Witless winners may need advice but prefer applause

January 23, 2001 10:18 AM


Here’s the gist of Lesson 36 at the Hardnox Academy of Punting Pedagogy and Yogism (HAPPY):

Gambling gurus should take breaks occasionally from practicing what they preach and stroll around the casino floor. The idea is to (a) monitor the action; (b) note the sublime, the ridiculous, and the range in between; (c) observe results of various ploys and the attitudes and reactions of the involved parties; and (d) stay inconspicuous, avoiding the urge to smirk superciliously or blurt out unsolicited gratuitous advice.

The exercise isn’t intended solely to catalog mistakes, then use the list to prioritize points on which to enlighten the masses. It’s also to remind accredited as well as aspiring wagering whizzes that differences between right and wrong, good and bad, strong and weak may be both very small and highly subjective.

The officially sanctioned criterion for ranking the quality of casino bets is house advantage or edge. The best propositions are those on which the casinos theoretically rake off the least. But strictly in terms of percentages, options might be so close to one another that an act of faith in some anonymous authority’s arithmetic rather than intuition built on a person’s own experience is needed to make the distinction.

A non-pair 12 versus a two-up in blackjack illustrates how narrow a gap often separates what the prolocutors proclaim proper and perverse. This hand is a bummer no matter how it’s executed. Statistical expectation is to lose 29 cents per dollar bet standing and 25 cents on the dollar hitting. Basic strategy is to hit since the expectation is then to lose less. But players aplenty, even some seasoned enough "to know better," stand in this situation.


First, four cents per dollar is under the radar, especially when masked by the noise of gives and takes during a session.

Second, surprisingly many blackjack buffs think basic strategy is a consensus of opinion among experts, with room for disagreement. They prove this to themselves by noting that playing "by the book" doesn’t guarantee a win; they have no inkling that it’s actually the set of decisions expected to yield the greatest gain or the least loss in each instance, found using rigorous mathematics or simulating quadrillions of hands on a computer.

Third, everyone remembers 12s busting when hit (chance is almost 31 percent) and the dealer’s two-up subsequently breaking (chance is over 35 percent), when it would have turned out better to stand. Fourth, some bettors prefer staying in contention and awaiting the dealer’s finish, to risking early loss. Such arguments don’t imply it’s wise to stand. It isn’t. They merely show that the penalty for standing is small and explain why it’s done so often.

There’s more. Probability underlies the games, but utility drives the gamblers. One strategy isn’t ideal simply because it involves low-edge bets unlikely to exhaust a bankroll during a normal session. Another isn’t faulty just because it gives the house a huge advantage and is apt to deplete a stake in short order.

Say a player’s incentive for a casino visit is to snaffle $50,000 or exhaust a $250 bankroll trying, in the span of a few hours. What types of tactics would have at least a chance of success?

Time constraints would put this goal wholly out of reach betting $5 on Pass at craps and taking single or double odds. Even if a casino let a player bet enough to win $50,000 by pressing from $5 to $10,000 or $20,000 during a hall-of-fame roll, try to find a $250 hotshot willing to put this kind of scratch on the line!

Conversely, there’s a chance (albeit minuscule) of $250 becoming $50,000 in a short high-jackpot slot session, risking a buck or so per pull. These points don’t mean that investing a hard-earned $250 in a scheme to score $50,000 of easy money is realistic. It isn’t. They only show that shooting for the moon requires a different approach than getting good odds of winning a day’s pay.

To help remember this lesson, HAPPY students are taught this mnemonic by Sumner A. Ingmark, the school’s poetry professor:

Your erudition’s rarely heeded,

When witless schemes have just succeeded.