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The Force Fallacy

That intergalactic saga, Star Wars, gave us one of life’s more annoying clichés: “May the force be with you.” The “force” in question here was some kind of cosmic power that could, apparently, be channeled by those with decades of intense training and a Zen-like understanding of the complexities of life (Yoda) or, lacking these, good looks and a couple of afternoons in a swamp (Luke Skywalker). This “force” was definitely a cool thing ‘cause it could make all manner of things happen, like moving objects, overcoming obstacles and, quite literally “forcing” the world to cooperate with you in particular ways.

This mythical force, of course, was the brainchild of a bunch of creative screen writers with serious science fiction credentials, and, make no mistake; it is a notion that resonates deeply in the human psyche. As we, mere forceless mortals, walk through our daily offices there are oh so many times when we wish we could just call on “the force” and make something happen. Get us out of a traffic jam, prepare a meal while we rest, tweak the numbers of this week’s lottery ….. Well, so long as these desires are mere wishes and so long as they sit quietly in our fantasy lives things are okay.

However, there are places where we, normally reasonable folks, start acting like there really were a “force” and the most common occur in a casino. There are a host of psychological reasons for this, prominent among them is that we are dealing with events that are driven by luck, by chance, by the vagaries of random outcomes, by the bounce of a die, the tug of gravity on a small white ball, the arbitrary line-up of symbols on a slot, the turn of a fatal card.

As we’ve discussed many times in these columns, people just do not like randomness and react poorly to the notion that things happen that are not only outside their control but outside their rational understanding. In psychology it is a well-established principle that the more unpredictable events become the more people tend to turn toward myth, fantasy and irrational belief. And, indeed, when people gamble they often act as though they can gather the powers of “the force” make the world cooperate —- a syndrome that tends to occur, not surprisingly, toward the end of a gaming session when the punter is losing.

For the most part, none of these emotions or reactions are problematical. You make a couple of last minute bets, pray, channel Uri Geller, will the wheels with all your heart and then go to bed. If “the force” was with you, you got even. If not, you’re just a tad deeper in the hole.

I don’t find this kind of thing particularly interesting since it happens all the time. What I do find intriguing is that I keep seeing this kind of thing happening in games where it really should not occur. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to shift over to my game of choice, poker.

Poker, unlike most of the other games in a casino, is a game of skill. Sure, there is a lot of luck involved, but in the long run it is axiomatic that the luck factor pretty much evens out. The players who make the best decisions about when to fold, call and raise are the ones who end up with the money. If you doubt this, I remind you that there are more than a few professional poker players. They do this for a living. There are NO professional craps shooters, roulette players or slot junkies. You cannot play a game for a living if there isn’t a significant element of skill involved.

So, it is with some surprise that I have begun to realize that many poker players succumb to a desperate belief in “the force.” Indeed, if I don’t watch myself carefully, I can get sucked into that fatal trap. It isn’t that a player will sit there and mentally try to gather cosmic powers unto himself. It’s subtler than that. What they try to do is “force” a hand or a series of hands. That is, rather than play the cards they’re dealt and make sensible decisions based on solid poker strategy, they try to make the game cooperate with them. Let’s take a look at how this can happen by examining the play of a typical poker player and, since it’s now the overwhelming favorite game of poker junkies everywhere, let’s assume our hero is playing Texas Hold ‘em.

The fatal moment usually occurs when the session is near over, the shadows are long and the bankroll has shrunk. The syndrome is marked by three things, one or more of which can occur on a single hand:

(a) calling before the flop with cards that should be folded (b) bluffing inappropriately when the cards fail to cooperate (c) calling a bet on the river in the hope that your opponent is bluffing

All three are basically silly things to do but they all have this “force a hand” component. In (a) the player is taking a shot on a hand in the faint hope that he’ll catch magical cards on the flop by mentally “forcing” them to appear. When they fail to appear from the dealer’s deck in the desired manner, (b) gets engaged. The thought is, “well, if I can’t hit the flop, at least I can pick up the pot by bluffing at it. Hey, one sizeable bet and they’ll all fold.” Of course, virtually every time you try this somebody calls your bet. If truly desperate, the poor sod might try another bluff on the turn, hoping to convince his rival that he really has a hand. Of course, he gets called again because, as anyone not trying to “force” a hand would know, the opponent is the guy with the real hand. So nothing is left but (c), call and hope for that last lingering miracle.

Even if you’ve never succumbed to the temptation to “force-a-hand,” if you’ve played even a modest amount of poker, you’ve almost certainly felt its tug. If this feeling begins to creep up on you, remember one thing: “the force” was a myth, writer’s invention. You cannot force a hand of poker, you cannot force a session of poker, you can only play solid poker. Ironically, if you focus on playing good poker, making correct decisions, folding, calling and raising appropriately, you might actually discover that people are cooperating. A term used often by solid players is “control” and they use it to refer to circumstances where their decisions and actions at the table can control their opponents. The well-timed bluff can “force” an opponent to lay down the best hand; the appropriate call on the river can indeed reveal an ill-disguised bluff. But, perhaps not surprisingly, the times when you are able to establish “control” virtually always happen when you are playing solid poker —- they never show up when you are trying to “force” the game.

Oh, by the way, don’t get deluded into thinking that you can “force” someone to love you either. It’s just as useless a gimmick in matters of the heart.

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