Thursday, June 03, 2010

Blackjack players are idiots

I admit that I don't understand the whole gambling thing. For whatever reason, I'm just not wired to get any thrill out of playing games that I know will lose me money in the long run. I probably average about $20 a year total on non-poker gaming. Even that is just a few bucks in a machine with a friend while we're waiting for a show to start or for our names to be called for dinner, or the required contribution for one of those two-for-one coupons, which are +EV. I realize that this makes me something of a freak among the poker players of the world, but that's how it is.

I played blackjack for about an hour once while here on vacation, maybe 15 years ago, never before or since. So my knowledge of the game is truly rudimentary. Basically, all I know is little bits and pieces picked up from TV shows, overheard conversations, incidental mentions that come up in my poker reading, etc.

A couple of years ago, Vegas Rex mentioned in a post (and, sorry, but I spent about 20 minutes just now searching for the post in question but couldn't find it) that once in a while he likes to split 10s, even though he knows that this reduces his expected return. He does it because it increased the little thrill he gets from the game. His post was about the dirty looks and hateful comments that this move draws from the serious blackjack players at the table with him. My recollection (though my memory could be tainted by subsequent stories I've heard) is that he mentioned that sometimes people even get up and leave in a huff because they don't want to share the table with somebody who does that.

I didn't exactly doubt his veracity, but I sure wondered why anybody would have this reaction. However, since then, I have at least four times overheard conversations in which "serious" players have said that they can't stand playing at a table with somebody who doesn't know what he is doing, and will leave to find another table to continue playing at. I'm bringing this up now because the most recent of these conversations was just last night, while playing poker at Planet Hollywood.

These complaints have not all been about "bad" players splitting their 10s specifically, but more generally about players who hit when the math clearly favors standing. The complaint is universally the same: the "bad" player gets a small card that helps him, but results in the "good" player getting a high card and busting, when he would have received the small card instead.

Every time I hear this, I want to have the complainer sent for mandatory psychiatric evaluation. If they pass a battery of mental health testing by a panel of experts, then the least that they should have to endure is a remedial course in probability and logic.

In the long run, it makes no difference whether you play blackjack by yourself or with a full table, nor does it matter how anybody else plays. You could have somebody at your table who takes hits every single time until he busts, losing 100% of the time, and it still would not affect you. Furthermore, it makes zero difference where you are at the table, with the allegedly "bad" players to your right or to your left. (This isn't true in tournament-style blackjack, however, because there the amounts that others bet affect what your best decision will be. That's a special case not relevant here.)

Of course it is true that what other players decide will affect what card(s) you get on this hand, but it does so in a completely value-neutral way. Yes, sometimes the guy hitting on 18 will catch a 3 that otherwise would have made you a winning hand, and instead you take a king that busts you. But so what? Exactly as often, the king and the 3 in the deck will be reversed in order, and he will erroneously hit, taking the king that instead would have gone to you, and you get the 3. It seems that the idiot blackjack players I've heard whining have highly selective memories, and only remember cases where they get hurt by the "bad" player's decision, and either don't notice or don't remember the equal number of times that they are rescued by such decisions--even though the math says that the number of events must be exactly the same both ways.

Naturally, it works the other way, too--i.e., if the "bad" player stands where he should hit, the "good" player will get a card that would have gone to the "bad" player if he were playing optimal strategy. Sometimes that change of fate will work to his favor, sometimes to his detriment. But the cumulative effect over time must be exactly zero, with just as many of the former as the latter.

This basic truth is so simple and obvious that I'm stymied to figure out how somebody could spend hours honing their mastery of optimal strategy for every possible combination of cards, and yet fail to understand it.

Getting upset at another player for how his play affected your blackjack outcome is every bit as looney as getting upset because the dealer (or a player) cut the deck too high or too low. Of course it affects everything that happens thereafter, but it does so in a way that has no systematic positive or negative value. The only difference is that you can see the "what would have been" outcome for how another player affects the current hand, and you cannot know the "what would have been" for how the deck was cut.

In poker, all sorts of things affect what cards you get: how the cards are gathered after the previous hand, the dealer's precise shuffle method, where the deck gets cut, who leaves or enters the game just before the cards are dealt, whether there is a card flashed during the deal, whether there is a misdeal, etc. But they all affect the outcome in an absolutely neutral way over the long haul, even though the change will be either for good or ill on any given hand. It would be completely insane to bitch at a player for sitting down to your right just before the deal on the grounds that he just changed what your hole cards will be. It's definitely true that his arrival did change everything (including what the board cards will be), but not in a way that affects your long-run expected value by even one red cent.

The next time I overhear a "serious" blackjack player griping about how some novice player spoiled the game for him, I'm going to put in a call to the Moron Police and have him hauled away for public stupidity.


While writing the above, I had a vague recollection that I had written something along the same lines before. Why didn't I check? First, it was because I thought it had just been an offhand couple of sentences as a tangent while writing about something else. Secondly, well, frankly, because if I'm repeating myself, I think that deep down I don't want to know about it.

But then I was just chatting with Cardgrrl, and she asked, "Didn't you do a rant on that same subject already?" Dammit. That meant I couldn't avoid checking. And, of course, it turns out that I did. See here for that post, as well as a lot of useful comments from readers.

Oh well. At least I'm consistent in what bugs me and in the conclusions I draw.


bellatrix78 said...

You know blackjack is beatable, right? So we are idiots for playing a beatable game, like poker? Imagine the hypocrisy in your statement...

Rakewell said...

Perhaps erroneously, I trusted my readers to be able to perceive that the headline was hyperbolic. Andy Bloch plays blackjack. I do not believe that Andy Bloch is an idit. I will occasionally run $5 through a video blackjack machine. I do not think I am an idiot. I am paying for a few minutes of silly entertainment, and I get what I pay for.

Only a tiny fraction of blackjack players actually play in such a way as to be able to beat the game--which has to include card-counting. If you think that you are playing in a +EV way when you are not, then, yeah, you are, in that sense, an idiot--just like the millions of people who play poker thinking that they are winning players, when they actually are not.

But all that said, I would have thought that the entire post would have made clear what the title meant. "Blackjack players are idiots" could have been expanded instead into: "People who invest countless hours learning to play "correctly" so that they lose their money a little bit more slowly than those who are playing just to have some fun, and yet can't grasp the simple truth that another player's action have no systematic positive or negative effect on their expected returns are idiots." But that would have been a little bit wordy (and not as attention-grabbing) for a post title, don't you think?

Jamie said...

You know blackjack is beatable, right?

Only in the most theoretical sense. As Rakewell stated, beating Blackjack would require counting cards, which is not illegal if you don't use a counting device, but is incredibly difficult into an 8 deck shoe and will likely get you (legally) kicked off the premises if you're very successful at it. Besides for which, the counting techniques that worked in 'Bringing Down the House' stopped working when casinos started re-shuffling much higher in the shoe and won't allow mid-shoe entry to prevent teams from working.

Pokergrump - I've had this same fascination with -EV games as you have and have talked myself blue in the face trying to convince people of the difference between Blackjack and Poker. But I've come to realize that it doesn't matter. Anyone who *truly* understands the math of the two games is already playing poker and wouldn't touch Blackjack (or Roulette or Craps or any other game in the casino) with a ten foot pole.

Keiser said...

During my formative poker studying years I also studied blackjack extensively. What I decided is that it takes an enormous amount of preparation and PERFECT play to even get a 1% edge over the house. If you make one mistake in your entire day, the edge is ruined. You can instead spend all that effort playing poker against baboons where you have as much as a 20% edge and come out much, much further ahead. Comparing blackjack and poker as beatable games is about as close as comparing roulette to blackjack. Apples n' oranges.

In blackjack no matter the casino (aside from house rules that affect the house edge), you're going to need to play about the same to win. In poker, you only have to be better than most of the people at your table.

bellatrix78 said...

Jamie, that's what the casinos want you to believe. Counting cards is very easy. In fact, counting down a shoe is entirely easier than single deck, because you don't have to memorize any index plays.

I still don't get the wonder people have about card counting, when in fact it just requires a little bit of practice and going +1 +2 +1 0 -1 0... This is not a "theoretical" construct. Also the "kicking off the premises" part has been romanticized in the books somewhat. If you're not betting >1000$/hand, you'll get a friendly backoff and that's it, you'll still be allowed in the casino and "you're still welcome to play slots".

On the subject of studying a game to lose less money:
There are certain games that if you play them you are basically EV neutral (think certain Video Poker machines or a 6deck shoe with a minimal 1-3 spread), but the comps more than offset that teeny casino edge. There are certainly enough players that study the game of poker that end up losing less, but still losing. I still don't go around calling them idiots... :)


I have been reading your blog for a year or so, maybe two. First, let me compliment you on your writing. It's impeccable. Second, I will note that you have an excellent understanding of the math of poker. Statistics, probability, that sort of thing.

It is my (lay) understanding that in blackjack (full disclosure: I can enjoyably spend hours at a BJ table breaking even and drinking for free when I visit Vegas) when the table plays against the dealer even in the absence of card counting, the house looses its advantage. I, unlike you, do not have the time to back this assertion up with the proper math. If you can refute this assertion, I would like to see the data.

Anonymous said...

Your previous rant about blackjack included a comment which hits the nail on the head, second from the bottom: "unless you can show that the more common mistake is to hit when you shouldn't, in the long run, again, the effects cancel each other out."

This is exactly the case for card counters, as they're playing more often at higher counts than at lower counts, so that people taking extra cards at high counts dilutes the number of high cards that the counter sees, decreasing their advantage. People not taking cards when they should don't hurt counters as much because it means the counter will see a higher proportion of the cards.

Given that card counters are not non-existent, I'd suspect at least some of the comments about people not hitting when they should are from counters venting their frustration at people pissing away high counts.

And FWIW, I'll second Bellatrix's sentiment that card counting isn't hard. From personal experience, a simple Level 1 count is pretty comparable difficulty-wise to beating 3/6-4/8 LHE. One good book on the subject plus maybe an afternoon of practice will be sufficient to grind out minimum wage level win rates.