Monday, June 16, 2014

Blackjack as a Metaphor for Life




I don't often go to the casino anymore, but on a recent casino trip, I won a bunch of money. I only used a $15 voucher to make my initial bet on blackjack, and I took it from there. That streak of good luck made me feel like I knew a thing or two about a thing or two, and I'm going to share those things with you.

To me, the connection between winning the game of Blackjack and being successful in life is readily apparent. The cards are stacked against you and sometimes no matter what you do, you will lose. The key to winning blackjack, ergo life, is playing with others, not against them. It's a non-zero sum game. You are all trying to beat the dealer, and the other players' winnings don't take away from your winnings; in fact, when done right, all players will win (there's a chance you will all lose despite what you do, but that's why life, and gambling, is so fun! Right? Right?!). When all players view themselves as part of a team, united against the dealer, everyone has a better chance of winning. We can apply that lesson to life in general. When people unite against a common enemy or problem, there is more chance of defeating that problem. Pretty obvious connection. Let's dig a little deeper.

We all learn the dangers of selfishness as early as preschool. Unfortunately, many of us forget those lessons as we get older, or grow to believe that the idea of selflessness is naive. We all have to get ahead in life, and in an unfair world, many of us come to the conclusion that being successful involves being a little selfish. Well, when you play blackjack selfishly, you might win that specific hand where you hit when you should have stayed, but you probably made two people lose when they should have won, and you messed up the rest of the deck. It's no surprise when the dealer then gets three blackjacks in a row, all because "it's my money and I'll play however I want!"

On this particular night, I had one dealer who slowly dealt each card and encouraged the players to make certain moves, following the "book."  I've learned to always listen to dealers like this; it's important in blackjack, and life, to learn who's advice to trust. Dealers want you to win because they work off tips, and people don't tip when they lose. A few people at the table, mostly those who played for a few hands then moved on, refused to listen to her advice because of their "gut" feeling. Needless to say, there was a reason those people only stayed for a few hands. They sucked. In reality, we see this all the time, and unfortunately, it happens with people in positions of power. How many politicians and lawmakers ignore scientific data and evidence because they just "know" something is right or wrong? People ignore evidence and history because they have a feeling.

I'll just leave this unrelated picture here...

The point is, playing blackjack is like buying drugs: listen to any dealer who takes the time to explain the game/drug to you. They want you to win/get high and keep coming back for more.

Even worse than people ignoring a kind-hearted dealer is when people listen to their annoyingly optimistic drunk friend or their overly concerned conservative spouse; both will cost you money. You need to be right in the middle and these people are pulling you to the extreme. For every guy who put all his money on one hand and won, there's a thousand who lost their life savings. And for every wife or husband who told their spouse not to double down when they should have, there's a dozen or so spending their spouse's winnings on slots.

Alcohol also plays a part in the stupid decision making at the tables (casinos aren't giving away alcohol because they like you). Alcohol intensifies the "gut" feeling. Drunk people are so fucking sure that the next card will be a face card because they need it to be. Alcohol and desperation are the worst traits in a gambler, and to keep this metaphor going, they are pretty horrible traits in general. A desperate drunk is the worst, and they seem to be the most common type of gambler. There's not much you can do about desperate drunks except avoid playing with them. Of course, they always have a way of finding you and fucking up your deck, but just do your best to avoid them, and more importantly, avoid becoming one of them.

Much like a teenager in a yacht, you feel a lot better when you win, despite whether you had anything to do with it. There's not much difference between a loser and a winner, though. The main difference is luck (the real losers are the ones that go beyond their means). That's really it. And gamblers know it; they have more superstitions and reasons for winning or losing than the 1989 Cleveland Indians.

And after winning a little bit, you feel like you got the answers and can maybe even write a blog post, even though it was all stupid luck and a generous dealer. The fact is, I walked away with very little winnings from blackjack, despite the dealer's help. Luckily, I made three large (stupid) bets on the roulette wheel and won each time. So maybe roulette is the real allegory for life?

Whatever. The point is, winning begets winning, and losing begets losing. When you lose, you become desperate, and we know what happens with desperate gamblers. When you're winning, you're more confident and relaxed and more likely to make better decisions. The real key to winning is walking away. When you learn how to walk away while you're down (and even more difficult, walk away while you're up) that's when you become a "good" gambler. I walked away while I was up that night, but I went back a few weeks later and lost money. I was still up, considering the previous episode, but if I take that into consideration, I have to add up all my losses and wins over time, and that's not something I'm willing to do because the thought of it makes me cry a little inside. The fact of the matter is, whenever you gamble, the odds are not in your favor. Basically, gambling is pretty stupid. But our minds don't handle statistics very well, so we keep doing it, humping the American Dream and hoping for that one hand to take us to the promised land of paid bills, good credit, and maybe a new pair of shoes or two, nothing crazy.

I was going for the whole blackjack as life metaphor and I think I lost that somewhere, but you get the point. Don't be greedy (there's the connection!) don't be selfish, learn when to walk away, and listen to the right people. Easy enough, right? Let's all get some fresh kicks!

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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