April 13, 2009
Science, Gambling, Telling Stories
Gambling and science and story-telling have a complicated relationship. I have to admit upfront I’m biased: In my science days, I picked up some statistical reasoning skills, and even those modest skills were enough to more or less murder my fascination with gambling, a fascination tangled up with my (former) ability to fashion stories around winning gamblers. I’m a little bitter.
I had always vaguely known that red and black don’t politely take turns on the roulette wheel (“You go.” “I insist.”), and that aces and face cards had no choice but to be dealt out of the deck randomly; but I’d also been pretty good at pooh-poohing the word randomly. I’d written it off with a sort of anthropomorphic bluster, as if good old comfortable human order was winking at me beneath the gamblers’ binary gibberish of red-black-black-red-black, etc. If I just looked harder—why right there, a pattern! I suppose it’s the same rage for order that makes people hear voices in radio static and see the Virgin Mary ex nihilo in macaroni.
Honestly, I never gambled much, and only infrequently, but like many males I thought I would have been a pretty cool gambler, and successful. I like to stay up late and have drinks in disreputable places, after all. It didn’t help my career as a gambler that I’m not hard-wired for the neurological jolt that gamblers get when they win money, the maladaptive endorphin rush that wipes out the memory of their losses, even if the winnings don’t come close to covering. (A gambling joke: “I hope like hell I break even tonight. I can’t afford to lose any more money.”)
Money aside, I liked to win at gambling: It somehow proved I outsmarted the universe. That I could see through chaos. And I sure had an instinct for remembering stories about gambling. Not pathetic racetrack scenes where people bet $100 on Little Darlin’, then have to decide that night between eating and cigarettes. I liked stories of people getting comped big rooms at Vegas hotels. I liked that the IRS has special tax forms to report gambling assets—who were those people? What story did they tell their parents/spouses/friends when they decided to gamble full time? I loved that Dostoevsky wrote an entire novella (The Gambler, natch) in just three weeks to pay off gambling debts to goons, a Kerouacic frenzy of almost automatic writing.
That last story’s still pretty good. But, sigh, any mature understanding of numbers makes gambling look plain dumb. Some people win, some people lose, and there’s nothing special about any of them, no more than there’s anything special about some uranium atoms “getting hot” and going radioactive and some nearby uranium atoms staying cold and not. Before, I could count crowds of people and think that because there are thirty of us playing the slots and because there are thirty-to-one odds of winning something, that one of us has to be due. And why not me? Once you start to reason about these kinds of thing numerically, you cannot help but think: Because the odds are three percent, that’s why not you, dummy. And none of you are “due” anyhow.
It’s not fun to see yourself as part of a system like this, no more special than the balls in a bingo tumbler. You can save a love of money, but what’s money worth if you’re no longer an exception in the universe?
Perversely, once you’ve banished anthropomorphic thinking, gambling becomes both less fun and more profitable. The MIT kids who broke the big casinos with only minimal cheating (retold as a quasi-nonfictional story in Bringing Down the House), those kids made millions (and got rooms comped to them!) by dawdling at the blackjack tables when the cards weren’t in their favor—and then betting huge sums when they had counted enough cards to determine that the odds had shifted for a few frenzied hands. That’s a smart way to gamble, but bloodless. I’d rather see someone double down with his last chip and fight back.
There’s also the story of Nick the Greek, the famous professional gambler. Nicholas Dandolos was lucky and “skilled” enough to win a lot of card tournaments as a young man, but he eventually realized he could make more money betting against tourists and rubes than against the house. These were often foolish bets, where the odds clearly fell in Nick’s favors—betting someone that after three blacks in a row in roulette, the next two would have to be red. But people held so fast to their fictional beliefs that they often took him up. As his fame grew, people approached The Greek with even more outlandish gambles, just to say they’d bet against him. Every so often Nick lost, and the winner picked up a fat wad of bills and a great story to tell friends. The rest of the time Nick cleaned up—and of course gave the loser a pretty good story anyway.
People often blame superstitious gambling on innumeracy, illiteracy with numbers. That might be true, but even beyond that is a deficit of psychology. People cannot help but imagine themselves as exceptions. Statistical facts get pushed to the same mental junk drawer as advice to quit smoking. Telling ourselves convenient stories is arguably the most human thing we do, taking every ounce of our emotional and reasoning skills, yet literacy with numbers kills that instinct and replaces it with nothing.
Actually, I still catch my old instinct poking through. It happened last week with the NCAA basketball tournament, the country’s second-biggest (after the Super Bowl) gambling extravaganza. Despite not having filled out a bracket myself and despite having nothing at stake (my team, Minnesota, lost in the first round), I found myself poring over the leader boards of online contests. On the New York Times contest, one “cassidystockwell” erred on just six first-round games and one second-round game—and got everything else right after that. Every Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four game: right, right, right, right, right ... right up to UNC over Michigan State in the championship. On Yahoo! sports, “Kid’s Pick2” did even better, missing five first-round games and one second round game. The best bracket I saw was on ESPN’s site (go figure), where “joet7247” rose up above the other 7,246 Joe T’s by missing just four first-round games and one second-round game, and marching flawlessly into the finish.
Having had, in decades past, my own brackets bombed to rubble in the first round (Go to hell, Coppin State class of ’97!), I was awed by the savvy of Cassidy Stockwell and Joe T. Even if you loathe sports, imagine watching game after game fall exactly as you’d predicted. Nailing dozens of picks in a row. Being able to say I told you so to every coworker and barfly who chortled and said You picked who? I wanted to know what it felt like to have an internal dowsing rod like that: To just know, and to know you know, and to have the world give when you pushed, because you knew where to push.
As soon as I sat back in my chair and cast myself in Joe T’s story, it all fell apart. Of course somebody got all of them right. With tens of thousands of entries, one person was bound to. Shit. Viewed from above, there was nothing special about this. From above, this was no different than that old scam where someone sends out 100,000 letters to random people, half predicting the stock market will rise, half it will fall. Next week, he sends out 50,000 letters to those who received the correct pick last week, with half of the new batch saying the market will rise, half it will fall. Then 25,000 letters, then 12,500, until he has around a thousand people to whom he writes: “You’ve got six correct weeks of stock picks in a row. How about investing some real money?” Looking at Joe T’s single bracket—with the clutter of all the wrong brackets brushed aside—I was one of those people with the stock-picking letter in my hand, and I very much wanted to believe it, even if I’d noticed my neighbor sending off suspiciously large volumes of mail for a few months.
What I’m afraid of isn’t that I won’t want to gamble any more. And while it’s sad to know that if I do win a gamble, I probably had nothing to do with it, it’s not devastatingly sad. I’m afraid of losing something else. Losing the instinct to tell myself stories, a priori, about how I’ll surely win. Since I’m trying to make a living as a storyteller, I’m afraid that instinct will wither, and I’ll forget what people feel like in that flush. The thing about learning science and statistics is that you know you’re right about the world and how it works. But in exact proportion to that, you forget that most people don’t think scientifically, and don’t care to. You risk losing them, or, worse, looking down on them. I’m not so afraid of losing the belief that gambling is glamorous as I am afraid of losing the ability to see why people think it is, and coming off like a prick because of that.
I have a friend who for years didn’t seem particularly credulous or discriminating about statistics. He didn’t gamble, but he was just as good as anyone at inventing stories that exempted him from inevitable laws. A few years ago C. started reading more and more and became a hyper-rationalist. An evangelical rationalist. Who won’t shush.
At a college football game last fall on a partly sunny, partly thunderstormy afternoon in Baltimore, C. announced before kickoff that it looked the storm would pass by after all. It was a safe bet.
“No, don’t jinx it!” another friend protested.
“Jesus Christ, do you really think the cloud heard me, and decided that it was going to double back and screw us?” A lecture on probabilities ensued, with healthy discursions into the inability of the past the to affect the future. It ended with the berated friend throwing up his hands and swearing back. “Okay, fine!”
Anyway, it ended up raining. Everyone got soaked.
Posted by Sam Kean at 12:40 AM | Permalink