« The gAtari looks silly, sounds rad | Ads for Game Boy Camera and ‘Girl Talk’ (1998) »

On games of chance and “cheating”

Photo (Flickr): Chess by Howard Walfish

This Christmas I told my mother about Mohan Srivastava, some dude I first started thinking about ten-and-a-half months ago. Back then I’d written some diary thingie about “cheating,” “stealing,” and “cons.” The February 2011 issue of Wired was about all those things, too—the magazine had included an article about Mohan Srivastava—and reading the magazine was the first time I ever thought more carefully about “game-breaking” and morality. (Belated edit: I just remembered how much I like this book also.)

Over the holidays, my mother and I were watching an episode of The Mentalist together, which I like to watch with my mother sometimes because, even though it is a terrible television show, I like the idea of the main character being a mentalist and skeptic. A mentalist understands all these little rules about people (like how to perform a “cold reading”), and the hero of the TV show uses these talents for good.

This particular episode was about a town where all its residents are obsessed with finding veins of gold. The fictional people in this fictional town are all looking for gold but they are sidelining their lives to pursue it: going broke, wasting money on mining gear, alienating family, pinning every hope to finding those riches. (The episode is also about scams and cons, so I was really enjoying it, even though it was just as mediocre of every other episode of The Mentalist.)

“This really happens!” I said to my mother during a commercial. “People really waste their lives trying like this! On a pipe dream. It’s all just gambling,” I concluded. I was thoughtful.

“Haven’t I told you about Mohan Srivastava?” I asked my mother then. “The geological statistician?”

Srivastava is a type of statistician who consults the evidence, runs the variables through a complicated algorithm the rest of us will never understand, and thereby deduces the location of gold veins. So it turns out that locating a vein of gold is already a “solved game,” just like chess but more intricate.

This isn’t why Srivastava is famous; there are other geological statisticians who can also do what he does. Instead, Srivastava is famous because he realized “solving” the lottery isn’t so unlike “solving” the location of little streaks of gold in rock, and so Srivastava used the same rules and algorithms he already used for his job until, finally, he could no longer “lose” the lottery.

“Isn’t that unbelievable?” I asked my mother. “People will gamble their entire lives away on these little chances but it isn’t even real gambling, because nothing is really random. Or if it is gambling, it’s shooting your arrow blindly, over and over, hoping that you will land in one of these fated spots. And so you’re only gambling on yourself, not really on the location of this gold.” This is also many video games, right? There is a fated, narrative end, but you play on anyway.

The commercial break had ended, and now the eponymous Mentalist had determined the location of the gold by tricking someone else into going to the secret mine ahead of him (our hero, pretending to be a sort of psychic earlier, had really only followed the bad guy there).

Then I asked my mom if she remembered Roger Craig, Jeopardy! champ. She did! She loves him. I asked her if she knew how he had become unbeatable. She didn’t.

So here is the story: Roger Craig created a piece of software to help him study for the quiz show. First he created a huge database of Jeopardy! questions. Then he “categorized” all the questions, probably by hand. But it would be impossible for any one human being to study every category of Jeopardy! question, so Craig assigned values to these categories. Because it’s like, certain categories—like “World History,” say—are going to come up more often than “Ballet” or “John Waters Movies,” obviously. What’s more, correct answers for “World History” will tend to hold a lot more cash value than other answers might. So Craig knew which categories to study harder for. He was essentially looking for veins of gold.

Craig used his makeshift software to quiz himself, and these quizzes also helped him determine that he is just naturally lousy at answering certain categories’ questions.

Therefore, Craig discovered an algorithm: If 1) Craig’s odds of getting an answer correct are low and 2) the category isn’t very worthwhile anyway, then 3) Craig actually knows which categories to tackle and which to leave alone. This was especially handy while he was actually playing the game: Roger Craig would look at the category, consider its worth, weigh its worth against the odds of his knowing the answer and, using a type of math, decide whether or not to go all-in.

In-game, Craig visibly pauses to calculate his odds of a win. “I’ll bet it all,” he finally says, and his victory is almost too incredible to watch:

I tried hard to explain all this to my mother. Then I asked her whether or not she thought this was “fair” play.

“Of course it’s fair,” she told me.

“I think I agree,” I said slowly—my mother and I both love Jeopardy!—“and I think he earned his win. But some people might not feel that way. He figured out how to beat people who maybe know a lot more about stuff but take the wrong chances. In a way, he won against people he shouldn’t have.”

We both were quiet for a long time.

“Um,” I said, breaking the spell. “So it really is the same as with the geological statistician, because his only real ‘crime,’ if there were a crime, is learning these secret rules of the game, these rules that nobody else understands, so that he never has to take a gamble. See?”

“No,” my mom said.

“That guy could play the lottery and win every time,” I continued, “and so is it fair that other people ever had to play against him.”

“I don’t know,” my mom said.

“What I am saying is, we socially dictate such a fine line between ‘knowing the real rules’ and ‘cheating,’” I mused.

Now I told my mother about pick-up artists and ‘The Game.’ I told her about how we naturally do not trust pick-up artists because that is a sleazy trade.

“Why is that?” I wondered aloud (now I was revisiting a thought I’d first had out loud with a friend on October 30 of last year). “Sure it’s wrong to treat women like gold dust, but a lot of The Game is studying basic tenets of human psychology that maybe other people haven’t bothered with. There are all these little rules most people don’t understand. Is it actually wrong to use those rules, when a person is only really trying to understand how other people work, better than most people do?”

We both were quiet again. Maybe my mother was asleep.

“So we act like it is not moral or ethical to figure out those rules, because we treat it like an unfair advantage,” I told nobody. Now I was thoughtful again.

Hmm. Sometimes, if things start to seem ‘unfair,’ we legislate. We get really legalistic about this type of thing.

Martha Stewart was subject to this. One time she was given a hot stock tip—we might call it a “new game rule,” if we are feeling generous—and now that she possessed this new information, she had to decide whether to play by the rule or ignore it, as if she never had been told how the stock game works. She chose to play by that rule, rather than taking risks, and she ended up in jail for awhile. We call what Martha Stewart did “insider trading.” We don’t like “insider information,” because that means someone gets to play by a ruleset the rest of us cannot access. When anything seems ‘unfair,’ even fleetingly, we collectively feel so victimized.

Or maybe someone is in a casino, gambling. If he is a pretty good poker player, he will know how to watch and play. If his opponent plays a Queen (or whatever), our card shark might realize the hand he was cultivating is finished, and so he folds and still escapes with some of his money. That type of thing is OK.

But what if the same card shark is also really good at counting cards! What if he has developed a machine’s computational agility at knowing where every card is in the deck? Knowing how to do this is difficult but not miraculous, but it is most certainly a type of cheating, and a card shark on a winning streak might might eventually be asked to leave the table, or maybe the entire casino.

A great card shark really impresses us, though, doesn’t he? His knack for counting cards is a real talent, a type of high scam. Sometimes we tip our hat to mentalists and “hustlers,” don’t we, because they can be really creative and talented even as they are defrauding people, and if we are not the person being defrauded, we are so impressed.

“But maybe if we feel like we are the person who is losing something to somebody else,” I continued aloud to my mother, “we decide things are unfair.”

“Hmmmmmm,” my mother said, not thoughtfully but sleepily.

“Anyway,” I said to her, “the whole thing makes me so sad!”

“Why?” my mother asked me, sounding more awake.

“Um,” I said. “We feel like the right thing to do is to not know the secret rules. We feel a lot more sympathy and respect for those hardworking dreamers who keep shooting and shooting those arrows into empty spaces.” Ugh, the losers.

“And,” I said. “And.

“And those things everyone is looking for, they aren’t up to chance at all! They aren’t! They’re, uh, they aren’t chaotic, they’re part of math and a harmonious universe, and they’re, um,” I said.

“It’s like predestination,” my mother the Catholic said.

“Well, yeah! Well, determinism,” I said.

“Which is sad,” she said.

“And scary! And sad,” I agreed. “How terrifying, that you can try and try your whole life, and there is free will, but the ‘free will’ is you, you, never hitting on the ‘right’ thing, this thing that is—”

“Fated,” my mother suggested.

“Yes!” I said.

And here is where this particular blog gets weird.

I sat there, reeling at the idea that your ‘fortune’ is this ancient thing that predates you, and your only hope—if this is the sort of thing you long for, for any type of life success—is to somehow arbitrarily strike on it, or maybe to not-randomly strike on it, if you are some kind of cheater. That idea radically changes everything, doesn’t it? Every philosophy.

Now I wondered aloud, to my poor mother, at what the location of gold veins—just, the literal location of gold veins!—meant for me, for narrativity and storytelling, for game-making and game-playing, for my own sense of religion and life philosophy, and she and I both got worried.

Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything? But I was raised Southern Baptist, where we are taught that there is one final truth, and unless we breathlessly drive toward that final truth, toward that singular golden vein, we are going in the wrong direction. But! there is another part of (most denominations of, excluding Calvinist) Christianity, too, and that is, we all have free will. The concept of free will is tantamount to the type of idea of moral “salvation” I grew up with. It goes: maybe if we stop gambling and choose this one thing, that choice is all the more important because we chose freely. Otherwise, what is the point?

Or maybe that is not true, either. I’m not sure. Everything is in flux, so I am thinking out loud.

I know, I mentioned Calvinism. I know that determinism, predeterminism, and predestination are commonly-confused terms with nuanced differences. I struggle, too, to not conflate them. But I have written lengthily—even here! Right here on this blog!—about my longstanding fear of determinism, which I only hope isn’t a thing.

Because if I were to become convinced the game of life is “solvable,” whether with or without algorithms, I very constantly wonder whether I would be able to also live ethically. Can I? Can we? Can we really live ethically while believing in golden veins? Many philosophers say no. I’m not sure.

So I said all this to my own mother, and she and I were both worried for me.

ETA: John Peter Grant expands on these ideas, connects them more tangibly to games, and—oh, just read this.

19 responses to “On games of chance and “cheating”” »

  1. caleb says:

    do you usually smoke weed with your parents? 🙂

    When looking for ways to pay for college when i was leaving high school this line of thinking ran through my head quite a bit. I had quite a few friends that weren’t going bc of financial problems, when my thinking was how easy it was to get into some higher education, especially if your poor.

    While not as high concept as your examples the things people dont know about something they embark on , especially work and school, compared to those with some knowledge about how things work do seem unfair. its gut wrenching unfair sometimes.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Hah! No weed involved. HOWEVER: I did take my darling cute mother to the theatrical opening of ‘Dude Where’s My Car,’ a little stupidly, and she and I individually were the two oldest people in the theater.

      Anyway I think I feel you. Actually I think you’ve nailed it. Yeah—as soon as someone finds that “secret set of rules,” and that window of opportunity, yeah, wow, it can totally burn you up. The concept of higher education really burns me up, too (I know I was tweeting both sides of this earlier, but:) you’re right. Especially in that case, unless you are sidled with a person who knows all the secret rules (like my mom! A guidance counselor! She was really great at her job, even award-winning at her job, where she found all these “gold vein” scholarships that could pay off school), you are really kind of screwed. No one can do it by himself without accruing all sorts of debt. Hmm. Hmmmm.

      I will probably think about this awhile, and also about how much I love my mom. Who forgot to send my (and only my!) scholarship application in, but you know, I periodically like to remind her of that and anyway I love my mom.

  2. karobit says:

    I agree that my admiration for a person’s insight into a game’s rules turns to disgust as soon as that competition has a loser, or really, when it becomes a competition at all. I can’t explain why other than its “unfair,” particularly in the context of something like Jeopardy. It seems like it should be this utopia where knowledge is finally monetarily rewarded. It’s not about who you know or how you dress, but about your “intellect.” But then this guy comes along who has discovered the system and discovered how to game it and all of a sudden he’s pushing you into the sand while he makes out with your girlfriend. It’s the worst. It’s also not actually really like that at all, but that’s how it feels, which trumps reality.

    When Dragon Quest IX came out, I decided to pick it up because I knew I would be at San Diego Comic-Con a couple weeks later and it would one of the few times that game’s social features could get put to good use in America. It was also the first Dragon Quest I had seriously played and the first JRPG I’d put a significant amount of time into in quite a few years. I was actually enjoying playing the game and meeting the little characters of my friends, as well as strangers roaming the stadium sized exhibit hall. When I got back home I decided to look online to see some discussion about the game and I was horrified to find mobs of min/maxers, spoilsports who had apparently already “solved” the game and figured out the correct way to play it. It soured me on the whole thing and I’ve barely picked up the game since then. It doesn’t really make any sense—in a single-player game like that, what anyone else does in their own game has absolutely no effect on me. I’m not in competition with them and the only opportunity they would have to somehow malign my play-style would be if I actually engaged them on forums, which I would never do. But it was too late, the toaster was dismantled, the mystery was gone, and I knew how the sausage was made. This is probably my own hang-up.

    I’m sorry that the only reactions I have are games-related.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      I mean, this is a really worthwhile deconstruction, and it’s more astute than anything I wrote. Put at its simplest, you can just say, “Dude, don’t be an asshole about it; it’s just a game.” Like, please don’t go in “hard” on 2D fighters, on poker, on Jeopardy!, on stock trading, on Peggle; it’s just me, here, being all leisurely and enjoying the game. It’s all for the love of the game.

      I say this, and yet I am the person who also applauded a dude for going hard on ‘Mafia Wars’. That is a game where, when you encounter a hardcore player, you’re just, “Really?!” But there is a beauty in all game-breaking, even though sometimes the rest of us suffer totally. Hmm. Hmmmmmmm. I’ll ask my mother about this in the morning probably.

      • Playing with people who know one-frame links and how to kara-cancel in Street Fighter is totally fair. You can still win, but they have an understanding of the rules that you don’t, but it’s YOUR fault for not putting in the time to gain that same understanding. So yes, I agree that meta-gaming is fair.

        To that, though, I think people should try to find folks with their own level of savvy. We play games, and gamble, and partake in risk because there’s a chance we might lose. That’s where the enjoyment comes from, and that was the basis of my college lecture on why video games are superior to more “passive” entertainment. For the Jeopardy fellow, nobody there could beat him. He’s in it to win money, though. But if we’re sitting down and playing a game of Risk (apropos!) and I know which countries are statistically more likely to give me an advantage in the opening game, and you also know that, then we’re going to have a good game.

        People who have no way to lose get bored, because there’s no risk, no dopamine response from being a winner, because it was “fated” statistically. Those people need similar folks who are also at a high meta level. For the rest of us, finding evenly-matched opponents is the key to enjoying risk and challenge. It’s not cheating to know the rules. It’s cheating yourself out of a higher experience if you refuse to see how deep that rabbit hole goes.

        I used to think Pokemon was just a fun game, until I got competitive back in 2000 or so. That was a much simpler game than the ones we have today, too. Yet the amount of meta-gaming, down to calculating max stat potentials and using complex algorithms to determine matchups before they even happened, made the game that much more exciting when played with similarly enlightened people. When everyone has the same information, that’s when you can get truly strategic, come up with spontaneous tricks, and further evolve the game. That’s much more fun than two random Pikachu smacking each other around.

  3. afshin says:

    I think this is the crux of it:

    We don’t like “insider information,” because that means someone gets to play by a ruleset the rest of us cannot access.

    But I think I take it a little farther. Basically, if the secret rules are out there for anyone to discover, then I’m not sure it’s “unfair”. I think what made Martha Stewart’s inside trading unfair is that her competitors couldn’t have possibly known what she knew. But a card-counter’s hustling seems acceptable to me because she doesn’t have access to any extra information than I do: she just has better analysis.

    Discovering “secret rules” that are there for anybody to discover just seems clever. Creating “secret rules” that require information that is privileged or somehow forbidden by the “public rules” ... that’s unfair.

    • Nicholas says:

      This is astute. It doesn’t change the point being made, but the examples should certainly be separated. It is perhaps a subjective distinction, but one with merit.

    • jam says:

      An interesting take.

      But hacking is a very similar. It’s about making use of information that other people ‘know’, but don’t normally take advantage of. There’s also the sense that it goes past the scope of normal gameplay, just like using money or lawyers.

      In the hacking world, ‘discoverable’ information is generally considered more unfair/hard then ‘created’ rules. Created rules is called ‘security through obscurity’, and is considered weak. Far safer, they say, is to create a system that is hard to discover information in, and publish all the rules.

      I would call all the people in the article hackers (or scientists). They subverted the system with knowledge. Martha Stewart made use of a backdoor, but she’s basically just a script kiddie compared to Srivastava or Craig. Probably it’s not that created rules are more unfair, it’s that they require less skill to take advantage of, and being beaten by a person with less skill then us just doesn’t seem right.

  4. David L. says:

    A good read. Thanks!

    In MMO game systems development much of the time is spent anticipating and preventing “exploits” – where the combinations of complex rules (code) may not support the intent of the design.

    Even if the intent of the design seems obvious to the designer, and the exploit clearly egregious, players often argue that the behavior must be fair because “the game allows it.” Even better, I’ve had players argue to me that a particular skill exploit was clearly intended because of the great benefit it gave players rather then the fix we implemented which was approved by the actual designer.

    One’s concept of fair seems to change a lot depending upon which side of the benefit one is on. Sad, perhaps, but not surprising.

    Not surprising at all.

  5. It also comes down to your mindset. Have you read Playing to Win by Dave Sirlin? He outlines the two types of play—playing for fun and playing to win—and how they differ as well as how they’re similar. He tells you what you need to do if you want to play to win, which is basically exploiting every possible thing you can get your hands on. But he also talks about how to play for fun, and how it can factor into your wins and help discovery. He’s a bit of a douche to talk to, but the book is definitely worth checking out if you want to expand on the topic of “what is fair?” some more.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Yeah, I like this idea a lot, if only because it’s so relatable. Like, I looo-oooove Tekken, don’t get me started on Tekken, but Johnny Dangerously over here is going in hard, pulling out all the stops, and I’m like, “Jeesh, give it a rest, man, it isn’t even fun anymore, now I hate Tekken, thanks a lot, jerk.” Maybe part of those Sour Grapes is, sure, I’m competitive, too; sure, if I knew what Johnny knew, I could win too. But it isn’t my priority to be the best-ever at Tekken even though, in the moment (i.e. when I’m losing) I suddenly wish I could kick some ass. So I default to competitive ambivalence: “I didn’t even want to win, jerk! It’s just, I like Tekken, and you’re ruining it!”

      There’s another idea here somewhere, and it’s kind of insidious and sticky: for all of us, “fair play” means “evenly matched” (which, yes, is what you were saying in your earlier comment upthread). Competing against a wimp is boring. Meanwhile, playing someone who outpaces and outranks us, that’s actually hugely frustrating. We shout “Cheap! That was cheap, man!” We shout, “This isn’t even fun now! I’m not playing!”

      The other book I’d point to, Mike, is ‘Finite and Infinite Games,’ which is about ten pages long but I have never finished reading it. I’m scared to finish reading it.

      • Being evenly matched is the most exciting thing in competition. When there’s a perfect risk/reward balance, that’s when victory is the most fulfilling. It narrows down the margin of error and makes your win actually feel like it means something. For a person like myself who defines happiness through success and developing skill, it’s the ultimate high.

        Problem is finding people who are at your level. This is why I always wanted a non-asshole roommate who played games so we could be rivals. Having a rival is the quickest way to improve at something, as it gives you a motivator. Chris Hardwick uses the example in The Nerdist Way of finding someone whose picture you can look at to inspire you to keep working on yourself. In a “fuck you!” or “I’ll show you!” kind of way.

      • Jenn Frank says:

        All these remarks (and thank you for bringing them off Facebook and over here for me) really bring it full-circle for me. I first started down this rabbit’s hole, a whole entire year ago, because I was thinking all over again about how some types of crime are fascinating and “high” (“moral,” almost) while others are cheap and “low” (“immoral,” “amoral”). We divvy scams into those two columns.

        Now, I am a woman who will see a great magic trick on the street, throw a five-dollar bill down, and the magician—who suddenly feels guilt because he thinks the illusion wasn’t all that deft or credible?—will say to me, “Let me show you two more, ma’am.” Man, that is great. I love that. I still love a good con, and I love being conned two more times for five bucks. Like, I will PAY for the privilege. We all love great gimmicks! That is WHY we play video games: for a deft illusion. We aren’t being ‘had,’ exactly—not completely, because we’re skeptical, not all-the-way complicit—but we admire how we are being manipulated. That’s highbrow stuff. That’s the same thing as admiring Roger Craig’s manipulation of the game Jeopardy!, in a way. We go, “Man, you are GOOD,” and we feel all this, uh, this vicarious feeling of success.

        Then there’s the “cheap” stuff. “Cheap” is being mugged. “Cheap” is having your identity stolen in a way that doesn’t require, I don’t know, amazing counterfeits and painstaking replicas. “Cheap” is having your purse stolen when you aren’t looking. “Cheap” lacks dexterity; it is thug crime. (ETA: There is no strategy in thug crime at all! It is a sort of audacious “buttonmashing.”)

        When we admonish an opponent, whether computer-generated or human, as “cheap,” we are assigning categories and values to these things, just as Roger Craig does when he is working out the rules and natural logic of a different game. See what I’m getting at?

        ETA: It’s like, we’re all trying to recognize patterns—or “rules”—but we’re also assigning all these values, trying to prioritize all that information in a different way. Hmm. I dunno yet.

  6. Ernesto Regalado says:

    This reminds me of another contraversial figure in the game show world. Michael Larson was the guy who “solved” Press Your Luck, the 80s game show with the lights on the board and the “whammys”. I first heard about this guy in the 90s. There were rumors online about a potential movie based on the life of this guy who figured out there was a pattern to the way the lights move and went on to win over a hundred thousand dollars. Bill Murray was supposedly in talks to star. I, being a huge Murray fan, immediately pictured him as the hero. The guy who saw something nobody else did. The movie was never made but an hour-long special was broadcast on the Game Show Network about the guy in 2002. I was appalled by that special because it cast Michael Larson as the villain.

    The special was mostly interviews with producers and the other contestants, so it wasn’t very “fair” to him. He was deceased after losing all of his money in bad investments and bad luck so he couldn’t stand up for himself. It made it seem like he was a “con man” always looking for a “get rich quick”. The producers seemed to have sour grapes, probably because they lost a lot of money, but they themselves said they couldn’t find a single rule in his contract that said what he did was wrong.

    I think if your job is to make a game then don’t be like these producers. Don’t be mad at the people who found ways to exploit your game. Get off your butt and fix it.

  7. Isaiah says:

    I think I may be the only person [here] who thinks it’s not in man’s nature to be ethical, nor does it help us to encourage the behavior of being consistently ethical. Otherwise there’d be no sequels. No building blocks of advancements upon out dated constructs.

    Hence, we live in the era of patches, updated board games and yes … the ever-evolving quiz show.

  8. Isaiah says:

    [Gonna have to apologize for posting so much on your facebook and here. I’d also like to send out a secondary apology, because it seems every time I write one of these comments, alcohol is involved. I’m hoping I come off slightly more thoughtful.]

    I just posted on Grant’s page my thoughts on this whole ordeal and I figured before I get writing on it for my own site [and peace of mind], I figured I’d exercise some demons here.

    ”’He figured out how to beat people who maybe know a lot more about stuff but take the wrong chances. In a way, he won against people he shouldn’t have.’”

    This comment here. I found it unfair.

    It reminded me when I told mom that I wasn’t going to be a computer science graduate and instead I’m switching my major to photography. It reminded me about the increasingly difficult math courses that [almost] tempered by love of the science. Dragging down my GPA, and making that photography major look REAL good.

    But it also reminded me of my first match with Daigo Umehara. My friends throw a local fighting game tournament here in Columbus. It got popular. So much so that Daigo and his Japanese Street Fighter-playing friends came. Which, conversely, meant that everyone outside of the local scene attended too.

    I remember losing my first twenty dollars to Daigo in a money match. I figured, hell, when’s the next time I get to play against one of the best street fighter players on Earth? After the first round I had a reaction not unlike Jenn when she played a superior player in Tekken.

    I got perfected in probably 9 seconds. I can still hear the titters and jeers.

    A crowd gathered around. My palms were sweaty. I just kinda wanted it to be over, but there it is…that second round getting ready to start. As an aside, everyone knows me as the guy who writes or takes photos, not as anything that would be considered a real threat in fighting games.

    So imagine how I felt when people clapped when they saw me land a single throw? I even managed to throw him a couple more times before a closer-than-expected inevitable outcome.

    I want to thank you Jenn, because I think I see way it’s necessary to have variety in game design and in this social organism. Though I was raised Baptist as well, I usually envy those who hold strongly to those moral tenants. I, on the other hand, yearn to see the next rule broken. I vie for imbalance, because games not only function as a form of escapism, but as a means to gauge to true strength of our modern day superheroes and even our underdogs.

  9. Chris says:

    Hard to get my thoughts on this one straight, so I will just list them without trying to causally combine them.

    1. I think what Srivastava did wasn’t actually discovering secret rules but flaws in the design. He was like a hacker informing companies about their security breaches.
    All Lotterys should theoretically be completely random, the question is how this ideal can be reached. In the form typical in Germany flaws might be possible but most unlikely to exploit. People trying to beat systems like this are delusional and not at all like Srivastava.

    It’s also important to note that you usually don’t “play” the lottery directly against other people but against a faceless “system”.

    2. What Martha Steward did is something different altogether. She was not told “new rules” that the other players didn’t know, but the outcome of the game, to stay in the analogy. This information places you outside the game.

    The stock market was never intended to be a game, its development into one posed a lot of moral and legal problems that were tried to be solved by rules.
    Getting information that will tell you how a share is gonna develop is like getting the results of an exam beforehand. (Which leaves you with three, not two options: ignore the knowledge, use it to your advantage, or share it).
    It is like knowing the future and exploiting that knowledge.

    3. “What if he has developed a machine’s computational agility at knowing where every card is in the deck?” As far as I know, that is impossible and not at all what a card counter does. He also doesn’t exploit “secret rules”. He simply uses his observation and mathematical/statistical skills to his advantage.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that there are fundamental differences between the sorts of “game breaking” you presented and it would be beneficial to not confuse them.

  10. Aaron says:

    “And here is where this particular blog gets weird.

    I sat there, reeling at the idea that your ‘fortune’ is this ancient thing that predates you, and your only hope—if this is the sort of thing you long for, for any type of life success—is to somehow arbitrarily strike on it, or maybe to not-randomly strike on it, if you are some kind of cheater. That idea radically changes everything, doesn’t it? Every philosophy.”

    I don’t see how. Could you elaborate?

    • Jenn says:

      I’ll try, Aaron, although it’s true that I’m not in the same headspace I was when I first wrote this, so my explanation might be even more muddled than before, ho ho. I talked a lot about Srivastava because he proves the theory that “randomness”—that is, “the luck of the draw”—is, itself, “a mathematical lie.” This theory really only applies to lottery scratch-offs, except maybe it doesn’t.

      The day after I wrote this blog entry, a writer called Rowan Kaiser contacted me to tell me two things. First, he said, there isn’t a whole lot of card-counting in poker (oops), and I probably meant something more like Blackjack.

      Second, he told me about a study in which two groups of people were given a newspaper clipping and asked to find all the words on a list, basically a “word hunt.” So this was actually a science experiment having to do with gold veins—in this case, words, just words, little signals hidden in the noise.

      The experiment also dealt with the perception of “luck.” One testing pool contained individuals who considered themselves naturally “lucky,” while the other pool counted themselves innately “unlucky.” The unlucky did badly.

      We might extrapolate that these were people who, for whatever reasons, believed in a type of “failure patternicity,” who were paralyzed and helpless, unable to find the words because they were already destined to never find the words. Still, this isn’t to say they weren’t looking—in fact, they worked overhard. They looked so hard for the gold veins, and to the exclusion of all else. They were blinded. (I might have this wrong, and if I do, it’s Rowan’s fault. I can’t even cite it! Rings true, though, right?)

      Meanwhile the pool of people that counted itself “fortunate” did better, and was much speedier, at locating the words in the clippings. That pool was successful. Rowan explained that, in the study’s conclusion, these people were more open to possibilities. They were more open to “windows” of “opportunity” and, in a concrete and physical way, were able to see the entire clipping as a whole. Just as soon as Rowan told me this story—and I don’t think it was my imagination—I automatically got better at Bejeweled.

      Now, this alleged experiment, the existence of which neither Rowan nor I can even verify, uses a whole lot of shorthand to describe learned helplessness, victim psychology, and everything else. Worse, though, it says nothing of those who don’t believe in luck at all. I’ve come to believe that putting faith in luck at all is the real problem: if you do count yourself as “lucky,” why, the moment something fails, you now have license to attribute it to “luck running out.” Luck, whether good or bad, denies culpability. (Late edit: the ensuing phenomenon has a name, it turns out! “Impostor Syndrome”!)

      Societally and personally there are all sorts of reasons someone might come to feel “unlucky” and, as a direct consequence, become ever-more blind to all the world’s possibilities. (I think the “unlucky” tend to self-flagellate and stick with unhappy circumstances, too, and eventually become trained to devalue their own agency.) And although I never described it in the original post here, there was another, weirder, concurrent conversation I had been having with my mother, in which it dawned on me that I really did believe in “luck,” and in “good” and “bad” luck, reinforced by the Christian ideas of “blessings” or “curses”—and I do think both are types of fatalism—and I absolutely needed to stop, for the sake of my own health and happiness.

      I am pretty obsessed with time travel movies because the type of time travel storyline you put the most stock into secretly tells a great deal about how you think of “time,” “causality,” the amount of control you have over your own circumstances, whether the universe is harmonious or chaotic, whether you believe in destiny or free will or a mish-mash of the two. Those axioms—fundamentals about “how time works”—are embedded at a really young age, I think.

      I feel like a lot of religion, philosophy, psychology, and value-sets are predicated entirely on, yeah, just varying attitudes on how we choose or don’t-choose to understand “time,” on the opinions we unconsciously hold about a type of complicated-but-not-that-complicated system of cause-and-effect, which is governed by what?, and so on.

      I make much of having been indoctrinated as a Protestant Christian, and I do talk a lot about this, because I was raised to believe in a purposeful and willful universe, a type of linear “time” that has its own agenda, an agenda operating irrespective of whatever I or anybody wants. It’s also a philosophy that I have worked really, really hard to shake off, because it encourages a “learned helplessness” that is kind of psycho. I also believe that you can’t put faith in any sort of scripted universe and still live and behave in an ethical way. Awhile ago I decided to believe in something random and impartial, something that can hardly be called a “governing force.” This is tough to jibe with my religious upbringing, but I try.

      (Besides talking a lot about being Protestant, I constantly point toward my Slavic lit minor as a total motivation in how I think of “time.” That’s because Russian literature has all these recurring themes: fortunetelling, card games, Christianity, fatalism. It wasn’t until I was trapped in a lecture hall with a Russian lit professor called Gary Saul Morson, who authored a book called Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time, that I was first forced to assess my beliefs about narratology, time, linearity, chance, choice, luck, whether or not there is a script. Why do I keep talking about that stuff on a blog about video games? Because those little differences in life philosophies also inform how people design or play video games. Video games are always “mimetic,” but what, in any given instance, are they pantomiming?)

      Even though I have made the conscious decision to trust in a type of “open time,” a narratological mutability that is in step with the philosophy of “free will” and is absent of “luck,” I have a latent but palpable fear of “closed time”—that the individual’s will itself really is illusory. As a Christian who wrestles with any kind of faith at all, I worry that how time “really” works in fact changes who God “is,” or to put it in more agnostic terms, whether human beings are even permitted to “act.” Oh, boy, does any of this make sense? Well, maybe it doesn’t.

      I remember how, when I wrote this half a year ago, I was filled with absolute existential dread which was snowballing into a type of despair. Maybe we ourselves are not “scripted,” but quite possibly the location of every type of “gold vein,” big and small, is—which is to say, the answers are already written down in some book somewhere, and we are just pupils with ScanTrons, filling in bubbles—and instead of reassuring me, the very idea put me in some sort of ethical (and religious) tailspin. I still don’t believe in luck, but if the location of veins isn’t random—if these things are predetermined—it means I have to change my own behavior, and a huge section of my Rube-Goldberg-of-a-belief-system, all over again. Yes, radically: I should focus on strategically positioning myself, given all that I know and the resources I have, in what I have calculated to be the right place at the right time. (And back in January I tacitly expressed my concern—and this is such a stupid, writerly condition, this worry—that I might be choosing a type of “high con.”)

      I’m doing bad work here at explaining a radical, fundamental “life philosophy shift,” so here is a quick illustration:

      Almost immediately after writing this blog post, I resigned from my daily job as a celebrity gossip columnist. This very blog post was a big part of why! I didn’t talk about it at the time (my resignation was a secret for a little while), but I strongly intuited I needed to change my behavior, starting with my work.

      I had decided that writing every day about celebrities, while constant and monetarily very reliable, was (for me) a type of lotto card that you buy every morning. It’s gambling on your readers, and it lacks strategy. Here you are, writing several posts in a day, hoping to come up with a single, perfect success. And while this is a terrific business model for a celebrity gossip blog—because it’s so spaghetti-at-the-wall, there’s something for everyone!—I decided that I wanted to write more slowly, less frequently, more thoughtfully, less carelessly, about really specific things. It isn’t much of a life strategy, no, but it is “strategic” in a way.

      I don’t mean to demean the work I’d been doing, of course! I enjoyed it, I loved my coworkers and my employer, and I was very briefly very good (comparatively, anyway) at maintaining a strict schedule. But, taking a cue from Jeopardy contestant Roger Craig, I wondered how my life might change if I became choosier about what I wrote about, or if I became bolder and ballsier about “betting it all”—and in this case I simply mean how I use my time—anytime I sit to write anything.

      And this is a seriously terrifying new attitude to suddenly try to employ in your own life! My final decision—to make and pursue my own opportunities—required a calendar and a lot of bad math. I really waffled on quitting that great job, too, not only because it was kind of an idiotic decision on my part, but also because I felt like my new, entrepreneuring sense of control—supposing it worked out at all!—constituted cheating, or was a type of social “game-breaking.” I wondered if I shouldn’t be satisfied with my great little day job, which really is the type of thing you ought to stick with, you know. I’m kind of a black sheep in my family in that the few rest of us are really hardworking, industrious, content people. Ethically I admire that, and my quitting my nice job to write other things, I worried, might make me a real asshole, as if governing societal rules suddenly don’t apply to me. But that’s freelancing, I guess!

      P.S. I continued to worry about my decision even after I made it, and I still worry, but not in the same ways I had been worrying.

Leave a comment

Psst... This site supports gravatars and OpenIDs. You may also format your comment using Textile markup, if you'd like. Comments may not immediately appear.