Five tactics to help you survive and thrive when the gambling gods abandon you
by Basil Nestor
So what happened? Luck happened. My game didn’t change, nor did the conditions of play. As old-time gamblers say, “It just came down bad.”
An uncomfortable thing happened to me recently. My luck ran bad. It started about 27,000 hands ago, and it lasted for about 20,000 hands.
Keep in mind that I’m a guy who measures action in hundreds of thousands of hands going back many years. When I play, I keep detailed records for tax purposes and also to track my results and sharpen my game. Poker, blackjack, video poker, craps, even slots…it all goes into my play log. So about 27,000 hands ago, I noticed a sudden dip.
Now I must admit that running bad for me is actually what many players would call running good, because I was still profitable. But for 20,000 hands I was less profitable than the previous 100,000.
What happened? I’ll explain in just a bit, but first…the idea of a bad streak lasting 20,000 hands might seem like an endless nightmare to a casual player—someone who doesn’t expect to play 20,000 hands in a lifetime. But you might be surprised at how quickly most players, even very casual punters, run through decisions.
A typical slot player will whirl through 20,000 “hands” in about 33 hours.. A video poker player will do it in 50 hours, not counting multiple hands played simultaneously. Blackjack, poker, and most other table games go a bit slower. They take about 330 hours to run through 20,000 hands. That’s about eight weeks playing 40 hours per week—again, without counting multiple simultaneous bets. It’s a lot of action, but the decisions add up.
Also keep in mind that my streak wasn’t “smooth.” There were many mini-streaks of wins along the way, even though the overall trend was less profitable for me than usual.
So what happened? Luck happened. My game didn’t change, nor did the conditions of play. As old-time gamblers say, “It just came down bad.” I’ve had bad runs before. Everyone has. Even casinos have weeks or months when the tables and machines inexplicably perform poorly. You don’t see casino mogul Steve Wynn running around wringing his hands and worrying when a few whales temporarily pulverize Encore’s profits. He’s cool. So am I.
Anatomy Of A Streak
How did I know that it was a temporary trend, and not a new reality? Plain old math provided the answer. Out of about 20,000 decisions, approximately 500 went bad when they normally would have gone well. These were situations when I was ahead (let’s say with a 20 in blackjack and the dealer had a 6, or pocket aces in hold ‘em vs. pocket kings), and bad luck created a push or a loss. Not just a few times, but more than the statistical average.
For example, during the bad streak I played a two-hour blackjack session in which I received exactly three naturals and a majority of my double-down bets were losers. I also lost or pushed most of my hands that totaled 20. Statistically, I should have seen about six naturals, and most of my doubling bets and 20s should have been winners.
When your big hands go down in flames, or they fail to appear at normal intervals, then only extraordinary luck can make up the difference. If you don’t get that luck, you will be a loser. It’s that simple. Don’t blame yourself. Even a gambling computer will lose under those conditions.
Here’s a similar example from hold ‘em poker. During the slump my pocket kings won 66% of the time vs. 73% in the 100,000 previous hands. Not good. Ace-jack suited hands won 32% vs. 47%, and king-queen suited cards won 29% vs. 41%. That’s a huge drop, and those are premium hands. Once again, you cannot be a net winner when your big hands fail you. Losing under those conditions is not your fault.
Conversely, if you have average luck but a few key hands deliver an enormous unexpected windfall, then you’ll be a net winner, even if you play badly. It’s inevitable.
This is how streaks, good and bad, become streaks. They are created and defined by what I call “key events.” Understanding this will give you courage and comfort in the darkest parts of the worst streaks. And it will also temper your hubris and save you money during good streaks, when luck is sending you huge, undeserved wet kisses.
The Path Forward
Of course, every streak ends. Things settle down eventually. So keep the following items in mind the next time you find yourself in the middle of a bad run.
- Don’t panic. Stay cool. Stick to strategy.
- Pace yourself. If you lose a big chunk of your bankroll, don’t try to win everything back in one session. Concentrate on playing well and be satisfied if you can hold your ground, or win a small amount going forward.
- If you’re really getting blasted by a bad run, then take a break or stop the session entirely. It’s okay. The casino will be there tomorrow.
- Don’t be ashamed to step down in bet size. You can’t take advantage of good luck coming down the road if you blow your bankroll during a bad streak.
- Be patient and have faith that regular results will eventually return. Sooner or later you will be back to doing victory dances and high-fives with friends.
In my case, about 7,000 hands ago the gambling gods smiled and things got better. Pocket kings jumped back up to 71%. Other premium hands recovered their profitability. Blackjack doubles and 20s started winning again. And I nearly cried out with relief when a natural 21 escaped a push. The dealer’s ace-upcard was covering…a nine.
Enjoy the game!
Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.
Running Bad for 20,000 Hands in Gambling.