There are never any guarantees in gambling. You can play perfect basic strategy in blackjack, know all the right moves in video poker and stick to all the best bets in craps while avoiding the ones with ridiculously high house edges, and still lose. And sometimes you'll see someone make every mistake in the book, and still win.
What brings all this to mine is a conversation with a friend of a friend. I've mentioned Bob before. He's a long-time blackjack player who knows his basic strategy. When we met recently for lunch and 21, he brought along his friend Stu, a blackjack dabbler who was a little fuzzy around the edges of basic strategy.
While we were waiting for drinks, Stu jumped right in with some blackjack talk.
"Aren't you ever tempted to make the so-called 'bad' play?" he asked. "When you have 16 and the dealer has 7, aren't you just a little tempted to stand and let the dealer take the chance of busting?"
I told Stu the days of temptation were long behind me. There was a time a couple of decades ago when I had learned the basic strategy chart but hadn't really internalized it. I knew in my head it was right to hit 16 vs. 7, but I was still a little queasy over the play. The queasiness disappeared over thousands of hands.
Stu said he knew a player who would disagree. "There was a guy at my table last week who wouldn't hit 15 or 16, no matter what the dealer had. Not only that, it was working for him. The dealer kept busting, and he kept winning. And there he was, with this massive pile of chips in front of him. What do you do when you see that?"
I smile, make small talk, tell him I'm jealous, and keep playing basic strategy.
"Bob told me you'd say that," Stu said. "It's what he said too. But doesn't a streak like that mean the basic strategy play isn't the right play every time? Maybe you should hit 16 vs. 7 most of the time, but sometimes it's right to stand."
Hitting 16 vs. 7 isn't always a winning play, but it's always the right play. There's no way of telling until the cards are dealt whether it's the winning play. So without knowing what's coming next, the right play is to play the percentages, to make the play that gives you the best shot to win.
Over thousands of hands, you'll win more often by hitting 16 vs. 7 than by standing. That makes hitting the best percentage play, and it remains the right play regardless of whether it wins or loses on any one hand.
It's the same deal any casino game where there are decisions to make. Sometimes the one-roll bet on 12 will win, and sometimes the pass line will lose, but pass remains a far better bet. Sometimes holding a 2 along with three Aces will pay off in Double Double Bonus Poker, but it remains a better play to hold the Aces without the kicker.
Even when a bad play works, it remains a bad play. And even when a good play doesn't work, it remains a good play. More of your bankroll will remain intact if you make the good plays every hand and don't worry about times the bad play comes up a winner.
"You seem awfully sure of that," Stu said. "Bob does, too. Maybe some day I'll be able to convince myself."
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski's weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.