John Wheeler is a theoretical physicist with a talent for memorable communication. In the nineteen-sixties he came up with the term “black hole” to describe the phenomenon we now know as… a black hole.
On scientific laws he offered: “There is no law except the law that there is no law.”
More generally, for anyone chasing knowledge, he said: “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.”
Surely it must be the large number of people willing to be losers so that others might gain.
Ours is a zero (or negative) sum game. On every stock index, one half of all shares traded must, on average, be traded for a loss, relative to the movement of the index itself. When trading fees and costs are taken into account, it’s plain to see that compared with buying the index there’s a net average loss associated with trading.
The winners must be a minority. So why on earth would anyone want to start trading?
Funnily enough, an answer comes from another theoretical physicist – the iconoclastic Richard Feynman.
In Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, a collection of anecdotes about his life, he talks about his times in Las Vegas. Feynman, like Jesse Livermore, was a womanizer. He knew gambling was a sucker’s game but he liked visiting Vegas for the female company.
Here’s what he had to say about a visit to a casino:
….and she said “See that man over there, walking across the lawn? That’s Nick the Greek. He’s a professional gambler.”
Now I knew damn well what all the odds were in Las Vegas, so I said, “How can he be a professional gambler?”
“I’ll call him over.”
Nick came over and she introduced us. “Marilyn tells me that you’re a professional gambler.”
“Well, I’d like to know how it’s possible to make your living gambling, because at the table, the odds are 0.493.”
“You’re right,” he said, “and I’ll explain it to you. I don’t bet on the table, or things like that. I only bet when the odds are in my favor.”
“Huh? When are the odds ever in your favor?” I asked incredulously.
“It’s really quite easy,” he said. “I’m standing around a table, when some guy says, ‘It’s comin’ out nine! It’s gotta be a nine!’
The guy’s excited; he thinks it’s going to be a nine, and he wants to bet. Now I know the odds for all the numbers inside out, so I say to him, ‘I’ll bet you four to three it’s not a nine,’ and I win in the long run. I don’t bet on the table; instead, I bet with people around the table who have prejudices – superstitious ideas about lucky numbers.”
Nick continued: “Now that I’ve got a reputation, it’s even easier, because people will bet with me even when they know the odds aren’t very good, just to have the chance of telling the story, if they win, of how they beat Nick the Greek. So I really do make a living gambling, and it’s wonderful!”
So Nick the Greek was really an educated character. He was a very nice and engaging man. I thanked him for the explanation; now I understood it. I have to understand the world, you see.
So, what’s the moral I take from this story?
Given the sheer number of suckers who make their way to Las Vegas hoping to win, but deep down knowing they’ll lose, and the numbers who lose money trading, it has to be that more people have an instinct for gambling than have an instinct for winning. They also like to experience the thrill of the game – whether it’s chasing the big win on the one armed bandits or on the trading screen. They like to talk about their experiences – “I beat Nick the Greek” or “I made 30% on the breakout.” Occasionally they’ll be lucky and have a big victory they can brag about. Losses are often kept quiet.
In addition to and tied in with the gambling behavior is the “I’m better than he is” attitude often seen in car drivers. Survey after survey shows the vast majority of drivers believe their driving is above average. Clearly it’s impossible for the majority to be above average at anything. People are systematically overestimating their own ability.
The trouble with trading is that a lot of books actually tell beginning suckers that, by following the advice of the book, they will become better than average traders. This reinforces their in-built car-driving/I’m better than he is attitude. Only bitter experiences and, sometimes, large losses change that.
For me, the willingness of traders to repeatedly lose money was the strangest thing in trading. What do you think?