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 …