07 November, 2006

Melbourne Cup Day

It’s Melbourne Cup day here in Australia. For those of you elsewhere, the Melbourne Cup is a horse race which, for some reason, ‘stops the nation’. Everybody has a bet, every office runs a sweepstake, every pub is packed and has its giant plasma screens tuned to the sports channels, and every neighbourhood is dotted with lunchtime barbies where those at home gather around TV sets to watch the great event.

As someone who doesn’t gamble, the whole thing seems a bit odd. I remember the Grand National back in the UK, which was similar in that it was the one day in the year when everyone had a flutter - but inspired nothing like the national fervour of this race. In fact, the Grand National was the only day in the year when my mother would place a bet. My mother worked in a bookmakers for most of the time I knew her and she almost always picked the winner on Grand National day (one year, her horse came second but she always placed ‘each way’ bets, so she was OK.)

I don’t gamble because the chances of winning are too low – even in a horse race, where the ‘field’ is rarely very large. I suppose I know too much about statistics and about cognitive biases to be anything but unimpressed by any odds that are not strongly in my favour.

My mother and father invested a lot of hope in winning ‘the pools’ and played religiously. I remember them marking up their entry forms each week – columns of carefully drawn Xs in the tightly-packed grids – and then eagerly scoring their copy coupon as the football results were read out on a Saturday. I couldn’t understand the care with which they picked their configuration of drawn matches. Neither had any deep knowledge of the form of the teams involved and they seemed to use a vaguely superstitious rule that their choices should be distributed in a way that didn’t follow any obvious pattern.

I used to ask them why they bothered. A block of Xs, or some other regular array would be just as likely to win as any other configuration. But they had a strong aversion to any kind of clearly non-random pattern. You see the same thing with people who pick numbers for the big national lotteries. Everyone hates to pick an obvious pattern.

I think I understand it now. If you put all your Xs in a block, or all your numbers in a sequence, even the most statistically naïve of us can begin to see how extremely unlikely it is that games or the draw will fall out in just that pattern. Something like that would be almost impossible! It makes us aware of the futility of what we’re doing – the fantastic odds against our gamble paying off - even if only vaguely. And, of course, they’d been watching the results come through week after week for years and they had never, ever, seen such a pattern come up.

Needless to say, my parents never did win the pools. Alas.

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