Sunday, December 03, 2006

If You're Gonna Play the Game, Girl, You Gotta Learn to Play it Right

I graduated from college in 2000 at the very end of the dot com boom. I interviewed a lot during the spring and summer of that year – graduating with a Comp Sci degree at this time meant that interviewing was ridiculously fun. I was flown around the country and ate a lot of nice meals – at once point I commented to a friend that interviewing was the best job ever. I eventually settled on a position programming graphics for video slot machines partially because the whole dot com business plan seems suspect to me (I won’t claim that I foresaw the bubble burst but I was cautious enough to avoid the whole scene – not that it mattered, I was still jobless come 2002) and partially because slot machines were vaguely related to video games but mostly because I’m a sucker for a job with a high novelty factor. The job made for great ice breaker talk -- people loved to chat about slot machines and I enjoyed being the novelty act . Ironically, I hate gambling.

Growing up I spent a lot of time in Reno and Las Vegas where they had not only casinos but shopping malls and airports and the National Finals Rodeo (none of these things were available four hours away in my home town). Nights at the Peppermill or the Tropicana were usually spent enjoying the luxury of hotel TV while mom and dad partook of the pleasure of video poker. Today, when my parents meet me in Vegas Dad often puts money into a machine next to him and implores me to gamble for just a little while. I like hanging out with my dad so I humor him but I usually pocket half of the money and slip off to the pool after an hour or so. I don’t like gambling mostly because I don’t believe in winning. Everyone knows that the house always wins but somehow most people still believe that luck will shine on them.

My year and half of intimate contact with the inner workings of slots decimated any belief I might have had in luck. Slot machine mechanics leave no room for chance. Table games seem more promising – there is no equation in the background sealing the odds against you and the presence of human opponents makes the game more open to error. Poker, they say, is more about reading people than it is about luck. It’s probably lucky that I am not tempted to put money on my ability to tell what people are thinking. I’ve never been an empath, people are usually a mystery to me. Unfortunately reading people is a gamble that remains important outside of casinos. I think my doubting of luck and my inability to read people are both extensions of being the type of person who would end up as a programmer to begin with. I know luck is involved when you pull the handle of a slot machine not only because I have been the watchmaker but because even without first hand knowledge I know that the machines are deliberately constructed to make the house win. I do not know what people are thinking because brains (and hearts and souls…) have no program to follow. Even when I successfully catch on to what others are thinking I never know how to react and, not being able to predict the likely response to my action leaves me feeling like reacting at all is too much of a gamble to risk.

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