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.