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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.


He was hopping on one foot shouting at the tableÖ "Címon dealer! Bust! Gimme a ten! Címon ten!" The game was blackjack and the dealer had a 12. The shouting dude was two seats to my right. He had a 17. I had a 15, so I was quietly hoping for the dealer to bust, too. However, I wasnít jumping up and down or shouting because the cards are deaf and dumb. They cannot hear shouting and do not respond to supplications of any sort. Therefore, shouting is a waste of time.

Happily, a ten came, and Mr. Shouter gleefully thumped the table with the palm of his hand. "Yes! Thank you dealer!"

Itís wonderful when a player has a personal moment of excitement, but this guy was annoying. He was non-stop talking to the cards and the dealer, every hand, requesting particular ranks. It seemed that he believed his verbal cues were changing the outcome of the game.

"Ace-ten! Ace-ten!" he began to chant. An ace came, but it was followed by a six. He scoffed, implying that the cards were teasing him, or perhaps being intentionally petulant. "Ahhhh! I never get blackjack."

Happily, I received a natural. Mr. S. eyed me as if the ace-ten were a pretty woman who had chosen me instead of him.

"Are you always lucky that way?" he asked, narrowing his eyes and drawing a puff on his cigarette.

I smiled and replied with a gentle voice, "I have my fair share of luck. But mostly, the cards come the way they want, and then I work with the results."

It was a hint, but Mr. S. wasnít interested. His eyes glazed over with distraction and he went back to smoking his cigarette.

Cognitive Bias

Mr. S. was experiencing something that scientists and psychologists call cognitive bias. Itís a widespread phenomenon that affects everyone in various ways. Cognitive bias (CB) is a misperception of reality. There are many different types of CB. For example, the "exposure effect" is the tendency for people to prefer things that are familiar to things that are new or unfamiliar, regardless of the actual merits of the choices.

Another CB involves "confirmation bias" which is the tendency to search for and interpret information in ways that confirm oneís preconceptions. This bias makes it difficult for us to discover new things because we literally cannot imagine what we might find.

One of the most powerful CBs is the "illusion of control." This is what Mr. S. was experiencing. It is the tendency for people to believe they can control, or at least influence, outcomes that are demonstrably not under their control. Classic examples include the childhood rhyme, "Step on a crack and break your motherís back." People cross their fingers for luck. Some ancient civilizations performed elaborate rituals to change the weather, stop solar eclipses, end epidemics, and so forth. And, of course, who hasnít been tempted to shout at a movie screen, or a television, when an on-screen character is about to do something stupid? We logically know our supplications will have no effect on the outcome. Nevertheless, CB tempts us to push the boundaries of logic.

The Negative Power of Positive Thinking

Letís say, by coincidence, a deck of cards happens to follow our directions three times in a row. Voila! This can be the basis for an illusion of control.

Psychologists and other scientists, notably by E.J. Langer in 1975, and Emily Pronin et al., have studied the effect for many decades in 2006. For example, in the Pronin study, people who watched a basketball shooter perceived themselves, and were perceived by others, as more responsible for the shooterís success when they generated positive visualizations consistent with the shooterís results.

Likewise, in a casino, some people think that they can psyche cards, wheels, dice, or reels into doing specific things. Players talk to inanimate objects, or they follow customs that involve actions, talismans, or rites to conjure luck.

Of course, none of these activities affects the results of the contests, so theyíre harmless, at least from a statistical point of view. Moreover, everyone has pseudo-crazy moments of talking to cards or pleading with machines. I once talked a deck into giving me three naturals back-to-back!

But practically speaking, an illusion of control is a huge obstacle to winning if it focuses a player on useless activities rather than profitable strategies.

Specifically, if someone always does a ritual dance and taps his finger "just the right way" for a hit, he may be missing the fact that the game has mediocre rules or 6:5 naturals. That person may double down incorrectly on ace-7 (soft-18) against a 7 because the cards are "going his way," or split when he should stand. A player who has an illusion of control may be tempted to take risks that are unwarranted. When one surrenders to CB in all its variations, that is a sure prescription for playing badly.

And here is the supreme irony. Playing badly cannot make you unlucky. Rather, it blunts the profitable effects of good luck and it magnifies the cost of bad luck. Therefore, if you were going to win ten hands in a row, then you still probably will win seven hands playing a fractured strategy. This reinforces the illusion of control. When normal luck or bad luck finally kicks in, the result is like Wile E. Coyote running off the edge of a mountain in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Everything seems fine until he realizes that his strategy is faulty and he is suspended over thin air. The illusion of control is lost and he plummets into the canyon. Smash!

I felt sorry for Mr. S, so I waved over a server. "A Diet Coke and whatever this gentleman will have." He smiled. I put a toke on the serverís tray, "This round is my treat." Pretty soon, I had Mr. S. talking to me rather than the cards. Progress.


(c) copyright 2011 Basil Nestor

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