Among all the gambling games out there today, blackjack has a reputation for being rational and reasonable. While slot spinners and roulette specialists rely on random chance to decide their fate, proficient blackjack players apply the cold, hard logic of basic strategy to govern their decisions. When a player’s skillful and strategic approach can directly improve their odds of success, there doesn’t seem to be much room left for superstition.
You might use the same lucky numbers while spinning the wheel, or shake a lucky trinket while spinning the slots – but those superstitious behaviors don’t have any impact on the eventual result. Once the ball is fired or the “SPIN” button is pressed, your odds of winning or losing in the end remain exactly the same for superstitious players and nonbelievers alike.
On the other hand, when blackjack players succumb to superstition, their gameplay can easily be altered in ways that don’t align with basic strategy. And in this game, any deviation from the laws of basic strategy result in nothing but the house’s edge increasing in kind. With that in mind, be sure to avoid the following 9 blackjack superstitions that can cost even the most capable players significant coin.
1 – Martingales, Stop Losses, and Other Progression Betting “Systems” Really Work
If you run a quick Google search for “blackjack system,” you’ll invariably be inundated with links to so-called systems that promise sustainable success.
Those are real-life links beckoning would-be blackjack experts to one website or another. In most cases, a blackjack system is nothing more than a progression betting technique that has been adapted or tweaked. The most commonly known progression betting system is undoubtedly the Martingale, an age-old theory developed by mathematicians who sought a pattern-based method of beating the house. When using the Martingale system, a gambler simply doubles their wager after every loss, with the goal being to ensure a $1 profit after finally scoring a win. In this fashion, a profit is said to be guaranteed, even when the player encounters an improbable long losing streak beforehand.
Imagine you bet $1 on a coin flip and lose it. On the next flip, you’d double the wager to $2, thus ensuring a $1 profit on the session when you win. Should you lose that second flip, however, the third wager would be doubled to $4, and once again a winner leaves you with a $1 profit. This pattern can theoretically continue on forever, until the losing streak inevitably ends and a $1 profit is earned.
But let’s take a look at the table below to see how the Martingale betting system shakes out in terms of cost:
Martingale Betting Escalation
As you might’ve suspected by now, the Martingale system does work – but only in theory. Sure, you can lock up those $1 profits with regularity, but only if you’re willing to risk more than $1,000 on to fade a 10-hand losing streak. And while losing runs of that length are quite rare from a statistical standpoint, knowing you’ll need a four- or five- figure bankroll to collect surefire profits of just $1 makes the Martingale system much less appealing.
Arnold Snyder – author of “The Blackjack Formula” (1980) and “The Big Book of Blackjack” (2006) – was one of seven original inductees to the Blackjack Hall of Fame. As editor-in-chief of the Blackjack Forum since 1981, Snyder has provided invaluable instruction for generations of aspiring card sharps who might be tempted to use systems.
And in 1987, the blackjack legend took on fellow gambling author Jerry Patterson, who Snyder accused of peddling “superstitious nonsense” in the former’s book “Break the Dealer” (1986). Snyder took particular offense to Patterson’s suggestion that readers should view blackjack as a “short term game.”
As Snyder demonstrated, Patterson’s advice concerning the Martingale and other progression betting systems could indeed produce short-term winning sessions at a 90 percent clip. But in a scathing rebuke of the system superstition, Snyder explained in exacting detail why such “strategies” were destined to fail over the long term:
2 – Other Players Can “Take” The Dealer’s Bust Card
Whenever you see the dealer’s up card show a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, most players at the table will be eagerly anticipating one outcome – the dealer taking a hit and going bust.
After all, a dealer bust leaves every live player hand – regardless of whether it’s a lowly 12 or a mighty 21 – as a winner. And with a low card of 2-6 showing, coupled with an assumed 10-value underneath, all it takes is another big card to bust the dealer on their mandatory hit.
This is why blackjack players who use basic strategy will always stand on inferior totals like 13, 14, 15, or 16 when facing a dealer up card of 2-6. And even when you hold a substandard 12, basic strategy dictates standing against a dealer’s 4, 5, or 6. By making these seemingly counterintuitive plays, you protect your hand from a potential bust, thus keeping it alive in hopes that the dealer goes over on the draw.
On the other hand, casual players who don’t subscribe to basic strategy will often see a bad starting hand like 12-16 and decide a hit is worth the risk. And when this happens, all hell can break loose…Just imagine the scene. The first six players at the table size up the dealer’s 5 up card and decide they’re likely to bust. These folks all have totals between 12 and 17, so they play by the basic strategy book and stand.
The action then moves to the last player to act, a position commonly referred to as “3rd base” in blackjack vernacular (more on 3rd base superstitions to come two sections down). This guy’s clearly a recreational player, a tourist in town just to have fun. He’s sitting on a 12, and while basic strategy says he should stand, he mistakenly believes the best play is to take a hit.
The dealer hesitates for just a second, knowing that this player has made the wrong move according to basic strategy, but she does her job and silently deals out his third card – a Jack, which puts his total at 22 for a bust.
The rest of the table lets out a collective groan, anticipating what will happen next. The action moves to the dealer, who must take a mandatory hit – and she draws a 5 to make 20. That’s good enough to beat every other hand at the table, and the casino rakes in yet another pile of chips in the process. And then the chorus of complaints begins.
These verbal assaults may seem exaggerated at first glance, but spend any amount of time at a blackjack table and you’ll be sure to see that scene play out. That’s because many blackjack players, even supposedly sensible individuals who utilize basic strategy, still believe in the superstition which says players who act after you can “take” the dealer’s bust card. And when you think about it for the first time, it seems to make perfect sense.
But in reality, it doesn’t matter one bit how the next player to act, or the 3rd base player for that matter, chooses to play their hand.
Ken Smith – a pro player since the 1990s who created the BlackjackInfo website -refuted the myth about taking a dealer’s bust card head on in a 2014 blog post:
Smith went on to pose a hypothetical exercise to readers, one which illustrated in clear detail how the game of blackjack really works. In this exercise, Smith showed that the remaining shoe’s randomized nature always ensures the same relative odds when it comes to a hand’s final result.
In other words, a player making the wrong move might help the dealer win here and there – but they’ll also “save” the table from losing at the same rate. Just flip the example hand from above to get the drift.
Suppose the 3rd base player hits and finds a 5 to make 17, then the dealer hits and takes a 10-value to go bust. In this case, the tourist’s choice to go against the grain actually protected the rest of the table from losing, as the dealer “should” have drawn that 5 to form a winning 20. In the long run of statistical probability, everything manages to break even in the end – even dealer draws after players make a mistake.
3 – Other Players Can “Take” Your Favorable Card
This superstition is essentially just an extension of the previous entry, so there’s no need to spend too much time explaining it away.
Just remember, if another player’s decision can’t affect your odds by “taking” the dealer’s bust card, they certainly can’t “take” your 21 card either.
4 – The 3rd Base Player’s Decision “Decides” the Outcome of a Hand
Circling back to this page’s second section, blackjack superstition tends to center around the 3rd base seat. Just in case, the 3rd base position at the blackjack table is the seat on the far left from the player’s perspective. And if you were the dealer, 3rd base would be to your direct right.
In any case, this seat is so seemingly important because it acts last on each hand. As in the example hand above, up to six players can make their own decisions, then the 3rd base player acts before the dealer is up. This creates the illusion that the 3rd base player’s decision somehow dictates the final result. But like you learned earlier, this is simply a matter of confirmation bias in action.
Confirmation bias is a psychological phenomenon whereby people tend to use recent information to confirm their preexisting beliefs. And if a blackjack player thinks your decision to hit on 12 versus the dealer’s 2 or 3 is wrong, watching the dealer avoid a bust while scopping the table’s chips only confirms their belief. Of course, hitting a 12 against a 2 or 3 follows basic strategy to a tee, so you should always make that play – whether you’re seated in 3rd base or anywhere else.
For whatever reason though, many blackjack players believe the player in 3rd base must play perfectly in order for the rest of the table to win. This is mere superstition, however, as casino game analyst and mathematician Michael Shackleford – better known as the Wizard of Odds – once proved in a post to his eponymous website.
Shackleford ran a complex computer-assisted calculation to see exactly how 3rd base play affects the entire table. First, he created two “players” in early and 3rd base position, both of whom followed basic strategy perfectly. After running nearly 1.6 billion sample hands, the player acting first incurred a house edge of 0.289 percent, while the 3rd base player lost at a 0.288 percent clip.
Next, Shackleford adjusted the 3rd base player’s strategy to include several common mistakes, as detailed below:
- Always hit 12 to 16
- Always double 9 to 11
- Split any pair
- Never surrender
- Never soft double
After running the same billion-plus hand simulation, Shackleford found the player first to act losing at a 0.282 percent clip – regardless of how wildly or poorly the 3rd base position was playing.
Here’s how the Wizard himself described the results of his 3rd base experiment:
5 – Hitting on 12 vs. Dealer’s 2 or 3 While at 3rd Base Isn’t “Nice”
Following up on the last superstition, many players who find themselves seated at 3rd base drastically change their own strategy – either consciously or subconsciously.
If you’re last to act in a blackjack game, staring at six other faces who (mistakenly) believe your decisions will decide their fate can be a tall order. Because of this peer pressure, you’ll see folks who play perfectly from any other seat make basic mistakes from 3rd base.
This superstition may keep tablemates on your side, but you’ll always be making the mathematically inferior play when you choose to stand on 12 versus the dealer’s 2 or 3. Sure, you’ll catch a few stare downs when your “unconventional” play produces a dealer win. But over the long run, willingly departing from basic strategy will cost you much more than hurt feelings.
6 – Sitting at 1st Base Makes It “Tougher” to Win
As an inverse of the 3rd base superstition, many skilled players believe that their skills will only be useful from the later seat positions.
These players won’t sit down at a table with only 1st base open, because they think this spot reduces their ability to apply basic strategy.
But just like 3rd base decisions inevitably balance out over time, thanks to the multiple deck shoe and complete randomization, the 1st base player faces the same standardized odds.
7 – New Players Sitting Down Can Disrupt the Deck’s “Flow”
This superstition doesn’t even make sense on the surface, and yet, you’ll see grizzled pros get up and walk away whenever a new player arrives.
This can happen when a player is competing against the dealer one-on-one, or when a nearly full table adds its seventh and final player. In each case, the superstitious believe that a new player joining the game “changes” the deck by adjusting how the remaining shoe is dealt out.
Just picture players accusing the newbie of “taking” their Ace, because it “would’ve” gone to them earlier, to get an idea of how asinine this blackjack superstition really is.
8 – Favorite Dealers, Tables, or Casinos Provide “Good Luck”
It should go without saying, but believing a particular dealer, table, or casino brings you good luck is the very definition of superstition.
You’re simply remembering the good times, while forgetting the bad – which is a common human behavior. In fact, it’s the same reason why blackjack players believe 3rd base decisions impact their own results – they remember those dealer wins, while conveniently forgetting all the times a 3rd base mistake “saved” the table.
9 -The Insurance Bet is a “Smart” Play
On a final note, you’ll see plenty of players answer in the affirmative when the dealer poses a common question – “would you like insurance?”
In blackjack, the Insurance bet is offered whenever the dealer shows an Ace as their up card. As the reasoning goes, with an Ace showing, the dealer is more than likely to turn up a 10-value card for blackjack and the automatic winner.
By offering players Insurance, the casino seems to be providing a lifeline of sorts. Sure, the dealer might have an unbeatable hand from the jump, but for the cost of just one-half of your original bet, you can insure yourself against the possibility.
And indeed, if the dealer does turn over a blackjack, you’ll lose your original bet, but the Insurance wager will be paid off at 2 to 1. What’s not to love? Well, when you run the math, it turns out Insurance bets are a sucker’s play, plain and simple.
Think about it. Let’s say you bet $10 to start, and the dealer received the Ace of hearts up. At this point, you take the Insurance bet for an extra $5, and you’re now facing odds of 9 to 4 that the dealer will make blackjack. But when you run those same 9 to 4 odds over a 130-hand sample size, you’ll “win” the Insurance bet 40 times – good for a $400 uptick. But on the other 90 hands, your losing Insurance bets will cost $450, which means this bet is a long-term loser.
Any time you use superstition to dictate gambling decisions it can cost you money. Avoid these 9 blackjack superstitions to improve your bottom line.