I’d like to play a game. It’s a card game that I’ve invented to illustrate a concept that’s been bothering me about life. The concept is difficult to describe in words, so I invented a highly simplified model in the form of a card game to try and better understand the nature of the problem. I call my card game ‘Opportunity’. Opportunity is a solo game like solitaire. Here’s how you play:
- Begin with a standard deck of 52 cards. The suit of the card is irrelevant.
- There are four cards of each value: 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, Jack(11), Queen(12), King(13), Ace(14)
- You start with 0 points. Your goal is to get as many points as possible before the game ends.
- Pick a random card. This is your death card. As soon as this card is drawn, the game ends.
- Shuffle the entire deck, death card included. Do not look at the cards, shuffle them face down.
- Place the deck in front of you. Begin playing on a turn basis as follows:
- Draw a card. If it is the death card, the game ends, goto step 7.
- Decide whether you want to pass, or take the card.
- If you take the card, it will generate points for you. Add the value of your current card to your total score each turn that the death card isn’t drawn.
- You can only have one card at a time. You may replace your current card on any turn, but you must discard your old card and reset your score to 0 when you do this.
- If you pass, add the value of your current card (if you have one) to your total score.
- Proceed to the next turn (A)
- The game ends when you draw your death card. Do not add the point value of your death card to your total score. The higher your total score, the more successful you were! Congratulations! Enjoy comparing your points on this game to your previous games.
It’s easy to make a few observations about this game:
- The lowest possible score is 0, if you always pass and never pick a card.
- The highest possible score is 51*14 =714, if you are dealt an ace immediately, you take it and hold it for the entire game, and your death card was shuffled to the last card in the deck.
- Your strategy matters, but your final score depends heavily on the random shuffling of the deck.
- Some strategies will be more prone to failure than others. For example, waiting for an ace before taking a card is a strategy that will often fail, as in the case of an early death, or when the four aces are shuffled to the end of the deck.
- Switching your card too often is also a poor strategy because you often reset your score to zero.
- No strategy is completely wrong in every possible deck, except for the strategy of always passing and never picking any card, which guarantees the lowest possible score, zero.
- You don’t know when you will die, or what opportunities you will get before that time. Optimal play is only possible in retrospect.
- There is no way to avoid death.
- You play alone.
- The points only matter if you decide to value them.
Of course, life isn’t so simple. We aren’t handed little cards with numbers that easily express an opportunity’s value. We can’t use the same numeric measure to value everything. We can’t predict future cards based on prior knowledge of a deck of 52 known cards. We don’t get to play a second game when we screw up the first one. Playing this simplified game properly is hard enough! How do you deal with the much more difficult and murkier problems presented by real life?
If you’re expecting me to answer my own rhetorical question with something insightful or profound, you’re about to be disappointed. I don’t know. I warned you at the beginning of this article that the problem was bothering me. Am I bothered that I can’t predict the future? Not exactly. It would be equally frustrating to live out a preplanned destiny we were aware of.
Somehow we have to make peace with allowing an unknown destiny to unfold, being dealt cards we didn’t expect, wondering what to do with them, and wondering what cards are coming next…