Fallacies About Blackjack

ERROR NO. 1 Betting Longshots 

Betting expensive “long shots” and ignoring small “sure things.”

There is a tendency for most gamblers to overvalue the benefit of betting a long shot and undervalue the good chance of a small gain. For example, one of the major magazine sweepstakes has a seventeen-million-to-one chance of hitting the one-hundred-thousand-dollar first prize. The cost is a single fifteen-cent stamp. So you might guess that you have an expected value of one hundred thousand dollars divided by seventeen million, or about six-tenths cent in probable winnings.

Would you bet fifteen cents to win six-tenths cent very often? Evidently people do in great numbers. Everyone remembers when they won a jackpot, but forget how long they built it up. This tendency to overrate the ridiculously small possibility of winning a large sum of money is what keeps all the bad bets of the world such as state lotteries, numbers rackets, and keno profitable for the house.

John Cohen, a British gambling researcher, observed that most gamblers bet on the possibility , not the probability of winning. Bettors will frequently pass up the chance of a small gain with higher probability. Some slot machines offer you a shot at several hundred thousand dollars for a single-dollar bet. Blackjack presents much smaller maximum winnings for higher bets. Yet Blackjack is the better gamble because you have a small advantage at steady winnings rather than a disadvantage at enormous winnings.

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ERROR NO. 2 Evening Out

Believing that “things even out.”

Many bettors think that after a long run of successes, a failure is inevitable, and vice versa. I’ll never forget waiting in line for a show one evening by a roulette wheel. As I watched, a red number came up nine out of ten spins of the wheel. I couldn’t resist playing for fun, so I began to put one-dollar bets on red. I won fifteen dollars in several minutes. Black numbers started coming up more frequently, but I continued to bet red. After nearly twenty minutes I was down to my original dollar, so I quit. I returned to the line happy with my twenty minutes’ worth of free entertainment. The husband of the couple we were with couldn’t resist rating my play. “I could have told you you would lose your winnings back. The wheel couldn’t keep turning up red forever. It had to start hitting black sometime. You should have switched to black right away.” I started to explain the concept of probabilities and independent events to him, but gave up when I saw how firmly he believed the nonsense he told me. There is no reason why a trend should reverse or things should even out in gambling.

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ERROR NO. 3 Optimism

Betting optimistically.

We all tend to overvalue the chance of something good happening and undervalue the chance of something bad happening. For example, if the chance of drawing a winning lottery ticket is the same as dying from a heart attack next year, we will all consider winning the lottery ticket more probable than having a fatal heart attack. Pleasant events tend to stick out in our minds; unpleasant events are quickly wiped out. We can all remember drawing a 4 to a hard 17, but tend to forget how often we lose standing on a 16 versus a dealer 10 up. The optimistic bettor is always saying, “Yeah, but it won’t happen to me,” or “Everybody’s got to get hot sometime.” The probability of winning a million dollars in one North American lottery is the same as getting struck by lightning twice!

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ERROR NO. 4 Previous Results “Strategy”

Making current playing decisions based upon the results of similar decisions made previously.

A man sitting next to me once in Aruba told me, “I’m through hitting 12s. Every time I hit a 12 I get a 10 card and bust. I’m done busting on 12 tonight!” If I would have had the time, and if the man had wanted to listen, I would have explained that whether he had busted or not on 12 all night had nothing to do with any 12 he held in the future. The only thing that matters is the chance of beating the dealer based upon what cards have been dealt off the deck and what the dealer shows as his up card. As poet Robert Frost said, “The past is a bucket of ashes.” One of the frequent sources of this error is the insurance decision. Buying insurance is a bad bet unless you are tracking cards. Yet all of us have felt the chagrin of twenty-twenty hindsight after the dealer has asked, “Insurance anyone?” and seeing him turn up a 10 card for Blackjack. We don’t seem to pay as much attention to those times when we didn’t buy insurance and he didn’t have a Blackjack. So not only is our memory defective, but also the past and the present are not connected from shuffle to shuffle as far as the cards are concerned.

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ERROR NO. 5 High Roller

Preferring to be a “high roller.”

It is more exciting to bet a hundred dollars with a chance of doubling your money than it is to place five consecutive bets of twenty dollars with the same chance of doubling your money. I will never forget my first trip to Las Vegas. I had played the dollar tables all evening at Binion’s Horseshoe downtown and had won about eighty dollars on a stake of twenty dollars. I was flushed with the excitement of the winnings as I returned to the Strip hotel where we were staying.

As I walked through the lobby, the hundred-dollar table caught my eye. At that time, a five-dollar bet for me was outrageously extravagant. Yet those hundred dollars were hot in my pocket. I walked over to the table and watched two players there winning and losing, but mostly losing. I didn’t know a system then, so I had no idea the game could be beaten. I finally turned from the table and decided to go to bed a winner. My fear level is now quite a bit higher than the table limits. I’ve doubled plenty of five-hundred-dollar bets since then, but none of them was ever as expensive-feeling as that tempting hundred-dollar-minimum bet so many years ago. Since then, I’ve never forgotten the lure of trying to roll higher than my bankroll justifies, and neither should you.

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ERROR No. 6 Streaks and Runs

Remembering “streaks” and ignoring “runs.”

Once again, our mind is magnificent at editing perceived reality. Because of the enormous amount of information that is shoved into the mind in everyday life, our brain quickly learns to edit out the unimportant, commonplace, or familiar. That’s why you may not notice a new couch in the living room or that a friend shaved off his mustache. You’ve quit observing these familiar features closely. Gambling is much the same. You notice only the unusual or the uncommon. Long winning or losing streaks stand out vividly to occur fewer times than they did. What matters in winning Blackjack is not the big winning or losing sessions (although you should minimize the latter). What matters are all those sessions netting you small gains. They mount up slowly and surely, as the playing records show in Chapter Three.

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ERROR NO. 7 Overestimating Skill

Overestimating the importance of skill.

The most I have ever won at the Blackjack tables in a single sitting (to date) is sixty-seven hundred dollars. I won it in about three hours in a Caribbean casino. I’d like to think I won that much because I am such a superior player. Although I was betting heavily, those winnings are far in excess of what my advantage should have earned me. I realize I experienced one of the “streaks” or “runs” that will happen in the game. The important thing is that I didn’t become overconfident and begin to expect that level of winnings in all my sessions. Many players have followed that logic to the poorhouse.

There is a very dangerous tendency to overestimate the degree of skill involved in Blackjack, where both skill and chance are involved. “Probabilities direct the conduct of a wise man,” as Roman statesman Cicero advised nearly two thousand years ago. The only results you can count on are the long-term-performance estimates found in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight. In the short run, anything can happen and probably will. But in the long run, your rate of winning should conform approximately to the numbers in those chapters. This leads to the next error.

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ERROR NO. 8 Short Run Faith

Placing too much faith in the short run.

When Julian Braun began testing various Blackjack systems about fifteen years ago, he worked with a minimum of one million computer hands for each study. To put this in human terms, if you played head-on with the dealer at 100 hands per hour, you would have to spend 10,000 hours at the tables or the equivalent of 13½ months in round-the-clock play. This is the minimum number of hands Braun used to evaluate systems. As far as the research statistics are concerned, even the most avid Blackjack player is seeing only short-term results in, his playing sessions. This is why you should place your trust not in what you have observed or kept track of at the table, but in what the scientific analysis of the game has proven. Informed guesses aren’t worth the price of a roll of toilet paper, but hard facts are priceless. The only way to have hard facts is to use results generated over millions of hands.

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ERROR NO. 9 Unlikely vs Unusual

Confusing unusual events with unlikely events.

Whether or not a particular turn of the cards happens is not a function of how probable it is. For example, getting an ace-high straight flush in poker is no more statistically unlikely to happen than to get any other, lower-scoring hand. Each hand in any card game is as probable as any other hand. The rules of the game make the straight flush important and therefore more unusual. Getting Blackjacks of (A,10) off the top of the deck five straight times is no more unlikely than getting stiff hands of (10, 6) five straight times. The chance of an “unusual” sequence of cards should be figured strictly by the probability of that computer world. The days of goat bones and chicken entrails, talismans and evil spirits are over, at least for winning players.

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ERROR NO . 10 Luck

Believing in luck.

Too many people think luck is a tangible commodity, something to be saved or used, taken advantage of or cursed. To the winning player, luck is nothing more than an uninformed rationalization of the short-run turn of the cards. In its worst form, the belief in luck is the excuse of a player too lazy to learn how to win. What you will find in the next four chapters will eliminate your dependency on luck forever. The strategies for winning at Blackjack will keep you from making any of the above errors by showing you how to play correctly each and every hand you will encounter in any casino in the world or in a private game. You’ve come a long way in building your knowledge of the game. Now it’s time to build your confidence and control over what is happening at the table. You are about to become the only type of player in the world of gambling whom the casino is afraid to let play: a card counter.

Humble, Lance, and Ken Cooper. “PSYCHOLOGICAL PITFALLS IN GAMBLING.” The World's Greatest Blackjack Book. 3.1 ed. Garden City: Doubleday, 1987. 170-175. Print.

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