Skill, Luck, and Other Myths

Dec. 10 - I worked as a cook at a restaurant in my hometown in the mid-1980s. A friend used to pop by now and then to shoot the breeze (and eat free food) during the slow hours between rushes. Sometimes we'd play cards—usually cribbage. We spent hundreds of hours one summer drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, bragging or complaining about women, and playing cards at one of the little cafe tables.

One day, in the midst of one of our games, an old graybeard rode into the restaurant on an electric wheelchair. He ignored the waitress and motored right up to our table. He looked like an angrier, crazier Colonel Sanders who'd let himself (and his beard) go to pot.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said. It was hard to believe he was talking to us—gentlemen?—but there were no other patrons in the restaurant and the waitress was very obviously (i.e., distractingly) female. "Excuse me, but I must pose this question: is cribbage a game of skill, or is it just shit luck?"

"Hm," I said, wondering.

"Both," said my friend.

"Let's see," the old man said. "Deal me in."

So we did. He annihilated us three straight hands.

"I ask again," he concluded: "Is it skill, or is it shit luck?"

He tipped an imaginary hat at us, whirled around, and motored on out of the restaurant and we never saw him again.

On the one hand it was a completely surreal experience—neither of us knew the old cadger, and he didn't bother introducing himself or making much conversation during the cards—but it was also profoundly educational. How much of anything is skill, and how much is luck? It's a question that's baffled philosophers for millions of years.

It was a formative experience in my development. But consider: if he had said everything he'd said and lost three straight hands, or even just split them, I might have evolved into a more reasonable creature. I might have believed luck was the secret of everything. Instead I concluded that skill was the main thing... that luck had its part to play, but skill would always triumph in the end.

But in the end it's all a big paradox. If it's luck that matters, the old fella just had three lucky hands. If it's skill that matters, he was a cunning old card sharp. So really it's more Rorshach experience than empirical evidence. My conclusion—that skill is more important than luck—was probably latent within me well before the bastard motored up to our table.

I relate this anecdote by way of salving more recent wounds. In our little poker nights here in Denmark, I've had one significant winning night, one marginal winning night, two or three marginal losing nights, and one what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-me night.

That was last week.

I had a straight to the king in a game without wilds—and lost to a straight to the ace. In a game of five card draw, I was dealt a full house—and lost, because I had threes and eights versus a guy who had fours and eights (after drawing three cards). Sometimes I was dealt plain crap, and from time to time I'd win a hand, but the four or five times where Hoyle himself would have told me to bet the farm, I'd have lost the farm.

Things peaked with one hand late in the evening.

We're four of us at table playing baseball (a variant of seven-card stud), and with my fourth card I realize I've got a great shot at a straight flush. I bid aggressively but not out of control—I don't want to scare anyone away, and my open cards actually make it look like I'm going for a regular flush—and another player, U., whose open cards reveal only a pair of eights, actually raises me.

So I raise him back. All the other players fold. I'm scrutinizing his cards feverishly, trying to calculate the best possible hand he could have. Four-of-a-kind if he has two wilds in the hole, but that won't beat my straight flush, if I can draw it. Does he really think I'm betting like this on a flush? Does he think I'm bluffing?

No, he later acknowledged, he just felt lucky.

The fifth cards come out face up—I nail my straight flush, which is great news, but he gets another eight, which elicits a little perspiration on the back of my neck; two wilds in the hole will now give him a game-winning five-of-a-kind. Odds of him having two wilds in the hole? Very, very low, I figure, since he's already showing one.

He bets big and I raise him. He doesn't raise me back.

The sixth cards come out face up. A wild card for him, nothing interesting for me. He doesn't look happy, though, and opens with a little baby bid. I figure now's the time to drive the stake through his heart: make it too unappealling for him to take the risk. So I throw out a huge bid, an unprecedented bid. He takes a deep breath and calls me. Somehow I can tell he's not bluffing—he's actually nervous. Probably he has four of a kind and can't decide whether or not I've actually got the straight flush.

We get our seventh cards face down and neither of us looks at them. Me because I don't need to, him because he's too nervous.

"Check," he says.

"There's enough money out there already," I say. "One krone." If you prefer skill over luck, you'd say I should have tried to drive him out of the game just one more time—but virtually all my chips were in the pot already. I certainly didn't have enough to scare him away, and he'd been having a good night and wasn't even betting with his own money at this point. Besides which, what are the goddam odds?

He agrees and throws his chip in the pot.

"You got it?" he asks.

I flip over the hole cards that make my straight flush.

"Damn," he says.

"You don't have five?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "Unless this last card gives it to me, but the odds..." and as he speaks he flips the card.

"Wow," he says. He's got five of a kind.

Skill, or shit luck?

Anyway, tonight's poker night. If I get any straight flushes tonight, I'll do the sensible thing.

I'll fold.

Golden Years

Sixty-seven years ago today King Edward VIII of England abdicated the throne of England to marry American divorcee Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson.

Fifteen years and a day later (on December 11, 1951), Joe DiMaggio announced his retirement from baseball and three years later he married Marilyn Monroe.

The superiority of the American retirement system cannot be doubted.

It's Foundation of the MPLA Worker's Party Day in Angola, Constitution Day in Thailand, and International Human Rights Day in Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia and the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Kenneth Branagh turns 43 today. He shares his birthday with Susan Dey (1952), Chet Huntley (1911), and Emily Dickinson (1830).

The guy who invented the Dewey Decimal System was also born a long time ago on this date, but I can't remember his name.

Happy Hump Day!

2003, The Moron's Almanac™

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