Rummy and a mathematical theorem to reconsider

Published - June 30, 2015 12:25 am IST

In our second year of college, Shreya and I decided to be roommates in the hostel, though we didn’t know each other that well. We had been friendly, but were not yet friends. Soon, however, we discovered the joys of card games, and quickly bonded over playing rummy together.

College, for all its romise of excitement and freedom, can also be quite insipid and routine-bound. During the day we attended lectures, while evenings were reserved for going out with friends or sitting in the library. We had a curfew in our hostel, so after dinner there was little else to do in the room other than to study. In these circumstances, games of rummy after an hour or two of reading provided a welcome break from drudgery.

We liked rummy best because it was easy to play and yet required some modicum of skills. Most important, it could be played by two people — two bored roommates looking to take a short break from their monotonous academic schedules. Soon we were playing so much rummy I once jokingly suggested that we had a sample of games of a size large enough to prove the ‘laws of large numbers’. It is a theorem in probability that proves that if you, for example, toss a coin a thousand times, you should get approximately equal number of heads and tails. If this theorem is correct, I reasoned, both of us should win an almost equal number of games.

For some reason this experiment caught our imagination and we decided to test it out. Shreya produced a notebook to record the scores in, and our games from then on assumed a touch of dignity, now that we were playing in the interest of mathematics. Our enthusiasm was only matched by our naiveté.

More often than not, most of our sessions involved playing three games, as both of us would win one game each and then we would play a third deciding game. Somehow, I invariably almost always ended up losing the tie-breaker. Perhaps the reason was a lack of nerves? I don’t know. But we quickly saw that this pattern was affecting our scores. If anything, we were disproving the law of large numbers, as Shreya was clearly winning more games than me.

“Do you realise what this means?” I asked her one day. She decided to reply with an amused glance in my direction. “This means we’re on the brink of making history! We’re single-handedly disproving a thousand-year-old mathematical theorem! By the way, do you know if they have a Nobel Prize in Mathematics?” “I don’t think they do,” she herself replied, “but there’s one in Economics.” “Never mind,” I said solemnly, as Shreya continued to laugh. “This is bigger than both of us. Our findings will have far-reaching consequences in all fields of human endeavour. We’ve to play our game more earnestly than before.”

We did not end up resuming our game more earnestly, however. Eventually we had had our fill of playing rummy. We still occasionally played to take a short break during examination time, but we recorded our scores only sporadically. By the end of third year of college as we were all going to graduate, we had almost completely stopped playing, so I was surprised when Shreya gifted me a trademark Beatles set of playing cards as a parting gift. I found it a very apt symbolic gesture of our friendship, and it became one of my most prized possessions.

Once we left college we gradually lost touch as both of us went our separate ways in our career paths. But every year, around her birthday in August, I find myself looking back and smiling at the time we had together; at how she and I — undergraduates in English literature and political science respectively — were going to take the world of mathematics by storm together, one game of rummy at a time.

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