Many writers have written about attitude. For our purposes, suffice it to say that optimists tend to be far more successful than pessimists in gaming and in life. Successful gamblers expect to win. They flow with the game, knowing they always have the best of it, whether winning or losing. Keeping their focus clear at all times, they're ready to act decisively when opportunities present themselves. Confident in their abilities and comfortable with their interactions with others, they expect success and they get it.
The pessimist, on the other hand, 'knows' something will go wrong, he just doesn't know what. Every time he hits a 12 at the blackjack table, he expects a ten to come. When dealer has a stiff, the pessimist is never surprised when the dealer draws out on him. Of course, what he thinks doesn't affect the outcome of the hand, but it does cloud the consciousness. A pessimist may overlook opportunities or improperly evaluate conditions. He is more prone to make mistakes in judgment. This type of thinking is stress-provoking and destructive, and must be avoided if you are to reach the pinnacle of success.
Soft-focus concentration or awareness is the registering of an event in consciousness without specifically attempting to retain it. Top-level players have the ability to observe a number of events simultaneously.
The expert poker play, for example, can pick up on small mannerisms and know what cards another player started with well before the showdown - all while holding a conversation with the person next to him. He is completely aware of his surroundings without having to use discursive thinking. Like the football halfback making a cut past a defender, the expert poker player usually doesn't need to analyze what to do. He just does it.
Another example. Great poker players go with their first impression. If they think someone is bluffing, they'll go with their initial gut feeling and call that person down. They're usually right. Some people refer to this as 'having a feel' for the game.
In blackjack, top players use a soft focus while simultaneously counting cards and conversing with the dealer or pit boss. Cards that have been played seem to effortlessly register in the adept player's brain and can be recalled when needed. On close calls, you're aware that key cards remain in the deck in greater-than-normal numbers, even though you haven't consciously counted them. Say a pro is holding a 12 against a 3. 'Knowing' that the deck is rich in 7s, 8s, and 9s, even though he hasn't specifically counted these cards, he may hit the hand, despite the fact that the count might dictate standing.
This soft-focus awareness evolves from experience and complete attention to the present moment. The pro doesn't bring extraneous thoughts or issues to the game. His mind doesn't wander. Everything registers as if he's looking out through one big eye. No longer separate from the environment, he becomes one with the game. And he wins.
The expert player exists in a world of continuous ambiguity. Nothing is certain. Unlike the person who takes home a paycheck every two weeks, a professional gambler has no guarantees that he will be paid. Losing streaks, some quite prolonged, can occur at any time. Swings, up and down, are sometimes huge. To the uninitiated or undercapitalized, this uncertainty can be stressful. Keeping this stress in check requires a certain way of thinking.
First, it's helpful to think in terms of probabilities. Some people have difficulty with this type of thinking. They hear the weather forecaster predict a 40% chance of rain today. 'What the hell does that mean?' they wonder. 'Is it going to rain today, or isn't it?' Black or white? Yes or no? They want certainty.
For the game player, however, there is no certainty, no black or white, only varying shades of gray. To be successful, it's necessary to deal effectively with this constant state of ambiguity. If you require certainty, this life is most definitely not for you. The only certainty you can hang on to is that you've got the best of it, regardless of the instant outcome. This may be of little solace, especially when you're being financially bludgeoned with amazing consistency. But to be successful, you have to be able to deal with this. There just isn't any other way. You need to have a flexible and highly adaptable nature to fall back on to survive as a game player.
Lack of discipline is another pitfall for many aspiring players. Once you've devised your strategy, you must carry it through. You'll face many temptations to deviate from your game plan. Of these, one of the most potentially damaging is overbetting your bankroll, especially when you're losing. Many players tend to press when they're behind. At blackjack they bet more during marginally good counts than they would when they're winning. In poker, their hand selection deteriorates and they may 'go on tilt,' playing far below their capability. To be successful, it's imperative that you control your emotions at times like these. This type of behavior often leads to a vicious cycle of losing more, pressing harder, and losing still more. I know players who have lost their entire bankrolls in a single disastrous session. It's true.
If you have even the slightest tendency towards undisciplined behavior when you 'get your nose opened,' you'll have to change your thinking. In my game play, it's essential that casinos have winning sessions. If you intend, as I do, to be a welcome guest at a casino for an extended period of time, you simply must allow it to book a win once in a while. I don't mean that you must lose intentionally (although in the days of the great single-deck games, I gave this idea serious consideration); I mean that you must be willing to stop when you're behind. Don't play to get even.
Why not? First of all, if you don't stop, you will expose yourself to hours of observation when you're clearly not at your best. And second, you'll forfeit one of the biggest longevity boosters - actually losing money. Let the casino have its day. When I'm losing, especially if I have a large loss early in a session, I quit. Now what happens? My loss gets recorded. The pit bosses see my big loss. The casino manager sees it. If it's big enough, some of the execs and bean counters may see it as well. Everyone who matters will, in short order, know that I've lost a significant amount of money. These guys have long memories. Now I can book an extended series of wins, intentionally keeping each one small, without being noticed. Even if they do start noticing (those small wins eventually add up to real money), they'll still remember the big loss. So walking when I'm stuck has laid the foundation for consistent long-term winnings. By contrast, had I played on and gotten even, no one would know that at one point I'd been way behind. I would have gotten no value from the negative swing.
Even if this behavior weren't an important part of discipline, it would still be a correct path of action because of its public-relations value. I want that casino to invite me back. If I win every time, it will eventually tire of me. For me to extract the maximum amount of money possible, the casinos must have periodic wins. So give it what it needs to keep the game alive. Playing against shoe games, I've won 63% of my playing sessions. This leaves 37% for the casino. I don't have to do anything dramatic to accomplish my goal of having the casino book winning sessions - just leave when I'm supposed to. But this is very hard for some players to do.
Many counters take a short-term view and play very aggressively. Throwing caution to the wind, they jump their their bets up and down as the deck changes. Often they have huge bet spreads. If they fall behind, they camp at the table until they get even. This is far from the optimal strategy, but I see it repeatedly when playing. I hope these players don't intend on make blackjack a career. If they do, they'd better have a good contingency plan, because I seriously doubt they'll be in the blackjack business for long.
Discipline and control must be exercised in other areas as well. The temptation to play other games (unless they're being used to help camouflage blackjack play) must be avoided. I know several superb poker players who sit for 12 hours grinding out wins at the poker table, only to belly up to a crap game and blow their hard-earned winnings in 30 undisciplined minutes. Again, this is damaging to both bankroll and psyche.
Spending habits also need to be bridled, especially in the early stages of a player's career. It's very easy to get used to living high on the hog. But it's on thing to do so at the casino's expense, when you're being comped, and quite another to have a big win and go on a spending spree. It's an easy thing to do. After all, if you run short of cash, all you have to do is go play again and pick up some easy money, right?
Wrong! According to Peter Griffin, one of the world's top blackjack mathematicians, due to the fluctuations in the game, a player is at his all-time high only about 1% of the time. So you can't depend on winning the next time you play, or the next week, or even the next month. I've never had a losing year at blackjack, but could it happen? Absolutely. Even a losing month or two can be deadly for a player who spends a large portion of a prior big win. If you're dipping into those wins for non-essential items prior to building up a fat nest egg, you're asking for revenge from the blackjack gods. If you get caught in an air pocket and experience a big downdraft in your bankroll, you'll be wishing you hadn't blown those 'easy bucks' so quickly.
It's also helpful, I believe, to exercise reasonable dietary discipline, to harness alcohol and drug consumption, and to sleep well. Many players are overwhelmed by the glamour of Las Vegas and posh international casinos destinations. This atmosphere, when combined with the adrenaline rush of playing, can discourage sleep.
This is another area that seems to get a lot of players in trouble. Many players practically burst with the desire to brag about their blackjack prowess. They want to tell their friends, relatives, business associates, bankers and whoever else will listen. The main reason for this need to talk is ego aggrandizement. Don't get me wrong. I don't believe there's anything wrong with feeling good about being a winning blackjack player. But talking about it is risky. There's a real danger of exposing yourself in this age of rapid dissemination of information.
One counter I know was bragging to his stockbroker about his casino exploits. He provided a detailed explanation of counting, how and why it worked. The same stockbroker, it turned out, handled the account of a well-known casino executive - an account that dwarfed the counter's in value to the broker. I don't know if the broker ever said anything to the casino executive, but I do know that shortly after his discussion with the broker, my friend got heat at the executive's casino. Coincidence? Maybe. My friend doesn't think so. In fact, he confronted the broker with his suspicions, which were, of course, emphatically denied. He closed his account anyway, convinced he'd been compromised.
But where was the value in letting the broker know about his blackjack abilities in the first place? Did he get better executions on his stock trades? Were his commissions reduced? No, divulging this information only elevated his ego. Now, if ego is more important to you than money, and some people certainly behave as though it is, then go right ahead and tell anyone you choose about your capabilities. As for me, unless someone has a strong need to know and telling him has a direct benefit for me, I'm very tight-lipped about anything having to do with blackjack.
An example of a person you might want to educate is someone you know well and trust, and who can offer you something significant in return. I educated a player once in exchange for access to his computer program for trading commodities. It was a fair swap that provided us both with benefits. But unless there's a compelling reason to talk about counting, it's best to resist the temptation.
I never talk to anyone about counting while I'm in a casino. Many times in my career I've had a player sidle up to me at a urinal (is nothing sacrosanct?) or elsewhere, give me a knowing wink, and say something like, "What count are you using?" or "You're a counter, right?" At times like these my answer is invariably something like, "No, I'm a lawyer." Should he persist, I find a way to gently turn him off. What I will never do is accurately answer the question. I'm not being paid to educate him and there's no upside in satisfying idle curiosity. So I politely demur. For me, the money I win is ego reward enough. I don't expose myself to needless risk.
Anger is a debilitating counter-productive emotion, which has no place in the repertoire of the professional gambler. Anger toward any of the casino personnel is especially misguided. Remember, the dealers and pit bosses control the keys to the casino coffers, so you'll do well to ingratiate yourself, not stir up controversy. Should a dispute arise, as inevitably will happen if you play long enough, it's highly advisable to handle it calmly, with grace and dignity. Even if reason doesn't prevail and the outcome has negative consequences for you, try to accept the decision of the casino.
Recently, such a situation arose when I was playing alone at a table where the dealer took her hold card last. I was playing for very high stakes and had been winning and increasing my bet with each win. I now had two hands with several units each on the layout. My first hand was a blackjack, my second a 14. The dealer showed a ten. I hit the second hand and busted. The dealer took a card (for her hold card), a 3, and proceeded to hit her 13 with a face card. Since the only live hand was my blackjack, the dealer should have stopped with the two-card 13, but she didn't. She made a mistake.
Politely, I pointed out that the ten should be mine on the next hand. The pit boss said that he thought the rules required that the card be burned.
I said, 'If that's the rule, of course I'll abide by it, but it seems to me that since this accident happened through no fault of my own, it doesn't seems fair that I be penalized for it.'
The pit boss said he understood my point and asked if I would like to consult the shift boss for a ruling. I know the shit boss too well and said that if it wasn't too much trouble, I'd like to get his opinion.
The shift boss concurred with the pit boss that the card had to be burned. 'State law,' he said.
Now I know for a fact that it was not state law and that the decision was entirely up to the house. I also knew that my mountain of money spread on the layout was undoubtedly influencing his decision. For a moment I considered asking if reducing my bet would make a difference, but I quickly realized that the shift boss couldn't allow it. He's already invoked state law.
In business there's a saying: 'The customer is always right.' Since I view all casinos as my customers, I thanked the shift boss kindly for this attention. I then informed the pit boss in earshot of the dealer that this was an understandable error and was not really the dealer's fault. 'It was a natural response,' I said. 'After all, how often does a dealer stand on 13?'
The dealer was most appreciative. On the next shoe, she cut off about 35 cards (matching nearly exactly where I had placed the cut card), more than enough compensation for her blunder.
I've found that by remaining calm and cooperative at times like this, I come out miles ahead in the long run. Had I exploded and threatened never to return, I might have gotten that face card dealt to me. But the price would have been far too great. For openers, I would have certainly alienated the dealer, pit boss, and shift boss. Stories like that have a way of getting around, and it's likely that a lot of casino employees would have heard about what an asshole I've been. Not good for business. Short term I might have squeezed a few more bucks, but at great peril to my longevity. Much better, I think to have garnered considerable points from all concerned by handling the situation graciously.
Fortunately for me, I rarely experience anger. Hence, this is not a problem for me. If you, however, tend to go on the boil with little provocation, I suggest you get up and walk around, even leave if you have to, when you being to get upset. But avoid exploding at the table at all costs. It's especially important not to get angry with a dealer, no matter, how many hands you lose in succession. Obviously, she has no control over the order of the cards.
I want the dealer to want me to win and to enjoy dealing to me. When she wins hand after hand, I reassure here that it's not her fault, that I know she's trying to help me. 'Don't worry', I'll say. 'This is just a bad patch. The cards will turn soon. I know you're rooting for me.' I always try to instill a sense of partnership with the dealer. It certainly isn't good for business to get angry with your partner. So keep your anger out of the casino.
The personality traits I've detailed in this article are those of a winning player. If your profile scores high as measured by these criteria, you're well on your way to potentially having a handsome supplemental income for life. You may even become one of the select few who make a living from gaming. If you do, you'll have to do it with style and grace. Failing this, you'll either bust out, burn out, or get kicked out.
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