One of my favorite radio shows is "Car Talk." On today's show, a caller from Maine named Paula told Click and Clack that sometimes her Subaru won't start in the cold weather. Her remedy is to heat up a blanket on one of her old-fashioned house radiators, tuck it under her coat, run out to the driveway, and put it on the hood of the car. Then after about ten minutes, she'll try starting the car again, and it will almost always work the second time.
As she was saying this, I had a flashback to my freshman year of college. I started undergraduate life as a physics major, and I well remember slogging through the lectures and sections of the textbook about heat transfer equations. Even if you haven't been through that, general life experience alone might suggest to you that Paula is, well, daft. There's just no way that a blanket placed on a home radiator--one which isn't too hot to be held against one's body--placed on the hood of a car in cold winter weather, will transfer heat through the hood and subsequently through the air between the hood and the engine, in sufficient quantities to have any effect on the engine.
As the Car Talk brothers quickly realized, Paula's elaborate ritual has nothing to do with why the car starts the second time but not the first. Far more likely is something quasi-random, such as a faulty neutral safety switch (the thing that won't let current flow to the starter motor unless the transmission lever is set to neutral or park). Paula would presumably have equal success if she just waited that ten minutes warming herself at the radiator, rather than a blanket. But of course, what happened was that she got this wacky notion once, tried it in desperation (probably in a feeble attempt to replicate what she had seen or heard of other people doing with electric engine block heaters), found that it appeared to work, and therefore kept doing it.
This reminded me of a story I read about 20 years ago in a magazine--can't remember where now. The author said that every day for years he and his cat went through the same thing. He would come home from work, go to the kitchen, pull out a can of cat food and the can opener, open it, and scoop some out with a spoon. Then, just as he was going to dump the contents of the spoon into the cat's food dish, the cat would stick his head under the spoon, thus getting the cat food dropped onto its head. The cat would then eat the food, clean the excess off of his head, etc.
Again, we can easily infer how this began. One day, early in their relationship, the cat got overly eager and stuck its head where it didn't belong. For this behavior he seemed to get rewarded with a bunch of yummy food. So something in his brain clicked, and he tried it again the next time he saw that there was a spoon with food in it. Same result. His poor little brain concluded that suffering the indignity of having food dumped on his head was what it took to get fed, so he persisted in the strange behavior every day forever after.
Wouldn't it be nice if we were smarter than cats?
There's no deep mystery to be explored here. Some sort of similar tale undoubtedly lies behind every superstition. Somebody once opened an umbrella in the house and something terribly unlucky happened to him soon thereafter. He mentioned it to some friends, one of whom perhaps had, by coincidence, noticed the same temporal connection. They leaped to the conclusion of a causal connection and began telling everybody about it. Every time somebody consciously violated this new social taboo, he would be more vigilant for signs of bad luck than he otherwise would have been absent hearing about others' misfortunes, so it isn't surprising that he would notice something unlucky happening, and thus have the theory "confirmed."
My guess is that the guy with the lucky spoon ritual at the Riviera developed it by accident. Perhaps one time he was absent-mindedly twiddling it in a circle as the dealer was shuffling, and he got dealt aces. His brain seized on the connection as somehow causal, and a superstition was born. Of course he can't be bothered to undertake a scientific, statistical test of what cards he is dealt (and/or how much he wins or loses in a hand) when he does the circle-and-scoop thing versus when he doesn't. In truth, he probably doesn't really want to know. He likes the illusion of control that his ritual brings him; he is no longer simply subject to the whims of randomness, but exerts a mystical influence over the cards. It's nice to feel powerful, not buffetted by the winds of chance, even if it's nothing more than a self-delusion.
Jerry Yang suffers from the same kind of strange cognitive defect when he acts on his belief that saying the right kinds of words to the right god at the right time will change what cards the dealer is about to deliver.
But I maintain that poker success is incompatible with such hogwash. A winning poker player must, I believe, both accept and embrace randomness. I know that over the long run I'm going to be dealt exactly the same distribution and frequency of starting hands as every opponent that I face. Whether I win or lose therefore depends entirely on making sound decisions that result in winning more money with the best hand than they do, losing less money with second-best hands than they do, and winning pots with the worst hand (i.e., bluffing) more successfully than they do.
In poker we are all given the same raw materials. It is up to us--not the Fates--what we do with them. Some people find that idea frightening. I find it empowering and liberating. Divorcing myself from nascent superstitions, nipping them in the bud, before they have an opportunity to take hold of and pollute my mind is an essential part of that. No, that dealer is not especially unlucky, nor is having a $50 bill in my wallet, nor is winning the first hand of a tournament. Conversely, I cannot rely on wearing my lucky hat, carrying my lucky rabbit's foot, or playing my lucky junk hand.
I have no security blanket, heated or otherwise. Food will not just magically plop itself down into my dish like manna from heaven if I hold my head a certain way. I have to make the success happen all by myself. As William Ernest Henley famously wrote, I am the master of my fate.
(Just wondering here. If you take all of your stock certificates and stitch them together into a sort of patchwork quilt, do you now have a securities blanket?)