During my relatively short blackjack career of almost two years, I’ve enjoyed some euphoric winning streaks and disastrous losing streaks. Like most players, I take the winning streaks in stride -- of course I won, isn’t that the idea? The losing streaks, on the other hand, are much more difficult to handle. Extended losing streaks can be disappointing, debilitating, and downright depressing, no matter how sure you are that you were playing with an advantage. With experience, the inevitable swings become more tolerable and expected. I’ve suffered several miserable sessions in which I barely managed to avoid CTR paperwork -- these
sessions were the catalyst for writing this article on the psychology of losing.
The key to successful advantage play is NOT technical proficiency. It’s not having a solid understanding of optimal betting or risk of ruin. It’s not dependent on the size of your bankroll or the effectiveness of your act and cover.
The key to successful advantage play is understanding the psychology of losing, and understanding that you, as an advantage player, are a walking casino.
This single ingredient will always separate amateurs from professional players, and yet it is the least covered topic in all of the blackjack literature. It is my opinion that a lack of understanding of this essential element accounts for the vast majority of failure among those who attempt advantage play. A player who conquers the psychology of losing, on the other hand, will jump the biggest hurdle on the road to successful advantage play.
Which Type of Player Are You?
Suppose you just returned from a weekend trip to Las Vegas. This was your fourth losing trip in a row, extending your losing streak to three months. Which of these players more accurately describes you?
Type A: On the way home, you feel disappointed, even depressed. You can’t believe you just lost $1,600. It’s been three months since your last all-time high -- three miserable months. So, not only have you not made money for three months, but how many more months before you just get back to even? You’ve lost roughly $8,000 since your last all-time high. Un#&*%ing-believable! That figure is eating away at your gut. You contemplate how many standard deviations to the left you must be. You think about what you could buy with $8,000 -- if only you had that $8,000 back! You know you’re a solid player, but you just can’t believe your bad luck. You mentally review the details of your trip. You recall several max bets you lost because you just couldn’t get the cards. You recall with agony the round you lost five max bets when the dealer made a 5-card 21 -- you felt sick to your stomach on that hand. You also recall the time you played two spots with max bets and the bliss you felt when you got twin blackjacks. The bright spots were few and far between, however, and you continue to sulk.
Type B: On the way home, you feel satisfied about another successful trip. The playing conditions were excellent, and your EV was higher than expected. Sure, you didn’t win money this time, but you know the comp offers will be exceptional in the weeks to come. In the back of your mind, you know it’s been a while since your last all-time dollar high, but you also realize this measure is not important. You mentally review the details of your trip -- you stuck to your game plan and actually played more hours than your goal. You recall only one hand -- a generous ruling by a floorperson resulted in $300 in free EV due to a dealer error. Although you lost money on this trip, you had the best of it, and that’s all that matters
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a type A player. If you honestly consider yourself a type B player, then read no further. As a type A player, your personal expectations and attitude towards money may be preventing you from being a successful advantage player. You should also realize that making the transition to a type B player, while difficult and challenging, can be accomplished by changing the way you think and feel about money and yourself. I’ll refer to type A players as amateurs or casual players, and type B players as professionals or serious players.
How do you define your results?
This is an important question. Casual players define results in terms of dollars won or lost. This simple mistake alone has amateurs well along the path to failure. Actual dollar results are irrelevant, insignificant, inconsequential, immaterial and completely meaningless. Serious players, on the other hand, measure their results in terms of EV. The distinction between the two will have a major impact on your psyche. Results should be measured by the amount of extracted EV, not by dollars won or lost. If you can revise your thinking this way, you have taken a big step forward. EV results, of course, are difficult to measure, while dollar results are easy to gauge. The amount of extracted EV can be estimated using a simple formula:
EV = overall edge * average bet * hands per hour * hours played
Along these same lines, amateurs tend to place too much emphasis on achieving a new all-time bankroll high. Did you reach a new all-time high? When was your last all-time high? Serious players realize they reach a new all-time high (in EV terms) practically every time they place a positive EV bet. How many new all-time highs did I reach today? About 150 -- that’s how many positive EV bets I made.
What are your expectations?
Managing your own expectations will have a huge impact on your success as an advantage player. Amateurs expect to win -- after all, you’re supposed to win when you have an edge, right? Amateurs enter every trip and every session with the expectation of winning. This is a monumental mistake that results in disappointment, depression, discontent, and serious damage to your psyche. Yes, you are supposed to win, but not money, rather EV. Serious players enter every session with the expectation of extracting EV. If you put in the hours with good conditions, you have met your own expectations regardless of the dollar results.
Do you have an emotional attachment to money?
We are all in this for the money. Money can buy houses, cars and boats - perhaps even happiness. How do you feel when you win or lose a big bet? Amateurs feel angry or disappointed when they lose a big bet, and elated when they win a big bet. Any emotional reaction to winning or losing money will be detrimental to your game. Underbetting or overbetting is usually a result of emotional reactions to winning or losing. Serious players have no emotional reaction to winning or losing big bets. Serious players are more concerned with how the pit feels when they win or lose a big bet. In fact, professionals often fake emotions to appear like ploppies. Dealer just made a 5-card 21? Time to shake your head in apparent disgust while mumbling to yourself. Meanwhile, you’re thinking: am I close to the CTR threshold, and who’s this other guy in the pit now?
Expect to win Expect EV
Do you objectively analyze your losses?
Ok, you’re suffering a nasty, unrelenting losing streak -- the red ink keeps flowing with no end in sight. This is the perfect time to take a step back and evaluate your play. Ensuring that your play and game selection is solid will be a boost to your confidence and squelch those doubts lingering in the back of your mind.
Consider the following when analyzing your losses:
When estimating your EV for a particular game, it is important to be realistic and objective. Are you really getting 120 rounds per hour with a consistent 75% penetration? Do you recognize and avoid dealers who preferential shuffle? Are there better games available in your locale? How much time do you spend scouting game conditions? If you seek out the better games and better dealers, the EV will come.
Do you have and use a pre-defined bet schedule? This is a simple matter with serious consequences. You must have a concrete bet schedule that clearly outlines how much you will bet at each count. You can use a single bet schedule for all games, or different schedules for different rules like surrender. Leave no room for ambiguity in your bet schedule -- this is key to avoiding deviation from the pre-defined bet schedule. Your bet schedule will be a welcome crutch during the inevitable losing streaks. With a firm bet schedule, you will be far less likely to underbet or overbet.
The amount of your tokes can have a major impact on your profitability. Your bankroll is suffering cardiac arrest -- why are you tipping at all? Toking rarely results in better penetration, so don’t kid yourself. Excessive tipping is akin to playing Indian blackjack with a 1% collection -- good luck beating that in the long run. Keep tokes to a minimum, or better yet, avoid toking entirely during your losing streak.
Ah, yes, everyone’s favorite topic. We can justify all of our half-witted actions in the name of cover and longevity. We make cover plays, use betting cover, drink alcohol, tip dealers, and even play negative EV games for the sake of cover. How much does all that cover cost? Maybe blackjack is a negative EV game after all. Forget about conventional cover - losing is the best and only cover you need, so throw the other forms of cover out the window during your losing streak.
Nobody is immune to mistakes in this business- - it’s just not possible. Mistakes are part of human nature and part of advantage play. The key is to recognize your mistakes when they happen and minimize them in the future. There are player mistakes, dealer mistakes, and even cashier mistakes that can cost you money. Practice and dedication will minimize counting mistakes, playing mistakes, betting mistakes, deck estimation mistakes, and true-count conversion mistakes. An alert player will catch payoff errors, buy-in errors, color-up errors, and cashout errors.
Ok, you’ve done the analysis, and the verdict is in. If you objectively analyze your play and confirm that your play is solid, you can rest assured that your losing streak is simply a result of negative variance. With this in mind, keep playing a strong game, put in the hours, and let the math take care of itself. If, on the other hand, your analysis reveals weaknesses in your play, it’s time to take a step back and improve your game. Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses and work to improve them. If your game is fairly solid, negative variance is likely responsible for the vast majority of your losing streak, but take the opportunity to fine-tine your game anyway.
Do you realize that you are a walking casino?
Yes, being an advantage player is just like owning a small casino. Let’s say you have one table of blackjack that uses an 8-deck shoe, but you can only deal to one player at a time. The casino is open for business whenever you decide to play. Mostly, you will deal to average ploppies who play with a 1% disadvantage. This is comparable to you playing a typical counting game with an overall 1% edge. From time to time, a player who knows perfect basic strategy will show up at your table - this is like you playing a weak game with an overall 1/2% edge. Occasionally, you may find a really bad player at your table - this is akin to you playing a strong game with an overall 2% edge. Once in a blue moon, a skilled counter will arrive at your table -- this is like you playing a negative EV game (like craps or baccarat) with a -1% edge. You can easily recognize which players are which, and since it’s your casino, you set the table limits for each player. So, you let the bad players bet more (and encourage them to play more often by issuing comps) and adopt a zero tolerance policy for skilled counters.
So, what’s going to happen on any given day at your casino? A bad player might get lucky and spank the bank. Or a ploppy may come along and lose his shirt. The point is this: anything is possible on any given day - after all, it’s gambling. As the casino owner, you don’t sweat the action because you know they’ll be back, and you have the best of it. Some days you’ll lose, some days you’ll win - it really doesn’t matter because in the long run you will always win. Develop a desirable clientele base and discourage undesirables. Report results monthly, not daily. Focus on running the business, not on sweating the action. You are the casino owner. How is your time best spent: watching the turn of every card or strategically developing the business for the long haul? You own the casino, run it like a business.
Sooner or later, lightning strikes all players. You will be hit with a devastating losing streak that exceeds your worst nightmare. You are not immune - you may be the next victim. How will you handle it? Changing how you feel about money and how you judge yourself as an advantage player will help you survive the nasty whiplash that is so prevalent in professional gambling. By conquering the psychology of losing, you can cultivate a professional attitude that will carry you across the most difficult barrier from casual player to serious professional.