A few days ago a friend of mine referred me to an interesting podcast discussing card shuffling, framed as a friendly argument-turned-wager between a couple about how many times you should shuffle a deck of cards. A woman claims that the “rule” is that you riffle shuffle three times, then quit messing around and get to dealing. Her partner, on the other hand, feels like at least “four or more” riffle shuffles are needed for the cards to be sufficiently random.
A mathematician is brought into the discussion, who mentions the popular result that seven shuffles are needed… at least according to specific, but perhaps not necessarily practical, mathematical criteria for “randomness.” (There is some interesting preamble about the need to define exactly what is meant by “random,” which I was disappointed to hear defined as, “any card is equally likely to be in any position in the deck.” This isn’t really even close to good enough. For example, start with a brand new deck of cards in a known order, and simply cut the deck at a uniformly random position. Now each and every card is equally likely to be in any position in the deck, but the resulting arrangement of cards can hardly be called sufficiently random.)
A win for the man, right? But the woman’s side is vindicated in the end, by noting that even in casinos– where presumably this has been given a lot of thought– a standard poker deck is typically only shuffled three times. Several dealers are interviewed, each describing the process with the chant, “riffle, riffle, box, riffle, cut.”
A couple of observations occurred to me after listening to this discussion. First, it’s true that casino dealers don’t shuffle seven times… but they also don’t just shuffle three times. Particularly when presented with a brand new pack, before any riffle shuffling, they often start with a “wash,” consisting of spreading the cards haphazardly around the table, eventually collecting them back into a squared-up deck to begin the riffle-and-cut sequence.
Depending on how thorough it is, that initial wash alone is arguably sufficient to randomize the deck. If we think of a single riffle shuffle as applying a random selection of one of “only” possible permutations in a generating set, then the wash is roughly akin to making a single initial selection from a generating set of all 52! possible arrangements. If the wash is thorough enough that this selection is approximately uniform, then after that, any additional shuffling, riffle or otherwise, is just gravy.
When does it really matter?
The second observation is one made by a dealer interviewed in the podcast, who asks what I think is the critical practical question:
The real question is, what’s the goal of the shuffle? Is it to completely randomize the cards, or is it to make it so that it’s a fair game?
In other words, if we are going to argue that three, or any other number of shuffles, is not sufficient, then the burden is on us to show that this limited number of shuffles provides a practical advantage that we can actually exploit in whatever game we happen to be playing.
We have discussed some examples of this here before. For example, this wonderful card trick due to Charles Jordan involves finding a spectator’s secretly selected card, despite being buried in a thrice-shuffled deck. And even seven shuffles is insufficient to eliminate a huge advantage in the so-called New Age Solitaire wager.
But it’s an interesting question to consider whether there are “real” card games– not magic tricks or contrived wagers– where advantage may be gained by too few shuffles.
I struggled to think of such a practical example, and the following is the best I can come up with: let’s play a simplified version of the card game War (also discussed here recently). Start with a “brand new” deck of cards in the following order:
Riffle shuffle the deck three times, and cut the deck. In fact, go ahead and cut the deck after each riffle shuffle. Then I will deal the cards into two equal piles of 26 cards, one for each of us. At each turn, we will simultaneously turn over the top card from our piles, and the higher card wins the “trick.” Let’s simplify the game by just playing through the deck one time, and instead of a “war” between cards of the same rank, let’s just discard the trick as a push. At the end of the game, whoever has taken the most tricks wins a dollar from the other player.
If three shuffles is really sufficient to make this a “fair” game, then the expected return for each player should be zero. Instead, I as the dealer will win over two out of three games, taking about 42 cents from you per game on average!
Of course, this is still contrived. Even the initial deck order above is cheating, since it isn’t the typical “new deck order” in most packs manufactured in the United States. And if we play the game repeatedly (with three shuffle-cuts in between), the advantage returns to near zero for reasonable methods of collecting the played cards back into the deck.
So, I wonder if there are better real, practical examples of this kind of exploitable advantage from too few shuffles? And can this advantage persist across multiple games, with the same too-few shuffles in between? It’s interesting to consider what types of games involve methods of collecting the played cards back into the deck to shuffle for the next round, that might retain some useful ordering; rummy-style games come to mind, for example, where we end up with “clumps” of cards of the same rank, or of consecutive ranks, etc.