The Most Common Myth in Blackjack

Blackjack table

In this new series on the Myths of Blackjack, I’m starting with the most common myth surrounding the game.

The conversation usually goes like this…

Interested Player: So, you play blackjack, huh?

Ken: Yeah, I’ve played a lot of blackjack over the years.

Interested Player: You know what really drives me crazy about blackjack? …

Interested Player: You sit down and get a good game going, and then some idiot sits down at third base and starts messing up the cards.  What do you do about that?

Ken: *Sigh*

OK, I’ll start with a fact…

Other players have no appreciable affect on your results.

That’s right… Johnny Clueless from Buffalo who sat down at your table had nothing to do with your losing streak.

Now, if you already knew this to be true, you probably know what happens next in the conversation.  Trying to explain that other players can’t screw up your results invariably leads to that blank stare.  You know the one.  It’s where you can almost see them thinking: “This Kenny guy doesn’t know squat about blackjack!  How did he ever make any money?!”.

Generally, I don’t even bother trying to dispute their notion.  Instead I’ll just nod my head as if these kinds of players bother me too, and change the subject as soon as I can.

As penance for all those times, let me make a concerted effort to explain why this is a myth.  Even those of you who don’t need enlightening might find some ammo for your own rebuttals here too.

There are actually a whole group of possible complaints about Johnny Clueless.  We’ll address them one by one.

People jumping in and out of the game can’t “mess up the cards.”

So you’ve been winning a few hands, and when Johnny Clueless jumps in mid-shoe and adds an extra hand to the deal, the dealer starts killing everyone.  It must be his fault, right?  Well, no.  Cause and effect is a tricky thing, especially in games where randomness is a factor.  Our brains are evolved to look for patterns in causality, and that makes us see patterns and causes everywhere, even when they don’t really exist.  There wasn’t anything magic about the number of spots that was already in play before he added a hand.  There was certainly no guarantee that you would continue to win if he didn’t enter the game.  He’s just a convenient scapegoat for our brains to blame as a cause.

Red and Blue FireThe problem here really stems from the related myth that there are “hot tables” and “cold tables” in the casino.  If you have won the last ten hands in a row, you would be accurate in saying that the table has been hot, but that tells you absolutely nothing about the next ten hands to come.  But of course, if Johnny sits down and you start losing, you know who will get the blame.  There’s no such thing as a hot table, only a table that has been hot.

There is no magic about a particular number of spots in play causing a winning streak, or ending one.  Sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you’ll lose.  That’s gambling!

Other player’s strategy mistakes cannot hurt you.

Now we’re on to the part of the myth claiming that unless all the players at the table play a solid basic strategy, none of the players will be able to win.  I am always amused that most of the players who cling to this idea actually have no idea what the correct basic strategy is, but they are quite sure that the new guy at the table is playing badly and costing everyone.

But seriously, this is total bull.  At my table, I don’t care how awful the other players are.  In fact, I love to see bad players.  They are the reason that blackjack is still a viable game for skilled players.  Without a steady supply of uninformed masses, the casinos couldn’t offer a game like blackjack.  If everyone played well, the game would make such small profits that the floor space would be converted to something else.  But, I digress…

Surprised WomanYes, I’m telling you that even the guy that splits tens, hits on hard 16 when the dealer has a 5 up, and sometimes stands on a hand like (Ace,3) because he “has a feeling” cannot hurt your results.  Sometimes his awful plays will cost the whole table, but other times his wacky plays will save the table.  In the long run, it all just evens out.  He can’t hurt you.  So relax!  Remember… Sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you’ll lose.  That’s gambling!

And no, there is no such thing as “taking the dealer’s bust card.”

This is probably the most common thing that drives uninformed players crazy.  When Johnny Clueless is sitting at third base and decides to hit his hard 14 against the dealer’s 5, you can rest assured that everyone at the table will roll their eyes when Johnny busts and the dealer makes a hand.  He “took the dealer’s bust card.”  Well, yeah, maybe he did this particular time.  But since you don’t know what the order of the undealt cards is beforehand, you can’t say that he wasn’t going to save the table instead.

This is such a strongly defended bit of mythology I’m going to dive a little deeper into the details.  Now I know that many of the people who believe this nonsense can’t be bothered with details, but I am going to make an effort anyway.

Let’s create a completely arbitrary, and impossibly simple situation…  The dealer has a 5 up, and let’s also assume that his hole card is a Ten.  You stand on your hard 12, and now the play is up to Johnny.  We’ll say that there are exactly 4 cards left in the shoe, and somehow we know that the remaining cards are two sixes, and two Tens, although we don’t know the order.

Johnny looks at his hard 16 and says “I’ve got a feeling”, and motions for a hit.  Now we know that Johnny is going to bust with either a six or a ten.  But what has he just done to you?  Before we see the card, we don’t know.  More importantly, before we see the card, it is correct to say that there is absolutely no effect on your result.

Half the time, Johnny will bust with a ten, and he did indeed take away one of the dealer’s possible bust cards.  What’s left in the shoe after that is one ten, and two sixes.  That means that 2/3rds of the time you will lose now because the dealer has 2 out of 3 chances to make a 21.  Johnny sure worked you over, right?

Well, the other half the time, Johnny will bust by drawing a six instead, leaving one six and two tens in the shoe.  Now he’s done you a big favor, and you’ll lose only 1/3rd of the time.

Here’s the part that you need to follow…

The chances of Johnny drawing a ten, and you subsequently losing to a dealer 21 is: 50% X 2/3  (That works out to 1/3 total, or expressed differently: 2/6.)

The chances of Johnny drawing a six, and you subsequently losing to a dealer 21 is: 50% X 1/3  (That works out to 1/6 total.)

Add these up (2/6 + 1/6) = (3/6) = (1/2)

Well, look at that.  Our overall chance of losing when Johnny takes a card is… 1/2.

Our overall chance of losing when Johnny does not take a card is… 1/2.

This is not some evil coincidence.  It works exactly the same way no matter how many cards are in the deck, and how complicated the math would be to verify it.  It’s a mathematical fact… Johnny taking a card will help you exactly as much as it will hurt you on average.  It all evens out in the long run.

So relax.  Let Johnny play however he wants.  He can’t hurt your expected win or loss.

And after all, sometimes you’ll win and sometimes you’ll lose.  That’s gambling!

23 comments on “The Most Common Myth in Blackjack

  • Jim Bray said:

    What you said makes sense. I have in the past complained about players taking Dealer bust cards.
    But, I can remember when a inexperienced player was doing all the wrong plays but Winning.
    Matter of fact I was winning too!!
    I will not complain of inexperienced players again. You’re right if it wasn’t for them Playing would be different.
    I’m going to Reno for three nights last this month

  • Blake Baird said:

    I have a minor degree in math, and learned these calculations. Some rumors seem to live forever. Maybe casinos know they bring in people to gamble—you sure never see them disputed by the owners. Thanks for a great news letter and site.

  • Norman Sheridan said:

    As always, Ken, you are absolutely correct; however……………….I always liked to agree that Johnny Clueless was KILLING me. Why? If the casino pit crew believes that I think that, then they cannot possibly believe I am an advantage player.

  • @Norman Sheridan:
    You have a point there Norm. Looking like a typical superstitious gambler is a good idea. Being one is another matter entirely. :-)

  • Doug said:

    I agree 100 per cent . Basic strategy has been figured out by computer programmers and by mathematicians. It all depends on what you have and by what the dealer has, not by what other players are doing.

  • thomas said:

    Sorry but this article is for idiots… If you ever thought other players would affect your results then hehhh you’re the kind of sucker gambler a jackpot for the casino.

  • Ken S. said:

    I agree 100%…being a dealer you know the the cards can go either way.

  • Greg OD said:

    I believe in Table Karma. Wrong creates BAD. Right creates GOOD.

  • Tom G. said:

    I’ve found the best way to keep away from the “clueless” is to play at $25 and up tables! Then YOUR skill is tested!

  • Julian said:

    A probabilities undergrad course is all it takes to agree with your explanation. Anyway, it helps players to blame someone else for their losses. Thanks for your newsletter.

  • Uncledougy said:

    I somewhat disagree that Johnny Clueless has no affect on my hand if he hits. In your example I have a 50/50 chance of winning if Johnny stays. But if he hits, I then have a 75% chance of winning or losing depending on the card drawn by Johnny. Did Johnny’s hit cause me to lose or win? No, but it did affect my chances of winning or losing.

    • Johnny Clue replied:

      False. Even if you can’t wrap your hand around the fact it had no effect… That’s the course of that one hand, it happened to help or hurt in one instance, Over the ultimate course of millions of hands, it will all even out.

  • @Uncledougy:
    “I then have a 75% chance of winning or losing depending on the card drawn by Johnny.”

    But you don’t know which card he will draw. Your chance of winning the hand in this situation is unchanged. If he stands, you win 50% of the time. If he draws a card, you win 50% of the time.

    I see your point!

  • Byakuya said:

    The way I see it, a good card counter should use these superstitions, particularly the positive ones, to their advantage. Create an image where you either believe them or “keep an open mind” about those folly beliefs. Use the positive superstitions to encourage other players and keep the casino people thinking “Another superstitious fool who’s going to lose all his money, LOL! Give the player (card counter) what he/she wants”.
    For example: Great job, you changed the flow of the cards just in time. You saved the table with that move I never would of considered (Ignoring the times when their bad move killed the table and praising them for saving it)! Let it ride baby (make them think you’re chasing a winning streak, when in reality the count is sizzling HOT)! I’ve been losing, I don’t want to keep playing this cold shoe. My hand of bad luck 13 killed me, I’m changing tables (The reality is, you’re switching tables/lowering your bets because the true count suddenly turned negative.

    • Ed Surfer replied:

      You forget the “eye in the sky” and the back of the house staff have the statistics. They don’t care what you say, they care that you’re defying the mathematical models and winning more regularly than you should and placing larger bets when you should. And as you say, moving to a new table when you should. They’re not stupid they set up the models so they can make money.

  • Don Q said:

    I love them to play with me at my table. The focus is on them not on me. At break time, the dealers and the bosses exchange stories about those stupid players. You know who I like to most to play at my table? A knock them dead beauty, and I’m not even paying her to sit with me by the hour.

  • Robbie Gold said:


    As a “Skilled player” according to the casinos in AC, I would have to agree with you about Mr. Third Base taking the dealers break card. Countless times (no pun intended), I have tried to explain to people at the table that the shoe has no memory of who goes in & out at the table. There have been times when at Third base I will wave a hit with a hand five, deuce against the dealers Ten. People look at me in astonishment after the dealer shows 5 in the hole & breaks with a ten. Even if I can put the hole card on a low number, it doesn’t mean I will always prevail. One of my best observations is that everyone wants instant gratification on every hand. My favorite saying to other players flipping out because of non book moves, is to remember that there are no seat belts on the stools.

  • Guilmon said:

    This is confirmation bias again. Everyone wants to complain when Third Base takes the dealer’s bust card and the table gets swept. They forget all those times when it went the other way. Gamblers are a superstitious lot who haven’t the vaguest idea as to what they’re doing.

    Ask a dozen Roulette players the odds of hitting “red” or “black” is and you’ll get twelve wrong answers.

    Ask a dozen Craps players how many ways a seven can fall, and it’s “DUHHHH…”

    As for Blackjack, the most popular strategy is the Whudidowiddishand non-strategy strategy. The 50th anniversary of _Beat the Dealer_ has come and gone. For most of these people, it’s 1961 all over again.

  • Frank Lu said:

    Hi KenSmith
    I have bust rate for dealer up cards from A to 10, but can’t find the bust rate for player hard 12 to 16 when hit for another cards.please give me the information.I am a basic strategy player. Thank you.

    • It’s pretty easy to calculate these, especially if you’re willing to accept almost-accurate numbers from an infinite deck approximation.

      If you hit hard 16 and plan to stand at 17 or more, then you’ll take only one card.
      Five of the possible 13 card values will improve your hand, so you’ll bust the other 8/13 of the time.
      p(bust 16) = 8/13 = 61.5%

      If you have hard 15, there are now two possibilities…
      You’ll bust immediately 7/13 of the time.
      1/13 of the time you’ll draw an Ace for hard 16, and hit again.
      p(bust 15) = 7/13 + (1/13 * 8/13) = 58.6%

      You can do the same thing for the other starting hands.
      The results?
      p(Bust 16) = 61.5%
      p(Bust 15) = 58.6%
      p(Bust 14) = 55.0%
      p(Bust 13) = 50.9%
      p(Bust 12) = 46.2%

      These all assume you will continue hitting until you reach 17 or bust.

  • Eric S. said:

    Your article. I freely admit that I hate bad players. I’ve gotten mad several times at players not playing the right way. The last time I played this guy hit on a 12 when the dealer showed a 6. I just can’t understand that play. Of course he busts with a face card and the dealer makes her hand with a lesser card. The dealer would have bust if he doesn’t hit. I am sorry, but I just can’t stand it. The guy cost the whole table by doing that and he did that a few other times as well. But maybe I should not get mad about that. It is hard to not get mad when you have a lot on a hand and this idiot just took the card that would have busted the dealer. I don’t know how to reconcile that.

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