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Straighten out your lucky tie before entering the casino

16 May 2011

You’re hardly alone when you carry or wear a lucky charm into the casino, use a number that’s worked before in deciding how to bet, play more confidently after experiencing a good omen, consult your family haruspex to ascertain when punting will be propitious, or mumble a sure-fire incantation while awaiting the result of a coup. Who cares what the usual scoffers? If such beliefs influence your gambling strategy, you’ll be glad to learn that research by respected behavioral psychologists suggests you may be spot-on. Under some circumstances, anyway.

According to The Wall Street Journal (April 29 2010) research at a German university revealed that belief in superstitions can sometimes improve performance. In one test, golfers advised they were playing with a lucky ball sank 35 percent more putts than those who weren’t told the same ball was lucky. Different investigations showed that entrants in an anagram contest who kept their lucky charms scored higher and persisted longer than players from whom similar talismans had been taken away; likewise, in a memory game, parties who had lucky gee-gaws not only performed better than those who didn’t, but also reported feeling 30 percent more capable. A study conducted at a business school in Denmark, also cited by The Journal, involved the superstition that an eclipse of the sun is a bad economic portent. The data showed major American stock market indices typically fall when such an event occurs.

Notice that, in all the above examples, participants can have an undisputed degree of control over the outcome of the relevant actions. Golfers can be more or less diligent about their putting, anagram solvers may be more or less persevering in looking for and finding words, and memory game buffs may try harder or concede more easily, and stock traders may be optimistic or pessimistic about their buy and sell orders.

In an experiment indicating the opposite phenomenon, a group of investment bankers engaged in a stock market simulation. They were told that pressing Z, X, and C on their keyboards “may have some effect” on the rise and fall of prices. This provided an illusion of control over market behavior, although, in fact, it was immaterial. The researchers compared use of these keys with the real-life salaries of contestants. Those who typed the letters most often tended to have the lowest salaries – suggesting that belief in luck as a controlling factor in processes that are random or influenced by unknown externalities hurt their ability to make good decisions.

What about the casinos? Games of chance imply randomness, over which solid citizens may imagine they have control, nut don’t. So, in this sense, gambling is unlike the cases in which researchers found that belief in agents or predictors of luck can have beneficial consequences.

Live poker combines chance – the draw of the cards – and skill. Ability to “read” other players’ mannerisms and betting habits and to calculate the probabilities of various hands given what’s already known to have be in or removed from the action. In the skill dimension, belief in luck may have the same type of positive influences as in golf, anagram, and memory game examples. Blackjack, pai gow, video poker, and table-banked derivatives of poker like Caribbean Stud and Let It Ride are also commonly considered to meld elements of expertise as well as chance. But the skill is of a different sort than that associated with live poker. In these games, it mainly calls for rote memorization of the optimum moves for one or another of a finite set of conditions.

Reliance on luck may play a role even in games of pure chance, however. Self-discipline is an aspect of gambling proficiency that transcends the particulars of what’s being played. The bankroll to stake a session. How much to bet, initially and in the face of upswings and downswings. When to quit and when to keep playing. Here, instruments of luck can help if they instill confidence in acting rationally and avoiding desperate efforts such as chasing losses with escalating wagers or flouting the optimal strategies for a game involving playing decisions because the dictates of “the book” aren’t working. They can be harmful if they engender overconfidence, such that players take ill-advised and unnecessary risks thinking that some harbinger of luck will ultimately boost them to the shoulders of success no matter what they do.

Joseph Mazur, who has a doctorate in mathematics from MIT, is the author of a book about to be published by the Princeton University Press entitled, “What’s Luck Got to Do with It?” Among the key points in the volume is the warning that faith in luck is irrational. And, Dr Mazur has told his students to avoid sweepstakes because the odds of winning are too small. But, one day, his wife put his name on a sweepstakes coupon and he won $20,000. He says that for months afterward, he entered every sweepstakes contest he could find. Never winning any, naturally. All of which goes to demonstrate the veracity of this verse by the beloved bard, Sumner A Ingmark:
No wise man, no wise woman,
Ought put trust in an omen.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.