By Charles Jay

Allow me to ask these questions of you, the recreational blackjack player:

– Do you feel worse when you bust than when you lose out to a better hand on the part of the dealer?

– Do you stand on hard totals of 12-16 because you want to hold onto your chances of winning until the dealer plays out his hand?

– Are you of the belief that luck runs in streaks, and if so, do you usually increase bets after wins and decrease after losses?

– Are you conditioned to playing “hunches”, depending on which cards you’ve previously been dealt?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, read on, because this is of particular interest to you.

One day at the library I was up in the “stacks,” so to speak, and happened to come across a past issue of Psychology Today (Oct. 1985). And I noticed it contained an article dealing with the behavior of players at the blackjack table, and how certain psychological quirks had a tendency to affect their behavior and performance when playing this casino game.

There is a tremendous psychological element to blackjack, and it is important to look at that angle, since customarily players not only have to execute betting decisions but playing decisions as well during the course of a session. A lot of players enjoy blackjack more than roulette, baccarat, or craps in that they feel more of a sense of control (which is not an ‘illusion’ as is referred to in the article), and they have the ability to vary their play using certain options as allowed for in the rules. That indeed is a potential advantage to blackjack, since the house’s edge, or lack of it, is very much dependent on the player’s level of skill. The pitfalls, if one falls into them, have the potential effect of diminishing the skill level of the player, and also serve to put up barriers preventing them from being able to digest the strategy that can ultimately bring the greatest chance for long-term return.

One of the bigger problems happens when it comes to playing the hard totals of 12 through 16. The research that was done for the article indicates that players, even if they know a Basic Strategy, very often fail to hit their hand in accordance with it because they fear busting out before the dealer has an opportunity to play his hand out. There are a couple of principal reasons for this. One is that the player’s mindset is that it is worse to bust than to hold out and lose to the dealer’s better hand, since the dealer’s draw is something that is completely out of the player’s control. And then there is that desire to stand pat in order to keep one’s winning hopes alive for as long as possible, and therefore they do nothing and wait for the dealer to make a move. As you already know from reading any responsible blackjack source, even with the worst upcards possible (5 or 6), the dealer will only bust 42%-43% of the time, so it is patently obvious that doing nothing is not a wise strategy at all.

Here’s another myth – that luck always seems to run in streaks. This idea sometimes leads to the player increasing bets after wins and decreasing after losses. On the other hand, there is a school of thought many people subscribe to which advocates increasing (usually doubling) bets after losing, and decreasing after wins. This is all based on an interpretation of the so-called “law of averages” which theorizes that sooner or later you would have to win. There is a familiar name for this betting strategy – the “Martingale,” and most people can tell you that it can easily lead to ruin, since it’s quite possible to keep losing hands and soon be over the house limit, paralyzing the system and one’s session at the same time.

Don’t get paralyzed. Take note of where the psychological obstacles can be, and do your utmost to overcome them.

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