During our recent short trip to Niagara Falls, my wife and I strolled through a casino, as a warm and sheltered shortcut from our bed and breakfast to the waterfront. I had no interest in trying out the slot machines or any of the table games. I enjoy considering the statistics behind casino games, and I love playing card games and games in general with friends. But I’m not a big fan of casinos themselves – and not just the part about losing my hard-earned money. The people inside them get on my nerves.
Casinos seduce with luxurious surroundings, and lure people with the possibilities of easy money. And to some, winning a fortune in a casino is not just about guessing the right number or pulling the lever at the right time – it’s outsmarting the roulette wheel, imposing one’s will on the dice at the craps table, asserting dominion over the cosmos (or at least, the laws of probability). Players of head-to-head games such as Texas Hold ‘Em poker use their charisma and ability to mislead as a sizeable advantage over meeker players. Those who bet on sporting events will often refer to some system or insider knowledge to make their picks.
But casino games, with the exception of poker, are played one-on-one, player against the house. Most casino games require no skill – as long as you know how to make the bet, the player has no control over the roll of the dice, the ball or the slot wheels. The house plays their part with strict rules that leaves no room for any decisions. Even in blackjack, where the player can choose how to play, there is optimal strategy that players should follow to minimise losses, which ultimately removes all subjectivity. And no amount of charisma or bluffing will transform a bad blackjack hand into a winning hand.
Casino winners and losers are determined by luck. Playing at the casino can be a fun form of entertainment when done responsibly. But the fun evaporates when surrounded by people who expect to bend the laws of probability, and lose their grasp on logic and rationality (along with their money) within the casino walls. This story of my last visit to a blackjack table, several years ago, illustrates beautifully this phenomenon.
First, a quick primer about blackjack – those who know the game can skip the next two paragraphs, or read on and accept that I have left out some details. The objective of blackjack is to get a hand that is closer to 21 than the dealer’s hand, without going over 21 (going bust). The game is typically played with six decks of cards shuffled together, and suits are ignored in the play. Cards from 2 to 10 are worth their face value, face cards are worth 10, and aces are worth 1 or 11, whichever gives the better score to the hand. The most popular casino version of the game is played simultaneously by up to seven players, all seated in a half-circle with the dealer in the middle. Each player’s hand is played strictly against the dealer.
Each player is dealt two face-up cards, and the dealer takes one face-up and one face-down card. The player to the dealer’s left plays first. A player can choose to hit (take another card) to get closer to 21 or stand (stop taking cards). While the player has only two face-up cards, they can also double down (double their initial bet to receive exactly one additional card – a common play when the player has 11 with their first two cards) or split a pair (add a second bet of equal value and use each card of the pair as the first card of a new hand). Some casinos allow a player to surrender after two cards, losing half of their bet. Once a player stands or goes over 21 on their hands, the next player to the right plays their hand. This continues, clockwise, until all players are finished playing. The dealer then reveals their face-down card. The dealer’s play afterwards is strictly dictated by rules. They must hit when their hand is 16 or less, and they must stand when their hand is 17 or more (except that most casinos require a hit on a “soft 17”, where first two cards are an ace and a 6). Once the dealer stands, their score is compared to each player’s score. If the dealer goes over 21, every player who didn’t bust themselves wins.
Back to my table. I sat down at the only open seat at a seven-player table, in the seat furthest to the dealer’s right. I laid down my chips and placed my first bet. I was dealt two cards totalling 13, and the dealer showed a face-up 4. On my turn, I hit – and received a deuce, to bring my total to 15. I recognised that I was close to busting, and chose to stand. The dealer then flipped her face-down card, revealing a 7, and then dealt a 10 to get 21 – everyone at the table lost.
Immediately, the other players blamed me for their loss. One stormed away, saying “I won’t let this f***ing bastard make me lose”, while yet another one said that I am obviously a moron, and told me to leave immediately because I didn’t know how to play blackjack.
What did I do wrong? One thing that contributed a bit to their indignation was that I did not play according to optimal strategy. The optimal play was for me to stand on 13. Instead, I took a small chance and hit – my reasoning at the time was that I had approximately 8 in 13 odds, over 60%, of not busting. The deuce brought my total to 15. Note that since the dealer must hit when their hand is 16 or less, a player’s score of 15 is no better than a score of 13. On 15 I had approximately 6 in 13 odds, under 50%, of not busting, so I stood.
My sub-optimal play aggravated the table. My bigger mistake was that, according to them, taking that extra card caused everyone to lose. I was the player at “third base” – the last player before the dealer. Had I stood on 13, the dealer would have received the deuce that I received, followed by the 10, to give her a score of 23 and a bust. Of course, if I had known on my turn that the dealer had a 7 as a face-down card, and that the next two cards coming up were a 2 and a 10, I definitely would have stood. The game is much easier when you know what cards are coming.
Some casino players believe in the ridiculous notion that the “third base” player also controls the dealer’s hand, and therefore, can win or lose the hand for everyone else at the table. In my case, my bad play at third base coupled with the dealer’s win made them particularly upset at me. I sarcastically told my table-mates that if any one of them is psychic and knows which cards are coming up, to please share that information with me, otherwise to leave me alone. Of course, if someone had that ability, there would be no need to work a proper job – just pop into the casino once a month, win the money needed for the month, and carry on with all of their free time, at least until the casino catches on and kicks that person out.
The dealer was sympathetic to my situation, and stopped play at the table – she told one of the group to tame his language, and then told all of them that I didn’t ruin the hand with my play, that no one knows which cards are coming, and that I was free to play my hand as I wanted to play it without their abuse. One of my table-mates immediately declared that I was obviously an employee of the casino, planted there and playing badly to make people lose. The dealer and I laughed at that accusation – the house does not need to “help the table lose”. Over the long run, the casino will always make money, so they don’t worry if a few players win a significant amount of money.
And yet, people hate losing money much more than they like winning money. I played some blackjack in casinos over the years, and I have seen other people react similarly to a third-base player, hurling vicious insults for supposedly messing up a hand. I can also attest that I have never seen a single person congratulate or thank the third-base player for making a “good” decision that caused the dealer to bust. In the hand I described above, if the dealer’s face-down card had been an 8, 9 or 10-value, the dealer would have busted and no one would have reacted to my “bad” play.
Next time I sit at a blackjack table, I will sit closer to first base so I won’t be bothered of messing up the game, and hopefully I will have the courage to inject rationality when my table colleagues berate the poor player at third base for not having the psychic ability to know which cards are coming up.