Friday, March 15, 2013

Game is Counting Cards

In the movie "21," Kevin Spacey leads a team of MIT students using a card-counting system to win big at the Las Vegas blackjack tables. Though the movie falls prey to a some typical Hollywood banalities, it's a solid flick that showcases how a small band of outsiders can influence the results of a much larger infrastructure. 

Counting cards has many similarities to game. In both pursuits, practitioners take an inherently losing proposition and employ a set of principles to turn the odds in their favor. Both game and counting cards are a grind. They require unshakeable commitment to proven tactics and an outcome-independent mindset in the face of sometimes significant short-term failures. Both pursuits have a few simple heuristics that can be applied to bring the odds close to breaking even, but capturing sustained value requires a level of introspection, innovation, and discipline uncommon to most people.

Game denialists fail to understand that using game to improve one's chances rarely returns immediate results. "Why doesn't it help me get XYZ girl", they complain. Just like card counters must sit out certain hands in until the deck is hot, game's strategy and tactics will not help get you a particular girl. In fact, if you're trying to get one girl, you've already lost to the casino.  

In the climax of the movie, Spacey excoriates the main character for going on tilt and continuing to play after the deck became unfavorable and his team signaled him to stop. He was no longer playing the system -- he was gambling. When you abandon your commitment to game principles by getting too drunk, reverting to beta habits, or pedestalizing a single girl, you immediately tip the odds in favor of the house.  

Of course there are isolated geniuses with photographic memories who can win effortlessly at the blackjack table, but there is a reason that all flights from Vegas are filled with an air of sad despondency. Likewise, everyone goes out thinking they can pull, but most guys leave the bar alone at 2am clutching a greasy pizza slice. Suboptimal tactics will occasionally have rogue positive outcomes, but unless you are an extreme exception the house will always win.

Weathering the ups and downs of game can be an exhausting task, but given the alternatives the solution is clear: pay your dues, play the system, and over the long run you will reap the rewards.

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