There’s an old adage in poker that has been hackneyed, retold and repurposed over the years. It goes “There’s a reason why the same faces make it to the final table every year”. Poker has thousands of these sayings pulled from cowboys and western movies. It’s part of the game’s mystique and charm. The saying relates to the WSOP Main Event Final Table which at one time was referred to as the “Super Bowl of poker”.
The belief is that despite the amateurs outnumbering the professionals and luck playing a significant role, the professionals prevail in making the final table of nine players.
What makes Poker and the WSOP an interesting case study for artists isn’t just the balance of luck and skill in the game. But rather the transformation that happened within poker in a ten year period of time. For writers understanding luck and sample sizes can be the difference between a life as a starving artist and notable success.
The sentiment of “the same faces appear at the final table” is something that held true in poker for over thirty years. Poker fixtures like Johnny Chan Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, and Johnny Moss won 10 main events just between themselves from 1970 to 2003.
But in 2003, everything changed in the poker world with the arrival of Chris Moneymaker. The mild mannered accountant won a small tournament that gave him entry to the Las Vegas WSOP Main Event. Out of the nearly one thousand participants and hundreds of onlookers only one professional gambler, Lou Diamond, predicted Moneymaker’s success. He referred to Moneymaker as his “dark horse candidate”.
Through a series of well timed bluffs and all-ins, Moneymaker made it to the final table and eventually heads up against Sammy Farha. Farha, a seasoned Vegas professional and all around gambler tried to bully Moneymaker. Throughout the tournament, Farha was excellent at talking with his opponent until they revealed something critical.
But Moneymaker shut down. In the critical hand of the match with Moneymaker putting all his money in on a bluff he was impossible for Farha to read. Farha prodded with questions and boasts but Moneymaker said nothing. Moneymaker won the hand and would go on to win the tournament.
Dubbed “the MoneyMaker Effect”, poker and the World Series of Poker saw the largest period of growth in poker history with online amateurs taking over the scene. In the next few years, the tournament ballooned to almost ten thousand participants and in every subsequent WSOP Main Event an amateur won the tournament. The situation has become so dire that many professionals avoid the Main Event all together.
For writers there’s a lesson in the death of the Main Event. Everyone is attracted to glamorous broad fields like writing, acting, directing, painting or other fields where one person is plucked from a million into stardom. But an unspoken truth is that the larger the number of participants the more randomness and luck plays in determining success.
Infinite Monkey Theorem & Hamlet
There’s an old thought experiment known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem. In it a philosopher reckons that if an infinite number of monkeys typed for an infinite amount of time eventually one of them would write Shakespeare. The random key presses would eventually lead to Hamlet. Today, that monkey would be a celebrity but the parable is that by increasing the number of participants, randomness plays a larger role in determining the outcome. More occurrences leads to more outcomes and randomness.
What hand does my opponent have? What hand does my opponent think I have? What does my opponent think that I think about their hand? This level of mental acuity, the amount of cash needed and lack of public information make it harder for an average poker player to excel or even gain the knowledge to join the high stakes cash games.
Artists interested in overcoming luck should think in terms of not where can I find information on this topic but is it difficult to enter the field? Ironically, if that’s the case then it’s a much more sustainable career.
As the internet continues to democratize more of the world, it’ll actually lead to less sustainable options for creatives. The true counter for an artist isn’t to spend more hours reaching the mythical ten thousand hours but to understand randomness, analytics and a bit of luck.