fairly common -- e.g., straight flush over straight flush, four aces over four kings, etc.

In many cases, cheating helps create these unlikely hands, though not always. Of course, we might say that cheating always creates these hands in the stories we read -- that is, either the characters are cheating or the author is “cheating” (in a way) by giving the characters such hands.

But in reality, hands like the one we had in my class last week just don’t happen. Pro player Joe Tall was telling me last week he’d never seen quads over quads in 7CS live, and perhaps once in ten years’ worth of playing online (including 1-2 years of full-time play online).

Quad jacks beat quad nines in 'The Sting' (1973)So I’m preparing today’s class during which I’ll be showing a few different film clips, including the great scene from The Sting in which Gondorff outcheats the cheater Lombard aboard the 20th Century Limited. And as I was looking over my notes and thinking about showing the scene to a new group, I realized what hands are turned over at the showdown.

Quad jacks over quad nines!

A different game (five-card draw), but the same hands as my students last week! Now what are the odds of that?

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Blogger Haley said...

I find it odd that a pro player would never have been in a quads-over-quads hand in 7CS -- this tells me he hasn't played a whole lot of 7CS.

I distinctly remember winning a quads-over-quads hand on my second-ever visit to a casino that spread poker, and this would have been around 1983 or 1984 in Wisconsin. I won with quad tens over another player's quad nines, and I've seen it probably a dozen times since in home games, despite 7CS not being played all that often.

1/30/2012 10:28 AM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

I won with quad Kings over quad Nines in a 7CS game at Billy's poker room at Bally's in Atlantic City back in the early 1990s. This too was probably one of the first handful of times I ever played the game live for any sustained period of time. I can't say I've seen quads over quads again in that time, but I don't play the game much and this leads me to believe it is probably a somewhat more common occurrence than you may be thinking as well.

1/30/2012 12:39 PM  
Blogger Missingflops said...

I've never seen quads over quads myself, but I do have to say that the moment when Newman looks up from his cards, grins around his cigar and says, "four jacks" is one of my favorite film moments of all time.

1/30/2012 1:42 PM  

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