The Place: Le Grand Casino of Monte Carlo in the fabulously wealthy Principality of Monaco. The Date: August 18th, 1913. On the blood red carpet, tuxedoed dukes and oligarchs from every civilized country mingle at poker tables as green and manicured as estate lawns. They wear white ties and colognes, pince-nezzes and bryl-creme. The casino babbles in French and English, German, Italian, and Arabic, accented by the clinking of glasses and the soft tumble of dice. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the room, you could hear the snicker of a roulette wheel, and a growing commotion rising from it. Each time the whir of the spinning ball dies into a rattle, voices crash against the walls, each time a little louder, then ebb back as the whir starts again. This table is having a “streak;” the ball has landed on black ten times in a row. As the disbelief and the voices of gamblers gets louder, the table draws a larger crowd. Each time the ball lands on black, a single word is cried out in every language: “Красный! Červená! Rosso! Rouge! Rood! Red! Red! Red!” By the time the ball has landed 15 times on black, people are climbing over each other to thrust their money on the red squares, doubling and tripling their stakes. No one can believe the ball could land on black now 20 times in a row. Even the croupier is sweating, looking apologetically at the gentlemen as he takes their chips. By the time the streak is over, the ball has landed on black 26 consecutive times, and the casino has made millions.
The Place: The beach at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The Date: August 18th, 1913. The morning sun glints off the Gulf of Mexico like a knife. A slight breeze makes the palms crash their heads together in the yellow air. The ocean murmurs to the trees, the trees hush the ocean, and the sucking silence between them is cut only by the whinny of a distant horse. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the beach, you would hear a different sound, like a brushstroke on canvas. It is a newly-hatched Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle digging her way out of the soft white sand. Her flippers trace a fish-scale pattern on the beach as she dashes for the ocean… and is snatched up by a seagull. Soon more turtles are emerging, climbing over each other to reach the relative safety of the waves. But the crabs and gulls and even a few hawks and foxes have arisen early to glut themselves on the hatchlings. It’s a riot of beaks and teeth and shells as 4.5 million baby turtles erupt from the sand, and the word for blood is called out in every language. Still, the predators cannot possibly catch every turtle, and most escape into the foam. For the next year, they’ll be hunted by every oceanic predator large enough to swallow them. Only 4,500 will survive to breed, the females returning to this very beach to lay their own eggs. Their chances are one in a thousand. They are the lucky ones.
What is luck? The idea persists in almost every culture. Even a culture with an all-seeing God that moves every sparrow — and every roulette ball — has the tendency to believe its fortune can be improved, persuaded, or massaged with prayer, crossed fingers, rabbits’ feet, and backwards underwear. My favorite definition of luck is one from Penn Jillette: “Luck is probability taken personally.” A sea turtle, if it could reason, would consider itself the luckiest turtle alive to survive the 1,000-to-1 odds of surviving to adulthood. But it’s not lucky. In fact, it is a statistic.
The story at the casino is a true one, and is the origin of the term The Monte Carlo Fallacy, also known simply as The Gambler’s Fallacy. The fallacy here was the gamblers’ idea that the universe has some sort of “memory” for what has happened before, and given 50-50 odds, wants to “course correct.” But the odds of a roulette ball falling on black are the same each time. And while a streak of 26 blacks in a row seems extraordinary, it was, in fact, bound to happen sooner or later, somewhere, given the billions of spins on the hundred of thousands of roulette wheels around the world and throughout time. For an illustration of what the Monte Carlo Fallacy looks like, listen to Rosencrantz:
It must be indicative of something besides the redistribution of wealth.
Of all the animals in the world, sea turtles have one of the lowest chances of survival. And the rarest (and smallest) of all sea turtles is the Kemp’s Ridley. I have a soft spot for this turtle, as we have one at the aquarium where I used to work, a cute and vicious young thing with the unimaginative name of Ridley and a taste for unassuming divers. Besides aquarists’ hands, Kemp’s Ridleys’ diet consists mainly of blue crabs, but extends to jellies and molluscs as well. Though they’ve been spotted as far north as Nova Scotia, but they live almost entirely in and around the Gulf of Mexico, where the youngest turtles take refuge in the weedy sargassum mats. The Gulf used to be turtle heaven. In Christopher Columbus’ diary, he mentions that his ships were so swarmed with sea turtles that his sailors had to shove them away from the prows with poles. Before the 1940’s, up to 42,000 Kemp’s Ridley nests were found on that one beach, that in Rancho Nuevo, with over a hundred eggs per nest. Now only 300-350 Kemp’s females nest there every year. And with the thousand-to-one odds of survival for each hatchling dropping with each generation, and less than a thousand laying females, it seems the species is running out of luck.
While most sea turtles nest separately, Kemp’s Ridleys almost literally put all their eggs in one basket. That is, 95% of the species nest on the beach at Rancho Nuevo at the same time in a phenomenon called an arribada (“arrival”). We don’t know what triggers this, one of the largest synchronized egg-layings in the world, but lunar cycles, offshore winds, and pheremones are all culprits. (Given its similarity to the spawning events of grunion, you can imagine what my guess is.) The turtles aren’t putting all their chips on the table — there are other nesting grounds in Texas and Florida — but something close to it. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Lay a few million eggs at a time, and the predators can’t catch ’em all. But what happens to the odds when you’re only laying a few thousand at a time?
Not to mention that it’s harder out there for a turtle than it used to be. Sea turtles in Columbus’ day didn’t have to contend with oil spills, shrimp trawlers, the commercialization of beach habitat, the collapse of the crab fishery, the plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish, or the Exxon signs mistaken for the moon. When the turtles’ odds were just a thousand-to-one, it compensated by pooling its resources and going all in. That may not be enough anymore.
Fortunately, there are now protected beaches, breeding programs, and Turtle Excluder Devices (a sort of trapdoor for turtles) installed in shrimping nets. But the turtles rely on high numbers to beat their low odds… numbers they no longer have. We can save the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, I believe. But first we have to shake our gambler’s fallacy, thinking that just because the turtle’s fortune has fallen on black for the better part of the last century, it’s bound to fall on red soon. That good luck will follow a streak of bad luck. There is no luck. There is only probability. The universe, unfortunately, does not remember or care about the fate of a newly-hatched turtle. That means we have to.