Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

When You’re “Due” — The Gambler’s Fallacy

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I travel to Las Vegas once or twice a year, both to play poker (where I convince myself I have an advantage) and to dabble in other games (where I definitely don’t). Since 1993, when I started playing while on the East Coast, I’ve seen thousands of players succumb to the insidious gambler’s fallacy.

Let’s say you’re playing roulette and notice, as posted on the so very helpful display by the wheel, that five red numbers have come up in a row. Is black due? What about green (0/00)? The answer is neither. Roulette wheels are well-balanced and the little obstacles spread around the wheel, called canoes in casino parlance,  make outcomes random enough to be considered independent trials. If red numbers come up five times in a row, the next number will be red 18/38 of the time, black 18/38 of the time, and green 2/38 of the time. Ironically, it’s our human urge to discover patterns that makes the gambler’s fallacy work. The wheel has no memory, but we do.

The bottom line is that when you play roulette, the proportion of red, black, and green numbers will tend toward the target ratios over millions of spins and the weighted payoffs will ensure the house earns its profit over the long run. But what about games like poker? Poker is a skill game with a healthy dose of luck thrown in, so trials aren’t truly independent. Inferior players beat better players over the short term, but only because of luck. But what happens when equal players face off?

It’s hard to find players of the same skill level at a poker table, but I tested the theory by replicating an experiment described by poker author Lou Krieger. Like Lou, I set up ten identical players in Wilson Software’s Turbo Texas Hold’em simulation mode and let them play hundreds of millions of hands against each other. Six of the ten players were just above or below breaking even, but there were two big winners and two big losers. Remember that each player followed an identical strategy — the only factor controlling their fate was the luck of the draw.

As human beings trying to extract a living from an indifferent universe, we must realize that the odds are not always in our favor and that we will go through bad streaks we can’t seem to reverse. At these times it pays to strengthen your base by learning new skills or practicing old ones, reinforcing friendships, reaching out to others for help, and offering assistance where you can. Doing these things doesn’t constitute “good karma” or “putting things out into the universe”, both dubious concepts. What you are doing is improving the chances you’ll be ready to take advantage of opportunities that you and your contacts discover.

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