Knowing basic stats is not good enough for card games


in Daily updates, Oxford, Travel

Beads in Nora and Kelly's window

Many thanks to Nora and Kelly for an excellent dinner at their new flat: across the Folly Bridge from St. Aldates’. Afterwards, along with Bryn, we played a number of hands of Spades – a game with which I was previously entirely unfamiliar. It strikes me as inevitably highly statistical. There is a set probability to every 13 card hand, moderated through the scoring system. On the basis of limited information from a partner, you must play many iterations of a supergame, based on a defined collection of possible outcomes for each game, with appropriate scoring attached. The objective is to acquire points at a higher rate than the other team, until a certain threshold is crossed.

Two major kinds of decisions exist in the game: bidding decisions, and the decision of which card to play. Both are fundamentally strategic, though the first is based on a combination of the probability of your hand, in certain important ways, and on the rules related to winning or losing any one iteration (13 tricks). The second is based on similar probabilities, plus knowledge about previous hands (card counting), plus rules about winning tricks. While I could understand the general dynamics involved, I had neither the concentration to count cards, nor the insight to begin comprehending the emergent properties of the rule set. There are some rules, like the special set associated with nil bids, that add considerable extra complexity to the game, at least as comprehended by a somewhat addled beginner’s mind. Even so, it was fun to play, and I appreciate my fellow players for introducing it.

With a certain perverse logic, I take pride in the fact that Spades is probably a game that can be played as well by a computer as by the best human. Since it’s a collection of computable problems, it seems as though a collection of RAM and transistors should set the bar which the best humans approach. Since we define the ‘real’ difficulty of problems according to the amount of challenge they present to all available resources, and since computers can be programmed by relatively inexperienced statisticians, Spades can be branded as a less-than-enormously-complex game, even by someone completely inept at it. Isn’t rationalization amazing? I suppose when we’re just one century’s worth of random collection of molecules (if we are quite lucky), we need some logical path to not get overwhelmed with our own limitations.

PS. From all I have heard, the Arctic Monkies are an unusually talented new band (I can see all those more clued-in on the music scene laughing at me for saying it. Why not say: “I think this Led Zeppelin group has some ability?”). Trying to keep up with a dozen dozen different areas of human involvement, I cannot be at the crest of every wave. All that said “When the Sun Goes Down” is surprisingly melodic, despite somewhat a somewhat abrasive chorus.

PPS. It looks like I may have three new tutorial students over the first three weeks of August. I am thinking of going to Dublin for the fourth week, then flying straight from there to Prague for the first week of September. It would save me all the cost and bother of coach travel from Oxford to London to random-airport-for-cheap-airlines.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben July 17, 2006 at 10:36 am

Arctic Monkeys are old news – didn’t they have a number one about 6 months ago or something?

Good to hear you got more teaching. The St Hugh’s job is pretty good, though I’ll be out of Oxford for August, and Henry didn’t really have anyone for me anyway – he offered me a Japanese girl interested in the UN, and I suggested he might try you…

Milan July 17, 2006 at 10:45 am


I learn about popular new bands at the same rate as my brother Mica incorporates their music into videos.

The St. Hugh’s program is interesting, insofar as it seems to draw most people out of the central area of their own research (on the part of the tutors, I mean). More teaching experience is highly welcome, regardless.

. February 17, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Blackjack card-counting iPhone app illegal in casinos

By Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Milian of the LA Times reports on an iPhone application called A Blackjack Card Counter that has pit bosses in Vegas looking for people who keep their hands in their pockets.

The $3.99 app has a feature, called stealth mode, that allows the user to easily operate the card counter with the phone concealed in a pocket. Simply press the right half of the screen when a card valued at 10 or higher appears on the table or the left half when a low card is flipped. The phone vibrates when it’s time to place a big bet. The program also takes additional factors into account that elude most mental card counters and is therefore more accurate.

Using a device to count cards is a felony in Nevada.

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