Nonsense Debunked

July 27, 2007

OK, here’s a top shelf piece of nonsense: poker numerology. Namely, the believe that meaningful patterns appears in poker shuffles. There’s a classic example here.

Why is this nonsense? For starters, and this ought to be fairly obvious, the described phenomenon is simply impossible – there’s no conceivable mechanism that could make what this guy’s describing occur. He thinks he has “flop lag” and that the cards of the same ranks he held on deal N appear on the board on deal N+1. So how exactly would this happen? How would the shufflemaster know what cards he had so that it could stack the deck on the next shuffle, even if it “wanted” to. Furthermore, even if the device somehow was programed to stack the deck and knew what our numerologist had on the previous hand. how would it go about finding those cards in the muck or stub? The answer of course is that it can’t do any of this unless the shufflemaster has the ability to read the card faces and determine which card is which. And trust me, it doesn’t. No camera. No little man inside. So the whole scenario is impossible, even before we get to the detail that the dealer cuts the deck by hand.

That said, why is poker numerology top shelf nonsense, worthy of discussion? What makes it more interesting than any other garden variety misconception held by those who don’t understand how the things around them work? Good question. The reason it’s so interesting is that our minds work overtime to fool us into believing as he does. It’s quite diabolical, really.

Any time you have randomness in a small number of symbols (such as the ranks, or suits, of a deck of cards) you get “false” patterns that repeat themselves for a short while. This is a basic function of the number of possible patterns there are – thousands of recognizable things that could happen. And if you work out the probability of any given one of them happening on a given deal, it’s not that uncommon. Certainly not 1 in thousands uncommon. So there’s always SOMETHING going on that looks like it might be an odd pattern in the cards, at least for a little while.

Human minds, being trained to look for patterns, spot these “false” patterns and continue to look for them, while ignoring additional random trials that don’t fit the pattern (since our minds tend to ignore inconsistent data in the search for obscured patterns). As such, the pattern appears to perpetuate indefinitely. This is a case where the human brain’s amazing capability for pattern recognition lets us down. And the odd part is that the more capable your brain is of recognizing obscure patters (a trait normally associated with intelligence) the more likely you are to pick up on one of these false patterns and fall prey to numerology.

In the case above, our numerologist is noticing an event that isn’t even that uncommon. On any given holdem deal with a paired board, on average just slightly fewer than 2 people at a 10 handed table will have held a card of the paired rank on the previous deal and made virtual trips. So the scenario he’s describing, this flop lag, isn’t even rare at all. In the course of a few hour session it’ll probably happen 50 times to someone at your table. For it to happen 5 times to him isn’t really even all that unusual.

It’s OK to notice these patters of course. It keeps the brain occupied. But please don’t make plays based on them. Because there’s no reason to believe they’re going to continue once you notice them. The future deals are still random.

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