Psychics amid the slots

Las Vegas entertainment is usually pretty predictable. You might see a comic, a singer, a revue show, a big production extravaganza, or a headline entertainer, which could mix any of these. But as the Las Vegas Sun reports, a new, seemingly anomalous presence is taking over Strip showrooms: psychics bent on exploiting grief. It seems a strange combination. Keep reading for an excerpt of the story, and my extended thoughts on the phenomenon.

Psychic headliners John Edward and Sylvia Browne, materializing monthly in sold-out engagements at the Flamingo and Excalibur respectively, summon the very things people come to Vegas to escape, or at least forget for a weekend. Dead children. Abuse. Suicide. A litany of symptoms, from pulmonary edemas to cancer. And on and on, for up to $175 a head.

There’s nothing else on the Vegas entertainment landscape to remind audiences of the reality of being human. (Well, maybe the “Bodies” exhibit at the Tropicana, but even there the preserved female corpse is wearing high heels.)

Vegas does have a long history of extrasensory hucksterism — from the Amazing Kreskin to Uri Geller to Criss Angel, magicians and mind readers and mentalists have been passing through for decades.

But psychics as a headline act, as destination performers, this is something else.

For the casino entertainment bookers, the phenomenon is a no-brainer: low to no-cost production, built-in audience, promoted by the psychics themselves on TV and on their Web sites.

But something deeper is going on here. Right in the noisy, garish heart of the casinos, within this carnal carnival of denial, there’s a darkened room where people bring their grief and pain and loss. It’s the anti-Vegas.
What could be less Vegas?

The writer is vaguely disdainful, but there’s no mention of cold reading, or any feedback from someone with the intellectual tools to intelligently analyze the psychics’ claims of accuracy. Edward’s hits, though, get some play: after crapping out with a “cancer connection,” and a “suicide connection” (these sound like really bad ideas for game shows), Edward finds that, in his 700-person audience, one couple has lost a child. That’s really sad, but it’s hardly proof of Edward’s psychic abilities. It’s just cold reading.

Hey, I can do it, too. I’m talking to you. Yes, you! You’ve had some trouble in the past…you or someone close with you has had some sort of health issues…or maybe money troubles…or problems with relationships. Am I right?

I used to read tarot cards for fun, and I had some people convinced–and a little scared–that I could tell the future, even though I just used the cards as a springboard to allude to the same kind of general problems common to us all. The Hanged Man, for example: one of the scariest-looking cards in the deck, symbolizes (at least in my reading) feeling trapped, either by a bad relationship, an addiction, or one’s own fears. You get the picture. There’s no card whose interpretation wouldn’t have some meaning for everyone, particularly if I added the “you’ve got to guard against this is in the future” tag. Of course, since people have an innate need to find meaning in chaos (pattern recognition), more often than not my querents were able to make sense out of random images and pop psychology welded together with basic cold reading.

But I didn’t charge people $175 a head.

For me the big question is, to what extent are casinos and belief in this kind of psychic con-artistry antithetical? This feeds back to the other big theoretical/philosophical question: is gambling rational? I’d be hard pressed to argue that smart poker players and advantage BJ and VP players aren’t being rational: counting cards, in particular, is the zenith of rationality, and something of a triumph of reason. Ed Thorp and others were able to use their brains–and solid math–to prove that a negative expectation game could, under the right circumstances, become a positive expectation one. So that’s all about the scientific method and rationality: considering the evidence, developing a hypothesis, and testing it.

Games that have an absolute negative expectation and are just prone to the whims of fortune are less rational. Sure, you could say that the behavior of gambling is rational because even if the player loses, he receives his money’s worth in “entertainment.” But there is something almost mystical (and I don’t mean that, in this context, as a compliment) about plunging away at a game you rationally know that you will lose in the long run, hoping for a lucky break.

That’s also very human (and that I do mean as a compliment).

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