Saturday, April 09, 2011

Random is random

There are a bunch of poker room rules and procedures that don't make any sense from a rational point of view. The ones I'm thinking of are those that are designed to preserve the order in which cards are or were "supposed" to come.

I was first sensitized to this early in my time playing live poker by a column by Lee Jones in Card Player magazine. Something got me remembering that piece today, and I found it in the C.P. archives, here, from November 15, 2005. As he emphasizes, a random card is a random card, and it makes no objective difference which random card(s) a player gets. But there is a lot of superstition about a "right" order of the deck, set in stone when the dealer makes the final cut before pitching.

For example, once in a while the dealer forgets to "burn" a card before putting out the flop, turn, or river--or, alternatively, accidentally pulls off two burn cards. This inevitably causes weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. The floor is called. Arguments ensue about which card(s) are the "right" ones to be put on the board. In reality, it makes no difference. There are no "right" board cards. In principle, I wouldn't care if the dealer always spread the stub of the deck face down on the table and arbitrarily selected three cards to make up the flop (my only objection being that that would be slightly slower in execution). The flop needs to be three random cards. It does not need to be the three random cards that were precisely at positions 22, 23, and 24 in the cut deck (assuming a ten-handed game). Every card in the deck is equally random (or, at least, equally unknown and unknowable to both dealer and players, which is effectively the same thing). Random is random.

Similarly, we have a standard procedure of dealing the cards one to each player, going around the table as many times as necessary to deal the required number of cards (two in hold'em, for example). It would clearly be faster, more efficient, and less prone to error to have the dealer pitch the requisite number of cards to one player, then move to the next, etc. Except for the fact that it would be slower, in theory it wouldn't matter if the deck were spread out face down and players allowed to choose their own hole cards (though that would introduce some game integrity problems because of dishonest players). As Jones points out, there could be a standard rule that after the deal, players pass their unseen hole cards one seat to the left, and it wouldn't matter. Of course the outcome of each hand would be different, but any player's expected value for the hand wouldn't change; he would be exactly as likely to improve his status as to worsen it. Random is random.

Once in a while the dealer skips over a player in the pitch, and this isn't recognized until the next couple of players have received and looked at a card. The rational thing is just to give the missed player the next card on top of the deck when the deficiency is noted, then go on. But no--the silly rules say that it has to be declared a misdeal, lest players start out with hole cards other than the ones they were "supposed" to get, based on the order of the deck after the cut. It's preposterous.

The most complicated set of rules where this comes into play is in stud. My eyes glaze over when I read the byzantine procedures for assuring that each player gets the cards he is "supposed" to get. E.g., if a player folds his hand when not facing a bet, there are rules about how the next street is dealt to account for that anomaly. I don't even remember what they are, but it's all done in service of the crazy idea that the game is committed to some "destiny" of how the deck was ordered at the time of the cut.

As the good doctor says at the end of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," it's "Madness! Madness!"


Anonymous said...

Could the rules have something to do with verifying the honesty and integrity of the dealers/casino/game?

Although I know that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I think it this case it might be about establishing the dealer's cred as an impartial, disinterested official. Not sure, I think we'd have to know the history of why casinos make the dealers do it.

As for the two instances you mention, I think its reasonable to suppose that dealing two at a time to a player might allow for more shenanigans between a crooked dealer and a crooked player. Sliding the cards one to the left would also allow sleight of handers to change cards as well pulling a no-no--making the players mini-officials themselves.

As for burning cards before the flop, I know that, from my childhood learning basic card magic tricks, one of the easier ways to get to a particular card would be to place it on top, or to shuffle in a way to get it on top. Burning the top card could be homage to this, as well as smart play.

Quite frankly, we play poker at casinos in part because the casinos offer a fair, impartial, and professional game. Otherwise, we'd be playing in mafia backrooms with all the fixes that might go on there. These rules---and the outrage people derive from their not being followed---are part of insuring fairness.

I agree with you that if the whole "burning" a card is just showmanship and has no basis in card cheating, then it should be gotten rid of. But if not---if a particular action is standard because it prevents a certain type of cheating that could be utilized with moderate effectiveness---keep it.

There are some who call me... Tim said...

From a mathematical standpoint, all the comments on random cards The Fine Grump states are true. Random is random.

I always thought the rules on how to handle the cards were designed not just for randomness, but also to deter cheating and unfair play. By having a set manner in which cards are delivered, and how mis-deliveries are handled, all players can watch what is happening and have more faith that the deal is valid and fair.

Granted - with those rules set, cheaters who can stack decks can use that set process to manipulate results, but your average hack cannot do that.

In addition, the misdealt hand rules keep arguments from happening (well, at least amongst those who know the rules). Flip a card in hold'em? That card becomes the first burn card. Flip another? Misdeal/do-over.

In theory, if everybody knows what is to happen next, things go quicker. Can you imagine the length of the discussion if, let's say, Grump were to try to convince an outrageously superstitious person to not worry - that the replacement card he pulled from the middle of the deck truly was random? Good thing guns aren't allowed in casinos... ;-)

Pete said...

Actually there is quite good reason why this matters. Not because the cards are in the "right" order ..... but to make it harder for a dealer to manipulate. If you spread the stub and let dealers pull three random cards, it would be much easier for a dealer to cheat. If you allow a dealer to skip a player and then give him a card out of the "natural" dealing order this is a way that a dealer can cheat. While the particular order that we deal is not important .... what is important is that the dealer not be able to change it in mid hand, and that players be able to clearly identify when the dealer is not following the procedure.

wolfshead said...

Most of the rules in there for live play are to try and minimize cheating. The reason for the burn card for instance is to protect from a marked deck. It covers the card to be played so that if it is marked a cheat cannot "see" what card will actually be turned until it happens (a rule that gets disregarded in home games as dealers there seem to love to deal out the whole board and then just turn them over). So while the artice may be right about the fact that the cards are random with or without these rules if played naturally the rules are there to keep any unnatural distribution aka cheating from happening.

GeorgeX said...

It's always funny when blackjack players blame other players bad play for hurting their own odds. I