Blackjack — the game isn’t rigged

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Sometimes I get a little stuck when it comes time for a topic for my weekly column.

Once in a while, I’ll peruse old columns or some of my dad’s writing to try and find an idea. I try not to copy an older column, but rather find something that perhaps I glossed over and can now use to go more in-depth on.

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This week’s inspiration comes from item No. 48 of the first publication my dad ever put out – “50+ Tips on Video Poker.” The first version of this must be 20 years old by now, and it is still the best bargain I know of for only $2.95.

Item 48 says, “Games based on random events often give observers the illusion that results on a short-term basis are anything but ‘random’, but that is to be expected. Wins will bunch up, losers will bunch. Cards will seem to show predictable patterns with mysterious repeaters and frustrating near-misses. Don’t be psyched out by these normal events.”

This past week I had a conversation with a friend who questioned whether the casino he was at (it may have been outside the U.S.) had been playing ‘fair’ blackjack. He noted that another player got four blackjacks out of about 10 hands and this seemed farfetched.

While I did not proceed to calculate the probability of this in my head, my best guess was that it was not nearly as rare as he thought. Even if it were 100,000 to 1, think about how many people are playing blackjack and realize that such event will still occur fairly frequently across the world.

Today, I took the time to perform the calculation. I was right about the ‘rarity’ of this event. It turns out that it is only a 1 in about 1,250 event. While not very common, it is hardly a once in a lifetime event that would/should make one believe that the casino is not using an honest deck. In fact, this frequency would imply that just about every regular blackjack player has probably seen this actually occur at some point.

I remember a night about 10-12 years ago when a rather drunk couple seemed to get blackjacks on every other hand, while I was struggling along with more stiff hands than one could imagine. I managed to break even while doing my best to card count a little. This couple, which couldn’t even count their chips, was winning hand after hand without having to do a thing.

The point is that despite seeing this, I didn’t start to believe that the deck wasn’t fair. The third leg of Expert Strategy is knowing what to expect. Point 48 teaches us to expect these streaks that appear to be non-random. If we start believing that the game is not random, we might as well go home!

What strategy could someone employ if we no longer can be sure that there are 6 or 8 decks comprised of the standard 52-card deck? Winning at blackjack is hard enough. If you learn the proper strategy, perhaps keep track of the cards and pay attention, you’ve got a decent shot to walk away a winner.

Start believing that the deck is fixed and now what do you do? You start changing the strategy you are using? To what? Without knowing what cards are in the deck, how could you possibly play the right strategy?

If you want to do well in the casino, stick with the plan and don’t convince yourself that the casino is cheating when all you’ve witnessed is something you think is much rarer than it actually is.

I once had a conversation with someone who felt a roulette table was rigged because the same number came up three times in a row. This event is only a bit rarer than our blackjack scenario, occurring about 1 in 1,369. Yet if many saw this occur, they would probably run away from the table or start betting that particular number believing there is some bias towards it.

It is my belief that none of the major casinos would even think about fixing a casino game. The risks are too great, and the reward is rather meager. This doesn’t mean that they can’t take advantage of the player who convinces himself it is happening from nothing more than a non-random illusion.

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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