Casino Gaming and the Misfortune of Commons


When associates of mine find out I played on the MIT Blackjack teams, I get a lot of questions.  The most popular is… “That movie 21, Is it real? Can you really win playing blackjack like that?”

If you count cards, then you know the answer. ”Maybe”, but you can only win like that if you have a lot of time and patience and personal. Of course, this isn’t absolute. Occasionally you can find a really good game with an oblivious pit. These games are rare, and they usually don’t last long.

The person understandably looks confused and this answer inevitably begs the question, “Why wouldn’t a game last?”

That’s when I shrug my shoulders and say, “It’s the misfortune of the commons.”

Blackjack is a Common Resource

The “misfortunes of the commons” refers to a well established economic concept, but the name was actually coined by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. His article introduced the concept in the journal Science.

This occurs when a finite resource is spoiled by free and unrestricted exploitation.  The traditional example of this would be in the form of public accessible pasture land that is owned and maintained by the government and where farmers are able to graze their animals, free of charge. The public pasture benefits everyone. Yet, each person has a monetary based incentive to increase the size of their herd. Without rules limiting grazing, the result is a bare field, do to overgrazing. The pasture is depleted, and thus destroyed. As a result everyone suffers.

We see this occurring in other real life to common resources like water, air as well as fish populations.  The misfortune of the commons also occurs in less obvious industries, including in casino gaming. The, “overgrazing” of good blackjack tables has resulted in the reduced availability of profitable opportunities. This is the same for loose video poker machines, and novice poker opponents. In the past, the winners didn’t just beat the losers. They cut so deeply in to the casinos profits and harvested barrels and barrels of dollars. So, the casinos smartened up and changed their games.  Keep in mind that nobody did anything “wrong.” Everyone acted rationally. Even when some players understood the trends and limited their “grazing,” other players filled the void, and the “pasture” was ultimately depleted.

In 1962, shortly after Edward O. Thorp published, “Beat the Dealer.” (Beat the Dealer is the first book to thoroughly explain the strategy of card counting). In the early 1960s, the Blackjack pasture was not being overgrazed because no one even knew that the game was beatable or in this context no one even knew the pasture even existed.

In the pre Thorp era all casinos offered single-deck blackjack games with outstanding rules. The games always paid 3:2 for ace-ten naturals. Single-deck games are rare these days, and naturals often earn only 6:5 payout.  Additionally casino tactics to stop card counting have improved dramatically. In 1962, the “eye in the sky” was usually just a catwalk with mirrored glass ceilings that allow live observers to secretly watch tables. Fifty years later, casino surveillance is so advanced that casinos could make music videos with the super-clean and super-tight shots they get from cameras mounted at multiple angles above tables. Sophisticated face-recognition systems track known counters are often marketed to casinos (these rarely work). In addition, “back counting” monitoring systems can quickly identify betting patterns consistent with counting. The good old days as a card counting grinder are pretty much gone forever.

As hard is it may seem to believe, good opportunities still pop up from time to time.  This is because of another economic concept; supply and demand.  The lack of strong game protection agents are diminished do to all the new casinos popping up all over the place.  In addition, casino sometime offer promotions and unintentionally delivers a beatable game to the astute player. These conditions may last weeks, days or even only hours, before someone wises up and tightens the rules.

Other times, and usually at smaller casinos, regular games can amazingly good. The rare mix of lax rules combined with spotty surveillance and a clueless pit crew can produce a very beatable situation. For whatever reason, you don’t get heat unless you really push the envelope and have a huge betting spread like 1-100.

A players approach

If you find a game with a strong advantage, in most cases you should just attack it to the point of killing the game.  The reasoning is if you don’t take the win, someone else will. There are situations when you can preserve the pasture for yourself and for others.

First, don’t be overly greedy. If you have a consistent large advantage, it’s better to win $1,600 three times under the radar instead of bruising the house for $4800 (note these figures will vary depending on the typical action for the property is). This is a dynamic judgment call based on all the circumstances. Some things to consider are: Will you ever be back there to play? How many other counters are hitting this game?

Comp abuse is another arena where personal responsibility and a bit of restraint can keep the goose alive to keep laying the golden eggs. Most professional counters don’t take comps, they don’t even have players cards, but if you count cards and earn comps, don’t be greedy. Don’t push the house beyond what is fair.  Most of all don’t : “Don’t attract attention to yourself.”

Let’s consider poker and how to approach soft games.  A huge opportunity for preserving the commons occurs when playing against a novice. If he wins improbably with a bad hand, congratulate them. If he makes stupid mistakes, don’t tease him. The last thing a good player should ever do is lecture a bad player, berate him, or make him at all less likely to pull the same dumb moves in the future. We should cultivate poker novices like a pasture.

Of course, all of the above applies in reverse to our opponents; when they have an advantage, this is especially true for the casinos. For any casino executives reading this remember that we are your pasture. Don’t overgraze. Don’t be greedy. Be happy for us when we win. Don’t penalize us for being lucky. Encourage the action and put out reasonable games. Give players a fair shot at winning.

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