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Sometimes to Win More, You Must Take Less

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.


When people find out that I gamble for a living, I get many questions. One of the most popular isÖ "That movie 21. Is it real? Can you win playing blackjack like that?"

If you count cards, then you know the answer is a wishy washyÖ "Yes, but usually you can win like that only if you have a time machine to go back at least fifteen years, and preferably fifty years. Of course, this isnít absolute. Sometimes you can find the perfect game today. But those games are rare, and they donít last long."

Then the person looks confused. The next question inevitably is, "Why wouldnít a game last?"

Thatís when I shrug my shoulders and say, "Itís the tragedy of the commons."

Blackjack is a Common Resource

The phrase "tragedy of the commons" refers to an economic phenomenon, but the name was actually coined in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, an ecologist. His article about the subject was published in the journal Science.

It happens when a finite resource is spoiled by free and unrestricted exploitation. A classic example of this would be a public pasture (letís say itís owned and maintained by the local government) where farmers graze their animals. The pasture benefits everyone, but each person has an economic incentive to increase the size of his herd. Without rules limiting grazing, the result is overgrazing. The pasture is depleted, and thus destroyed. Everyone suffers.

We see this happen in real life to common resources such as water, air, and fish populations. However, the tragedy of the commons also happens in less obvious ways, including in casinos. Specifically, "overgrazing" of soft blackjack tables has resulted in the diminished availability of these profitable opportunities. Ditto for loose video poker machines, and novice poker opponents. For years, the winners didnít just beat the losers. Rather, they cut deeply and harvested bushels of dollars. So, the losers smartened up and changed their games. Keep in mind that nobody did anything "wrong." Everyone acted rationally. Even when some players understood the trends and limited their "grazing," other punters filled the void, and the "pasture" was ultimately depleted.

Consider what it must have been like to be a card counter in 1962, shortly after Edward O. Thorp wrote, "Beat the Dealer." (For those unfamiliar with the history of blackjack, Beat the Dealer is the first book to thoroughly explain the strategy of counting cards.) Back in the early 1960s, the blackjack pasture was not being overgrazed because there was a lack of knowledge among players about the existence of the pasture.

Way back then, all casinos offered single-deck blackjack games, and they always paid 3:2 for ace-ten naturals. Hard to believe, huh? Single-deck games are rare these days, and naturals often earn only 6:5, or 1:1. Moreover, casino tactics to stop card counting have improved dramatically. Back in 1962, the "eye in the sky" was usually a catwalk with mirrored glass to allow live observers to secretly watch tables. Fifty years later, casino surveillance is so advanced that casinos could make music videos with the super-clean and super-tight shots they get from cameras mounted at multiple angles above tables. Sophisticated face-recognition systems track known counters. In addition, "back count" monitoring systems can quickly identify bet patterns consistent with counting.

Clearly, the commons have been depleted. The good old days are pretty much gone forever.

However, good opportunities still pop up from time to time. Sometimes a casino offers a promotion and unintentionally delivers a beatable game in the process. Alas, these conditions may last only hours, or maybe a few days before someone wises up and tightens the rules.

Other times, usually at smaller casinos, regular games can inexplicably be good. Just the right mix of lax rules combined with spotty surveillance and a clueless pit crew can produce a beatable situation. For whatever reason, you donít get heat unless you really push.

Sometimes itís a combination of all of the above. Letís say youíre visiting a relative in a far-away state. You walk into a local casino, andÖ BAM! You see a beatable game that is beyond excellent.

This leads us toÖ

Your Responsibility for the Commons

If you see a legitimate edge, in most cases just go for it. Because if you donít take the win, someone else will. However, there are situations when you can preserve the pasture for yourself and for others.

First, donít be greedy. If you have a consistent mile-wide advantage, itís better to win $1,600 three times under the radar instead of bruising the house for $5,000 (these figures will vary depending on the typical action for the property). This is a judgment call based on circumstances. Will you ever be back there to play? How many other counters are hitting this game?

Comp abuse is another obvious area where personal responsibility and a bit of restraint can keep the goose laying the golden eggs. Most hard-core counters donít take comps, but if you count cards and earn comp, donít be greedy. Donít push the house beyond what is fair. Donít attract attention to yourself.

Now let me switch briefly from blackjack to poker Ö A huge opportunity for preserving the commons occurs when playing against a novice. If he wins improbably with bad hands, congratulate him. If he makes stupid mistakes, donít tease him. The last thing a good player should do is lecture a bad player, berate him, or make him at all less likely to pull the same dumb moves in the future. We should cultivate poker novices like a pasture.

And of course, all of the above also applies in reverse to our opponents when they have an advantage, particularly the casinos. For any casino executives reading this column (kudos for slipping past the filters), remember that we are your pasture. Donít overgraze. Donít be greedy. Be happy for us when we win. Donít penalize us for being lucky. Loose contests encourage action. Give players a fair shot at winning.


(c) copyright 2011 Basil Nestor

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