Posts Tagged ‘psychology of blackjack’

Why We Blame Third Base

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

“I would have won at the blackjack table tonight if it wasn’t for that idiot at third base! He ruined everything!” Hang out in casinos or on gambling forums long enough and you will hear that from time to time. It’s not the player’s fault or even bad luck that he lost money at the blackjack table. It’s that player at third base. That, of course, is not true. As I have written before, the player at third base does not affect your odds of winning, but he sure does make a good scapegoat. But why do we blame the players at third base?

Everyone notices when the third base player deviates from basic strategy and hits when he shouldn’t, resulting in him getting a card that would have busted the dealer if the player had stood. However, the odds of the dealer busting did not change. The dealer always has the same odds of busting on a given hand and, in general, it is approximately 24%. Deviating from strategy that time may have helped the dealer, but every decision has a chain reaction and as a result of one more card being played in that hand, maybe on the next hand the dealer will bust when he would not have.

Or look at it this way. People have selective memories. We remember when the player at third base took a card that would have caused the dealer to bust, but we forget all of the times when he took a card that would have helped the dealer, which resulted in the dealer busting on the next card.

This is a form of confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to look for and notice information that confirms their preconceptions or beliefs, regardless of whether or not they are true. Confirmation biases reaffirm stereotypes whenever you find a black man who can jump or a drunken Irishman at a bar. Because of your preconceived notions about them, you don’t notice black men who can’t jump or completely sober Irishmen. This bias works on the third base player as well.

That first time the third base player takes the dealer’s bust card, you will blame him for losing the hand. After that, every time it happens you will notice because it confirms your theory that the player at third base is causing you to lose. However, you will ignore the times in which the third base player’s deviation from basic strategy helps you, because that would form cognitive dissonance. To resolve that dissonance and confirm your theory, you will in essence have selective recollection and focus only on the bad things done by the third base player.

This is a form of self-serving bias, which is when people attribute their successes to personal or internal factors but attribute their failures to factors outside of their control. This bias is a way of protecting your positive self-concept, where most people see themselves as good people who are good at what they do. In fact, self-serving bias also causes the “better than average effect,” where individuals are biased to think that they’re better than the average person at every area that is important to their self-esteem. Unfortunately, that many people can’t really be above average.

Think back to school, when “I got an A” on a test because you studied and paid attention in class, but “the teacher gave me an F” because he hates you or because the test was unfair or something.

Your schema protects your concept of reality, both as it concerns yourself and others, and more easily stores and recalls information that matches your expectations. When something happens, such as losing, that doesn’t match your expectations, you have cognitive dissonance. To resolve that dissonance, you have to either admit that you’re not as good as you thought (an idea that your schema protects against) or that losing wasn’t your fault. You then blame others for your failures.

When you win at blackjack, it is because you’re a skilled player who knows basic strategy, but if you lose it’s because you were dealt the wrong card or because the third base player took the dealer’s bust card. Other players have selective recall about the actions of the third base player because of their preconceived notions about that seat.

Now, I don’t blame you for using the player at third base as a scapegoat. It’s important for your positive self-concept. Besides, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re above average at everything you do, you have perfect memory recall, and all of your successes are the result of your actions but your failures aren’t your fault. Would it make you feel better if I said that?

Cheating in Blackjack

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I recently read an article online about the training of special agents in casinos who are tasked with identifying cheaters. The methodology in their training was very interesting, but my mind kept going back to the basic questions of why do people cheat and is it immoral to cheat?

Both questions are so intertwined that it’s impossible to fully discuss one without the other. First of all, I’ll point out that counting cards is not cheating if you do so using nothing but your mind. Using any sort of outside help, which can range from a digital counter to a rubber band, is cheating.

So why do some people cheat at blackjack and other casino games? First, let’s concede the fact that most people think of themselves as good people. Short of someone with a severe mental disorder, such as antisocial personality disorder, it’s virtually impossible to continue doing bad things, realize that they are bad, know that it makes you a bad person, and be okay with it.

People are not okay with thinking they’re a bad person. A person’s self-concept is formed at an early age and with the exception of extreme circumstances of abuse, as children we come to think of ourselves as good people. Doing bad things contradicts that positive self-image, forming cognitive dissonance, which is when someone holds onto two contradictory ideas simultaneously. One of the ways of resolving that dissonance is by rationalizing the bad behavior.

Yes, I had an affair, but my husband is never home and doesn’t love me anymore. Yes, I spent too much money on this house, but it’s an investment for the future. I would never abuse a child, but it’s the only way to keep him in line.

People invent justifications for their bad behavior that allow them to think of that behavior as okay. This allows them to see what they did not as something bad, but as something that was necessary or acceptable due to the circumstances. In this form of rationalization, they no longer see the bad behavior as being bad. In blackjack, it can take an “ends justifies the means” form, where the player is hurting for money and has bills that they can’t pay. They rationalize that I am only cheating because I need the money. I would never do it just to have extra money to spend on trivial things, but I have a family to support. That rationalization makes cheating not seem bad because not being able to support the family would be worse.

People also rationalize by comparing themselves to others with whom they match up favorably. This is done all of the time in the constructing and reinforcement of our self-image as a good person. We see ourselves as being good by recognizing that we are “better” than people we consider to be bad. After being accused of stealing, football player Peter Warrick protected his self-image by saying “it’s not like I shot the president.” Sure, being a thief is bad, but not as bad as being a murderer. People rationalize buying an expensive TV that they can’t afford by pointing out the average debt of American households. Sure, I might have spent too much, but not compared to those other people! Have you seen the size of our neighbor’s boat?

In this way, players can justify stealing from a casino because, compared to murder, rape, child abuse and countless other crimes, what they’re doing isn’t really that bad. Also, it’s not like the casino can’t afford it!

And that is probably the most common rationalization behind cheating at blackjack. Another way in which people resolve cognitive dissonance and preserve their self-image of a good person is by making the victim out to be the villain. That way they deserved it. Yes, I killed my wife, but she was having an affair. Yes, I lied on the witness stand, but I know that man was guilty.

Casinos are easy targets for this. Sure, they provide basically any amenity you can ask for, are a great place to have fun, and will willingly pay you when you win fair and square, but let’s face it, they’re greedy and like taking my money! People rationalize that since the casino takes everyone’s money and the games have odds unfairly tilted in the house’s favor, there’s nothing wrong with cheating them out of money. I’m like Robin Hood. I’m stealing from the rich and giving to..well, not the poor, but me! Since the games all have a house edge, people can see cheating as simply evening things out to make them fairer, ignoring the fact that anyone who gambles in a casino accepts the fact that a casino is a business that needs the revenue from gamblers to make money and stay in operation.

Though stealing something from another person is always equally bad, people are able to justify it so that it’s bad if you steal from someone poor but okay if you steal from the rich. It is much easier to rationalize stealing from a millionaire CEO than from a homeless person. Why? Because the rich person can afford it!  Look, it’s not like the casino will even miss this money. They have billions! In this weak economy, though, many casinos are losing money and some have even had to close. That doesn’t matter to the cheaters, though, who justify their actions by looking at the glitz and glamor of the casino and assume that they’re making money hand over fist. They can afford to lose this money. They have plenty of it and I’m barely scraping by.

The mind is a powerful thing. Through rationalization of bad behavior, people can resolve their cognitive dissonance and still see themselves as a good person. Sometimes they do so by justifying the bad behavior so it is no longer seen as bad, while other times they recognize that it was bad, but necessary. They hold onto their self-concept as a good person by admitting that sometimes a good person does bad things.