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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Blackjack Players Alter the Way Cards Flow, But Who Knows How?

18 April 1994

Learning the right way to play blackjack is like getting the true religion. Once having accepted "basic strategy" as a creed, proselytes want everyone else to do it, too. And, they're not always subtle at their intolerance of those who don't.

The situation passes mere patronizing pedantry like "You shouldn't have hit that 14 against a dealer's 6," or "Everyone knows you shoulda split those 8s instead of standing on 16." Sometimes, blackjack faithful get painfully profane to pagans in their midst. Other times, true believers go so far as to get up and stomp out, muttering or thinking thoughts they're wise not uttering about the class of customer casinos court nowadays.

Of course, this behavior occurs in some situations more than others. Say when an agnostic hits a hard 17 against a dealer's 8, pulling a 6 the disgruntled zealot to the left needed to go from 15 to 21 instead of the 9 that caused the properly-played hand to bust. When an infidel makes a similar heretic decision and pulls a ten, answering the prayers of the pious player in the next position for a four to augment a doubled soft 17, the sanctimonious silence is deafening.

Blaming strategically defective decisions by blackjack blasphemers for hands you lose (while not crediting them for those you win) involves human nature, the character of the gambler, the intensity associated with money at risk, the importance of self-esteem in the face of adversity, and the ceaseless search for meaning in life beyond luck alone. But the gospel of the game is mute on this motif. The dogma of the deck doesn't favor faith in the flow of the cards. The sureties of the shuffled shoe do not presuppose that order underlies apparent chaos.

Righteous blackjack, following the commandments of basic strategy, is predicated purely on the principles of probability. On the odds pertaining to your hand and the dealer's, nobody else's. On the chances that the next card to be drawn will strengthen, weaken, or break you. On the likelihood that the dealer's down-card will fill a pat hand or force a draw. Not on some pre-ordained flow of the cards.

You may remember losing hand after hand hampered by the hunches of the heathens, where Philistines flocked in and out of the fray on every round, maybe even when distinct dealers shuffled the cards or a particular person cut the deck. But remembering circumstances like these and forgetting all others are burdens even of mortals who have seen the light.

Well, I bear nefarious news to blackjack brethren seeking scapegoats on whom to lay losses. Sizable samples of real play and myriads of computer simulations have been extensively analyzed. The studies have failed to link performance to anything but the rules at a table and basing decisions for individual hands on the probabilities associated with the cards remaining in the shoe.

The specific cards anyone draws are obviously affected by the shuffle, the cut, the number of hands in action, and the decisions made during the game. In that sense, such factors influence the flow of the cards and the outcome of each hand. When a player stands, hits, surrenders, splits, or doubles down, the flow is effected. But the process is essentially random. Nobody can say whether the changes bode good or ill.

Unorthodox decisions flaunting the probabilities associated with the cards in the shoe give the house unnecessary edge over the player who makes them. Such barbarians may still win, although the likelihood of doing so falls with the quality of their decisions. And, while these players' choices impact the cards you get, they don't alter the odds of your getting them. As Sumner A Ingmark, poet laureate of the world's wagering wayfarers, once wisely warned:

Your chance depends on not
What other players do.
But on the cards you've got,
And what's left in the shoe.
Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.