After about a week and half in southern California meeting with advisers and VCs, I made the trip to Las Vegas with a few high school friends to spend a few days … well, you know, it’s Vegas. I hadn’t been to Vegas in close to seven years, partly because … well, you know, it’s Vegas and partly because of I’m not a fan of playing games where it’s not in my favor to win. This was a lesson learned after losing three paychecks in a row playing blackjack at Ceasars during my younger day frequents to Atlantic City. Now I only play the Powerball Lottery when the jackpot is probabilistically in my favor to risk the dollar (roughly over $150M).
Blackjack was the only game I ever played at a casino, and of course, in typical sadistic gambling fashion, I found myself hovering around the tables, mentally urging people to double down on eleven and stand on dealer six. And as I kept rattling off the most efficient plays that basic strategy mandates, I started noticing that every player was doing exactly what I was thinking, and the dealers were encouraging the novices to do the same. I began to wonder in a game where a casino stands to take more when people play ineffectively, why would the house encourage their competition to play the most efficient blackjack strategies? I started to wonder whether the casinos knew something about basic strategy, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts knew a little something about iocane powder in his battle of wits with the great Fazzini.
Basic strategy outlines how a player should act in a game of blackjack by providing a probabilistic guideline to standing, hitting, splitting, or doubling down based on the combination of cards that the person has and the one card the dealer is showing. Playing basic strategy dramatically decreases the house’s edge, and the exact amount varies by the rules of each casino (you can calculate those variations here). There are other ways to increase your odds in a casino, like counting cards or group play, but these ways are heavily frowned upon (read as broken bones) by casino pit bosses. So why is basic strategy so accepted, and almost so loved by the casino community? My guess is that the answer lies in the assumptions of basic strategy, which are so often overlooked by the “amateur experts” looking to turn a paycheck into a dream.
I’ve been pretty busy over the last few weeks, so I’ll save the second half of this posting for next week. Until then, I’ll leave you with this memorable scene from The Princess Bride.