Whenever you sit down for a session of blackjack, whether it be in the live casino or at the computer, there are two factors that have an enormous impact on your ability to win hands and consistently make a profit. Those factors are counting cards and making the correct play. As important as these two factors are, even the most disciplined players sometimes give in to an urge to abandon basic strategy and play hunches or “go with their gut.” Making even one bad play at the blackjack table can have a negative impact on your entire session.

Why Do Players Abandon Basic Strategy?

Serious blackjack players all sit down to play with the best of intentions, but reality often intrudes upon the best of intentions. A real blackjack session almost never plays out the way we intend it to play out because of all the variables inherent in the game. Many players are prepared when blackjack throws them a curveball, and the start to deviate from the plan.

A bad run of hands can cause players to abandon basic strategy. Let’s backtrack here just a little and remind everyone that making the right play doesn’t guarantee a win. Nothing can do that; that’s why it’s called gambling. Sometimes you can make the right play each time and still lose a hand or several of them in a row. In gambling, this is called variance.

Variance can be simplified this way: it represents how things play out over the long run, to infinity. We know that playing basic blackjack strategy combined with card counting produces a minimal edge for the player over the casino in blackjack. For illustration purposes (and please realize we know this is just a basic example) let’s say that your edge at the blackjack table breaks down this way: for every 100 hands you play the casino will win 49 of them and you will win 51. This edge is calculated over 100 hands in order for the player to quantify it, but the reality is that these numbers actually represent your advantage over an unlimited span of time. In an infinite scenario your edge will make you a winner.

The problem is that there is a lot of space between one single session and infinity. When you stop to consider one single blackjack session and its overall place in your blackjack career, you can see that a single session is just a blip on the radar. Therefore, you can lose in a single session—many times—and still win overall. 100 hands, 51 wins, 49 losses. Those wins and losses can come at any time. That’s variance.

You might lose 15 hands in a row, win three, lose four more, win nine, etc. All you can know for certain is that your edge will hold up over time if you stick to basic blackjack strategy and count cards.

When negative variance kicks in and players have a bad run, they start to question their plan. They decide that it isn’t working this time for some reason and they rationalize that maybe they need to adjust. At this point they start to alter their play. Instead of hitting a 16 against the dealer’s 10 they stand on it, hoping that luck will prevail. Instead of standing on a hard 12 against the dealer’s 4, they double down. This is the beginning of the end for a blackjack player.

Making Bad Plays Destroys Your Edge

Whenever you give in to the temptation to abandon basic strategy and play like the recreational blackjack player, you have significantly altered your overall edge. You’ve changed the numbers. In our earlier example we calculated that edge as winning 51 out of 100 hands. As an example, let’s say that abandoning basic strategy now means that you will lose 51 out of 100 hands. This is why, when players abandon basic strategy, they will keep losing. If they had stuck to the plan, things would have turned around and their advantage would have held up. Now, they are on the losing end of the scale and the casino has the edge.

This is the mentality you must take at the blackjack table. Remember it well: “Decisions matter, outcomes are irrelevant. “

Whether you win or lose one single hand doesn’t matter in the long run. What matters, if you want to maintain your edge, is whether or not you made the right play. Each hand is just a microcosm of your blackjack career. Don’t worry about whether you win or lose a single hand. Worry about making the right play and your edge will hold up over time and make you a winner.