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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Gambling Is a Sometimes Thing, and Therein Lies the Rub

27 August 2001

"What troubles me," wrote Michael Dertouzos of MIT in the Sept/Oct 2000 Technology Review "is the arrogant notion that human logic can anticipate the effects of intended and unintended acts, and the more arrogant notion that human reasoning can determine the course of the universe." Professor Dertouzos wasn't talking about anything as banal as keeping three connected clubs or a pair of jacks at video poker, or standing or hitting on 12 versus 2-up at blackjack. His concern was whether and how to pursue research in fields like genetic engineering and robotics.

This isn't to put punting on a par with cloning new kidneys or mining Martian minerals. But there's a relationship. The casino is like a fast-forward tape of much broader life experiences involving choices in a domain fraught with uncertainty. In a few hours' play, a gambler makes the equivalent of a lifetime of decisions by a scientist, business mogul, politician, housewife, or whatever - then leaves knowing how things turned out.

Dr Dertouzos does not advocate doing as we please, but respecting the unpredictable ways nature may react. His plea is to adopt a broad perspective, allowing for feelings and faith as well as conclusions deduced purely from mathematics and observed data.

The idea evokes the theory of truth proposed by the Oxford University historian, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. He said that what's "known" as true may rise from internal feelings, revelation by authority, reasoning and logic, or sensory evidence. And, further, that one or another of these may dominate at various times and places yet none is necessarily most valid. And, despite the strong convictions typically held by adherents, truth is only absolute when gauged by its own standards.

Gambling highlights the tendency of each person to consider his or her own perspective or truth as absolute, and everything else as malarky. Reflect on what you believe about your favorite game and how you reached your conclusions. To jog your thinking, consider the example of choosing a table at which to play craps.

Some dice doyens usurp any open spot where they can afford the minimum bet and the "odds" multiple is suitably high. They believe in the laws of probability, the logic, according to which results are affected by the choice of table, but chances are not.

Others eyeball players already in the game. Do they look like losers or winners, amateurs or old pros, bezonians or serious gamblers? This criterion is largely a matter of feelings.

Chartists inspect every table for signs favoring their style of play. Shouting, long rows of chips in the racks, and money crowded for space on the layout suggest a hot table for pass, come, and place bettors. The opposite for dark siders. Charting is typically revealed by some authority and taken on faith.

Is one approach right and another wrong? And how would you prove it to a solid citizen who is sure of a different reality and has the escape hatch of knowing that gambling is a sometimes thing?

For instance, craps players who follow the logic know that the math is that of probability. So, if a table full of bus ladies happens to be cold, they're not impressed by someone saying "I told you so" because any possibility is allowed and it could as well have been hot. Analogously, gamblers who follow hunches and play by their feelings remember occasional spectacular successes and forget routine humdrum failures. And chartists recognize that whatever was driving the positive trend must eventually end, a condition that may occur sooner rather than later.

Once in a while, gamblers change their minds. Feelings fall to logic, logic to observations, observations to the revealed word, and so on. It's the search for a new paradigm when the old model gets too contradictory. As gambling so often does. Sumner A Ingmark, a veritable voice of veracity in verse, explained it:

Gambling is a sometimes thing,
And therein lies the rub of it,
You think you've got it on a string,
When losses make a flub of it.

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.