Tuesday, 3 January 2012

There’s a scene in the film (of the book, no less) World According to Garp where the lead couple are viewing a house. As they do, a biplane crashes into the first floor, semi-demolishing it. Garp immediately buys the house: “Well, this is the safest house in America. What are the odds of something like that happening twice?”

You’ve got to love the logic. (Though not the film; that’s the best bit by far. I wouldn’t bother watching it even on a rerun when bored on a Sunday night. Relax, Teen Wolf is on probably on somewhere). It’s that same “logic” that games of chance play with in casinos, especially with those digital scoreboards that helpfully tell you which numbers the treacherous little roulette ball has hit last.

Okay, pop quiz hotshot. Let’s say you accidentally find yourself in a casino and see a roulette table which has hit the same number three times in the last six spins. Is it a) less likely to hit it again next spin, b) more likely or c) no more or less likely?

If you answered a), congratulations; you’re ready to make all of your major life decisions based on subjective recent history and you’ll enjoy a lifetime of ignorant bliss. If you answered c), bad luck, you are obsessed with logical analysis and will spend a lifetime in frustration as you try and navigate a world that hovers between madness and gentle chaos. Finally, if you answered b) – well done, you’re correct. The slight possibility of either a biased wheel or dealer error causing the ball to land in one segment more often gives a tiny increased chance above the statistical norm that the number will hit again. Plus, you know, the number could be hot…

In poker, the equivalent of the roulette board is the tournament display that tells you what the average stack is so you can effortlessly see how you’re doing in the event. It’s not an exact parallel with the roulette board as it doesn’t show irrelevant historical facts – instead, it shows irrelevant current facts (a bit like the local news).

The average stack in a tournament is a statistical fact and your relation to that stack is pretty close to totally irrelevant. It may be the case that it tells you how you’re doing, but for most of the tournament, whether you have a big or small stack, it has only a marginal effect on your chances of winning the event. For example, in most big tournaments, the big stack at the end day 1 might have five times the average or even more and feel amazing. But in reality, mathematically, assuming equal skill level, his chances of winning the event may only have increased by a couple of percentage points at most.

Also, there is so little you can do about it if you’re not ‘doing well compared to the average’. This isn’t like running in a race where you can grit your teeth, dig deep and give that extra effort to get chips. This isn’t about who wants it more. The cards, the players at your table and the spots that occur will decide if you can turn things round or not.
The problem is that tournament display showing the average stack figure fires a direct shot into the same part of your brain that gets hit when it sees the roulette display bored. The retarded part… sorry, I mean emotional part. It’s the same bit that analyses a horserace based on form, track conditions, weather, jockey, weights and then halfway through you realise the 20-1 outsider has the same name as your first dog, so clearly that’s the one.

If you have below the average stack, you get antsy that things aren’t going well. If you have above the average or are a really big stack you get overly excited and your expectations are artificially raised. Both these emotions can make you play worse – both are total imposters.
The thing is, a tournament is a mirage. You know the size of the field at all times and if it’s live you can physically see it in the room. You also know there will be a winner and that the big prizes are in the first couple of spots, so it feels like a race. But it’s not a race you can control. You can’t ‘make a run at it’, ‘deliberately accelerate up to the leaders, spend extra energy this level to get above average. All there ever is are your chips, the blinds and the chips of the other players at your table. And only at your table. You can’t play against anyone else and can’t win chips from anyone else. Put the best player in the world in a big tournament on a table with the eight tightest players in the event and he may chip-up, but unless he gets lucky with a cooler he’s almost never making a big stack. The key point is the best player in the world wouldn’t worry that some people in the tournament have a lot more chips than him.

Next time you’re in a tournament, think only about your table. Focus on it and the eight or nine opponents around it and concentrate on playing them off the felt. When your table breaks do not look at the tournament information at all, it’s all beyond your control. Just sit at your new table, assess your stack compared to the blinds, everyone else’s stack and start the process of playing them off the table all over again. Oh, and next time you see a roulette board with the number 13 on it three times, you should definitely cover it because I did that once and it totally hit.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, Columnist