Blackjack and engineering management


My 15 minutes of fame are up.  I was on the MIT blackjack team, and they made a book and a movie about us.  So many people I talk to are absolutely fascinated by the blackjack stories and they all want to know how we're so smart that we can remember every card in a 6 deck shoe.

We can't.  Well, at least I can't.

Counting cards is really simple.  So simple that I can explain it to you in 5 minutes (see bottom of post if you want to know how).  The math isn't harder than division of fractions.  Once some people realize this, they set off determined to go to the casino and win lots of money.  And that's foolish.  Because even though they know how to count cards, to do it successfully, it has to be so ingrained it's second nature.  I always compare it to driving.  Driving a car is a really complex action, and most of us do it so often, that we don't even think about it.  We can hold a conversation, play with our ipods, send text messages (don't do that) all while performing a really complicated task.


Jeff Ma, Me and Jim Sturgess

Counting cards has to be at that level.  We would practice so much that I never had to think about what to do, it was 2nd nature.  Basic strategy was automatic and non-thinking.  I'd hit or stand without even realizing I'd done it.   I'd talk to the dealers about the big fight the next day while calculating ((17 / 3.33) - 1) * 800 = 3300.  And that was critical because the distractions that happen in the pressure of a real casino require counting to be a background task.  I'm 100% focused on the pit person I'm talking to and convincing them that I'm a half drunk partying rich guy, and making sure they're not calling upstairs or saying anything about me.  Oh yeah, and I've also got to count and play blackjack. 

I find management to be the same as counting cards.  My management principles are so simple as to seem like common sense.  I can certainly explain them to you in 5 minutes (a future post), and many newly minted managers think it's all so obvious that they know exactly what to do.  It's why I find all those management classes companies offer so terrible.  They tend to focus on a lesson like "Make sure your employees know what they're expected to do."  Duh.  Do we really need to take a class on that?

What we really need is the practice that makes it 2nd nature.  It's hard enough to get a project on track and team members motivated and delivering that you need 100% of your energy focused there.  So the performance management, career planning, making sure you've got the right people in place, making sure people know what's expected of them, etc.  That's all got to be subconscious.  And until we're there, we need to make time every day to review the list and make sure we're on top of all of them.

It's the difference between having learned something and having mastered it.

P.S. So how do you count cards? When the shoe starts, start a running count in your head at zero. Every time you see a 2-6 (low card) add 1 to your count. Every time you see a 10-A (high card) subtract 1 from your count. Ignore 7-9.

At the end of the round, you need to figure out what to bet. First calculate the "True" by normalizing the count by the number of decks remaining. Divide your running count by your estimate of how many decks you have left to play.

Then bet True - 1 units.

For example. After playing through 1 deck of a 6 deck shoe, lets say your running count is 15. That means you've seen 15 more low cards than high ones. You divide by the 5 remaining decks and get a True count of 3. That means for each deck reamining, you expect to see 3 extra high cards. Then subtract 1 (since the casino has an advantage off the top). Bet 2 units. If your unit is $100, bet $200.

This is a decent more detailed explanation.

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