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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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You Can Change the Outcome of a Game, Not Control It

3 September 1996

The other day, I was playing "heads-up" blackjack. The dealer and I. Mano a mano.

The game was a bummer. I avoided the "U" word (unbelievable!), but did mutter something about the shoe being terrible. "If you'd like, I'll shuffle," the dealer offered. "Thanks, but no thanks," I replied. "Let's keep going."

Several hands later, conditions hadn't improved. The dealer sympathetically suggested I "change the flow of the cards by playing two spots." Again, I declined.

More than a few players would have followed one or both of the dealer's recommendations. Others would have taken such actions without encouragement, not to mention cunctation. Some would, alternately, have quit for a break or to find a happier table. A small contingent would have exercised even greater creativity.


No a priori rights and wrongs govern cases like this. What do you tell someone who slams down the balance of a bankroll for a boom-or-bust bet, draws 14 to a dealer's 10, stands pat, and wins? Are you going to say the move was dumb? Explain that the odds are 4-to-1 against winning by standing in this situation?

Was my decision to continue without wavering pure obstinacy? Or was there a method to the madness? You'll be relieved to learn that two elements of logic were involved.

The first element I'd apply to any gambling. I dislike second-guessing. I decide in advance how I'll play when I'm at a table or machine. This includes when to quit - with a win or a loss - as well as when to vary bet size or otherwise shift gears. I know I can change the outcome of a game by the way I play, but I can't control it. So when I'm the shooter in craps, for instance, if I'm not making numbers by lobbing the dice, I don't arbitrarily start whipping them out at high speed or betting "don't pass." Likewise, in blackjack, I won't stand on soft 18 against a five simply because my earlier doubles were disasters.

Sure, players may ride their hunches to the heights of redemption. The converse holds at least as often, although nobody brags about it so fewer tales make the rounds. Naturally, it would be fantastic to flee the casino floor having recast catastrophe into conquest with a serendipitous stroke. But to me, the reward doesn't warrant the risk of heading home plagued either by a posteriori grief about what I should have done, or guesses how history might have been written had I done the deed differently.

The second element underlying my decisions to let fate run its course that day was blackjack-specific. Sometimes, a player just gets lousy combinations of cards; you notice this occasionally at full tables when one solid citizen goes down the tubes while the rest are paying off their mortgages. But a run of weak hands often results from a lot of low cards coming out of the shoe in a cluster. Mathematically, low cards favor the dealer.

It's counterproductive to add a spot when the dealer is plowing a clump of the shoe rich in low cards. The idea is to get through this probability warp playing fewer, not more, hands.

Shuffling after a stretch dominated by low cards also makes no sense. As more low cards are removed from the shoe, what's left? A richer concentration of high cards, that's what. This condition favors the player. It's a point that should be eagerly awaited, not one at which a shuffle should be requested.

What's best for you? Individuals have to decide for themselves. Whatever your choice, you'd be wise to make it beforehand, not when you're apt to grasp at straws because your judgement is impaired by frustration born of a cold streak. Sumner A Ingmark, roundly regarded as a rational rhymer, recited it reservedly:


Good luck breeds audacity,
Bad luck needs tenacity.

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.