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The Pros and Cons Playing Like a Human Rather

Than a Machine

by Basil Nestor

Basil Nestor is author of "The Smarter Bet Guide to Craps," "The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack," and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit and drop him a line.

Just because something is mathematically optimal, doesnít mean that itís the optimal move. Math is an essential part of winning, but optimal moves also depend on your particular situations, conditions that go beyond pure math. These include conditions in the room, players at the table, and the priorities in your head.

Occasionally, even great players will be caught up in the numbers and miss the larger situation. Hereís a classic example that occurred in a conversation that I had a few years ago with 2004 World Series of Poker champ Greg Raymer. Although we were talking about poker, the concept directly applies to blackjack (as youíll see). If youíre unfamiliar with poker, no worries, Iíll keep it simple.

Remember, Greg is a guy who earned $5 million playing cards! Nevertheless, I think he is wrong. Judge for yourself.

The Question

Imagine youíre in the main event of the World Series of Poker. You invested $10,000 as an entry fee. That is the size of your stack. This is the first hand. Youíre the big blind and just bet $50. The player under the gun (first to act) goes all in for $10,000. Never mind that itís an unlikely play: There are many real-world scenarios that are more complicated in poker and blackjack that will produce a comparable situation to the one Iím describing. So letís just say it happens. The guy under the gun goes all in.

Everyone folds to you. You look down at your hand and you have a pair of deuces.

Now letís say that you have a perfect read on your opponent, and you absolutely know without a doubt that he would go all in only with an unsuited ace-king. Or as Greg says, "Youíre the only person left and I whisper into your ear, ĎThis is God. You are 52% likely to win.í"

Clearly, you have an advantage. If you call, you will win the bet about 52 times out of 100 and you will lose about 48 times. If you win, youíll have $20,000 in chips, and youíll be ahead of the field. If you lose, youíre out of the tournament.

Should you call the bet?

Greg says you should always call in this situation. I say that itís not an automatic call, and that other factors will often dictate that you should fold and wait for something better.

Greg Raymerís Argument

According to Greg, "The only question in my mind is of all the possibilities and the percentage likelihood of each of them happening. Does the sum total of all those weighted possibilities leave me in a better position or a worse position?"

Gregís strategy is quite correct in a standard cash game for regular stakes when one hand inevitably follows another. However, this particular situation involves sudden death. The loser is out of the tournament. There is no "next hand." However, Greg says this shouldnít matter.

He tells me, "Thatís one tournament. There are a million tournaments. If you donít play every tournament the absolutely best way possible, then what is the point? Ö What is the point of playing it if youíre not going to play in the optimal way?"

The Bigger Game

I agree with Greg that calling with 52% chance of winning is mathematically correct over the long run. However, in this case, there is no long run. The WSOP is a special event. For some players, itís a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Considering the investment of $10,000, I say that a player should wait for better odds than 52-48. Again, keep in mind that this is not because 52 vs. 48 is a bad bet. Actually, itís a great bet. However, the odds and the payoff in this situation are not good enough to risk sudden death, at least for me.

In other words, itís a personal choice. Greg is entitled to his opinion, but I think there is a bigger game here, and it goes far beyond math and the immediate decision.

Similar Questions in Blackjack

For example, there are times when itís mathematically optimal to split tens, specifically, against a 5 or 6 when a hi-lo true count is +5 or better. However, many experienced card counters...

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