Does sitting next to a bad blackjack player decrease your odds of winning?
There’s a persistent belief that has circulated blackjack tables for decades. This belief tells you that the decisions made by other players contribute to your own success or failure.
Specifically, this school of thought maintains that poor decisions made by the players ahead of you will decrease your odds of winning. If there’s one person at the table not sticking to the game’s fundamental strategy, it’ll disrupt everyone else’s chances.
In many cases, a losing player will justify their own loss by pointing to the player on their right. “Why’d that moron hit on 15 with the dealer showing a three?” they’ll ask. “If they’d done the smart thing and stayed, I’d have hit 21.”
In some cases, the decisions made during the turns before yours may leave you scratching your head. But does that really impact your hand? If you stick to your own good strategy, unfazed by the antics of your tablemates, are you nevertheless doomed to lose?
Let’s look at an example
When playing blackjack, the dealer is showing a six. You’ve got 11, and the player next to you has 16. In all probability, if the player next to you hits, they’re going to go bust. With just five cards (ace through five) that improves their hand, and eight cards that push them over the 21-point limit, the best play, clearly, is the stand. Especially with the dealer showing a six, and up-card with a high potential for an eventual bust.
However, in this particular case, your comrade taps the felt – and gets a jack. Your jack! He loses, you end up getting a seven, only to lose to your dealer’s 19. It’s all the fault of the player next to you!
So, yes. It’s undebatable that the decisions made by the players at your table impact your game. But in the scenario outlined above, it was just as likely the player ahead of you gets a seven, and the next card comes as an ace, giving you 21.
Does bad play hurt everyone?
There is no evidence to suggest bad play from one player causes other players to lose. Sure, you’ll hear anecdotes, and sure, sometimes those anecdotes will be accurate. But the way other people’s decisions affect your hand is completely random in the macro.
Sometimes an uneducated play will end up costing the table (including you) that face card you were waiting for; but in other cases, blind plays will actually save the table (including you).
So though it’s true that inattentive players can make bad plays, it has been proven mathematically that a bad play can end up busting the dealer and forcing a win for the table, just as much as it causes other players to lose.
A “bad” decision made by the previous player can and will impact you, but the same is true of a “good” decision. And whether that outcome is positive or negative is completely random. Never alter your approach to account for the expected long-term outcome of a poor decision made by someone else. Your best chance to win at blackjack is to employ a sound strategy, and stick to it. No matter how many times you feel a neighbour stole your face card.