Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Gambling, Compassion, and the Probability of Suffering

One of the most fascinating chapters in Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise comes after he's talked baseball and politics and weather.   For two years, Silver was a professional gambler.  Meaning he quit his job at a prominent accounting firm, and lived entirely off of his winnings from poker.

From his own account, he was pretty good at it.  For a while, at least.   This was in the early days of internet gambling, when it was wild and unregulated and free.   Texas Hold 'Em was his game of choice, and as poker is not entirely random like roulette, someone with Silver's self-discipline and focus was able to make a great heaping mound of cash.

His knowledge of human behavior, his skills at analyzing probability spreads, and his relentless focus on self-correction and learning meant that in those two years, he walked away from internet gambling with a total net of around $400,000.   He wasn't the best at the game.  He calculates his skill as being ninetieth percentile on a good day.

But he did well.  And he knew when to walk away, because when US regulations clamped down on online gambling, it got untenably harder for Silver to make a living at it.   Why?    Silver chalks it up to the nanny state, driven by moralizing Republicans.

Using longitudinal data provided by several major internet gambling sites, Silver was able to quantify this.  For gambling to be profitable for those in the top 20% of gamers, Silver writes, there need to be "fish."  Fish are people who are for crap at poker, but are too blind to their own incompetence to realize it.   Internet gambling...wide open, easy access, 24/7...was like open sea drift net fishing, or tossing explosives into a well-stocked trout pond.  "Fish" came in vast schools, and the pickings were...well, like shooting fish in a barrel.

With that as the dynamic, gambling could be remarkably lucrative for the two top niches.    Silver objectively analyzed how each of the deciles (meaning, each 10% category relative to losses/winnings) fared during his period of success.  What he found was that 80% of folks who played lost, and only folks in the top 20% broke even, with only the top 10% really doing well.  He also observed the losses growing exponentially as you moved further down the food chain.  This was important, because as Silver analyzed the data, the catastrophic losses of the bottom 10% of players are what make gambling profitable for people at his skill level.

These are the addicts and the incompetents and the delusional souls...and as they bleed out everything they own, their lifeblood is the fertilizer for the rest of the system.   Remove the suckers from the system, and the window of predictable profitability narrows, to only about the top five percent of gamblers.

When the "fish" were driven away by legislation, Silver found the going a lot harder, and after one disastrous night when he lost over $75,000, he abandoned the pursuit entirely.   Silver saw that legislation as destroying the probability of profit.  As a rational actor able to protect his own self-interest, that reduction in probability made gambling too high-risk to be a viable primary source of income, and he knew when to fold 'em.

But reason and compassion are not the same thing.

Reading that same data, I also saw it probabilistically, but in a different way.  Instead of self-interest and profit as a primary ethic, I ask: What is the probability of a particular action inflicting harm and suffering?

I have friends who gamble, and who enjoy it, and whose lives are viable.  But I've also known "fish."  They've been hardworking people, generally.  They've tended to be idealists and dreamers, and their grasp of their own place in reality has been filtered deeply through their own dreams.   From that place, they've done huge and lasting damage to their relationships and their lives, as that delusional conviction that luck is just one big wager away has destroyed them.

I've seen it turn brother against brother, watched as gambler-boyfriends have lied and betrayed, or connived to get widows to second-mortgage their homes because that one score was just a card away.

As a pastime, it's fine.  But as an industry?   It is an industry where the product is an 80% chance of loss, and whose profitability is reliant on the catastrophic financial losses of its bottom decile.

Understanding ethical behavior towards other sentient beings probabilistically, I see in "gaming" an industry that vastly increases the probability of loss and suffering.   As I am painfully aware of my own limitations, I stay away from it.  Giving you a dollar for the thrill of getting twenty cents back just doesn't strike me as entertainment.

But I also stay away from it because, as Silver objectively observes, it systemically violates the core ethic of my faith.

As a rational Christian in a probabilistic universe, my aim is to reduce the probability of suffering.  When Jesus asked us to be "fishers of men," finding easy marks was not what he meant.