After the state pinball championship last month there was a second, side tournament. It was a sort-of marathon event in which I played sixteen games in short order. I won three of them and lost thirteen, a disheartening record. The question I can draw from this: was I hopelessly outclassed in the side tournament? Is it plausible that I could do so awfully?

The answer would be “of course not”. I was playing against, mostly, the same people who were in the state finals. (A few who didn’t qualify for the finals joined the side tournament.) In that I had done well enough, winning seven games in all out of fifteen played. It’s implausible that I got significantly worse at pinball between the main and the side tournament. But can I make a logically sound argument about this?

In full, probably not. It’s too hard. The question is, did I win way too few games compared to what I should have expected? But what should I have expected? I haven’t got any information on how likely it should have been that I’d win any of the games, especially not when I faced something like a dozen different opponents. (I played several opponents twice.)

But we can make a model. Suppose that I had a fifty percent chance of winning each match. This is a lie in detail. The model contains lies; all models do. The lies might let us learn something interesting. Some people there I could only beat with a stroke of luck on my side. Some people there I could fairly often expect to beat. If we pretend I had the same chance against everyone, though, we get something that we can model. It might tell us something about what really happened.

If I play 16 matches, and have a 50 percent chance of winning each of them, then I should expect to win eight matches. But there’s no reason I might not win seven instead, or nine. Might win six, or ten, without that being too implausible. It’s even possible I might not win a single match, or that I might win all sixteen matches. How likely?

This calls for a creature from the field of probability that we call the binomial distribution. It’s “binomial” because it’s about stuff for which there are exactly two possible outcomes. This fits. Each match I can win or I can lose. (If we tie, or if the match is interrupted, we replay it, so there’s not another case.) It’s a “distribution” because we describe, for a set of some number of attempted matches, how the possible outcomes are distributed. The outcomes are: I win none of them. I win exactly one of them. I win exactly two of them. And so on, all the way up to “I win exactly all but one of them” and “I win all of them”.

To answer the question of whether it’s plausible I should have done so badly I need to know more than just how likely it is I would win only three games. I need to also know the chance I’d have done *worse*. If I had won only two games, or only one, or none at all. Why?

Here I admit: I’m not sure I can give a compelling reason, at least not in English. I’ve been reworking it all week without being happy at the results. Let me try pieces.

One part is that as I put the question — is it plausible that I could do so awfully? — isn’t answered just by checking how likely it is I would win only three games out of sixteen. If that’s awful, then doing even worse must also be awful. I can’t rule out even-worse results from awfulness without losing a sense of what the word “awful” means. Fair enough, to answer that question. But I made up the question. Why did I make up *that* one? Why not just “is it plausible I’d get only three out of sixteen games”?

Habit, largely. Experience shows me that the probability of any *particular* result turns out to be implausibly low. It isn’t quite that case here; there’s only seventeen possible noticeably different outcomes of playing sixteen games. But there can be so many possible outcomes that even the most likely one isn’t.

Take an extreme case. (Extreme cases are often good ways to build an intuitive understanding of things.) Imagine I played 16,000 games, with a 50-50 chance of winning each one of them. It is most likely that I would win 8,000 of the games. But the probability of winning exactly 8,000 games is small: only about 0.6 percent. What’s going on there is that there’s almost the same chance of winning exactly 8,001 or 8,002 games. As the number of games increases the number of *possible* different outcomes increases. If there are 16,000 games there are 16,001 possible outcomes. It’s less likely that any of them will stand out. What saves our ability to predict the results of things is that the number of *plausible* outcomes increases more slowly. It’s plausible someone would win exactly three games out of sixteen. It’s impossible that someone would win exactly three thousand games out of sixteen thousand, even though that’s the same ratio of won games.

Card games offer another way to get comfortable with this idea. A bridge hand, for example, is thirteen cards drawn out of fifty-two. But the chance that you were dealt the hand you just got? Impossibly low. Should we conclude from this all bridge hands are hoaxes? No, but ask my mother sometime about the bridge class she took that one cruise. “Three of sixteen” is too particular; “at best three of sixteen” is a class I can study.

Unconvinced? I don’t blame you. I’m not sure I would be convinced of that, but I might allow the argument to continue. I hope you will. So here are the specifics. These are the chance of each count of wins, and the chance of having exactly that many wins, for sixteen matches:

Wins | Percentage |
---|---|

0 | 0.002 % |

1 | 0.024 % |

2 | 0.183 % |

3 | 0.854 % |

4 | 2.777 % |

5 | 6.665 % |

6 | 12.219 % |

7 | 17.456 % |

8 | 19.638 % |

9 | 17.456 % |

10 | 12.219 % |

11 | 6.665 % |

12 | 2.777 % |

13 | 0.854 % |

14 | 0.183 % |

15 | 0.024 % |

16 | 0.002 % |

So the chance of doing as awfully as I had — winning zero or one or two or three games — is pretty dire. It’s a little above one percent.

Is that implausibly low? Is there so small a chance that I’d do so badly that we have to figure I didn’t have a 50-50 chance of winning each game?

I hate to think that. I didn’t think I was outclassed. But here’s a problem. We need some standard for what is “it’s implausibly unlikely that this happened by chance alone”. If there were only one chance in a trillion that someone with a 50-50 chance of winning any game would put in the performance I did, we could suppose that I didn’t actually have a 50-50 chance of winning any game. If there were only one chance in a million of that performance, we might also suppose I didn’t actually have a 50-50 chance of winning any game. But here there was only one chance in a hundred? Is that *too* unlikely?

It depends. We should have set a threshold for “too implausibly unlikely” before we started research. It’s bad form to decide afterward. There are some thresholds that are commonly taken. Five percent is often useful for stuff where it’s hard to do bigger experiments and the harm of guessing wrong (dismissing the idea I had a 50-50 chance of winning any given game, for example) isn’t so serious. One percent is another common threshold, again common in stuff like psychological studies where it’s hard to get more and more data. In a field like physics, where experiments are relatively cheap to keep running, you can gather enough data to insist on fractions of a percent as your threshold. Setting the threshold after is bad form.

In my defense, I thought (without doing the work) that I probably had something like a five percent chance of doing that badly by luck alone. It suggests that I did have a much worse than 50 percent chance of winning any given game.

Is *that* credible? Well, yeah; I may have been in the top sixteen players in the state. But a lot of those people are *incredibly* good. Maybe I had only one chance in three, or something like that. That would make the chance I did that poorly something like one in six, likely enough.

And it’s also plausible that games are not independent, that whether I win one game depends in some way on whether I won or lost the previous. But it does *feel* like it’s easier to win after a win, or after a close loss. And it feels harder to win a game after a string of losses. I don’t know that this can be proved, not on the meager evidence I have available. And you can almost always question the independence of a string of events like this. It’s the safe bet.