We’ve all heard the expression that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. That essentially leaves everything else to be something less than 100 percent.
That means that everything else is about playing the odds. Most decisions we make without giving it much thought. Do we go to checkout lane 8 or 9? Which one will need a price check that will take 10 minutes?
Others might have larger ramifications. Do we buy our plane ticket today at $300, or do we wait and hope the price goes down, risking that the plane might sell out?
Well, if life is all a gamble and about playing the odds, how much more true this must be for – gambling! There are no sure things when gambling. By its very definition, gambling is about playing the odds. When you decide to hit a 16 against a face card in blackjack, you are more likely to bust than anything else.
At the same time, your odds of winning with 16 are not very good either. Your decision to hit is based on knowing the odds of each situation. You hit because the odds of hitting and winning are greater than the odds of busting. However, you will still bust 8 out of 13 times.
Those that do not appreciate how math dictates what should be done in the casino might decide to not hit in this situation because of this 8 out of 13 situation. They may try to reason that busting 8 out of 13 times will likely result in losing. They don’t bother to see that the dealer will win instantly 7 out of 12 times (I’m assuming that if there is an Ace in the hole that the Dealer has already checked for it).
The other 5 out of 12 times, he will have an opportunity to hit again and beat you in some more creative ways. Yes, some amount of time, the Dealer will bust. But if you stick on that 16, that is the only way you can win.
In the end, a computer geek like me has done all the number crunching and can tell you exactly why you should hit. This doesn’t mean that you will every time you do so. It means that in the long run you will do better by hitting rather than sticking.
Unfortunately, in this particular case, you are facing a losing situation no matter what (in the long run), so you will lose money when you get this hand. The goal is to ‘play the odds’ and lose the least possible. That is what hitting does for you.
Playing the odds also means looking at the long-term expected results. Many have tried to dismiss this notion by saying that the long run is many lifetimes. This is simply not true. First, the long run for most situations is probably no more than a few thousand hands, which is hardly a lifetime’s worth of play.
Second, we learn in math that everything makes up the long-term. Thus, the more you play, the more likely you are to approach that long-term. If you choose to hit in the situation I’ve given, over time, you will approach the expected value of that condition.
If you choose to stick, over time you will approach the expected value of that condition. Since the expected value of hitting is higher than sticking, it only follows that over time you will approach the higher expected value, which is the goal.
After playing 5 or 10 hands, you may find that things are not working out as expected. But you can be quite sure as the number of hands goes up, the likelihood that things will begin to get ‘normal’ will increase greatly.
As the saying goes, on any given day one team can beat another team. But, if they play a seven game series, it is more likely that the better team will win. If they had to play a 20-game series, it is even more likely that the better team will come out on top.
This is what it means to play the odds.