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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Planning Is the Next Best Thing to Time Travel

14 September 1998

In casino gambling as in everyday life (not that they differ very much), it would be of inestimable value to temporarily move ahead in time, then act now on what you discover will happen later. You'd know which games to play, whether to quit with what you've got or wait for more, when to reach for the stars or pull back.

It would also be immensely useful to go back in time and alter decisions that worked out poorly. You could replay a critical 14 versus 10 in blackjack, standing rather than drawing, knowing you'd avoid exceeding 21 while feeding the dealer a breaker. You could take down big place bets at craps just before the seven appeared, rather than press during a roll you thought was headed for the hall of fame. You could quit after hitting four-of-a-kind in video poker, at what turned out to be your profit peak.

Time travel is impossible in the known universe. Even if it could be done, bettors would still run into the law of unintended consequences. A sure $25,000 slot win in the morning may trigger an unanticipated $50,000 baccarat loss in the evening. Likewise, changing decisions on what seemed at the time like key blackjack hands may lead to grievous sequences of cards later in the game. Or, haven't you heard about lotto dreams that became nightmares?

There's a next best option. No, not a cell phone call to your personal 900-PSYCHIC advisor. Deciding in advance how you'll act in situations which were predictable beforehand, or which you should have expected after the fact. Having and following a plan can't guarantee victory. But they can help you maintain your self-esteem in defeat. And, they're the essence of good gambling.

Sometimes, determining your actions ahead of time means adhering to rules the gurus have deduced to maximize expected profit over extended play. Basic strategy in blackjack and expert strategy in video poker are in this category.

More often, the joy of gambling comes from knowing how you'll feel in the calm after the hooting and hollering. And from having the discipline to act accordingly in the heat of the action.

Occasionally, this entails going against the "book." Here's an example. Say you won't be happy just doubling your dough at video poker, but are willing to sacrifice a day's bankroll trying for a progressive jacks-or-better jackpot. You draw Q-D, Q-H, K-D, 4-S, 6-C. The pros advise keeping the queens, a "made hand" having a guaranteed 1-for-1 payback and an expectation of 1.5-for-1. If, instead, you hold the Q-D and K-D, expectation drops to a loss of 0.4 times your bet - but you still have a shot at the royal. You know you're going to forego high pairs for more chance at the jackpot. You won't regret getting nothing instead of your money back. You won't cry (too long, anyway) if you pull the Q-C, Q-S and get paid for the new high pair instead of four-of-a-kind.

Some advance decisions involve the point at which you'll press your bet at a table. Maybe when you're winning and imagine you're playing with "their" money. Or when you're ahead and move to escalate your profit or drop back to break-even. Or when you're behind and risk your balance on one final shot at recovery. None of these decisions is right or wrong in any absolute sense. But they may be the best, indeed the only, way to reach your goal.

Other advance decisions tell you when to quit. Perhaps its when you hit a jackpot, exceed then drop back to a certain profit, or run through the money you set aside as your stake for the day. Possibly it's at the end of a round - a shoe at blackjack or a seven-out at craps - which leaves you ahead after being in the hole. For some, it's when the little hand is on the five and the big hand is on the twelve. Laws of probability and mathematics are immaterial here. These situations are matters of metaphysics.

I trust that all sensible solid citizens will heed my counsel about the best ways to reach stated goals. But I know they'll insist on setting those goals for themselves. Still, as Sumner A Ingmark, the poet advocate of personal preference, warned:

Objectives too lofty, while often sincere,
May languish because, though they seem to be near,
Are doomed by the fact you can't get there from here.

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.