We Try Harder

We try harder

I had gotten home from one of my more successful forays into Las Vegas, and was talking with Don Schlesinger about some of the various personal strengths and weaknesses of my game. I'm sure most of you already know how intelligent and helpful Don is to all of us, not to mention that he is also one of the most selfless and giving people I've ever talked to. He has not only helped me with my blackjack game, but because of our common Wall Street background, has also helped me with my trading business.

We were discussing how much I played and what I got away with. I told him that in terms of dollars per hour, this was probably my biggest winning trip ever. In fact, I actually quit playing the last two days of the trip, because: A)I wanted to pocket all the winnings, B)I didn't want to keep winning more and look like a pig to the pit, or C)a little of both of the above. Correct answers is C. Ever the insightful one, Don postulated to me that I probably played fewer hours on my winning trips, and more when I'm losing. He was correct.

As a strict mathematician, I think that Don believes that one should just play blackjack like a machine, putting in the hours and getting into the long run. He believes you should play the same amount of time each trip. Same number of sessions per trip, same length of time per session, etc. Forget about the short term vagaries, forget about winning or losing, just be consistent and put in the hours, and the payoff comes in the end.

While I agree with this from a strictly mathematical viewpoint, there are other considerations. Don disagrees with me here, but I firmly believe that you can play a lot longer and get away with a lot more while you are losing. It is human nature, even for the big houses that don't normally sweat the black action that they will watch you more closely when you are winning, and be more relaxed and pay less attention when you are losing.

I know for a fact, when all my positions are going the right way, I talk on the phone, play on the computer, go out to lunch, etc. But when things are going against me, I sit there and stare at every print on the screen, looking for clues, hoping for a turnaround, whatever. Even though I know my watching won't influence the outcome, I do it anyway.

And I'm sure so do the pit bosses when some player is beating their brains in. But when you're losing, why should they pay any attention to you, since they figure everything is right with (their) world. Maybe not rational, but human nature for sure.

When I'm losing, I pull out a lot of stops. I abandon some of the cover (if any) that I'm using. Now, this is not really as bad as it sounds, since I'm not a big fan of cover anyway. I agree with Ian Andersen that any given casino is only going to tolerate so much from any player in terms of a lifetime win before they pull the plug. I've got a good act, and can throw the chips (and the bullshit) around with the best of them. I know that eventually I'll get caught and then it's on to the next place and/or the next identity. That's blackjack life.

I have mentioned in the past that I'm very competitive and I hate to lose. Well, Don seemed to take exception to that statement big time. He said to me that there is no such thing as being more competitive, you can't 'try harder' to win, you just play the game to the best of your ability, and let the chips fall where they may (no pun intended).

This is just not true. You can be more competitive, and you can 'try harder'. Look at all the great athletes in the world, the ones that are able to rise above the level of their peers, or raise their game another notch when the situation calls for it. They are called clutch players or pressure players, or just great players. Ever see Jimmy Connors dive an extra inch to return what should have been a sure winner? Ever see Michael Jordan hang in the air for an extra second to get over a defender and slam the basket? And they may not do it early in the season, or in an unimportant game, but if the championship is on the line, these guys rise to the occasion.

Well, blackjack may not be a physical game, but it is a game of skills nonetheless. And you can 'try harder'. When you are losing, and want to get it back, you can play or bet more aggressively. You can increase your spread. One time in a heads up game where I normally spread 1-12 black, when the count went south and I had gotten up to go to the restroom one too many times, I sat there and spread out to four hands of $25 in order to eat up cards. You can abandon your silly cover plays if they are going to cost you. You can stretch your neck to get a peek at the cards in the hand of the guy sitting two spots down from you when you have a close play and need to see more cards. Or even just blatantly ask the guy what he has in his hand.

You can also raise your mental game to the next level. You can take an extra second and be a little more accurate with your mental division to get to the true count conversion when contemplating a close insurance decision or an index strategy deviation. If I have a large bet out, and a close play with 15 or 16 vs dealer 10, even though I don't keep multi parameter side counts, I will sit for a few seconds and try extra hard to remember whether I have seen an abundance or shortage of 5's and 6's come out of the shoe so far. Same thing if the count is close and I have 12 vs 2 or 3, I will strain to recall how many less or extra 8's or 9's I have recently seen.

Yes, you can try harder, and I strongly believe that (among players of equal technical skills) it is this mental toughness and competitive spirit that helps to separate the winners from the losers -- in blackjack and in life.

On the other hand, I don't necessarily advocate a "win at all costs" approach. It always requires judgment, and you have to take it case by case. IMHO, it is this ability to accurately judge the different conditions and what you can get away with, and then vary the aggressiveness of your game based on this analysis (rather than always playing like a robot), that separates the beginning counters from the advanced professionals.

You also have to be able to balance the need of 'winning back this session' versus 'the longevity of the current game'. If I'm stuck in a crappy game (not that I try to play them too often :), I don't care. But in a store I like to keep going back to, I'll not be so quick to go all out at them.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples in my mind is the play of splitting tens. When the count justifies it, and I'm at a place where I want to be able to keep playing, it takes all my discipline and intestinal fortitude just to wave off the hand. Sometimes I hesitate, and I'm really tempted. At these times the dealer or sometimes a floorman who knows me will just look at me and something like, "What are you even thinking about?" at which point I just smile and wave the hand. On the other hand, there have been places that I don't really care about burning out; I split when the count says so, although at least I don't really even feel proud exposing myself like that to anyone who might be paying attention.


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