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At my son’s school, they had a guest speaker who is known as the Human Calculator. When my son got home he told me it was okay if I wasn’t the best at being a human calculator.

Clearly he was impressed by what he saw.

I wasn’t really all that upset either. I’m good with numbers and frequently skip the use of a calculator. But, with all due respect to Mr. Human Calculator, I think it is more important what you do with the math, not how quickly you can do it in your head.

The math I use most is basic algebra and some combinatorial. I’m not doing quantum physics calculations or sending people to the moon, but, believe that what I do is use the math in a practical way. Just being able to multiply two four-digit numbers in your head won’t get you very far. It is an impressive skill, I’m just not sure what you do with it – besides maybe impress school age children with it (and maybe us math geeks too!)

The true gift is not one of calculating, but recognizing that math rules the casino game. With the exception of poker in the card room, it is all about math. No other game involves reading another person, figuring out tells or knowing when to bluff. When you are playing blackjack, you don’t have to wonder what the dealer will do. He will hit all 16’s and less and most commonly a soft 17.

The dealer doesn’t decide if he wants to hit this soft 17. It is a house rule and will be written in big letters right there on the felt. If the dealer has a 10 up, he won’t take a card roughly 7 out of 13 times (with one of those being a Blackjack, so you don’t have much to do there). The “roughly” part is determined by which cards have already been drawn from the shoe.

So, if you decide to stop on a 13 vs. a 10, you’re going to lose at least 7 out of 13 times. Throw in the times the dealer will hit two or more cards and not bust, and your odds don’t look good. This is why we hit in this situation. It is still ugly, but the math tells us you’re much better off hitting that 13 instead of sticking. You can stare at the dealer for as long as you want, but he’s not going to give away what card he has face down. You’re just playing the math.

This is not unique to blackjack. If we move onto Three Card Poker, the decision to play on Q-6-4 or better is based on hard cold math. I mean is Q-6-3 really that much worse? Enough to make it better for the player to fold instead of play. The player will lose less by folding than playing hands Q-6-3 or less.

This is what the math teaches us. You don’t have to calculate all of this in your head while you are playing. You simply have to trust that people such as myself have done the math work required correctly and that the math does in fact rule the game.

No game is immune from the math. In video poker we hold the 4-Card Flush over the Low Pair because the expected value is higher. We look at every possible draw for each of our two choices and figure out what the average expected return will be. We do the same for the 4-Card Straight vs. the Low Pair. The Low Pair’s expected value doesn’t change between the two options. But the Flush has 9 ways to complete it and pays 6 while the 4-Card Straight has only 8 ways and pays 4. The Low Pair lands in between these two and this gives us our strategy.

No one is expected sit there at the machine and do this calculation. Maybe the human calculator can do it while sitting there, but there is no need to. People like me have used computers to do all the dirty work and have compiled strategy tables. Your job is to memorize the strategy table order and trust I’ve done the work correctly and that it is in fact the math that should rule our decision.

The holiday season is upon us. I can’t think of a better stocking stuffer for your favorite player than one of our expert strategy books. If you’d like to order, please send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133. If you’d like to pay by credit card, email me at [email protected] and I’ll send you instructions for that. Happy Holidays!

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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