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Arthur S. ReberI’ve spent over fifty years living two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie, horse player, and blackjack maven; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. For the most part, I’ve kept these tracks separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But over time these two avenues of my life have meshed. There’s a lot that we know about human psychology that can give us insight into gambling, especially poker and, of course, there’s a lot that poker can teach us about human psychology. It is quite astonishing how richly these topics interlock. I’ll also introduce you to some engaging characters I’ve known – bookies, con artists, hustlers, professional poker players and perhaps an occasional famous scientist.

This site will wander about in both worlds with new columns and articles along with links to scores of previously published ones. Now that I’ve retired I’ve become something of a political junkies and will go on rants on politics and economics,  When the mood strikes I’ll share views on food, restaurants and cooking. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Sunday
Dec182016

Betting the NFL: The Teaser Wheel

In sports betting, specifically betting on the NFL, there’s a wager known as the “teaser wheel.” My old friend Nolan Dalla claims to have invented it. I’m willing to give him credit since I don’t know of anyone else who’s claimed it.

To understand a teaser wheel you first need to know a bit about wagering on football and, of course, what a teaser is. I’d recommend Gambling for Dummies for no other reason than I co-authored it and wrote the chapter on sports betting. You can find it here if you wish.

A teaser is a bet on two separate games where the book “gives” you an extra 6 points on each game. It looks enticing since getting 6 extra points is pretty generous. The downside is that you have to win both games. If either of your teams fails to cover or ties you lose.

There are lots of different kinds of teasers where you can get more points but give up in the odds. For example, a 6-point teaser is played at -110. That is, you’re putting $110 at risk to win $100. A 6.5-point teaser (which gets you an extra half-point on each game which eliminates the tie) will be played at -120 meaning you’re risking $120 to win $100. There are also 3-game teasers, 4-game teasers etc. up to 10-game teasers. Odds and payout adjust for each.

Okay? Got it? On to the “teaser wheel.”

Here you pick a key game with your key team. Say the Giants are playing Dallas and the regular, straight-up line is Giants -3. This means they are a three point favorite. A straight wager on the Giants will win if they win by more than 3 points. But you really like the Giants in this game so you decide to take a 6-point teaser meaning that instead of making the bet at -3 you’re now betting it at +3. The Giants can actually lose the game by 1 or 2 points and you’ll still win — provided that your other game also wins (remember, in a teaser you have to win both games).

Nolan’s gambit here is to wheel the teased Giants against Dallas with every other game on the card, a total of 16 wagers and in each of these games you’re getting your teased 6-points. For example, suppose you like the Bears as a 4-point dog against Denver. You bet this game as the other half of the teaser and get the Bears +10. Etc. etc. etc. for all the games that week.

Why do this? Well, Dalla’s argument is that if your key game goes your way you’re getting every game on the schedule at a 6-point edge which should win an awful lot of wagers.

Does it pay off? Hard to say. There’s a lot of controversy in the sports betting world about teasers, even the ordinary ones. Some experts love them. Some hate them. Sports books continue to offer them which means either they’re not good bets or not many punters have figured out how to play them. Has Dalla?

Let’s take a look at the bet with the understanding that in all sports betting the expected value (EV) of the wager depends on the win rate. In order to beat wagering on the NFL you need to be able to pick the winner in straight bets about 55% of the time. This is because the book charges you a fee, known as “juice” or “vig” (short for vigorish, an old Yiddish word for a fee) on each bet. The standard vig is 10% charged on losing bets. If you were to place a straight bet on the Giants in that game you’d put up $110. If you lose, you’re out the whole $110. If you win you get back $210. So if you’re just “flipping coins” you’ll win 1 out of 2 or win $210 while losing $220 or $5 per $100 wager. If you win more than 55% of the time you’re a winning player. If not, not.

So the first question to ask is how often do you need to win a teaser? Let’s look at it from the point of view of Nolan’s teaser wheel and start by assuming, as a decent handicapper, that these 6 extra points get you a win rate of 75% and you’re taking each bet at -110. The teaser wheel means that you’re putting up $110 to win $100 on each of 16 games or $1,760.

The expectation is that 25% of the time your key team loses. You lose all 16 bets costing you $1,760. But 75% of the time your key team wins and you also expect to win all the other games 75% of the time.

Of the 16 games you expect to win, on average, 12 and lose the other 4. The 12 wins net you $1,200 and the 4 losses cost you $440 for a net win of $760. So 75% of the time you will win $760 which averages out to $570 (a win of $760 occurring 75% of the time) and 25% of the time you expect to lose $1,760 for an average loss of minus $440 (1,760 x .25). This yields a tidy average win of +$130 or a EV of +7.4%. Not bad. Looks like Nolan’s on to something — provided that the bettor can pick a teaser win three-quarters of the time.

The next question, of course, is where’s the break point? What percent of wagers must you win to create a profit? If, for example, you’re only picking the teased winner 70% of the time you’re in deep shit. When your key team wins you expect to win an average of 11.2 bets for $1,120 while losing 4.8 bets for a loss of 528 yielding a win of $592. Thirty percent of the time you lose the whole $1,760. So on the 70% of the days where your key team wins your win is $414 (.7 x 592) but 30% of the time your loss is $1,760 for an average of minus $528. Now you’re looking at a long-term EV of minus $114 per wheel bet. For a 70% winning handicapper, the teaser wheel EV is a painful -6.5%.

In short, the teaser wheel is only a smart play for a handicapper capable of picking the key game correctly at least 73% to 74% of the time. Is Nolan that good? I dunno. He probably doesn’t either because his life is, no matter how much time he spends at this game, only a small sample.

The wager also has huge variance because when your key team goes down every bet is a losing bet. Variance like this can do terrible things to your bankroll … and to your heart.

Thursday
Dec082016

Trump's Cabinet or Pandora's Box?

The cabinet that Trump is putting together is looking more like the escapees of Pandora’s Box than a government cabinet. Every new name that is announced or floated brings it closer to mirroring the hoard of evil spectres that poor, naive Pandora let loose upon the world. If you recall, only “Hope” was left behind when, stricken by the realization of what she done, Pandora closed the lid.

Most folks, especially the poor benighted bastards who voted for this miscreant, aren’t paying attention. Perhaps they’re caught up in the vortex that was the Trump campaign; perhaps they do not understand how powerful a Secretary of _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite agency) actually is.

Each oversees a large government bureaucracy with far reaching roles in the lives of every American. They are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. It’s standard procedure to approve the nominee on the grounds that the president has the right to choose the individuals who will oversee the various agencies of government and advise him on policy. The last person to be rejected was John Tower as Secretary of Defense back in 1989 — and that had more to do with sexual peccadilloes than competence.

What we are seeing in the slowly emerging list of individuals tapped to be in Trump’s cabinet is breathtaking. He said he was going to “drain the swamp.” Hah! He (well, it’s not really “he” — more below on just who’s behind this infestation) has left all the swamp gas and brought in a gang of crocs and scorpions. Briefly:

Education: Elizabeth DeVos, a billionaire with no relevant academic experience, no background in formal education but a champion of private and charter schools and a resolute opponent of public education.

Justice: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose racist past was the basis for a Republican senate to reject him for a federal judgeship when nominated by Reagan in 1989. His voting record in Congress is rated as the fifth most right-wing.

Homeland Security: General John F. Kelly (Ret.) who holds strong anti-immigrant positions, particularly with regard to the border with Mexico. Kelly’s record seems to be one of moderation and he may be okay. 

Health and Human Services: Thomas Price, a Congressman from Georgia who has led the GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a privatized, free-market system. In short, he’ll be in charge of the department he wants to gut.

Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who acknowledged that his only experience with urban housing was living in Detroit. He also had previously said he didn’t think he was qualified to run a major government agency.

Labor: Andrew Puzder, CEO of a corporation that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, two fast-food chains. An opponent of the minimum wage and a frequent target of labor complaints. A full 60% of the filings against his company resulted in violations against Federal guidelines, mostly for failing to pay even the minimum wage. He has been nominated to run the department that fined his company dozens of times.

Evironmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt, a climate change denialist who, as AG of Oklahoma, filed numerous suits against the very agency he is now expected to run.

Treasury: Steven Mnuchin, currently a Hollywood producer whose earlier days as a banker involved in him in a series of home foreclosures of “questionable” legality resulting in fines of several millions of dollars. His bank was also accused by HUD of illegal “red lining” against racial minorities. 

Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon, co-owner of World Wrestling Entertainment known for PR gimmicks and for being involved in accusations of steroid abuse among wrestlers. WWE is not, in any way, a “small” business. She also failed in two senate runs in Connecticut.

Commerce: Wilbur Ross, a billionaire known as the “bankruptcy king” for buying up distressed companies on the cheap. He is also one of the bankers who bailed Trump out of his looming personal bankruptcy when his Atlantic City casinos failed. A little bit of crony capitalism here, eh?

Defense: General James Mattis, nicknamed “Mad Dog.” Mattis may be a reasonable pick though he will have to be granted a waiver of the prohibition of having the agency run by anyone who was in the military within the past seven years. Mattis probably has the cojones to tell Trump “no” if he orders him to do something truly crazy.

United Nations Ambassador: Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina. This one might work out. She has virtually no experience in international affairs but is more moderate than the others. It could have been worse — we might have gotten the bombastic neo-con Bolton back.

There are several still-unfilled posts. The people whose names are being floated don’t inspire any more confidence than this collection which would be, as the New York Times pointed out, the wealthiest cabinet ever assembled (Ross, DeVos are billionaires and a handful of others are milionaires) and, when bringing Trump’s advisors into the picture [e.g., General Michael Flynn (Ret.) as National Security Advisor], the most military-oriented in memory (Flynn, Kelly, Mattis).

With few exceptions, the cabinet nominees are either individuals who are ideologically opposed to the core principles of the institution they are being asked to run or persons with no background or experience in the area they are going to oversee.

This, my friends, is Steve Bannon at work. For those who aren’t paying attention —- drum roollll here please:

DONALD TRUMP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THESE NOMINATIONS (except perhaps for McMahon and Ross).

Trump is, as Hillary and the Democrats were trying (and trying) to point out, is totally, fundamentally, profoundly unprepared to be president. He has zero knowledge of government and zero understanding of how it operates. He apparently thinks you govern by Twitter.

These appointments are being pushing by Bannon, a crazy, erratic but shrewd, right-wing nutball whose prime mission is to undermine the existing political system. As editor of Breitbart news he took on the mantle of promulgator of the alt-right, the nativist, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-woman radical segment of the Republican party. He is now arguably the most powerful person in the country because he has the ear of a president who doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s doing.

The Democrats have to, absolutely must, challenge and, when they can, block the worst of these nominees. The focus should be on the ideologues whose obvious goal is to strip bare the agency they’ve been nominated to run. Specifically, DeVos, Mnuchin, Price, Pruitt, Puzder and Ross.

Carson should be rejected on grounds of manifest incompetence.

More later when the nominees for the other positions are known.

Wednesday
Dec072016

Trump's Brain: A Refillable Vessel

In his interview with Time magazine as “Person of the Year” (and before anyone squawks, it’s not given for accomplishments but impact — Hitler was selected back in 1938 and Stalin in 1939) he said,

“I’m going to bring down drug prices. I don’t like what has happened with drug prices.”

He did not say, of course, what programs he had in mind for reasons that will be obvious in a bit and the interviewer didn’t press the issue. However, Adam Fein, president of Pembroke Consulting, a firm that looks at pharmaceutical economics, heard the comment and offered a suggestion. Trump, he thinks, is likely sending a signal to the industry. They should, he counseled, be prepared for him to take action sometime in the future to try to bring drug prices down.

This gesture on Fein’s part, in my view, was a display of hopeless naiveté and it reveals what is wrong with the way almost everybody deals with Trump. Honest folks like Fein and the many others who try to get Trump under their own particular microscope or strive to unpack what he thinks, believes and/or intends to do are making a fundamental error. When trying to make sense of what Trump says they assume that there is sense behind it.

That is the fatal flaw. That is why all the commentators, editorial writers, psychobiographers and casual bloggers who struggle to unravel the can of worms that is Trump’s mind end up scratching their heads and looking confused.

These efforts at interpreting the words of politicians and diplomats — standard operating procedure in a normal world — are wasted on Trump. It is the new insanity because Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. There’s little doubt in my mind that he doesn’t really think that drug prices are too high — certainly not in the sense that Clinton would if she said it or Sanders would (and did).

I predict that in a surprisingly short period of time, perhaps as short as a week or two, Trump will have a different stance, not remember saying what he did in the interview and, if pressed, deny that he did.

What I am virtually certain happened is that the last person who spoke with him about drug prices said that the pharmaceutical firms were soaking the people or he saw a cable news show trashing drug price increases. So he incorporated the idea and now thinks it’s his.

But since there was no deliberative process, no serious thinking, no reading up on the issue, no discussions with advisors or industry experts, it will just rattle around in his head until he talks to someone else and some other seedling of a thought takes its place. Trump’s brain is like a cheap tin tub with many small holes. Some notion, some meme gets poured in, sits there for a time but then slowly leaks out and is gone, to be replaced by the next input message which could very well contradict the one that just oozed away.

If this seems too harsh it’s worth keeping in mind that, as Gail Collins revealed in an insightful column in the NY Times, he had forgotten completely about his campaign “promise” to save the jobs Carrier wanted to ship to Mexico. He had to be reminded so that he could take credit.

Get used to this sports fans because this is what things are going to be like. Trump’s “refillable mind” is right out of the opening scene to every episode of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different” — and no one has a clue how to deal with it.
Thursday
Dec012016

Harold's Ten Thousand Hours -- Some Thoughts on Education

For today, some thoughts on education and life stimulated by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and frequent booster of the nation’s collective understanding of the human condition (go here if anyone doubts this).

In a recent essay in The New Yorker Gopnik described an afternoon with her four-year-old grandson, Augie. She was doing her very best grandmotherly thing, giving Augie insights into the world about them as they watched a bee working over a lavender patch. “Bees make honey, you know,” she said in her best raise-my-grandson’s-knowledge-of-life tone, thinking that that was the end of that. Augie would now know something he didn’t know before and think wonderful things about gramma.

Nope.

Short pause and Augie, smarter than the average bear, looks at her and says, “How do they make honey?”

And Gopnik is stuck for, as she readily admits (she a scientist, we’re all used to not knowing things) that, in fact, she does not know.

“Well,” chimes in Augie, “don’t you have your phone?”

And of course, she does and the two of them proceed to pull up dozens of videos and web pages on just exactly how bees make honey.  

But that’s not the point of this little essay. The point is that Augie isn’t Harold. You won’t understand that unless I tell you Harold was/is.

Some forty plus years ago the City University of New York (CUNY) began a magnificent but only partly successful experiment called “open admissions.” Any student who graduated from high school would be admitted into one of the many campuses of CUNY (the largest public urban university in the world). It quickly became apparent that, noble as this move was, it created some very difficult problems. The one that was most problematical was that tens of thousands of poorly prepared students were suddenly thrust into rather high-level, intellectually challenging courses where they were competing (in a sense) with other students who had better academic records and better academic backgrounds. And the worst part of this division was that the better prepared students were mostly White and the poorly prepared were mostly Black and Hispanic.

One effort to accommodate the divisions was the creation of a program called SEEK which stood for Search for Excellence, Elevation and Knowledge with classes limited to SEEK students drawn from that pool of students with inadequate academic backgrounds. Being the kind of guy I am, I volunteered to teach a SEEK class of Intro Psych — and this is where Harold comes in.

Harold was a twenty-something Black man who never missed a class. Not only was he always there, he was attentive, focused and routinely asked trenchant and probing questions. He flunked the first exam. I couldn’t grasp how this could be because he seemed to have a sharp mind and an active curiosity.

Two weeks later he flunked the second exam.

I couldn’t handle this so I asked to join me for lunch because I really wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know what the hell was going on. You just couldn’t ask the kinds of questions he was asking and not “get” the material in the course.

Lunch was a revelation — for me, maybe for him too. I don’t know. The more we talked the more I realized that he just didn’t know “stuff.” He didn’t seem know standard things, he lacked knowledge about the world, how it worked, how societies functioned, how educational programs operated, how economic programs worked (or didn’t), how political decisions were made, how power was distributed in the culture, how bees made honey, etc. etc. etc….

He was smart and had sometime remarkable insights into material but he suffered from a poor vocabulary, poor grasp of grammar, a lack of understanding about basic things like probabilities and statistical inference — all the things that are needed in an Intro Psych course. He was married, out of work, had two kids and worried about where or how he would end up. The SEEK program was his life line but he was having trouble grasping the rope.

Finally, I had that revelatory moment. I asked Harold to try to recreate a typical week in his life while growing up. I wanted to see how much time, loosely calculated, he spent in matters that could be called “intellectual” or “stimulating” or “educational” while growing up.  I was willing to count almost anything just so long as it occurred outside of a formal school setting. Helping an uncle garden counted. Spending time with his mom while she cooked counted — so long as she gave even rudimentary instructions about cooking, about what she was doing. Sitting at home while his mom or dad read to him from a book. Reading a book himself that was not a school assignment. Watching a TV show that was on science or history or a documentary — anything that could be tucked under an umbrella marked “educational” counted. Learning a musical instrument. Going fishing with his dad was okay — provided they had some discussions about how to fish and why one way worked but another didn’t. I included playing games with family and friends, sports with other kids and/or coaches. I was casting the widest possible net.

Then we started counting hours, hours that were spent in ways that would contribute to the great network of knowledge and understanding that makes us all effective humans. I wanted the number of hours that were spent this way up to age 18, the point where the typical kid goes to college.

We got 4,000, which I thought was pretty good.

It wasn’t. I went home and carried out the same rough calculations for my kids. I got 15,000! And it hit me. They stole over 10,000 hours of education from Harold. Robbed the poor bastard of the equivalent of five years of full-time work on his brain, his mind, his knowledge base, his exposure to the real world into which he’d been hurled.

He didn’t have Alison Gopnik as his grandmother who casually starts up a conversation about bees. He didn’t have me as his dad who sat up nights reading the Narnia series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a mom who visited museums, brought home puzzles and games and bought a computer the day the first home PC’s were available.

There are a lot of reasons why the kids of successful parents have a better life ahead of them compared with kids from poor families. It’s tough to give a kid back the ten thousand hours that were snatched away.

I spent the next day making sure Harold had a tutor (SEEK provided them when needed). He passed. He’s gone on, I know not where but he left behind a mark in me that won’t ever be erased. He also left me ever-concerned about the gaps between groups in our society. Maybe he’ll stumble across this and get in touch. That would be nice. I’ll pay for lunch again.

There’s an awful lot of talent out there. I can imagine a dozen different wildly successful lives for the millions of Harolds in the land. I worry about this issue all the time — go here for more.

Wednesday
Nov232016

Pork Shoulder Chili

I love a good chili. I’ve got a bunch of different recipes, one of which began with a pork-based chili I found in Clyde Casey’s book “Red or Green: New Mexican Cuisine.” This book BTW, is a gem, filled with excellent recipes and lots of insights into Mexican cooking and the variations Southwest chefs have developed.

If you want Casey’s original, it’s on page 139 of his book. But I found it bland and lacking punch. So, after several attempts, I’ve managed to turn it into a serious chili, one you could bring to a chili contest. This recipe serves 6.

Ingredients:

1 T olive oil

2 lb pork shoulder, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 red peppers, rough chop

2 white onions, rough chop

2, 4 oz cans of New Mexican green chilies

2 jalapeno chilies, rough chop (more or less depending on your preferences for “heat”)

1/2 c white wine

chicken stock (amount based on how the dish is cooking, probably around a cup)

1 16 oz jar of “picanté” sauce — either red or green

3 T flour

2 t Mexican chili powder

2 t ground cumin

2, 15 oz cans of pinto beans

salt and pepper to taste

various garnishes (see below)

Directions:

In large pot heat olive oil and brown the pork (about 10 minutes).

Add all veggies, cook for 10 minutes or so — keep stirring.

Deglaze with white wine and scrape pot to get up the fond

Add cumin, chili powder and salt and pepper.

Add enough chick stock to cover and simmer for 1 hour (or more) — add stock if needed.

Mix 3 T of flour with 3 T of chicken stock, stir and add (one T at a time) to the pot to thicken.

Simmer for another hour (or more) — add stock if needed.

Serve over rice with various garnishes and warmed tortillas:

Garnishes

guacamole*

sour cream

chopped cilantro

Tex-Mex cheeses

lime slices

*guacamole recipe (this isn’t the usual — trust me, it’s better than “the usual”):

1 scallion, fine chop

1 oz tomato, fine chop

1 garlic clove, smashed, chopped

1 T cilantro, chopped

1 t jalapeno, fine chop (more or else based on “heat”)

a squeeze of lime juice

1 avocado

salt to taste

combine everything

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