“So as I see it, the big problem is the bell curve, y’know?”
Riley focused on dealing out the cards, watching their blue-and-white backs slide away from him across the smooth wood of the table. He wished that his deft fingers were sensitive enough to feel the patterns of ink printed on the reverse, to know their identities without flipping them over. Karsten’s chatter was little more than background.
Across the table, Hale grunted. “Bell curve? Karsten, what’re you talking about?”
“Society!” Karsten responded instantly. “C’mon, you can’t deny that the whole thing’s a crock of shit, just goin’ to more shit, isn’t it? Go on, put your hand on your heart and tell me that things aren’t worse than before.”
The rumble around the table was cautiously affirmative. Karsten always liked these little verbal rampages, and the others knew that there wasn’t much else to do but let him blow it all out.
“Anyway, I figured out what’s wrong with it all. It’s the bell curve. Damn bell curve is to blame for all the problems we got.”
With the flat of his thumb, Riley flipped up the very corners of his cards. An ace and a seven. Different suits. He held in a sigh, grateful for the dealer button in front of his stack of poker chips.
“Bell curve…” Hale stroked the wispy little goatee he tried to call a beard, tapping a finger idly on his cards. “What’s that, again? Some sort of math thing?”
“Yup. Called the normal distribution, sometimes.” Karsten threw a couple of chips into the middle of the table without hesitation. It didn’t mean anything, Riley knew. Even if he had shit cards, the man always called if he was in the middle of talking about something. “Describes how things end up. Intelligence, income, bunch of coin flips.”
“So why’s it called a bell curve?” Tap, tap at the wispy graying goatee. Meant his cards weren’t amazing, but might be worth a call.
“Looks like a bell.” This voice was a deep rumble, a baritone low enough to generate ripples in the beer bottles around them. “A couple really high scores, a couple low ones, but most in the middle.”
All of them turned and looked up at Big Jim. He rarely spoke, and usually it was just a grunt at winning a pot or asking for another beer. No one at the table would have pegged him as knowing anything about a bell curve.
“Huh.” Hale tossed his chips into the pot, making up his mind. “And this is bad, yeah?”
“Nah. S’nature. Happens all the time, normally.” Only after tossing his chips in did Karsten finally glance at his cards. “But the problem is those edges. Like Big Jim said, there’s always a couple a’ scores on the edges, really high or really low. Called outliers. They’re what make all the trouble for us.”
Big Jim slid his ante into the pot, his massive paw scooping up his beer as it drew back. No wasted effort in Big Jim’s motions. Riley mentally envisioned his ace-seven again, and then tossed his chips into the pot to join the other three players. Everyone in.
“And, see, it’s the outliers that always make all the news, the ones causin’ all the trouble.” Riley stood up a little in his seat to flip out the flop, the first 3 cards of the communal hand, as Karsten talked. “Everyone in the middle of the curve, that’s like us. Dumb enough to not be president or runnin’ a company or something, but smart enough to keep our heads down and not get into shit. Those real famous people on the news? They’re the top scorers, the outliers at that end. The idiots they talk about, the ones who blow shit up and get in crashes and stuff? They’re the bottom scorers.”
“So?” Hale nudged Karsten, nodding down towards the cards. Karsten impatiently rapped his knuckles on the table, and his gray-haired neighbor slid a couple chips into the pot. A bet. “There’s always idiots, and there’s always gonna be idiots. Smart people, too. What’s this gotta do with curves?”
Big Jim called the bet as Karsten grunted. “Problem is, see, that bell curve doesn’t always stay balanced. It gets wider, or narrower, depending on how different the top and bottom folks are.”
“Standard deviation,” Big Jim offered, once again surprising the table with his knowledge.
Riley eyed the cards. No ace flipped over, but he saw a seven. Pair. Could be something, especially if Karsten was just playing for the sake of talking, and Hale might be weak. He called, hoping for the ace on the turn.
“Right, yeah, deviation.” Karsten recovered quickly from his surprise at Big Jim’s knowledge of statistics, tossing in his chips. “See, as I see it, humanity’s bell curve keeps getting more spread out. We got super smart folks, like wicked crazy smart, getting all the money. And then we got super dumb folks out there, screwin’ it all up. And they keep gettin’ smarter, and dumber, and we’re being stretched in the middle. Like taffy, see?”
Card four. Riley flipped it over. No ace.
“Alright, so what’re you proposing we do about it?” Hale wasn’t happy about the fourth card. He set his jaw as he rapped his knuckles on the table, not waiting for Karsten to check.
Nothing from Big Jim, and Riley didn’t feel secure enough to bluff. Checks all around, last card.
“Dunno, I haven’t thought that far yet,” Karsten answered Hale’s question. “But see, we need to tighten up. Tight bell curve means everyone’s pretty equal, not too far off. But a big, spread-out one means we got super smart people getting all the money and power, and super stupid ones who break everything ’cause they don’t understand all the shit the smart ones thought up. And we’re stuck in the middle, like I said.”
Fifth card had a single large blob of paint on it. Ace of spades. Riley kept his face neutral, but his heart thumped a little harder in his chest. Two pair. Could be a winner.
“So you’re just pointing out a problem,” he spoke up for the first time to Karsten. “What, you claiming to be one of those smart folks? I’m sure they’ve thought ’bout this already, probably come up with more solutions than anything you’ve got.”
“Yeah, we can’t make the smart ones dumber, and even if there’s some real dumb ones out there, they’ll just get themselves killed so they don’t reproduce, right?” Hale grimaced at his cards and tossed them into the pot as Karsten rapped his knuckles. One down.
“Evolution,” Big Jim rumbled, pushing some chips into the pot.
Riley raised on Big Jim, trying to make it seem careless. “That’s the problem with all your theories. Sure, they seem profound, but at the end of the day, some bell curve isn’t going to put food on my table.”
Karsten sighed, and finally bothered to look at his cards. “Eh, I think it’s still good to talk about, y’know,” he insisted, even as he threw his hand away. “Gotta be vigilant.”
“Right, ’cause you’ve got so much control over our world’s future.” Riley waited as Big Jim called his bet. “Let’s see ’em, Jim.”
His heart, up in his throat, dropped abruptly towards his stomach as Big Jim revealed two kings in his hand. They, plus the king on the table, made three of a kind. Covering his grimace with a gulp of beer, Riley tossed his own hand aside face-down, and Big Jim wordlessly gathered up the chips from the middle.
“Anyway, I’m starvin’,” Karsten piped up after a minute. “Got any grub around here? More pizza?”
“We ate it all already.” Riley slid the cards over to him, although Karsten was a terrible dealer. Never paid enough attention to the game.
“Sucks. I’mma grab another beer, then. Anyone else?”
Order: Karsten, Hale, Jim, Riley