The Trickster's Hand

Somewhere between a Royal-Flush and an Ace High

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Hidden Information: Poker and Oil

Back in the 1980s and 90s, Exxon and Imperial Oil developed a model for global climate change whose predictive power has met with almost unparalleled success. This was a major breakthrough. The model made many predictions including the relationship between various greenhouse gas emissions and the warming of the overall climate.

The model, being a predictive model, was built to advise its creators on wise investments. With emission levels unchanged, it could predict what land would be destroyed by rising sea levels and which land would become uninhabitable due to the heat. It also predicted what ice would melt and create new habitable land. It could also predict these things for reduced and increased levels of emissions.

The takeaway: Oil rights on the Canadian Beaufort Sea would become valuable indeed as long as emission rates did not decrease.


Hidden information games are among the most compelling games on the market. Most games incorporate hidden information in some form or fashion, otherwise they are a Perfect Information game. Perfect Information games include Chess and Checkers as well as any game where no element is hidden or left to an unknown chance.

Not just any game with hidden information is a Hidden Information game. To be a Hidden Information game, the hiding of the information between players needs to be an important aspect of the game itself. The classic example of this is Poker, and Texas Hold ‘em is a particularly well-crafted specimen.

Texas Hold ‘em contains all the necessary elements of a Hidden Information game: public information, private information, and unknown information.

The private information is the two cards in each player’s hand. The public information, initially, is that there are five cards in the middle of the table, two cards in each private hand, and that there are a certain number of each card in the deck. The unknown information is the values of each of the cards face down in the center.

As the game advances, all unknown information becomes public, then the game ends. That’s the key thing for a hidden information game: the game is over when all information is made public.

Prior to that, though, is the most powerful part of Texas Hold ‘em: investment. Investment is another piece of public information that is entirely created by the players. This, as well as myriad physical and social tells, constitute the strategy. In poker, wagering is where the game is.


Exxon and Imperial Oil had a problem. Their findings were not unique. The information they worked on was public even though the model they developed was still private. They neared the end of the game, and they had not yet turned a profit. They needed to create more information, and they needed that information to be unknown.

Exxon and Imperial launched an unprecedented misinformation campaign. They found spokespeople willing to put their reputations on the line to make that public information back into unknown information. This was the only way to remain in the game. Once global climate change became widely accepted in the public, Exxon and Imperial would no longer be able to leverage their private information to make investments.

And invest they did.

With the debate over climate change fueled by company owned mouthpieces, Exxon and Imperial were free to purchase frozen-over land at rock bottom prices. Without the debate, the land would rise in price – as forecasts showed it growing increasingly desirable – but that didn’t happen. With the melting of the ice in question, Exxon and Imperial were free to swoop in and buy it up on the cheap.

Here’s a tip from one gambler to another, always watch where the other players choose to put their money.


Misinformation has no mechanical equivalent in Texas Hold ‘em. Well. Not in a normal game. For the actions above to have a clear parallel, one of the players would need to conspire with the dealer to stack the deck. More likely, the deck would need to be changed to another deck entirely. Maybe only one player would know of the existence of jokers. Or perhaps there were secret hands which always win. Aces and Eights and all that.

Then we’re not really playing Texas Hold ‘em. We’re breaking its rules. Let’s look at another game: Archipelago.

In Archipelago, each player has two key pieces of hidden information: their resources and their objective. Each player has an objective, and that objective performs two tasks. It establishes a hidden end condition for the game – such as building five markets – and establishes a scoring mechanic for all players at the end of the game – such as holding iron at the end of the game provides victory points.

The possible objectives are public, so the game cultivates a dynamic whereby players watch each other’s public actions and guess which secret objective the others might be trying to fulfill. Oh, is Bob hoarding iron? Then Bob must have the iron and markets objective!

The core mechanic for teasing that private information out comes from Crises. At the start of each round, there is a crisis, and the players must pool their resources or more of the indigenous people of the archipelago will rise up in rebellion. If rebels outnumber the population controlled by players, then the rebels rise up and kill the players in their sleep. Everybody dies. Everybody loses.

In a crisis, there is a key piece of public information. How many resources each player has is private, the remaining number of resources in the game’s supply – however – is known. Following the examples from earlier, people can be pretty sure that someone has the iron objective when the players fail to fulfill the demands of an iron crisis and yet the iron supply in the box is depleted.

When that happens, everyone knows that someone has the iron objective. That person is holding out, and they are willing to risk the entire game in order to maintain their advantage. They’d rather go extinct than miss out on a chance for profit.


Back in the really real world, Exxon and Imperial’s model was making some truly dire predictions in the far term. Apocalyptic warnings foretold the extinction of the human race. These warnings were as secret as they were remote. Action on emissions could be delayed with minimal cost to the company. Property and lives would be lost, but none of that property would be company property. The lives? Well, those didn’t belong to the company either.

In Archipelago, there is one objective which stands out from the rest. There is a chance that a player is holding an objective which states that they win if the archipelago rebels. Much like millennial sects of Christianity, these players will work to make certain the end times come sooner rather than later.

When a player like our iron-hoarder from earlier is at the table, other players are forced to come to terms with the possibility that the hoarder is not holding the iron objective at all. They may just be hoping to watch the world burn. Sometimes, this is the most fun and exciting moment of the game. The whole world – the game world in this case – is held hostage by a maniac. Or is it? Maybe it’s not a maniac at all. Maybe it’s just a man who would rather see everyone lose than anyone else win.

I’ll give you another tip from a tired gambler. When a player comes to your table and you can’t tell if they are motivated by profit or suicide, thank them and send them away. Maybe not the first time, they could just be trying something new. If it happens again and again over the course of years, just lead them away.

Your life will be better without them in it.

Kindness: A Memory of Alan Rickman

The bitter cold nipped at us as we huddled in the dark, London back-alley waiting for Sir Alan Rickman to arrive. Many people are speaking of his sneer, but I best remember his smile.

The first actor to emerge from the backstage door was Lindsay Duncan. She was surprised when I asked her to stop for an autograph. That’s what I was doing there. My college theatre class was spending a few weeks in London and Stratford – catching two performances each day – and I was taking the opportunity to go autograph hunting.

Ms. Duncan was not expecting the small crowd of tourists to ask to speak to her. I told her that I’d seen her in Traffik, the British miniseries, and she was surprised that any Americans had seen it. She’d recorded it almost a decade earlier, but she was still enthusiastic to talk about it. She asked questions about schools in America, and I asked about life in the London Theatre scene. I was an actor then – as much as a student can be anything but a student – and I had hopes to move to London some day.

As we spoke, the door creaked open again.

“You’re a dedicated lot,” a clean, kind voice rang out.

It had been almost an hour since the curtain closed on Private Lives at the Albery Theatre, and London’s characteristic rain had tried to hurry us along back to our hotels. The crowd behind the theatre had originally numbered at a dozen, but only four of us remained. Myself, Owen – a senior in my program – and Kathleen – our professor. There was someone else, but I honestly cannot remember who it was.

Sir Alan Rickman was taller than I expected, but he stood at a bit of a stoop. He looked exhausted, but he sounded fresh as dew-covered grass. He asked us who we were. He asked what possessed us to stand out in the rain. When he saw that I had a playbill to sign, he called me over and signed it so I could tuck it away from the rain.

I invited Ms. Duncan to talk some more. She joined us in a circle to all speak together. My group all spoke merrily about our trip to London and our program back home. We spoke about shows we had put on last season and what we planned for the next one.

Even as the rain grew insistent, we conversed as though we were wrapped in blankets by an open fire. The gathering was short. We spoke for only a quarter-hour or less, but it was a happy time. Ms. Duncan and Mr. Rickman smiled most the time and laughed for the rest of it. All gathered were too tired to remain guarded. When we parted ways, Mr. Rickman shook Owen’s hand when requested. It was a formal gesture, but it did not carry the awkward cold that formality can so often breed.

The only cold was in the air, and we did not feel it.

“You look like a Silicon Valley superhero. Cape and all.”
I smile back: “Who’s to say I’m not?”

“Hell doesn’t smell of sulfur and peat; Hell reeks like a hospital on a quiet day.” Count: 2181

Preview: “The Data Collector” A Novel by Trick Dempsey

The following is a section from the second chapter of my upcoming novel: The Data Collector.  The narrator, Sylvia, is returning from hate-purchasing coffee supplies as part of an elaborate ruse at her office. It’s been a weird day that is about to get a whole lot weirder.

I can see the house up ahead. Its Spanish-style roof looks almost black – its pueblo walls red – as the light of the setting sun transforms it into a beautiful and intimidating fortress. I wonder again if I should introduce myself to the people that live there. I’ve been parking in front of the place for months.

I catch sight of my little, red hatchback coupe.

“Fuck me,” I sigh when I see the little piece of paper struggling against the wind as it is pinned to my windshield by my wiper blade.

I hurry across the street, set my office coffee war-chest beside my trunk, and rush to look at the ticket. It’s a “fix-it” ticket for expired registration. I do a quick double-take. It’s not for “expired” registration. The ticket is for missing registration.

I walk to the back of my car and look at my license plate. The sticker is still there, and it doesn’t expire for a good ten months. I got new plates when I moved to San Mateo. I stuff the ticket in my pocket; I’ll just have to show an officer my plates tomorrow. Right now, I just want a shower, a glass of wine, and to find an invitation for a hot date waiting in my inbox.

I lift open the hatch to the truck and toss my coffee supplies in with a resounding series of thunks and clunks. Not my wisest choice.

I slam the hatch closed and kneel down to take a closer look at my plates. The screws are still coated with months of road grime, so it doesn’t look like some prankster borrowed my plates.

“Car trouble?” The voice behind me makes me jump.

“I know kung fu!” I shout as I leap up and grip the pepper spray on my keychain.

I do not know kung fu. Hell, I probably can’t slap convincingly.

I turn around quickly, ready for action, but I’m too confused by what I see to react properly.

I mistake the pale, bald man standing in front of me for a Jedi at first. He’s wearing a brown bathrobe over a white hoodie and a pair of bluejeans. He’s wearing tennis shoes without socks, and he’s accessorized the whole ensemble with black wrap-around sunglasses. Only the tiniest glint of sunlight reflects off the shades as his white grin shines below them.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he laughs.

“Well you sure did,” I try to take a step back, but I’m up against my car.

I take a step to the side and make my way towards the driver’s side door.

“And no,” I say sharply, “I don’t have car trouble. Just a ticket.”

“May I see it?” He’s following me closely.

“No!” I shout unexpectedly. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

He stops walking, but he doesn’t stop smiling.

“Oh good,” he bows his head and backs off. “I just wanted to be sure that you’re fine. I’d hate to see you having car trouble.”

I stick my car key in the door, pop the lock, and open the door wide.

“Well thanks for your concern,” I look up and he’s standing all the way on the other side of my car. “I’ll be just fine. Bye!”

I hurriedly slip into the seat and close and lock the door.

The bald man is standing outside just inches from the passenger door. His hand is touching the glass, and there is a cloud of condensation growing around it.

The door is locked. Good.

I put my keys into the ignition and give it a turn.

I hear a click and the weight of my car shifts as the passenger door opens.

“May I -” he says before I slam on the gas.

The car lurches forward as I jerk the wheel hard to the left.

I hear the door slam shut, and I look into the empty seat beside me. I lock my eyes on the road ahead and swerve to correct back onto the proper side of the road.

I check my rearview mirror. The bald man is standing in the center of the street next to where I had parked. His hands are hanging by his side. His face is expressionless.

I run a stop sign as I turn to head towards home. My lights aren’t even on.

I flick on my lights as I run another stop sign, and I don’t stop my traffic violations until I’m on the freeway.

My heart is pounding as I pull out my cell phone, but I don’t have any signal.

I take some long, deep breaths and continue along the 92 as I head out to Half Moon Bay.

The door was locked. How did he open it? Did he have a key? Does someone have the key to my car?

It’s surprising how much you can rationalize while on a boring, half-hour car drive. The drive is so routine that I start to imagine countless explanations for the bald man. Maybe the door was just barely unlocked. Maybe it wasn’t closed all the way. Maybe he’d sabotaged the door before I got to the car. The bald man must have been waiting for me.

As I pull into the drive of my house, I see that most my roommates aren’t even home yet. Billy’s motorcycle is parked on its traditional spot on the deck. There’s a spider web growing between it and the deck railing. I don’t think it’s moved in a month.

A flickering glow illuminates the window from the den, and I breathe a sigh of relief that Billy is home and awake.

Before heading in, I circle around my car and look for signs of tampering. I lock the doors and try to pry them open from the outside, but they remain tightly locked. Everything seems fine.

Everything will be fine.

I’ll be fine.

I leave the coffee war supplies in the trunk. I’ll fight that battle tomorrow.

I check my phone again. I still have no signal.

The sun is down. I’m back at home. The bald man was just a weird guy who got lucky. I’ll be careful for a little while, and he’ll just be a bad memory.

I’m sure a drink or two will help me forget.


“Fear takes hold and turns a person into their worst self. Humor frees you to be something more.” Count: 2583

“There’s hell to pay, and I’m delivering the bill.” Count: 2885 NaNoWriMo Total: 39192

“Maybe their god is just as silent as it is present in their lives.” Count: 2222

“The absence of information is, in itself, information.” Count: 2280

“I thought you were different, but you offer freedom from one pair of shackles by slapping on another.” Count: 2153

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