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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.

"Optimal strategy does not improve your luck; rather, it helps you survive bad luck. "

Iím sitting at a blackjack table with three other players. This is a game dealt from a shoe with "favorable rules." The two players to my right have pat hands of 20. I have 19.

The lady at third base is a twenty-something chain smoker, slightly drunk. She hits her hard 13 against the dealerís 3. Itís a stunning violation of basic strategy. Everyone rolls their eyes. Even the dealer hesitates. But she insists.

Miraculously, she draws an 8 for a 21. The dealer turns up a 7, and then pulls an ace for a 21. Itís a push for tipsy-smoker lady. The rest of us groan as the dealer scoops up our bets. The next hand, the dealer has a natural; everyone loses. The next hand, the dealer shows a ten. We all bust except the lady at third base. She beats the dealer.

In a series of fifteen bets, I lose eleven decisions. Meanwhile, tipsy-smoker lady is raking in chips. The players to my right leave the table in disgust. I stick around for a few more losses, but my chips are disappearing so quickly it becomes unnerving. So I decide to move to another table. This time (just to be contrary) I choose a game that is dealt from a continuous shuffle machine. CSMs are the bane of all professional players because the cards cannot be counted, but Iím in the mood for flat betting, and the rules are okay. I give it a shot. Lo and behold, the CSM contest reverses my previous losses and builds me a nice stack.

A Perfect Storm

So I lost while counting against a shoe, but I won without counting against a CSM. And tipsy-smoker lady won even though she didnít follow basic strategy.

Does that mean strategy is a crock? Should I go around playing only CSMís and hitting my 13ís against 3ís? Of course not. Most of what happened was just luck. It takes thousands of decisions before luck surrenders entirely to the power of strategy. And along the way there can be numerous "perfect storms" that stretch the bounds of standard deviation. Indeed, even casinos have losing days, and sometimes they have losing months.

Unfortunately, levelheaded caveats about standard deviation can be difficult to conjure when your chips are melting to the felt. And therein lays a great danger. Players are tempted to abandon optimal strategies and chase luck. Thatís a mistake becauseÖ

1. You cannot predict luck.

2. Optimal strategies are not designed to make you lucky. Rather, they make you more profitable.

3. Optimal strategies do not prevent your opponents from having good luck. Rather, they save you money when youíre likely to lose.

That lesson was dramatically tattooed onto my brain a few years ago, not in a blackjack game where I would have had the luxury of losing to a stoic dealer, but in a poker game, the sort where strategy mistakes are unceremoniously shoved into your face.

Poker Pinhead

This wasnít a big loss, just a memorable dumb one. It happened at the Bicycle Casino in California. I was in a 15-30 limit hold Ďem game. It was a Saturday night. The casino was packed and the tables were full.

The seat to my left opened up. It was filled quickly by an old white-haired dude dressed in an unusual way. He wore very tight short-shorts and sneakers with tall socks (like an old-fashioned basketball uniform), a golf shirt, and a baseball cap. Pappy was full of energy, or maybe Red Bull, and he talked in a rambling way to the table as he won pot after pot with trash hands.

"My favorite hands are garbage hands like 7-2," he said loudly. "I do better with those than with ace-king." And sure enough, he played everything and kept winning showdowns with garbage.

"Dumb luck," I thought to myself. I wanted to break him.

Soon enough, a pair of queens landed in front of me. I raised in the small blind. My nemesis, Mr. Trash-Hand, called in the big blind. The flop came all low cards, 9-6-2 mixed suits. I checked. He bet. Everyone else folded, and I check-raised. Then Mr. Trash-Hand reraised me! Um... hello! Optimal strategy told me to slow down. Instead, I capped the pot.

A jack hit the turn. I checked. He bet. Once again, I check-raised. Then he reraised! WhaÖ? I should have had the common sense to fold right there. Clearly, Pappy had a better hand. But nooooooooo! I called his raise. The river card was a 3. I checked and he bet again. I meekly called.

Then I braced myself for his inevitable miracle trash hand. Maybe it would be 6-2 or J-6, giving him two pairs, or 5-4 giving him a straight.

Imagine my surprise when he turned overÖ two aces!

I was such a pinhead. It had never occurred to me that a bad player would have a good hand.

Pappy snorted, "I hate aces. Usually, I lose with them." He threw the cards away as if they were tainted, even as the dealer pushed him the pot. The rest of the players at the table snickered.

YaÖ Thatís poker. Blackjack blowouts tend to be more impersonal, like falling off a mountain in slow motion. But either way, the strategic principle is identical.

Nobody Owns Luck

My mistake was forgetting that anyone can have good luck. And playing good cards does not prevent bad luck.

Optimal strategy is not a magic wand that makes cards turn a particular way. It doesnít save us from improbable beats. In fact, strategy usually has little effect on the frequency of wins in a game. An optimal strategy helps you win more when you probably will win anyway. And it saves you money when youíre going to lose. This is especially true when playing blackjack.

For example, you should double down on an eleven in most situations. This does not increase the probability of winning the hand. Actually, it decreases it. But a double down increases your probability of finishing the session with a profit.

When you follow optimal strategies, they protect your bankroll, keep you playing, and maximize your profits. In the long run, that will inevitably overwhelm the capricious power of luck. In the short run, it prevents you from being a pinhead.


(c) copyright 2011 Basil Nestor

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