ESP = BS[1]

ESP (extra-sensory perception), premonitions, omens, lucky cards, favorite dealers, changing seats or decks, prayers, and every other attempt to predict or control cards are utter, absolute nonsense. Whenever I say that, people offer “proof” that I’m wrong, usually anecdotes about amazing, inexplicable events.

They had a hunch that a miracle card would come, and they got it! They were convinced they were going to win tonight, and they won! They changed decks or seats, and they went from cold to hot! They always lose when Joe deals, but always win when Mary does. How else can I explain these amazing events?

They may also insist that millions of people believe in ESP. So what? Everybody once believed that the earth was flat, and the sun revolved around it. The number of people who believe something is totally irrelevant. Nor does it matter that the believers include eminent authorities. The world’s most famous astronomers once constructed elaborate maps of the universe with the earth as its center, but the maps were nonsense.

It is equally irrelevant that a great champion claimed in Cardplayer that you will get bad cards if you expect them, that you must think positively to be lucky. Nor does it matter that other champions wear lucky hats, demand deck changes, or have other superstitious rituals. Nonsense is nonsense no matter who says it or how many people believe it.


The only worthwhile evidence comes from carefully controlled, scientifically acceptable research. If you don’t rigorously control the way you gather data, huge errors are inevitable. For example, you cannot purchase a prescription drug unless it has been very carefully tested because sloppy testing (or none at all) has convinced millions of people that all sorts of junk is useful. Charlatans and drug companies complain bitterly about the cost and delays of the FDA’s tests, but they have protected Americans from countless useless and dangerous drugs. I wish we had such an agency for pseudopsychology.


That research was conducted more than 80 years years ago, but occasional articles still cite it as proof of ESP. These articles omit one crucial fact: That research has been totally discredited. Dr. Rhine, the primary investigator, was a fraud. He strenuously resisted adding controls to his research because every time they were added, the effects became weaker. When the controls finally became adequate, ESP disappeared completely. That is, he did not produce any scientifically acceptable evidence that ESP exists.

In the eighty years since then nobody else has done so either. To be accepted research must be repeatable. If someone repeats your research, using proper procedures, but does not get the same results, no competent scientist will accept your findings. The reason is obvious: Researchers’ biases have caused thousands of mistakes.

Not one single research finding of ESP, etc. has ever been repeated with adequate controls. Many investigators have claimed to prove the existence of ESP, but nobody can ever repeat their results. As one critic put it, positive ESP results mean “Error Some Place.” When you take away the researchers’ biases and their sloppy procedures, ESP always disappears.


The simple answer is that they want to believe it, and it is extremely easy to convince people of something they want to believe. Humans have a natural desire to assign reason to randomness, to believe that there is some sort of order, that events don’t just occur by chance. This desire is particularly strong in people who don’t understand statistics and probability. However, some other factors are also involved.

Selective attention and remembering cause countless errors. People pay much more attention and are more likely to remember the times they “predicted” or “controlled” the cards, but they ignore or forget the hundreds of times they failed.

You had a hunch that the next card would be a club, remember when a club hit, but forget all the times it didn’t. You remember when your “lucky cards” won a huge pot and ignore the dozens of times they lost. You change decks, get hot, and remember it, but forget the times you changed decks and went broke.

Low probability events do occur, and they have immense impact. When we have runs of good and bad cards, it’s natural to think that we’re hot or cold, and that our good or bad luck will continue. But these streaks are the normal result of randomness, and they have no predictive value. Your chances of having the best cards in the next hand are exactly the same whether you’re “hot” or “cold.”

We can see the belief in streaks most clearly in craps and roulette. Many people insist that you should press when the dice are hot, and they can remember the times they won a bundle by doing it. But the chances of making a pass are exactly the same regardless of what has just happened. I don’t mean the theoretical chances; I mean the actual observed occurrences.

The best evidence that streaks have no predictive value comes from roulette wheels. You can often see the results of the last ten or more spins on an electronic sign by the table, and those data are fed directly into the casino’s computers. Many casinos know every number that has hit in the past year or longer. They need to be sure the wheel is balanced because people can easily beat an unbalanced wheel. They have tracked millions of spins, and all the numbers show up exactly as we would expect, regardless of what has happened immediately beforehand. That is, if black has come up ten times in a row, the eleventh time will be black exactly as often as after any other sequence.

People who bet on black because it’s hot, or on red because it’s overdue will remember the times they guessed right and attribute them to ESP or some such nonsense. They will just ignore or forget the times they are wrong.

The Confirmation Bias is the tendency to seek out information that supports our cherished beliefs and to minimize or ignore contrary facts. You may actively seek evidence that supports your beliefs about ESP and dismiss criticisms as irrelevant. That’s one reason articles are still published about the Duke University research long after it was discredited. Reporters and readers want to believe in ESP, and they are going to find and treat as fact nonsensical “research,” while dismissing the critics as uninformed or biased.

Willing suspension of disbelief: Many people go further; they deliberately suspend their critical thinking abilities because they want to believe in ESP. They dismiss contrary evidence and ignore the inconsistencies and weaknesses in the supporting evidence.

These points are not at all sophisticated. In fact, most of them come from Prof. Huffman’s Psychology in Action, the textbook I used to teach college freshman. Yet lots of educated, intelligent people — including world famous players — believe they can predict or influence the cards they catch. When confronted by such a paradox, a psychologist must conclude that some important and unconscious drives make people deny or ignore the evidence.

In simplest terms people believe in ESP, lucky charms, and other BS because they desperately want to deny reality. The fact that the cards are random, unpredictable, and uncontrollable is so frightening to them that they wish it away. They simply cannot accept that absolutely nothing they do will allow them to predict or control this frightening randomness. And that fear costs them an enormous amount of money.


Our game is ruthlessly fact-oriented. If you’ve got three kings, and he’s got three aces, you lose, no matter what you believe or how fervently you pray. Therefore, the first and most important step is to stop denying reality.

The laws of randomness and probability apply to you, to me, and to everyone else. If Mother Teresa were alive and played poker, they would apply to her, too. So throw away your lucky hat, ignore your hunches about what cards are coming, quit asking for new decks, praying, and so on. Instead of trying to control or predict the cards you get, concentrate on the only thing you can control: the way you play them.

Exactly the same principle applies to decisions away from the poker table. Don’t try to outguess random variables or other uncontrollable and unpredictable events. Focus on the only thing that matters: your own decisions.

If you would like to read more about good and bad thinking, click HERE:

[1] This blog is a slightly edited version of an article published in Card Player on April 25, 2003.