The Blackjack Blues: The Psychology of "21"Whether playing Blackjack online, or in a live casino, every table seems to be burdened by the inevitable poor player. If you are a fan of the game, you know of the type of the player that I am referring to – he consistently hits his 14 versus a dealer 5, or stays on a 12 versus a dealer 8. This type of play annoys the more savvy and knowledgeable players at the table. Likewise, we often believe that such poor play affects our wins and losses by ‘taking our cards’. I see it typed into the chat boxes of multiplayer online games all the time, and hear it every time I play in live games. An angry player will shoot a nasty glance toward the poor player to mutter, “You took the ten I needed, you know.” And with the popularity of tournament-style 21 growing, the animosity will probably continue to grow because of the heightened stakes.
Research has shown that the poor play of the other players at the table does not actually have an effect on your overall wins and losses, if you stick to correct strategy. Mathematically, their play has no true influence in the outcome of your cards in the long run. Their play certainly does have an observable effect, though, on the psychology behind the game.
One of the key elements in the psychology of Blackjack is the influence/control that we have on the outcome. Ultimately, it is the player’s skill and decision-making combined with luck that provides the end bankroll. That underlying sense of power allows us to become more invested in the contest. We are prouder of wins we have ‘earned’ through quality play than we are of those we’ve simply gotten by luck. When a poor player begins to ‘take’ your cards, uneasiness arises as you lose that feeling of control.
Gamblers are experts at justifying loses and avoiding self-blame. In live games, we like to pass blame onto unlucky or sinister dealers, a poor placement of the cut card, and those evil automatic shufflers. Online, players like to say that the game is rigged or complain about unfavorable rules. In reality, most of these superstitions and complaints are simple defense mechanisms. We would not want to harm our own confidence and ego, so our minds search for outlets to pass the fault onto. A poor player at the table is a very easy target for this exercise. If fortune does not fall our way, the guy who hit a 16 with the dealer showing a 2 is sure to absorb some of our boiling emotions.
Many experienced players will revel in their perceived expertise of the game. Since they know basic strategy and have a handle on the game, they begin to think of themselves as superior players. With that, they almost enjoy watching the newer player falter. Some will lean in to offer advice and tips, taking the fledgling gambler under their wing. Others will sit back and take in the show. Either way, the experienced player gets an automatic boost in ego just by seeing the others struggle.
One of the most anger-inducing events for an experienced gambler is witnessing a poor player get lucky enough to win! This is especially true if the experienced player is using correct strategy, yet losing. The craziness of the cards can lead to a single winning session for even the worst Blackjack player, if the luck is in their favor. This does not sit well with the savvy player, who believes in the statistics and basic strategy of the game. In essence, they know what should win and what should lose, and they get frustrated when these ‘truths’ do not become a reality. We have a psychological need to assume that our Blackjack knowledge and skill will be a key to long-term success, thus minimizing the element of luck (which is out of our control). When a foolish but lucky player sits at our table, that assumption is burst and we face a bleaker reality.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Like all gaming endeavors, emotions should not motivate your decisions. With that in mind, work to move past the annoyances of the poor player seated at your table. Make a conscious effort to refocus when you sense frustration, a loss of control, or find yourself passing blame. Know that his actions will not truly alter your wins and losses. Concentrate on your game, the cards, and your bankroll to avoid the psychological ‘Blackjack Blues’!
By: John Carlisle, MA, NCC.