Playing against God: Lessons from The Blackjack Table

“Patience, and shuffle the cards.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Spent the last couple of days recovering my strength, and I’m feeling much
better after a couple nights of good sleep. Haven’t been able to get much poker
in, as I spent the last two evenings painfully trying to set up my wireless
router at home (and still haven’t succeeded). But I was able to get a nice
1 hour session in, finally back to my winning ways with a $114. I was rivered
badly a couple times, but the combination of players being overaggressive with
top pair and the fish calling to the showdown with second pair made it a very
profitable session.

I’ve climbed up the learning curve, and new knowledge comes very slowly these
days. As The Penguin once said, “If it’s boring, you’re doing it right.” My game feels
cleaner and tighter, and I find myself not making the careless calls that cut
into my win rate a few months ago. I still have plenty to learn, but the questions
now are more centered on difficult reads (is he raising with AK or a big pair?)
rather than wondering if I have the pot odds to call with overcards. The grind
is more of a grind these days, but at least now I can focus on fine-tuning
my game, taking it beyond ABC poker.

8 Lessons

Before poker, there was blackjack. I spent a few months learning how to count
cards before figuring out that the odds in Hold ‘Em were much better than at
the Blackjack table. Besides not having a big enough bankroll for blackjack,
I was living in the Poker capital of the world, while the nearest blackjack
table was 2 hours away. Card counting was a blast at first– there was action
every hand, and if you weren’t fully concentrating, you were losing money.
It was challenging to follow the count, talk to the dealers, and try to get
the right amount of chips out on every bet. But once you had the counting part
down cold, it became the ultimate grind.

If you think poker is a grind, imagine betting the minimum for hours, and
then finally, when the scales are slightly tipped in your favor, you put out
5 units, 5 times the amount you’ve been betting forever. Your advantage against
the house on this make or break hand is a measly 5%– think a medium pair against
Aces. If you lose a couple of these big hands in a row, your hour of patient
waiting has been a waste.

Monk once described card counting in mythic terms: "It’s like playing against
God." You’re sitting there, alone in your struggle against the house. There’s
no room for friendly banter, no guessing what another player has, just you
and the odds. As slight percentage edges dance through your head, your fate
is solely dependent on the arrangement of cards in the shoe. The dealer is
only the hand of God, doling out your punishment or reward for your diligent

11 Lessons from the Blackjack Table

So in remembrance of my card counting days, here are 11 quick lessons that
I picked up on the blackjack tables that can help your poker game.

1. Gambling is about odds. Every single bet revolves around pot odds and implied
odds. If you aren’t sure that the odds are in your favor, save your money for
a better bet.

2. Odds and probability can often be counterintuitive. What seems like the
most logical play may not always be the optimal gamble. The best example of
this is splitting 8s in blackjack. Should you split if the dealer is showing
a 9, ten, or ace? The answer is counterintuitive. The analogy is having the
second best hand in a big multiway pot. Should you raise even though you are
positive you don’t have the best hand? It takes a deep understanding of odds
and probability to grasp these concepts.

3. Any long term gambler must work out his relationship with Risk. The optimal
play is often the most risky, and we must accept a lot of risk if we are going
to push our small edges. In the long run, this strategy will win more money,
but if we go broke before we get to the mythical long run, the strategy has
cost us a lot of money. Splitting 8s against a ten may be optimal strategy,
but our edge is so thin that we may choose to avoid these situations to protect
our bankroll. Drawing to a flush with 2 players in the pot may offer a positive
expectation, but we have to accept more risk to gain that edge.

4. Blackjack is a game of small edges. When your edge is small, you have to
be prepared (i.e. have a sufficient bankroll) to lose a lot of coin flips in
a row. Even when your odds are great, you’ll still lose 3 out of 10 times,
so get used to it.

5. Our goal is to get to the long run. We are advantage players– percentage
players– the more bets we can make with our small edge, the more profit we
make. Anything that allows us to increase our number of bets without sacrificing
our edge is a good thing. Thus, in blackjack, we play as many hands as we can
when the deck is positive– we don’t want other players stealing our good cards.
In online poker, we play as many tables as we can without sacrificing our edge.

6. Table image is more important than you think. Card counters sacrifice a
lot of money in order to provide themselves with "cover" from the pit bosses.
Confusing the house with a non-optimal bet can go a long way towards hiding
your hidden blackjack expertise. A beer in your hand while your check raising
will often get you an extra call, depending on the way your opponents perceive
you. Deception is part of profit– make your opponents pay for their prejudice.

7. I hate to say it, but there are very few hard and fast rules to blackjack
or poker (in other words, "it depends"). In blackjack, the optimal play changes
based on the current count. In poker, the texture of the game and the behaviour
of your opponents are just two of the variables that the optimal play depends
on. "Rules of thumb" can guide your play, but the extra big bet comes from
your ability to sift through all the variables and determine the optimal play.

8-10. When you can’t think of lesson 8, 9, or 10, bluff.

11. Always double down on 11. Always split aces, unless you have the chance
to cap pre-flop with them.

Thanks for reading, may your flushes be royal…

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