iPods and Bola88 Poker
Newsweek had a fascinating article titled “Do iPods Play Favorites” that reminded me of poker. The author, technology writer Steven Levy, bemoaned the fact that his iPod, which is supposed to play music randomly, seemed to play some songs over and over while some never got played at all. Of course, the author’s error was seeing patterns in what indeed are random events. If his iPod made sure that every song got played, it would not be random.
Poker players also face random events every time they play. Some players also have a hard time accepting the fact that the cards come off randomly, and that everything that can happen eventually will. People mumbling “Unbelievable!” every time their set loses, or “How could I miss this hand?” when their outs fail to materialize, exemplify this inability to accept random events as they come.
And poker players have plenty of company. The human mind has a hard time understanding the concept of randomness. The need to seek patterns is a central element of the brain. Consider a caveman who went out hunting and saw a lion eat his buddy. We know now that lions eat people (a pattern), but the caveman did not really know that. Nevertheless, if he was to survive, he could not think, “That may have been a totally random event. Maybe it was the only time in history that a lion ate a person.”
He needed to guess at a pattern immediately: “Maybe lions eat people; I had better avoid them.”
The better these people were at seeing patterns, the more likely they were to survive. And we inherit that trait today. Unfortunately, poker features a huge amount of randomness; the patterns that we think we see simply confuse us and cause us to play (or think) badly.
“Eights are hot.” Recently I was in a terrific Saturday night $30-$60 hold’em Bola88 game at Bellagio with a large number of fun-seekers. In a span of 10 hands, seven of them had an 8 on the board, and a couple of boards had two eights. As you know, this plethora of eights means exactly nothing. The cards do not remember which ones came out on recent flops. Eights have no great desire to appear and outfight the rest of the deck for a chance to get faceup on the table.
Nevertheless, a grown man, who undoubtledly is highly successful in his own business life, announced, “Eights are hot,” and declared that he would henceforth play any hand with an 8 in it. Not only did he say that, he actually did it. Several hands later, he proudly showed us two pair (queens and eights). He had played the Qhearts 8diamonds in middle position because eights were hot. There is no telling how many other ragged eights he played, because he never got to turn another one over. But an hour later, after only a few if any eights had shown up on the board, a flop came with an 8 and the turn was another. Wouldn’t you know that our guy immediately said, “See, I told you eights were hot.”
This shows yet another form of patterning. Once we decide a pattern has been established, even though we know events are random, our wonderful minds reject contrary evidence (no eights for a long time) and seize heavily upon supporting evidence (finally, a flop with eights).
Flush Fallacies. Flushes seem to attract a lot of pattern speculation. One that everyone hears is, “I have not made a flush in 17 (or whatever number) hands.” Or, “Well, I haven’t made a flush all week.” Of course, some of these folks think that two in their hand and one on the board is a flush draw. But even those people who count flush draws only when there are two in their hand and two on the board can sometimes go a long time without making a flush. (By the way, keep in mind that for some of these players, the flush has to win. Making a flush and losing counts as not making a flush.)
The fact is, if you flop a flush draw, you will make a flush one time in about three. It does not mean that if you miss two, you are due or deserve to make one now. If you have missed five in a row and flop a flush draw, you still will not make it two-thirds of the time.
By the way, you never hear anyone complain, or even remark, that they have made four or five flushes in a row. Certainly, this happens, but people expect it to happen somehow as a reward for their long unlucky streak (everyone I know is having a long unlucky streak). People count only missed flushes, and we all know that they don’t really count them. They miss a few, announce a number, and then count from there. They actually seem disappointed when they make one, since that kills their streak and gives them nothing to complain about.
Even worse is the “two flushes in a row” fallacy, since it costs people significant money. Here’s what happens: Someone makes, say, a diamond flush. The next hand, that player picks up two diamonds and flops two diamonds. There is a bet and a call, and the player now throws away his flush draw. When asked why, he replies, “What are the chances of two diamond flushes happening in a row?”
These folks confuse two different principles. If you just walk into a cardroom, go to the nearest hold’em table, and try to assess the chances of two diamond flushes occurring in a row before any hands are dealt, the odds against it are huge. But the cards have no memory. If you have two diamonds in your hand and two come on the flop, you will make a diamond flush one time in around three. It does not matter if the last hand was a diamond flush, a spade flush, no pair, or a misdeal.
Event Fallacies. Our mental rejection of randomness drives us to assume that an intervening factor (an event) somehow changes things. Events stick in our minds and form what seem to be an artificial demarcation in the sea of randomness.
Let’s say you are playing a session. You are not surprised when you win a few hands and lose a few hands. That’s how sessions work. But, let’s say an event now takes place: Your friend stops by to say hello, a new dealer sits in the box, you color up, you win a pot with a bill rather than chips in it, and someone gives you a bad beat. Now, you lose a couple of hands or take another bad beat. Immediately, you will reject randomness and blame the event: Your friend brought bad luck, this is now your unlucky dealer, coloring up or bills are unlucky, you knew you should have left right after the bad beat, and so on. You will also recognize the online cash-out myth (the online site is somehow rigged to make you lose if you cash out) as another typical event fallacy.
Of course, if you win a bunch of money after an event, you might think the event somehow caused the win (but probably not, as we tend to think of wins as the result of our fine play; we look for events to explain why we are unlucky or losing).
This confusion of cause-and-effect and random activity causes players to ask for deck changes or the like. They are seeking to force an event that will create a new pattern. While they know that all the decks have the same cards in them, they somehow hope that the pattern they are in (losing) will magically change by bringing cards with a new sequence.
Card Order. Some players get incredibly upset if a dealer gives them the wrong card, or missed someone and gives them a different card from the one they were “meant” to have. It is as if some divine hand had determined the order of the cards for all time, and any deviation from the master plan will doom them (and only them) to a losing session (or worse). Not surprisingly, people who spend a lot of time obsessing over the exact order of what is essentially a random event frequently do end up losers for life. The mental energy they spend on such totally inconsequential things simply has to take away from time better spent observing opponents, tracking pot sizes, or considering strategy.
Conclusion. All of us think about patterns and try to fit random events into some sort of order. We can’t help it. But, we should realize when our thinking turns silly, and direct our thoughts to more productive pursuits. Whether you are playing poker or listening to an iPod, just relax and enjoy the flow. Don’t worry about the sequences.