Monday, July 20, 2009

Monkey Gambling

A few years ago, I met someone that swore she was “good at roulette.” When I asked what she meant, she (surprise!) couldn’t explain her special skill. Roulette can be a nice adrenaline rush as that little white ball dink…dink…dinks its way to a home, but it requires about as much skill to play as falling down the stairs (as well as some of the worst odds in the casino). The only way to beat the game involves cheating with a loaded ball, rigged wheel, or past posting. A large statistical analysis to determine biases in certain wheels is the only way to do it without cheating. Can knowing which bet on a roulette table offers the least house edge be considered a skill? If so, then the best roulette player in the world is the one that never plays. It short, there is no strategy in the game, hence, no skill. If you can work gravity, then you can play roulette about as well as anyone else.

“Monkey gambling” is a term which refers to games that have no strategy or skill component to them; a monkey has as good a chance of victory as the best player in the world. Even the basic physical mechanics of a game like roulette could be easily mastered by our hirsute cousins; pick up chip, move arm forward, and drop chip: done. A monkey could literally play the game as well as Stephen Hawking. The purest form of “monkey gambling” in a casino is the slot machine. Even pulling a handle is too much brain activity for slots players, so most machines now offer buttons for the convenience of their zombified patrons.

“Computer gambling” is at the opposite end of the spectrum from monkey gambling. This term refers to games that offer choices during play, and therefore contain elements of genuine strategy, but only one correct move. Blackjack is a computer gambling game because at any given time, there is only one best move. Given the composition of cards in the discard rack, slight variations from basic strategy are made to determine whether standing, hitting, splitting, doubling, or even insurance (a bad idea nearly 100% of the time) is the best play. The best blackjack player in the world could only be as good as a computer.

Poker is neither monkey nor computer gambling, although I’ve seen players who try each style. A couple years ago, animal trainers tried to enter a monkey in the World Series of Poker (see above). They took their chimp on television to demonstrate how it could really play poker; even though it could lift the cards and move the chips, it could not protect its hand, avoid string betting, or determine the strength of its cards. While any player at the monkey’s table would certainly beat the beast, organizers rightly refused to let the handlers enter the animal in the event. On the flipside, top computer designers have built machines good enough at poker to beat most amateur players. However, when pitted against professional poker players, the most sophisticated poker machine in the world still loses to the power of human imagination.

Top poker pro, Eric Seidel, captures this majestical element of the poker:
Imagination is at the heart of the game. Just as there is no right way to write a song or paint a picture, there is no right way to play poker. The best players are experimenting and adjusting all the time. The beauty of the game lies in this ever-shifting landscape, and it keeps us interested each time we sit down.
Now I’d like to see a computer, or even a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters, come up with that.

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