The real-life inspiration for one of the card-counting blackjack players in the movie “21” told an audience at the Accounting Today Growth & Profitability Summit in Las Vegas about his system for winning at the casino tables and at life in general.
Jeffrey Ma, the author of the book, “The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business,” delivered the keynote address Tuesday at the conference and told the audience about his adventures at the blackjack tables. One of a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he figured out a way to beat the odds in Vegas about 15 years ago. His story was the subject of Ben Mezrich’s best-selling book “Bringing Down the House,” which in turn became the basis for the screenplay of “21.”
Ma played a cameo role in the film as a blackjack dealer. However, in real life, he became too well known for his card-counting prowess among the blackjack dealers in Vegas to be able to play there again, even when he was accompanied by one of the actresses from the movie, Kate Bosworth. (Ma was the basis for the main character in the film, portrayed by Jim Sturgess.)
After his blackjack career ended, Ma became an options trader and entrepreneur. He founded the fantasy sports site Citizen Sports, which was acquired by Yahoo last year, and Protrade, a sports stock market site.
Ma told the audience at the conference that blackjack, unlike most games of chance, is actually based on objective mathematical decisions about which cards to play against the dealer’s hand. The average blackjack player loses about 3 percent of the time, but an experienced blackjack player will only lose about half a percent of the time.
Many players lose when they feel they have gone too high and stop at a number like 15. He urged the audience to always play for the highest hand. An “omission bias” is when the player doesn’t ask the dealer to hit him or her with another card and then loses when the dealer gets a higher hand.
“You can’t favor inactivity over activity,” said Ma. “You’ve got to take action yourself.”
With card counting, the player isn’t really trying to remember every card played in the game, but is simply keeping track of the high cards and low cards that have appeared so far. Ma said it doesn’t matter where the player sits at the table, as long as he or she can see the cards. His book includes a handy strategy chart showing exactly when to hit, stand, double down, split or surrender on a given deal.
Ma also discussed the importance of trust in organizations and the need for common goal setting. He urged the audience to realize that “decisions are everywhere,” and even when they “bust” after overplaying their hand, they shouldn’t blame it on making a decision.
“Don’t confuse the outcome with the decision,” he advised.
In other words, take chances and risks, and avoid the status quo because that is sure to be a losing hand.
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