Sucker Bets

May 15, 2009


Nick Laurrell asked:

In the world of gambling, there are three kinds of bets: safe bets, risky bets and sucker bets. While we’ve all capitulated and bought insurance at the Blackjack table, the difference between a successful gambler and another sad story sipping a Mickey’s on the Strip is identifying what type of bet you are about to make.

For the moment, let’s stick with Blackjack (Cash game Blackjack, rather than tournament Blackjack.) Let’s look at what the three different types of bets are and how they each pop up in the same game.

What Are you Betting On

This may seem stupid, but the first thing that you have to figure out when you are placing a bet is what you are actually betting on! Take Blackjack: when you are playing Blackjack you are actually betting against the dealer, not for your own hand. This is an important paradigm shift because the crux of making money in Blackjack is getting the dealer to bust (and doubling on it) not hitting good hands of your own. So with that in mind, let’s look at the fine art of doubling down:

•The Safe Double: The safe double occurs when it is likely that the dealer will bust AND it is impossible for you to bust if you take a card. Situations like these are when the dealer is showing a 4, 5 or especially 6 and you have a 10 or 11. With the dealer showing a 4, 5 or 6, it is likely that he has 12 or higher. This is because there are 13 different values of cards, ranging from 2 to 11. So, 1/13 of the deck is 2s, 1/13 is 3s, etc., etc. Since there are 4 different cards worth 10, 10, J, Q, K, then the likelihood of a card valued at 8 or higher is 1/13 (the Eights) plus 1/13 (the Nines) plus 4/13 (all of the tens) plus 1/13 (Aces) which equals 7/13 of the deck so is greater than 50%. So if the dealer is showing a 4,5 or 6, it is more likely than not that they are holding a hand which can bust if a ten shows up. This is good for you. Compound that likelihood with your own 10 or 11 which can hit 20 or 21 5 times out of 13 (5/13) and you have a recipe for a safe double. If you always double when you are holding a 10 or 11 against a dealer 4, 5 or 6, then you are going to make money in the long run.

•The Risky Double: The risky double is a more dangerous endeavor. Risky doubles don’t look as good as safe doubles do but really successful gamblers know when to make a risky bet. A risky double is just a stretched safe double. Say you have 9 and the dealer is showing a 7. Yes, more than 50% of the deck makes you a strong hand (19 or higher) and yes, chances are that the dealer does not have a made hand yet (he would need a ten or Ace to have 17 or higher which would happen 5 out of 13 times) but do you really want to double down on a bet like that? Yeah, maybe. It’s riskier for sure, but it could still work out. And there are a bunch of variables that we have not calibrated for yet – the odds for each card showing up do not exist in a vacuum. If 3 Queens have already shown up, then that changes the likelihood of a ten popping up from 4/13 to 13/52 or 1/4. This is where card counters really make their money – they can turn a risky bet or double into a safe double by keeping track of the changing odds. Now while the line between a risky bet and a safe bet can get a little blurry, there is no mistaking the last bet.

•The Sucker Double: Suckers are the dreamers of the universe. Suckers see what could be if only one simple little thing would happen – never mind how likely that thing is to occur, they just see it happening. Sucker doubles range from doubling on anything under an 8 to doubling anytime you have more than 11. Could those situations work out for you? Yeah, I guess. Will they work out for you time after time? No, you will lose money in the long run.

So there’s a cliff notes on when to double and when not. But let’s look a little deeper into sucker bets. Let’s take a look at some other common sucker bets that casinos make way too much money on:

•Insurance: There is no reason to ever take out insurance in a cash game (unless there are nothing but tens left in the deck but if you really are able to count cards that well, what are you doing reading this article?) If the dealer is showing an Ace then there is a 4/13 chance that he has 21, then 4 out of 13 times you will be right. But the payout is 2 to 1 so you are going to lose money in the long run here.

•Individual Performance Sports Prop Bets: “I bet $50 that LeBron James has under 11 assists.” These bets suck way too many smart sports fans in. Why are they sucker bets? Two reasons: 1, official scorekeepers get statistics wrong. Hack Wilson held the individual Major League Baseball season record for RBIs with 190 for about 70 years until some uppity bloggers dove into the record books to find that he in fact, had 191. If this type of statistical ineptitude is going on for decades over a serious record in one of the major sports in America – imagine the fudging that occurs from game to game. Secondly, and more importantly, team performance ALWAYS dictates individual numbers. Say you put $100 on Kobe Bryant going over 40 points in a game. Say he absolutely dominates the first quarter and puts up 32 before halftime. Great – you’re looking great! Except that Kobe’s dominance in the first part of the game put the win out of reach for the other team and Kobe rests for the remainder of the game. There goes $100! From injuries to blowouts – never bet on what a single player is going to do.

•Betting on Opening Day on Teams to Win the Championship: Remember when Shaq and Kobe were on the same team? Remember when those same Lakers picked up Gary Payton and Karl Malone to tag along for the expected 4th Championship in a row? On Opening day of the 2003-04 season you could place a bet on the Lakers winning the championship for 6 to 1 odds. It looked like a great bet so a ton of people took it. And then Kobe got arrested for rape and Karl Malone got injured and the Pistons picked up Rasheed Wallace and poof! No Lakers championship. Or how many people bet on the Patriots last year? Championships in team sports are nearly impossible to predict on a regular basis and you really want to stay away from these bets. And if it is your own personal tradition to put $200 on the Cubs every April, why not just buy the DirecTV Extra Innings package instead?

•Big Underdogs in Prize Fights: Unless you really know fighting and like someone’s style over the Champ’s, avoid searching for the next Buster Douglas. They are 8 to 1 dogs for a reason and you are really just throwing your money away on them. I overheard someone talking in my office about wanting to put money on Matt Serra to beat Georges St. Pierre in UFC 83 because he was a 5 to 1 dog (and for people who know MMA, there was just NO chance that Serra was going to beat GSP.) I told him not to pay the commission and that I would give him 5 to 1. He gasped, “Seriously dude? All right…” And he gave me $20 on Serra all the while snickering about his possible win. I have to tell you that I spent the money on dinner the night before the fight. Of course, St. Pierre won, he was a 5 to 1 dog!

These are a few of the sucker bets that seem to plague the average gambler. Even though I myself make bets every now and again, I look at the money I bet on sports as ways to make the games more interesting, not as sources of additional income. A sports bet is like spiking a drink for me – just something to make it a little interesting. For my money, you shouldn’t gamble: you should play poker.

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