Several years ago my husband and I went to a casino in the Bahamas. It was the first time I had ever set foot in a casino, and I didn’t play anything, but he played blackjack. He seemed confident about what he was doing, but when I asked him how he knew what to do, he was clearly just winging it. I was pretty suspicious of the whole thing, thinking that if the dealer always plays the same way, clearly there must be a correct strategy for the player. Of course, it turns out that there is. Out of curiosity I read this book, which explains the intricacies of the most common casino games.
This book is by no means some barely coherent get-rich-quick system like many gambling books. Brisman goes through the rules of each game in detail, but then gives the strategies and the math behind them. It’s actually a fun way to learn about probability and statistics, a lot more fun than counting black and white marbles or whatever it was my statistics textbook was always yammering about. There are plenty of equations here, but the explanations are simple and lucid for those who are intimidated by the math.
The chapter on blackjack is particularly good. I love how the statisticians who figured out the optimal strategy for blackjack (what is now called basic strategy) did it with plain old combinatorial analysis and then, back in 1956, published it in the Journal of the American Statistical Association
(you can read the original paper here
). The strategy has since been refined with computer simulation and modified for the changes in rules that the casinos have made over the years, but the concepts still stand. The American Mensa Guide
gives you the strategy, but more importantly the reasoning behind it. It doesn’t take long to realize that most of the people who give you blackjack advice in a casino (including dealers) have no idea what they are talking about.
Humans are subject to a lot of fallacies when it comes to understanding probability, which helps casinos stay in business. A book like this is a reminder of how often we don’t intuitively come to the right mathematical decision. It’s not a bad thing to have a better understanding of concepts like odds, expectation, inference, and variance, not just to win (or lose less) at a casino, but to understand the barrage of statistical data we see every day. Sometimes information is deliberately misrepresented (I’m looking at you, Fox News
), but often those presenting the data don’t have a good understanding of what they are trying to convey. Common sense can get you a long way, but it’s not always enough.