Basic Instinct 2: Counting the cost of blackjack (again)

In a previous blog I looked at the psychology of following ‘basic’ strategy and card counting based on the seminal work by Ed Thorp. Compared with other forms of gambling, there has been very little psychological research into blackjack – about one or two studies per decade by my reckoning. In the 1970s, Dr. Nicholas Bond (who at the time was at the California State University at Sacramento, USA) did some research asking blackjack players some simple questions like ‘When do you take insurance?’ and ‘What do you do when you have 7-7 and the dealer has 6 up?’ Bond’s results showed that most players did not know when to spilt pairs and had the wrong idea about the value of insurance. For instance, players often said that insurance should be taken “when the cards are running right” suggesting that players can predict the run of the cards and when the dealer will turn over blackjack. Although this research revealed strategy errors it didn’t give any insight into why such errors are made.

Dutch psychologists Dr Gideon Keren and Professor Willem Wagenaar went one stage further than Bond and examined in great detail the strategies and beliefs of regular blackjack players. They observed 112 players in the natural environment of a casino and then interviewed 149 players. They found that lots of blackjack players have many erroneous beliefs particularly if they claim they are following basic strategy. The most interesting findings were that players believed (i) a bad player could spoil a game for everyone, (ii) they felt worse if they lost on 20 than if they did with 13, (iii) they only knew if their decisions were correct after the round was over, and (iv) that if they were very unlucky on a particular day they should quit playing. While some of these beliefs may be understandable (and I’ll explain why below), if blackjack players follow basic strategy, none of these beliefs should exist. In short, the findings suggest that players believe in luck and conservatism as a legitimate strategic approach rather than the principles of basic strategy.

It is clear from players’ feelings about “bad” players that they are displaying what we psychologists call a ‘self-serving bias’. Put more simply, when good players win they attribute the outcome as something that was deserved whether or not it came about through other players’ incorrect play. However, when another player plays badly by asking for too many cards, the game may be spoiled for the other (better) players. It will be spoiled when a good player loses because a poor player has taken one card too many. Such players ignore the role of the bad player when the “wrong” cards they receive lead to a win.

These findings also shown that regular blackjack players have the illusion that they can control luck by playing when their luck is in and quitting when their luck is out (although such a finding is not unique to blackjack and can be found among gamblers more generally). What is interesting is that blackjack players appear to conceptualise ‘luck’ as a personal characteristic that can come and go like emotional mood states. It is therefore little surprise if players believe bad players can spoil the game for others – they believe bad players can change the run of good luck for others simply by taking too many cards.

According to the late Australian psychologist, Dr Michael Walker (University of Sydney, Australia), another interesting implication of Keren and Wagenaar’s research is that players are clearly unconcerned about the long-term correctness of decisions but see each hand as a contest with the dealer that may be won or lost depending on the decision made by the player. Take the case of a player who has a hand of 13. Players in such a position will make a judgement concerning the likelihood that the next card will be a 10. Most players will not hit 13 against a dealer’s 7 or 8 if there has been a run of small value cards, but will hit 13 if they are convinced that the next card is not a 10. In such situations, players find out the accuracy of their decisions once the round is over. Most players (including myself) dislike holding on 13 – it is too far from 21 to be psychologically comfortable but there is still the possibility of busting if a 9 or 10 is drawn. If we are dealt 20, there is an elated state because we feel the dealer is unlikely to beat our hand. If the 20 is beaten, we feel psychologically cheated whereas on 13, players can blame themselves for not hitting.

A study by Albert Chau (University of Hong Kong) and colleagues at Monash University (Australia) carried out a blackjack study on a small number of university students. They wanted to investigate whether departures from rational play in blackjack reflected ignorance and/or fatigue. The students were taught basic strategy in blackjack and then asked to play a simplified version of blackjack on computer. Initially the students followed basic strategy but this was eventually discarded for much higher risk strategies. Irrational play didn’t affect ignorance or fatigue (and the student players didn’t perceive basic strategy to be effective). Chau and colleagues argued that “because basic strategy is not a personalized strategy, it seems less likely to be maintained in the face of losses – players were more optimistic that they might win when utilizing their personalized strategies”.

In summary, blackjack is clearly a game that the player can win if basic strategy is used as a starting point. The strategy can be modified as the deck composition changes and good card counters are able to extract an edge over the casino. However, psychological research has shown quite clearly that regular players deviate significantly from basic strategy and make sub-optimal decisions because they perceive themselves as being engaged in a hand-by-hand contest with the dealer. Dr. Walker makes the point that since the characteristics of good play can be specified, blackjack is a good example of the extent to which players can bring about their own losses through the false beliefs that they hold. These false beliefs are held tenaciously, and despite playing countless hands, the beliefs that bring about gambling losses are maintained in the face of failure.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bond, N.A. (1974). Basic strategy and expectation in casino Blackjack. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 12, 413-428.

Chau, A.W.L., Phillips, J.G. & Von Baggo, K.L. (2000). Departures from sensible play in computer blackjack. Journal of General Psychology: Experimental, Physiological, and Comparative Psychology,127, 426-438.

Keren, G.B. & Wagenaar, W.A. (1985). On the psychology of playing blackjack: Normative and descriptive considerations with implications for decision theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114, 133-158.

Thorp, E.O. (1966). Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. New York: Random House.

Wagenaar, W. (1988) Paradoxes of gambling behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on May 10, 2012, in Gambling, Games, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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