Now some people say that you shouldn’t tempt fate
And for them I cannot disagree.
But I never learned nothing from playing it safe
I say fate should not tempt me.

— Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I Take My Chances”

A couple of days ago, all of us in the PokerStars Isle of Man office were invited to troop upstairs to a room where they were giving away hoodies commemorating PokerStars’ 10th anniversary. We have a generous employer, and this was just one of many ways in which we’ve been celebrating ten years of pitching electronic cards to our customers.
Along with the hoodie, each of us got a candy bar. Not any candy bar, mind you, but one made by the preeminent confectioner on the island. Setting aside the unfortunate point that they were milk, rather than dark, chocolate, these candy bars were extremely special in another way. You see, ten of the bars distributed throughout the PokerStars family around the world contained a special gold inner wrapper.

Yes, it is Willy Wonka time for Stars employees.

I won’t say what the prize is for the lucky ten individuals who found the special inner wrapper, but suffice it to say that it is Extremely Cool.

And that brings me back to the queue of people heading up the stairs. I found myself standing behind “Bob D”, a long-time PokerStars marketeer and true poker player.

“Bob,” I suggested, “What say you get your candy bar, I get mine… and then…we swap.”

Bob’s body almost quivered with joy.

“Absolutely! I’m in!”

We got to the room, collected our hoodies and chocolate bars, and then, to the horror of the lovely HR people who were handing them out, blithely swapped chocolate bars.
Now at this point in the story, the reader finds him or herself in one of three groups:

  • Those who are puzzled by the fuss,
  • Those who are appalled at the idea,
  • Those who giggle with delight and would have demanded a three-way rotation had they been in the room with Bob and me.

    For those of you in the first group, allow me to explain: by swapping candy bars, Bob and I are simply stirring the probabilistic pot. Of course, it doesn’t change in the least our chances of receiving the lucky candy bar, but it shuffles the deck again, changes the state of the universe, and may – may – upend it.

    It is, in part, this ride on the variance rollercoaster that puts the gleam in a poker player’s eye; Bob and I simply wanted a quick spin around the track.

    But I will grant that there are those who look askance at tempting fate. They see an order in the universe and messing with that order is, at a minimum, chaotic. At worst, well, I was in the break room getting coffee and ran into Donna from our treasury department. Told her what we did.

    Donna looked at me like I’d grown a second head.

    “Why, I could never do that.”

    That is why Donna, bless her, works in our treasury department. Her job is to maintain control and keep the PokerStars beans smoothly flowing from one jar to the next as appropriate. The last thing she wants is somebody creating randomness for the sheer joy of doing it. Be very glad that Donna works in the PokerStars treasury, rather than Bob and me.

    You see, a true poker player knows clearly what he can control and what he can’t. We can control our decisions and, in some indirect way, our opponents’ decisions. But the specific card that comes flying off the deck, be it plastic or electronic, is utterly beyond our reach. Once you embrace that reality, you don’t fear fate. You know that it doesn’t care, the cards don’t care, and there is no “right candy bar”. You laugh into the gale of probability and dare it to blow harder.

    In our poker games at people’s houses, we often deal the cards in a, ah, non-standard fashion. For instance, the dealer will pitch the first card in clockwise order (as normal) but then reverse direction for the second card. I always watch to see which newcomers are uncomfortable with that. Those who are perturbed have a chink in their armor; they are looking for (or fearing) signs in tea leaves that simply aren’t there.

    A true poker player knows this: there are more than 8 x 1067 (8 followed by 67 zeros) possible orderings of a deck of 52 playing cards. Consider: when PokerStars deals its 100 billionth hand in the coming year, it will be hand number “1 x 1011“. In short, even PokerStars has not made so much as a statistical scratch in the available deck orderings; it’s a virtual certainty that the game of poker and/or the human race will vanish long before all 8 x 1067 shuffles have been done. So when Roger pitches the cards two at a time, the result is identical to dealing normally from a slightly different shuffle – one that has probably never existed on the planet, and probably never will again. How could we possibly worry about which particular one it is?

    By the way, neither Bob nor I found the special inner wrapper in our candy bars. But I bet we had more fun not winning than most everybody else in the office.

    Mary Chapin said it perfectly:

    “So cut the deck right in half – I’ll play from either side.”

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