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“The Curse of the Unknown” by Alan25main

September 17, 2019

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Randomness can be frustrating, both at and away from the poker tables. Read player Alan25main’s take on unknown outcomes and how to best handle these situations.

“In our everyday lives, we ordinarily know exactly what to expect as a result when we do things. We know, for example, that if we insert tabs A, B, and C into the correct slots, the pieces should fit perfectly.

Not only have we learned this by logic, we’ve experienced it countless times. We “know” that it will work every time unless the maker of the pieces has made an error. Every time we add 2 + 2, the answer will always equal exactly 4, not 3.1 or 5.6 or something else. This gives us a strong sense of surety in many aspects of our lives. But, it doesn’t really apply to things that are inexact. Especially if there are random things that can influence the result.

We can’t know in advance which of two sports teams will win any given game, even if we are sure that one of them has a better chance. In golf, billiards, or tennis, the underdog can still win. A fleck of dirt in the wrong place can change the expected roll or bounce of a ball. 

In some of the games people play, all the possible moves by all the possible players are known in advance. Chess is a good example of this. There are no “surprises” in chess because all the possible moves are open for both players to see.  So, chess is considered a game of “pure skill.” If one player can think farther in advance than the other, traps can be laid and sprung to ensure victory. I’m told there are other games where this is true, such as Go, but I don’t play them, so I can’t speak from personal knowledge. But, there is no random chance in chess.

Suppose we introduced a random element into the chess game. Suppose on every second or third move, the defending player throws a pair of dice and, depending on what number comes up, either he loses a piece, misses a turn, or the other player loses a piece or misses a turn, and some numbers don’t change anything. Would that change the game? It certainly would. I’m not sure what the new game would be, but it WOULDN’T be chess. Let’s call it chance-chess.

Would it still take skill to win at chance-chess? Sure. But, since it now also involves a “random unknown” part, the advantage to the “skill” part is reduced. How much it is reduced is difficult to say, but I suspect it would be substantial.

In chess, if one player is reduced to just his king, but the other of them has his king and a pawn, the one with the pawn will win every time unless he plays irrationally. In chance-chess, if a random throw of the dice can take away that pawn, the game is in doubt–it could still become a draw–until the final mating move is made.

Could the dice be loaded, shaved, or otherwise impaired? Yes, but not in, or by, a respectable house, because they have too much to lose. (And, yes, there are tests for those things, but if you call for one and are proven wrong, expect to be quickly escorted off the premises by large, unsmiling persons.)

What does this have to do with poker? All games of poker combine skill and chance. Some games are closer to chess; Hold’em and Five Card Stud, for example, because they have fewer variables. Some are closer to buying a lottery ticket — High-Low Night Baseball comes to mind (players are dealt seven face-down cards, all 3s and 9s are wild, 4s get an extra card when shown, and the game is played No Peek with a bet on each card. Ai-yi-yi!).

ALL poker games involve chance occurrence. That means, yes, Virginia, you can lose with your quad Aces or other great hand on the flop. It won’t happen every time, but it can happen and you will not expect it. You won’t expect it because all the rest of your normal life tells you that putting those tabs into the correct slots works every time. Not so in poker. Until that final card is seen, the lock may still be an unknown; so, putting those tabs into the correct slots only works most of the time, not all of the time.

The only defense I’ve come up with after nearly sixty years of playing is to be cautious. Expect the situation to change with every new card, because it can. Some of those changes will be in your favor, some will not. All hand values (except pat royal flushes in draw poker) are relative and can reverse in an instant with the turn of a single card. 

It’s seldom easy to know “when to hold’em and when to fold’em.” In most cases, “I’m ahead right now” is the best you can hope for. The unknown can still burn you–and sometimes, it will. Good luck.”