Keeping Your Cool At A Hot Table
I had a wonderful dream a few nights ago. I dreamed that a benevolent alien being from another dimension in time woke me from a sound sleep. He (she?) told me that he (she?) had been watching me for many years and, since I was such a kind, generous, loving human being, I would be granted one wish that I could use for the rest of my life. Since it was obvious that this alien creature had seriously misjudged my true character, I quickly wished for the one thing that any degenerate blackjack player would wish for: I wished for the ability to know if my next hand of blackjack would be a winner. The alien said, “No prob, Buddy. You now have the talent you wished for. See ya,” and then disappeared.
The next evening I gleefully rushed to my local casino to try out my newly-granted talent, and much to my dismay discovered that it was all a dream ‹ a bad dream at that because I got hammered at the tables. My ability to predict winning streaks was even worse than usual, and my faith in wishes granted by alien beings from other dimensions was seriously shaken, to say the least.
But working on the assumption that it’s always good to find something positive in a negative experience, and accepting the fact that there’s no free lunch at the blackjack table, I decided to give some serious thought as to how to take advantage of winning streaks when I was fortunate enough to experience them.
Any experienced player can relate to the fact that blackjack is a “streaky” game. After 30 years at the tables, I could tell you dozens of stories about winning streaks that went on for hours, days, even weeks at a time. Unfortunately, these winning streaks were often followed by losing streaks that also went on for hours, days, or weeks at a time.
The problem is, even though it’s obvious that streaks occur, it’s darn near impossible to take advantage of streaks because we only know that they exist in hindsight. We have to look back at previous play to see that we experienced a winning or losing streak, and by then it’s too late to take advantage of a winning streak or avoid a losing streak. So what is one to do? Do we just ignore streaks as if they don’t exist, or do we seek out and apply some “mystical” method to take advantage of them?
Most statistical analysts of the game (the math guys who believe that card counting is the only way to accurately predict the outcome of the next hand to be dealt) take the former approach. They ignore streaks, refer to them as natural “variance,” and play the game with total confidence that long-term results will allow them a slight “edge” over the Slot Gacor casino. They gradually increase or decrease their initial wagers based upon deck composition, and ignore the short-term fluctuations in win/loss results.
Other players take the latter approach to the game by attempting to intuitively decide when they are going to be lucky and win, or unlucky and avoid play. They dramatically increase their bets when they “feel” a winning streak coming, and they quit playing when they feel a losing streak is on the way. They live for the moment, and base the size of their next wager on the win/loss outcome of the previous hand(s) played.
After much thought, research, and personal experience at the tables, I’ve come to the conclusion that neither of these approaches to the game offers any reasonable chance of success for the average recreational player. Card counting requires skill, discipline, longevity, and a bankroll that few players have, and no one has the mystical foresight required to predict future results of play with any successful degree of accuracy.
In spite of my pessimistic attitude toward these two common methods of play, I believe that there are a number of actions that we can take that will allow us to benefit from winning streaks ‹ actions based upon principles inherent in the previously described methods of play, the basic mathematics of the game, common sense, and money management.
Before exploring ways to “be cool” when winning streaks occur, let’s look at a few of the mathematical “basics” of the game.
1.) The casino has a built-in advantage over the player, primarily because the rules state that the player loses his wager if his hand exceeds a count of 21, even if the dealer also exceeds 21 on the same round of play.
2.) Game rules vary from one casino to the next. The more “player friendly” the rules, the better the chances that he will win.
3.) In the long run, the average player will lose about 2% of the total amount wagered (about $2 for every $100 bet).
4.) Excluding “pushes,” players will win about 48% and lose about 52% of the hands played.
5.) The “chance” factor can seriously affect the results of short-term play. For instance, even though long-term probability states that skilled basic strategy players will lose about 50¢ for every $100 wagered, it’s estimated that a player still has a 25% chance of being ahead at the tables after 25,000 hands of play.
Based upon the preceding generalizations, it’s obvious that a player can only make a profit at blackjack if he (A.) Wins more hands than the average player, (B.) Wins more money on his winning hands than the average player wins, or (C.) Is more lucky than the average player.
By applying most or all of the techniques listed below, I believe that the average player can seriously improve his long-term outcome in all three of these categories.
1.) Learn to apply perfect basic strategy all of the time. Most players use some form of basic strategy (based upon the values of the player’s first two cards and the dealer’s up card) to help make hit, stand, split, and double-down decisions. All of these strategy recommendations favor the player, and collectively reduce the house edge from 2% or more to one-half percent or less. Unfortunately, most players arbitrarily alter or ignore the proper playing strategy because of bet size or intuition. You must not do this. Do you seriously believe that the cards know how much money you have wagered on a particular hand, or that the cards care what you think the next card out of the deck will be? Of course not.
2.) Play at casinos with rules that favor you. Casinos that allow you to split any pair, double down on any two cards, double after splitting, split aces more than once, or surrender a weak hand, are offering you game rules that improve your chances of winning. If we all refused to play at casinos that have lousy game rules, they would eventually change the rules.
3.) React to the flow of the cards, even if you’re not a card counter. Common sense dictates that decks with a disproportionately larger number of 10-value cards and aces remaining to be dealt favor the player because he’s more likely to draw a two-card hand of 20 or a blackjack. You don’t have to be a math guru to realize that 10 small cards have appeared for every face card dealt, or to observe that no aces have been dealt in the first two-thirds of the deck. Pay more attention to the table, increase your bet appropriately, and you’ll most likely see an increase in the size of your chip stack.
4.) Don’t get greedy. Many’s the time I’ve seen a player on a winning streak over-bet his hands. After a few consecutive wins, a feeling of invincibility overcomes sensible prudence, the size of the next bet increases substantially, and the profit from many previous hands is wiped out on the turn of one card. It’s even worse to increase initial bet size after a series of losses, on the assumption that you’re “due” to win a hand. Remember that you’re more likely to lose a series of consecutive bets than you are to win a series of consecutive bets.
5.) Don’t become too conservative. Expecting to not win a lot of money during any particular blackjack session is almost as bad as over-betting your hands. Many gambling book authors suggest that you set a loss limit and a win goal for each session of play. They recommend that you start with a specific bankroll, quit play if you lose all or a portion of that bankroll, or quit play if you win a predetermined amount in proportion to that bankroll. For instance, if you lose all (or 50%, or 30%, etc.) of your session bankroll, quit play. Or if you win an amount that’s equal to your bankroll (or twice your bankroll, or half your bankroll, etc.), quit play.
I see nothing wrong with quitting play if you’ve lost all or part of your bankroll, but I see no reason to quit while you’re winning. We know that streaks occur, and we know that there’s no obvious way to determine when they will end, so I advise you to keep playing until they do.
Personally, I’ve never intentionally stopped playing while on a winning streak. In fact, my normal method of play is to double my initial bet once I’ve doubled my initial bank. I “predetermine” how much I’m willing to lose before reducing my initial bet or quitting play, and make the necessary changes based on my current win/loss results. In retrospect, my personal record for several years shows that profits for 25% of my sessions exceed losses for 75% of my sessions, primarily due to the fact that I didn’t limit my potential profit during winning streaks.
6.) Develop your own style of play, but don’t fall in love with it.
Consistency is the key to success at blackjack. Many players are habitual losers because they fail to stick to a game plan that fits their personality and bankroll. As a recreational gambler, your overall objective should be to win more money (or lose less money) than other players, and it’s unlikely that you’ll reach this goal unless you “stay with the program” and give your plan a reasonable chance to succeed.
By the same token, don’t become so entrenched in your plan that you stay with it through thick and thin. The most common example of this mistake is when players have short-term success by varying from correct basic strategy. I hear it all the time: “I don’t split aces, because I lose both hands every time I do.” “I don’t hit 12 against a dealer’s 2, because I always bust.” “I split 10s when the dealer shows a 6, because I almost always win both hands.” “I never surrender.” “I never split or double-down when I have a big bet on the table, because it doubles my chances of losing a lot of money.” Players develop these bad habits because they “tried it” a few times, and it worked. Based on these short-term gains (in defiance of more probable outcomes) some players retain these incorrect strategy decisions as part of their long-term game plan, and seriously reduce their overall chances of winning.
7.) Be honest with yourself. One of the best ways to measure the quality of your chosen style of play is to keep an accurate record of your results. Most players tend to exaggerate the amount they win and understate the amount they lose. Write down the results of each and every session, and there will be no question as to how well your plan is working. If you show a profit after several thousand hands of play, stay with your game plan. If you’re a consistent loser, review your plan and change what you need to change. Perhaps you’re failing to apply perfect basic strategy, or your judgment is being altered by that extra free cocktail or two, or your bankroll is too small to sustain your current level of play. Whatever the case, try to figure out if something other than the natural flow of the cards is causing you to lose, and correct the problem.
8.) You can always quit playing if you’re losing. As unscientific as this may sound, I find that gaming sessions that begin with a disproportionate amount of money being lost often lead to even more money being lost, and that “shoe” games that begin with many consecutive losing hands usually lead to losing shoes.
Here’s a suggestion: Quit play at a table (or wait for a new shoe to begin) if you lose four consecutive hands. Try this for several thousand hands, record your results, and compare them to previous results. You might be surprised at the difference. Even if you doubt the value of this strategy, the worst that can happen is that you will lose a little playing time.
Well, that’s it, folks. I’ve shared with you some of my “semi-mystical,” but mainly common-sense ways to keep your cool at a hot table. Now get out there and knock-em dead.
Walter Thomason is a recreational gambler who has written several top-selling books on the subject of casino gaming. He can be reached at waltersbj@AOL.com.