Games of luck and skill

My good friend Anuroop has two hobbies – poker and wildlife photography. And when we invited him to NED Talks some 5 years ago, he decided to combine these two topics into the talk, by speaking about “why wildlife photography is like poker” (or the other way round, I’ve forgotten).

I neither do wildlife photography nor play poker so I hadn’t been able to appreciate his talk in full when he delivered it. However, our trip to Jungle Lodges River Tern Resort (at Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary) earlier this year demonstrated to me why poker and wildlife photography are similar – they are both “games of luck AND skill”.

One debate that keeps coming up in Indian legal circles is whether a particular card game (poker, rummy, etc.) is a “game of luck” or a “game of skill”. While this might sound esoteric, it is a rather important matter – games of skill don’t need any permission from any authority, while games of luck are banned to different extents by different states (they are seen as being similar to “gambling”, and the moralistic Indian states don’t want to permit that).

Many times in the recent past, courts in India have declared poker and rummy to be “games of skill“, which means “authorities” cannot disrupt any such games. Still, for different reasons, they remain effectively illegal in certain states.

In any case, what makes games like poker interesting is that they combine skill and luck. This is also what makes games like this addictive. That there is skill involved means that you get constantly better over time, and the more you play, the greater the likelihood that you will win (ok it doesn’t increase at the same rate for everyone, and there is occasional regression as well).

If it were a pure game of skill, then things would get boring, since in a game of skill the better player wins every single time. So unless you get a “sparring partner” of approximately your own level, nobody will want to play with you (this is one difficulty with games like chess).

With luck involved, however, the odds change. It is possible to beat someone much better (on average) than you, or lose to someone much worse (on average). In other words, if you are designing an Elo rating system for a game like poker, you need to change players’ ratings by very little after each game (compared to a game of pure skill such as chess).

Because there is luck involved, there is “greater information content” in the result of each game (remember from information theory that a perfectly fair coin has the most information content (1 bit) among all coins). And this makes the game more fun to play. And the better player is seen as better only when lots of games are played. And so people want to play more.

It is the same with wildlife photography. It is a game of skill because as you do more and more of it, you know where to look for the tigers and leopards (and ospreys and wild dogs). You know where and how long you should wait to maximise your chances of a “sighting”. The more you do it, the better you become at photography as well.

And it is a game of luck because despite your best laid plans, there is a huge amount of luck involved. Just on the day you set up, the tiger might decide to take another path to the river. The osprey might decide on a siesta that is a little bit longer than usual.

At the entrance of JLR River Tern Lodge, there is a board that shows what animals were “sighted” during each safari in the preceding one week. Each day, the resort organises two safaris, one each in the morning and afternoon, and some of them are by boat and some by jeep.

I remember trying to study the boards and try and divine patterns to decide when we should go by boat and when by jeep (on the second day of our stay there, we were the “longest staying guests” and thus given the choice of safari). One the first evening, in our jeep safari, we saw a herd of elephants. And a herd of gaur. And lots of birds. And a dead deer.

That we had “missed out” on tigers and leopards meant that we wanted to do it again. If what we saw depended solely on the skill of the naturalist and the driver who accompanied us, we would not have been excited to go into the forest again.

However, the element of luck meant that we wanted to just keep going, and going.

Games of pure luck or pure skill can get boring after a while. However, when both luck and skill get involved, they can really really get addictive. Now I fully appreciate Anuroop’s NED Talk.


Card Games

So the other day, while playing rummy with the members of the in-law family, I figured why I suck so much at some card games despite having played them quite regularly when I was a kid. Back then, in family gatherings, it was common for the host to come up with a couple of packs of cards, and we would play either rummy or this game called donkey (some kind of variation of hearts is how I’ll describe it for those that don’t know it). Given how regularly we played it, I should have become rather good at either of them, which unfortunately is not the case.

Bridge was the first card game that I learnt “formally”, in the hostel blocks of IIT Madras. Soon after being explained the rules of the game, I was taught conventions, both in bidding and play. I was taught the math, the probabilities of various distributions and to make intelligent guesses. While I quickly became decently good at bridge, it didn’t help my game in any of the other card games that I’d learnt.

So while playing recently, I realized that I know little about the science of rummy. And then I realized the reason for it – we used to play with incomplete decks. The problem with old family-held packs of cards with which no “formal” games are played is that cards tend to go missing over the course of time (especially if there are kids around), and no one really bothers to check. And when you play with incomplete packs of cards, all the beautiful math and rules of probability go out of the window. And if you have learnt playing with such a pack of cards, it is unlikely you’d have figured out much math also.

Last night, while playing rummy with the wife, I tried my best to use math, to keep a careful note of discarded cards, the joker (for example, if seven of hearts had turned up as the joker card, that meant a six of hearts in hand was of less use than otherwise (we were playing with only one pack) ), mathematical probabilities of which cards are still available based on discards and stuff. Then, it turned out that there was too much luck involved in the distribution of cards, and I started missing the duplicate bridge games that we used to play back in IIT.

The wife has shown an inclination to learn bridge, and I’m trying to teach her. We’re also trying to learn poker (we’d bought this nice poker set in Sri Lanka last year but it remains unused since neither of us can play the game). Yeah, becoming really good at these card games is one of the aims of my “project thirty”.