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By Eliot Jacobson

Eliot Jacobson has a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Arizona. He was Professor of Mathematics from 1983 to 1998 at Ohio University, and currently holds a teaching position in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Jacobson recently published his first book on blackjack ("The Blackjack Zone," Blue Point Books, 2005) and it is available in the BJI store at 10% discount. He hosts the popular blackjack website, where he is known as "The mayor." To read a review of Jacobsonís book that appeared in issue #61 of BJI, click here.



Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air. Facts are the air of science. Without them a man of science can never rise.

-- Ivan Pavlov, Russian Behavioral Psychologist, 1849 Ė 1936.

Why would anyone conduct themselves in a casino in a way that leads to losing money? Many players argue that gambling is an entertainment expense and that they are entitled to spend their money in any way they choose. But of course! I can hardly argue this point. It is simply true that some people find giving their money to large greedy corporations who use every tool at their disposal to suck even more money from the players to be a fun and entertaining experience.

However, I believe that very few people actually enjoy losing. Most people hope their results will be positive. Intelligent players look for reasons to explain their losses, especially at blackjack. They often blame losses on their lack of intuition or the poor play of someone else. These same players believe they are playing correctly, even though they repeatedly make simple basic strategy errors. The most common errors in the play of the hand increase the house edge to as much as 1.5% - 2%.

The least we can ask for our entertainment dollar is to avoid playing our favorite games in ways that drastically increase the house edge. In blackjack there are psychological reasons behind many common errors. It is our human nature that is being used against us by the casinos as they support the mistakes we make. I will discuss three situations that are commonly misplayed at the blackjack table and clarify the part of human nature that is being exploited by the casinos in each case. When we understand why we make errors, we have taken the first step towards good play.

The most commonly misplayed hands in blackjack are stiff totals against high cards. Why do players stand on 15 vs. 7 or 16 vs. T? The reason is to avoid the immediate experience of losing, even though it increases the long-term losing expectation. If we hit our 15, the odds are over 50% (53.8%) that we will bust and lose immediately. If we donít draw a card, then we have not beaten ourselves; rather, it is the casino that may (or may not!) beat us. We avoid being directly responsible for our failure.

This experience is not unique to the tables. It is part of the human experience to delay pain, even if by doing so the total pain is greater. It is also human nature to pass off the responsibility for bad events in our lives to someone or something else. We avoid going to the dentist. We don't want to deliver bad news to a friend. We stay in a relationship because it is too hard to break up. Pain avoidance is behind this common and costly error. Blaming others, a victim mentality, and not wanting to take responsibility for bad events in our lives causes us to avoid action that may have positive benefits.

Let's look at another common misplay. Most will take even money on blackjack (against the dealer Ace-up), though they will "never take insurance." But itís not hard to figure out that "even money" is exactly the same as insuring your blackjack. People have learned correctly to never take insurance; they understand it is a bad bet that has a huge house edge. But when the player has a blackjack, he is encouraged to take insurance (even money). The casino argues that this is sure money and you should never pass up a sure thing. The casino is playing to one of our human weaknesses to get us to make a bad play. But why do most players fall for this trap?

Conditioned response is the scientific fact Ivan Pavlov taught us. Casinos use this reflex against us at every turn. If the dog believes he will get fed, he salivates. If we know we will get paid, we take "even money." Taking "even money" is for immediate gratification. We would rather have it now, even if it what we get is not the full amount we are due. Moreover, to turn your back on a sure thing is arrogant and foolhardy Ė there is social disdain attached. The goal is to make money, and one consequence of that goal is to take money whenever it is offered, even if the amount is less than we really are due in the long run. Immediate gratification and conditioned response lead to taking less than we are due, and that means losing more in the long-run.

A final common misplay is A-7 vs. T. In this case most players stand, even though it is correct basic strategy to hit this hand. Dealers pass me by when I signal for a hit and then give me a funny look when I bring them back and force them to give me a card. The other players try to stop me from being so reckless. Why would I want to ruin a perfectly good 18? But there is no doubt that the correct play is to hit. The simulations show that hitting will return more than 20% over standing in this situation. Every basic strategy table lists hitting as the play. Hitting A-7 vs. T is a fact.

Most players (dealers / bosses / etc.) think this situation (having A-7) is good enough and shouldn't be touched. They are satisfied that the hand dealt is as good as the player can hope for, and any action is just likely to make things worse. Another way of saying this is that they donít have the vision to take risks to make things better. This point is exactly what separates innovators and geniuses from the rest of us: they understand that in some situations it is worth taking a risk. In the face of pressure from their peers, from those who say the present situation is good enough, and from those insist they will make things worse, these individuals take the risk to make things better. Sometimes they are rewarded, and sometimes they fail. But, they have the vision to know when the rewards exceed the dangers and wisdom to take action.

Most blackjack players believe they know basic strategy. Many others trust the advice given by players, dealers, and bosses. But there are quite a few hands that are misplayed over and over. Players stand on their stiff hands against high dealer up-cards. They take even money on their blackjacks. They misplay A-7 against just about every dealer up-card. It is these hands that make the difference for the casino.

You cannot assume you know basic strategy just because you have played a lot of blackjack or that others think you are playing correctly. Everything is working against you. Casinos, players, and human nature conspire towards your wrong play. The culture of errors persists. The only way to be sure is to do the work necessary to memorize basic strategy, and then fiercely adhere to it, no matter the pressures you face. As Pavlov said, "facts are the air of science." There is simply no substitute for the truth.

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