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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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The Time to Ask "What-If" is Before You Leave Home

28 November 1994

st week I was playing blackjack when, I'll call him Jerry, sat down next to me. Jerry at a blackjack table is like rain at a parade. I wouldn't have bought-in had he been there first.

Don't get me wrong. I like Jerry. Away from the tables, he's fine company, a good conversationalist, thoughtful, a gentleman.

But, while he's gambling, Jerry's a constant complainer. When he's behind, he complains how far. When he's ahead, he complains it doesn't cover his previous losses. When he loses a hand, he complains he's getting bad cards and the dealer never breaks. When he wins a hand, he complains he didn't press his bet enough to take advantage of it. His gloomy aura is demoralizing.

He sat, complaining he'd been losing and had to borrow money from his wife to try to win it back. As he did, I realized I'd hardly ever seen him leave a table winning. One problem, I knew, was that he gave back moderate profits chasing earlier losses. But was it more? Didn't Jerry know when to hit or stand? I'd never monitored his game. But now, having to endure his ear job until I could quit with a profit anyway, I thought I'd analyze his play.

Jerry started out making good calls. His only mistake was hitting 15 against dealer 10 and 16 against dealer nine, 10, and ace rather than exploiting the available surrender option. But lots of solid citizens don't understand surrender and even favor casinos where it isn't offered. And the impact is admittedly small although not insignificant either way.

Then, wham! He drew soft sixteen, ace-five, against a dealer's six. A strong player would double down, knowing that the dealer was vulnerable to breaking while five cards would improve his own hand and the remaining eight cards wouldn't hurt it. Jerry wavered, then simply hit.

"If that was my bet, I'd have doubled," I quipped, trying to be helpful but not pedantic. "Yuh," he said, "but what if the dealer had a four or five in the hole and pulled a 10?"

A bit later, Jerry drew a pair of nines against a dealer's four. "What would you do?" he asked me. "Split 'em. nine's a strong start and four's weak," I replied. He decided to stand, saying, that 18 would probably win, and adding, "Besides, what if the dealer has a six or seven in the hole and pulls a 10?"

On it went. When I colored-up, Jerry was losing. "You press your bets after you've won a few hands on a hunch the cards are 'running good,'" I told him. "But you won't split or double to raise your bet when the odds are on your side." He agreed I might be right but went on, "You can't tell how splits and doubles will turn out. What if the dealer makes a good hand?"

The glib answer to Jerry's last what-if is, "That's why it's called 'gambling.'"

The tougher answer is that playing it smart in the casino means settling the what-ifs before you leave home. Begin with issues of money management... what-if you start with $500 and get $150 ahead: will you go for broke? pocket the $500 and risk the $150? quit with a 30 percent profit on your investment? Include playing strategies... what-if you shoot craps: will you make line and come bets? place the boxes? try parlays on the hardways? And cover the most important point of all... what-if you lose: can you afford what you plan to put at risk? do you have the discipline to take a hit without tapping other assets attempting to recover? will you enjoy the performances, eateries, and other leisure resources of the world-class adult entertainment experience afforded by the casinos even if the gambling part doesn't go exactly as you had envisioned?

As Sumner A Ingmark, then cub poet of his probability scout pack, spray-painted on an overpass across the road to the casino:

Good gamblers harbor no illusions
That odds will guarantee conclusions
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.