Friday, May 06, 2005

Zog, Bamf and tournament poker

Poker was introduced on Zog several years ago, and it was an instant hit. Unlike earth, Zog's intelligent inhabitants are not so widely-varied in their talents. In fact, when poker tournaments were first introduced, every tournament saw the same 300 players show up every time, and every one of these players played with EXACTLY the same ability!

Much to the surprise of Zoggians everywhere, there was one player who had actually won more than one tournament of the mere 15 that were played in the entire history of poker on that planet. Everyone thought, "Wow, the odds against a single player winning more than 1 tournament out of only 15 when there are so many participants must be astronomical! This player really must know more about the game than anyone else!"

[Math note: The probability that some player will win more than once out of 15 tries with a 1/300 shot of winning each tournament is actually better than 1/3, so it's not such an amazing event after all. Unfortunately, the Zoggians evolved to be no better at intuitively understanding the mathematics of seemingly unsual events than humans.]

The Zoggian who achieved this feat of course also believed that he must be a great player, so he wrote a book that everyone immediately bought. Now because of the tournament success and the book, this player became a celebrity among poker players, and immediately commanded respect at poker tables everywhere. The plays that he made at the table that worked out well were heralded as more signs of his genius, while his failures were soon forgotten, or more likely, were deemed to have been "too deep" for mere mortals to understand. The selective memory syndrome built him into a legend. In addition to this, the confidence he acquired from his early success (and his opponents' concomitant collective fear) served to actually (for the first time) cause him to play slightly better than his opponents, making him slightly more likely to win events than his counterparts.

As the fame of the Zoggian poker author continued to grow unchecked, another player won multiple tournaments in a short time, and it was not long before he was proclaimed the newest Zoggian poker genius. Like his predecessor, this fellow wrote a book, and he also began collecting financial backers for future events. His backing allowed him to play more fearlessly than before, and this, along with his notoriety, helped him to gain a slight edge on his opponents.

This same story played over and over, with new "heroes" emerging every so often by winning multiple tournaments in a short time. Before long, there was a whole pantheon of "superstar" players, that everyone on Zog agreed were the elite. These superstars were just as susceptible to selective memory as the rest of the planet, so they believed that their fellow superstars really were "the players to beat". Many of them split action with each other in tournaments, figuring that their group was a shoo-in to get most of the money at every event they played. Every once in awhile, an "outsider" won a tournament who, for whatever reason, was quickly praised by one of the established elite. The effect of this was to effectively extend the period of time allowed (from 15 tournaments to 30) for that person to win a second tournament such that he would be admitted into the elite. This had the effect of greatly improving the probability of these connected newcomers hitting it big, AND it served to make the uppercrust even a more tightly-knit group.

All this happened without a single player having any greater understanding of the game of poker than anyone else. Many of the superstars played marginally better because they played aggressively thanks to their misplaced confidence, but this adjustment was by no means a deliberate conscious decision based on a strategic understanding of the value of aggression. After their original hot streaks, any occasional win (however rare it might actually be) by a superstar player only served to reinforce his stardom. Typically this person credited his win with some adjustment he made that "put him back on track". When a superstar failed to win a tournament, no one took the slightest note, possibly because there was almost always some other big name player to watch at the time. When a player fell on hard times and lost a backer, he simply shopped around until another came along.

One day, a small group of inhabitants from the nearby planet of Bamf arrived on Zog in a spaceship, and they were amazed to discover how truly awful the Zoggians played the game of poker. With their superior analytical skills and their centuries of experience, the Bamfites possessed a much deeper understanding of the game than the Zoggians could ever imagine. After speaking with and reading the books written by the star Zoggian players and after sitting at the tables with them a few times, the Bamfites concluded that even the Zoggian "elite" were clueless about the game. For a variety of reasons, most of the Bamfites decided that tournaments are not the smartest or fastest way to win money, and only a few even bothered to participate in these events. Those few that did take part only did so occasionally, and expected to win maybe one out of every 150 or 200 tournaments. Although this was a much better probability than their Zoggian counterparts, these Bamfites never got admitted into the group of "elite" players, because their limited participation made it extremely unlikely that they would manage to win multiple tournaments in a short time. When a Bamfite occasionally let it slip in public that the Zoggian star players were actually not very good, they were dismissed as "jealous", or were told that they simply did not understand the game well enough to see how deep the plays of these Zoggian superstars really were.

By Tom Weideman,


Ignatious said...

i love that post. well done. :)