Monday, July 17, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ How stupid is too stupid?

Back in my teenage years I came across a definition of stupidity that made me rethink a lot of how I view the world around me. The particular writer I was reading at the time defined stupidity thusly:

Lack of awareness about: Time, Place, Form, Event

What this particular definition made me think about was that perhaps some of people's stupidity can be explained not by a hazy assertion that they lack native intelligence, but instead by the fact that perhaps they aren't properly applying the intelligence they do have.

With that in mind, let's talk about my favorite game - Poker. In the late 60's, when I was in Los Angeles, I played in a table stakes game every Friday night. It was required that I win because I had no real income and was a student at the time.

One particular night there was a big hand I was involved in that came down to me making a decision based on something I could possibly have known but had failed to know. That something was the amount of Tens that I had seen. You see, I had a pair of Sixes in the hole and the other two Sixes were laying face up in my hand during a game of 7 Card Stud. My eventual opponent in the hand (a jerk named Jack from Hawaii who's Daddy had bought him a Mustang just like the one Steve McQueen drove in the movie Bullit) was showing three Tens and he was betting the frickin' farm.

After Jack and I each received our last card, the down card at the end, I bet to Jack's check and then Jack chortled, called the bet, and raised the amount I had left on the table. I was terrified. And for good reason. There was over $600 in that one pot, which was a small fortune at the time and every nickle I had was in the pot if I called the raise. But hey, I had four of a kind. How could I lose?

Easy, I could lose if Jack had four Tens. And I couldn't for the life of me recall having seen another Ten during the hand. So I had to decide based upon my assumption about the location (place) of that missing Ten. If Jack had it I was screwed. If he didn't then he would have to have four-of-a-kind in the form of three hole cards and his remaining open card, which was a Nine. As it dawned on me that I had paid no attention to Nines and had no recall of having seen one, I realized this was possible, though very remotely so.

What would you do?

This type of decision point is common in most good board games and to my eternal shame, I victimize myself with self-induced stupidity in way too many games for me to have any real bragging rights about situational awareness. Here's a couple of examples of what I'm talking about... stupidity that is self-induced and one that I think shows how what many people often think of as stupidity is really just a person who's not as far along the learning curve as you are.

I know a guy down in Boise who's a Captain in the Fire Department. For several years he got heavily into Warhammer and played in every tournament we held. I never once saw him win a single game. I watched as he made one dumb decision after another. He blundered through each game, totally unaware of anything about the enemy force. He had no concept of their unit capabilities, their magic tools, their armor, movement rates, nothing. Every game of Warhammer for this otherwise intelligent guy was one shocking and upsetting suprise after another.

So here was a guy who had intelligence, responsibility and was in most aspects of his life, a smart guy. But he was as dumb as a bag of hammers when it came to Warhammer. And it was self-induced. Instead of buying or borrowing the army books for the enemy forces, he chose to remain unaware of anything about Warhammer other than what his High Elf army could do. Every game was another sad tale of him being blindsided by his own stupidity and then grumbling and bitching about how lousy the rules were for days or even weeks after a tournament.

I fell victim to my own stupidity many times in one of my favorite games - Railroad Tycoon. Having played endless hours of the PC version of RRT I had a mindset (which could be defined as an assumption of Time, Place, Form and Event) about what the game was all about. But that was a mindset about the PC game, not the boardgame. In my first 30 games of RRT I only won three of them... my losses could be traced to my poor assumptions about the game. Since I have a pretty high opinion of my own mad gaming skills, a 10% win rate was horrifying to me.

So I thought about the particular definition of Stupidity that I started this article with. And I studied the game, as well as the decisions the two evil RRT kings in my neighborhood were making. Since neither one of them had a preset idea of RRT from the PC game, they were able to identify the most effective moves to make and maximize their play. I got un-stupid pretty fast on RRT when I began to view it in present time, as it's own game with it's own form, it's own events, it's own timing and so on. My win ratio increased to 25% just by removing the self-induced dumbness I was victimizing myself with.

You may be like me in agreeing that social game playing, in particular board gaming, has positive effects on our lives. I do know that it brings together many people who might normally never have the pleasure of each other's company. It increases communication skills, especially in teens and children and gaming exercises the brain muscles. I plan to play games until the last breath of life is forced out of me. My thinking is that if there is such a thing as re-incarnation I'll be better equipped to buy larger quantiites of small print run collectible games next lifetime. That's assuming, of course, that at least some intelligence carries forward to the next lifetime.

But playing games does have it's darker, stupid side. For example:

* Puerto Rico is the best game evar... as evidenced by it's #1 status on BGG

* Railroad Tycoon is dumbed-down Age of Steam

* Hasbro, or as Grognads would say, Hasborg, has an evil conspiracy in place to keep classic games out of print

Actually, this last one, the Hasborg Affair shows how really stupid some very intelligent people can get. For the most part I think the vast majority of consipracy theories demonstrate how unaware some people can make themselves in order to justify a mental position that the conspiracy exists to begin with.

I was watching a talking head show the other day and the talking heads were interviewing a guy who is a professor of something or the other at some highly acclaimed university somewhere in the upper midwest... you can tell I was really paying attention. As it turns out this professor is part of a network of other acclaimed professors, all tenured at highly thought of universities in the midwest and northeast who have some sort of website that is intended to educate the world that the 9/11 attacks on New York were actually a conspiracy cooked up by George Bush and his evil band of malicious cohorts in order to... well, in order to... I dunno. Do something awful? No matter how the two talking heads asked the question of why the Evil Bush would do that, the Acclaimed Professor shifted his answers away from that and back to the whole idea of the conspiracy to begin with.

Eventually one of the talking heads, who is normally a sullen and dull witted Liberal, asked a very intelligent question: Okay then, the airliners were really remote controlled and the Twin Towers were pre-wired with high explosives... so then, where are all the people who were supposedly on the airliners?

Acclaimed Professor couldn't answer that. But he did make the point that just because several hundred people might have gone missing, that didn't prove the conspiracy theory was false.

To which the normally belligerant and screeching Liberal talking head asked a follow up question: Since this theory would require several thousand people being involved, how is it that the evil and malicious Bush Administration has kept it a secret? For Chrissakes! The White House can't even cover up ol' Dick Cheny shooting a buddy in a remote section of Texas! How are they keeping this under wraps?

Acclaimed Professor couldn't answer that. But he did make the point that just because the conspiracy hadn't leaked, it didn't prove that no conspiracy exists.


The professor reminded me of the Fire Captain and his Warhammer failures. The answers to most questions are available to the vast majority of intelligent people. But getting the answer requires making an effort to KNOW the Time, Place, Form and Event of a situation. The degree of stupidity we all exhibit in a situation is proportional to what we have failed to know about it.

Mister Fire Captain chose to not know enough about Warhammer to ever win a single game of it. He ended up getting so frustrated and pissed off that he totally swore off gaming. I even invited him many, many times to come to our board game nights and have some positive experiences... but he refused. It's my opinion that he refused for a specific reason - that being, if he came and played other games, found he enjoyed them and could even win at them from time to time... then that would cause his carefully constructed belief that Warhammer is flawed to crumble and prove that he was just being stupid when he played it.

A few of you may know that I have a young son... he'll be 4 years old in October. My little buddy has a mild case of what is defined as oral apraxia. That means he doesn't communicate well because he can't properly make all the right sounds required for clearly intelligible speech. In reading about his situation I came across a description of what children like my little guy go through internally (emotionally) when they fail to talk at the same level other children their age do. They are embarrassed. Yes, a 3 year old can be embarrassed. And it's very, very normal for late-talking children to not even attempt to talk because they "know" they will garble it, get frustrated and feel shame.

Working with my little boy is tedious and often frustrating for both of us because he first needs to understand what is going on with him, then he has to have the will to discover, for himself, what is required to overcome it. Doing that with a human being who can't communicate well to begin with is difficult at best and requires extreme degrees of patience and restraint on my part and huge amounts of willingness on his part. I'm fairly certain though that viewed from the "outside", many people just assume the little guy is stupid or slow. Which, when you think about it, actually makes them stupid... using the definition at the beginning of the article.

Aside from the emotional commitment and bonds of love, I don't view my boy's situation as being anything different than a board game situation or, for that matter, a real life situation of politics, career, romance or lifestyle. It's all about knowing. And what you know is usually less important than what you're willing to know about any given situation. Discovering the exact Time, Place, Form and Event would mean you have the truth of it. Discovering some of the truth makes your game more fun and enhances your experience... win or lose. I think the same thing can be said about anything in life and for me to draw parallels to life by using board games is not outrageous in the slightest. You can learn a lot about people by observing how they approach a board game.

So. I called Jack's raise... shoved my last $14 into the pot and waited. He laughed loudly and obnoxiously, called me a total dumb ass and spat out, "What kind of f**king idiot are you? Why would I bet that much if I didn't have the Full House?"

Why indeed? Jack did the right thing. He did what I would have done, he had Tens over Nines and that is a poker hand worth betting the ranch on. But I think that poker hand is really a lot like life - he decided that I was bluffing. There was nothing I had showing that would make him suspect I had four-of-a-kind. So he probably never saw it coming. I had more knowledge about the hand than he did but I still paused and had to consider if I was being stupid. What where the chances that he had the 4th Ten as opposed to the chances that it had been a card in a folded hand or was still in the remains of the deck? On top of which, I had over $200 in that pot and only $14 in front of me... it would have been really stupid to fold a powerful hand at a time like that.

So I won, he lost. But we both made the right decisions. Jack just didn't have the same level of awareness about the hand that I did. I know he felt stupid afterwards. I would have. But that's the beauty of the games that have the most appeal to me... nobody has perfect information and everybody is a little stupid at every single decision point in the game.


Friendless said...

Well written DW! I had to read to the end to find out whether you won the $600 or not. I would say stupid means something more like "does not learn from mistakes". Often when I play a game I will quickly make a decision which turns out to be the wrong one, but it is often the case that I know how much I know, I assess the risks, and then I do something that seems reasonable. Sometimes I end up looking stupid, but who cares?

Gerald McD said...

Another great article, DW. I enjoyed it very much. You do have a knack with words.

How come you're not in the Texas Hold 'Em world tour? Oh, maybe you are.......

Pawnstar said...

Yes, that was a good article; it reinforces my belief in my favourite maxim: There's no such thing as an idiot. We all know something, and different things to different degrees.

Having said that, my last game of RT started with a stupid move by me that proved impossible to recover from for the remainder of the game; so I'll consider myself an idiot for the time being (and I'm sure you won't object).

Your talking-head professor seriously needs to consider this.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but our C- student of a President is just plan too retarded to come up with such a diabolical plan.

Puerto Rico isn't the #1 game. Age of Steam is. All you have too do is play "5" times and you'll be saying the same, snake oil guarenteed.

I use idiot as more of a reactionary statement. As most people aren't idiots, or stupid...Just ignorant. Our Prez isn't stupid, just very very ignorant. I mean how can you have a dad raised in New england with an ivy league degree, and a mom raised in new york city, and yet still sound like a podunk red neck? I've lived in Texas a long time, I'm not from Texas. And I don't sound like a good ol' boy.

Poke used to be a favotite of mine. I really liked my monthy pokergames with my groups. However in the last couple of years it took off, and more and more people stated taking it too seriuos wanting to do tourneyment style games. Taking rake. Higher and higher buy-ins. It went from a fun game with friends, to an entirely to serious gambling. Sadly I don't play as much as I used too. I'm hoping my old group will snap out of this phase soon. Also hoping they get off the internet gambling soon too. I miss my "game".