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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Coping with Chance is Tough in a Universe Normally Ruled by Law

21 August 1995

ong ago, when I first tried casino blackjack, they told me if others at the table didn't "play by the book," the mathematically incorrect calls would change the flow of the cards and make me lose. I should have listened, although it took a while to prove they were right. I sometimes won when folks played badly and lost when everyone followed basic strategy to the letter. But, sure enough, other players' wrong moves sometimes got me cards I wasn't meant to get, pushing me into a hole and keeping me there.

Longer ago than that, when I first bellied up to a craps layout, they told me if other players leaned over the rail so the dice hit their hands, the table would cool off and make me lose. I should have listened, although it took a while to prove they were right. Dice sometimes hit players' hands and landed on my numbers, or they bounced unimpeded from the end wall and came up SEVEN anyway. But sure enough, the dice did sometimes pop off players' paws, landing as they weren't meant to land, costing me plenty.

Even further back, they told me if I voted for Hubert Humphrey instead of Richard Nixon, the country would amass a huge national debt and a negative international trade balance fueled by things like entitlements recipients coveted as constitutional rights, crime and violence would overrun the streets, the US would stand idly by bloody civil wars abroad, the phone company would disintegrate, and Toyota would sell more cars in Indiana than Studebaker. I should have listened, although it took a while to prove they were right. Good things sometimes occurred: the Berlin wall fell, the Russians became benign, prosperity reigned for a while, and no-fat salad dressing got invented. But sure enough, events sometimes did go as they weren't meant to go, exposing my folly.

There's a lesson here. It has to do with law and chance, order and chaos. With conditions which do and don't validate causality.

To a great extent, the universe is ruled by natural law. Causality applies. Do "A," get "B." Turn on furnace, get warm. Mix yellow and blue, get green. Go to work, get paid. Solid citizens are comfortable when order prevails and effect follows cause.

Certain things don't work this way, at least not entirely. Chance tempers, even overwhelms, law. Causality goes bye-bye. And people are uneasy when chaos reigns so consequences of their actions are uncertain. Picture it. Plan a picnic, hurricane Hilda washes it out. Head for the airport to go on vacation, a "jackknifed tractor trailer" strands you on the freeway as your only flight of the day soars overhead. Save for your daughter's wedding, get a card from Sitka saying she eloped with Jim, who quit law school to herd reindeer in the Yukon.

Casinos may epitomize environments governed by chance. Yet, even frequent players often unconsciously count on cause and effect. We follow strategies based on probabilities. We adopt systems we read about in a book or learned by watching a high roller raking in the dough. We expect to win by following the rules. When we do, we're pleased; our faith in causality is reinforced. When we don't, we're surprised; we concoct a cause for the loss. The "English" roulette dealers put on the ball. Slot machines that "know" how many coins are played. Hands draped over craps tables.

A paradigm shift is needed to gracefully transcend the universe of law and function well in the realm of chance. Recognition that possibilities range from likely to unlikely. "Probably" isn't "sure." Longshots aren't impossible. Patterns aren't hidden in randomness. And, with such recognition, ways to operate that promote, but don't guarantee, success. Or failure, either.

Oh, yes. My Humphrey vote gives me no guilt for the world's ills. I won't make the mistake again. Still, inside, I know many things happened by chance. My vote counted, but I know it didn't affect the odds. Politics? I know that's why they call it "gambling."

Sumner A Ingmark, writer of rhyme about risk and randomness, said what had to be said when he said:

With danger a gambler is flirtin'
By betting that "likely" means "certain."
Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.