Watching blackjack tables day after day one hears the same laments from players: “you took the dealer’s bust card,” “bad players can ruin the game,” “third base controls the table,” and so on. None of these statements is based on science or fact; they are myths that degrade the long run odds for the player.
These myths turn a game with a typical house edge of about 0.5 percent into a game with an edge well over 1 percent. They cost players millions, if not billions, of gambling dollars per year. These myths persist in the face of dozens of books devoted to blackjack, information available everywhere on the web, recent movies like 21, and TV shows like the History Channel’s Breaking Vegas.
It follows that we cannot blame poor blackjack play on ignorance alone. There is simply too much information available. Players must actively choose to play poorly and their poor play must be reinforced both socially and by their own personal recollection of events. Why do players choose and defend their poor play when it costs so much?
In search of an answer I came across a quote from Itiel Dror, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University. He said: “The mind is not a passive machine. Once you believe in something – once you expect something – it changes the way your memory recalls it.” This comment was made with respect to eye-witness testimony in criminal cases, but applies equally well to casino gaming. In other words, players tend to recall their gaming experiences in a way that is not consistent with what really happened. They experience “false memory syndrome.”
For example, in blackjack the player is likely to recall the actions of the maverick player at third base who correctly hit his hard 12 against the dealer’s 3, taking the dealer’s bust card. However he is unlikely to recall all the times that same play worked in his favor. This is not merely selective memory. It is a profound re-writing of events to follow a false narrative. Players subsequently create mythological principles about how to play based on this narrative.
False memory syndrome creates a basic strategy for blackjack focused around two primary types of errors.
First, players are hesitant to take risks as often as they are required to by basic strategy. In these cases all strategy choices lead to a long-term win, but some win more than others. In life we often take rewards that are immediate in place of greater rewards that entail both waiting and risk. Over-remembering short-term losses has a direct impact on our willingness to invest for a greater return in the long run.
Examples of this tendency include the unwillingness to make soft doubles, like doubling A-7 against a dealer 4. Players view A-7 as a strong hand and don’t want to risk making it worse in search of twice the profit. By doubling, players lose the hand more often, but when they win their winnings are greater. In the end, doubling is the right move. But, the immediate and painful memory of doubling and losing overwrites the more accurate long-term experience of winning more by doubling.
A similar story holds for 9-9 vs. 8. Players don’t want to give up the safety of the imminent “18/18 push” to go for the risk and rewards of correctly splitting the hand and playing each 9 independently against the dealer’s 8.
A second source of false memory occurs when all choices lead to loss, but some choices lose less than others. In this case we decry our sorry fate, but fail to take immediate actions that lessen the overall loss. This also makes it possible to be the victim. If we delay taking a loss, and subsequently the actions of others lead to us experiencing an even greater loss, we can blame others and not ourselves. Pain that can be delayed is easier to bear.
When the player has a hard 12 against the dealer’s 3, basic strategy says to hit. By standing in this situation, the player delays the pain of an immediate bust and puts the burden on the dealer to make a hand. When the dealer makes his hand the player is a victim of fate. It was not his action that caused the loss; it was the dealer’s action. It’s not his fault. The universe simply did not do what it was supposed to do.
Though correct blackjack basic strategy is complicated, it is no more complex than the way the average player already plays and expects other “skilled” players to play.
The lesson here is that we have to take an active role in situations where false memory syndrome can influence our decision making. Gambling is one such opportunity. The tendency is to over-remember actions that cause short-term pain and under-remember actions that cause long-term gain. When it’s positive we want it now. When it’s negative we want to put it off as long as possible. Whether it’s cashing out a lottery win or filing income taxes, correct basic strategy is often the opposite of what we believe and do.