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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Opinion and Fact in Gambling: Room for Both, but Keep 'Em Separate

2 October 2000

My friend, Philo, joined me at a blackjack table and promptly announced "You gurus all say to hit 16s against sevens and up. But I always stand on 16. It busts most of the time when I hit, and this way I'm still alive to win if the dealer breaks."

"It's your money," I replied, "so risk it however you want. And, anyway, other experts preach their own gospels. I don't tell everyone to hit 16 against high upcards. I lay out the facts and let people make up their own inquiring minds. In this situation, I explain that the hand is an underdog regardless of the dealer's upcard, but the expected loss is lowest by standing against two through six, hitting against seven or eight, and surrendering if it's allowed or otherwise hitting against nine, 10, or ace."

"How do you know which play has the smallest expected loss?" he asked. "Are you really dealing with facts, or is it your opinion versus someone else's? Maybe you've watched or played more games than most of us, but what qualifies you to judge right or wrong?"

"Gambling has legitimate room for opinion," I responded. "But, once a decision criterion is established, optimum play leaves the realm of the subjective and enters that of mathematics. For instance, you can determine which moves offer the most potential profits for any player hands and dealer upcards. The laws of probability give precise answers for each possibility."

"Then, where does opinion come in?" Philo queried.

"In setting goals," I said. "The expected value of a bet isn't the be-all and end-all of gambling. Maybe, rather than highest profit, one person wants the greatest chance of winning, another the least likelihood of depleting a stake before completing a four-hour session. These objectives don't always lead to the same conclusions. In blackjack, the distinction is subtle. To see it, make believe you have a nine against a dealer's five. You expect to win the most money if you double, but expect to win most often if you hit. The difference arises because the next card drawn may be a deuce -- in which case the player who doubles is stuck with an 11, while the solid citizen who hit can draw again."

"The trade-offs are easier to picture in roulette," I told him. "Say you bet $10 on a single number. You have one chance in 38 to win $350 versus 37 chances in 38 to lose the $10. Instead, you may bet $1 on each of 10 numbers. This gives 10 chances in 38 to win $26 versus 28 chances in 38 to lose $10. The numero‑noodniks would say 'expectation' is the same either way -- a $0.53 loss. Whether to risk $10 on a 2.63 percent chance at $350 or a 26.3 percent shot at $26 is a matter of opinion about good gambling.

"Even more importantly," I went on, "it's not a question -- as you suggest -- of right or wrong. It boils down to understanding which alternatives are more or less favorable or unfavorable, and maybe the degree of difference between the options. Then you can balance these factors against your innate, and admittedly arbitrary, preferences to arrive at a decision.

"Casino gambling is far from unique in posing these predicaments. Comparable quandaries dominate daily life," I continued. "Say you're trying to watch your weight and cholesterol level, and know 'the book' says to avoid fat-;laden extras. Perhaps you can even reel off just how many calories and grams of this or that are in a normal portion of carrot cake. But these aren't the only considerations at the moment of truth. How often do you indulge in desserts? What else did you eat that day? Is this a special occasion? Will aunt Flossie be hurt if you don't try a piece of her special recipe? The list goes on for just this simple choice. I could give many other examples. Do you buy 'name' brand X or 'house' brand Y? How fast do you drive when the posted limit is 55? To smoke or not to smoke? Disneyland or the Super Bowl?

Reflecting on this topic during dinner (I had carrot cake, Philo skipped dessert), I realized that the poet, Sumner A Ingmark, had already written all there was to write on the subject when he wrote:

            Opinion and fact have separate domains,

         Don't get them confused or ignorance reigns.

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.