Blackjack Mistakes: Going With Your Gut

Nothing will get you in bigger trouble at the blackjack table than your gut. And no, I don’t mean that eating or drinking too much will make your wife hate you. I don’t mean you won’t fit in the chair or anything like that. I’m talking about playing hunches.

Hunches are important and a lot of great things have come from playing them. Listening to your gut can give you the edge in sports like baseball, in creative activities like writing or painting, or when taking a test (remember that advice of going with your first guess?). However, it doesn’t work in blackjack.

Here’s how it plays out. You’re thinking, Okay, I have 16, which is pretty high, and the dealer is showing a 7. I don’t want to bust. I think I will if I hit, so I’ll stand. I have a feeling on this one. Blackjack isn’t a game of hunches. It’s a game of odds and percentages. In poker, for instance, you can play a hunch on whether or not your cards beat your opponent’s cards, because you’re basing your decision not only on your odds, but on the behavior of the other player. With blackjack, however, you are playing against nothing but the odds. You have to make a decision about whether to hit or stand before the dealer even draws any cards. You don’t know what hole card the dealer has and you don’t know what card is next in the deck. Therefore, playing a hunch can’t help you.

What card is next in line to be dealt is next regardless of whether or not you’re feeling lucky. Blackjack basic strategy, however, has been tested time and again my statisticians and other people a lot smarter than me. Those people have found that following basic strategy gives you the best odds of winning. Following the strategy may not help you win that hand, but in the long run it will give you the best chance for success.

Looking at the above example, the player’s gut said to stand because hitting a 16 gives you a good chance of busting. That’s true. However, standing gives you an even bigger chance of being outdrawn by the dealer if he shows a 7. Blackjack basic strategy takes into account that there are more cards with a value of 10 than any other value (4 out of 13). Because of that, the strategy recognizes that you or the dealer are more likely to draw a 10 card and the dealer’s hole card is most likely to be a 10. Now let’s go back to that example.

If the dealer shows a 7 and his hole card is most likely to be a 10, then the odds say his hand is a hard 17. The dealer would stand on a hard 17, so he wouldn’t draw another card and risk busting. Since you stood on a 16, you would lose by being outdrawn. Of course, if you hit you are also most likely to draw a 10 card, which would cause you to bust, but the odds say you are more likely to draw a card of 5 or more than to outdraw a dealer who shows a 7.

In that particular example, there is no good choice. Any hand of 12-16 is a stiff hand, and the odds are against you whether you hit or stand. However, in the long run, hitting in that situation will cause you to win more often than when you stand.

Another problem with playing a hunch is that you can get caught up in streaks. If you are winning a lot then you might play more aggressive and if you’re losing you might be more cautious. However, the game of blackjack doesn’t care what kind of a streak you’re on. The cards are dealt at random, so each hand is unique. Deviating from basic strategy because you’re on a winning streak is the easiest way to put that streak to an end. Instead of letting emotions dictate your decisions, you should always play the odds, which means to stick to basic strategy.

The only exception to that rule is if you’re counting cards. If you are counting cards and feel that there is either an exceptionally large or small amount of 10 cards remaining in the deck, then you may want to deviate from basic strategy. Card counters employ a strategy that takes the odds of basic strategy and alters them by adjusting the likelihood of a 10 card being drawn.

Your gut may be good for a lot of things, such as telling whether a movie starring Adam Sandler will be any good (it won’t), whether you should wear a suit to that job interview even though the workplace is business casual (you should), and deciding whether it’s worth it to get 3 tacos from Taco Bell for only $0.99 (it’s not). However, your gut does you no good in blackjack. Stick to the chart.

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