Dealing with memory and living in Las Vegas, I suppose it's inevitable that I should get around to discussing how to memorize basic blackjack strategy.
Before anything else, make sure you understand the basic rules of blackjack. If you don't get the basic rules down first, nothing else will help. Beyond just understanding the fundamental rules, you should also be aware of the rules imposed by particular casinos, and read up on the different variations when possible. For example, are those single deck blackjack games that pay 6:5 on a blackjack a good deal?
Once you understand the rules, you need to be able to learn to play effectively. This is where basic strategy comes in. Basic strategy is most familiar to people as those little blackjack charts like this. Above and beyond the strategy cards, I've even developed basic blackjack strategy T-shirts (note that the charts are printed upside-down, so you can read them while wearing them) as one solution, but it's really better to memorize them if you can.
Disclaimer: Before we continue on, remember that no method of playing can guarantee you win, which is why it's called gambling. In this article, I'm merely focusing on the challenge of memorizing basic blackjack strategy. This should not be taken as an endorsement or encouragement of gambling, and Grey Matters can in no way be responsible for any wins, losses or other consequences (including damages) that happen as a result of following the advice in this blog.
When memorizing a chart, you might think that the best approach would be to take an approach that's similar to my 400 Digits of Pi feat. However, doing blackjack strategy this way is actually twice as difficult, as there would 230 spots to memorize on such as chart.
The first rule when memorizing something is to minimize what you need to remember later. Thankfully, due to the large ranges of similar strategies in basic strategy, this is possible. The best work I've seen on minimizing basic strategy rules is in an iPhone/iPod Touch native app called Easy Blackjack Cheat Sheet (EBCS - iTunes Link), which breaks the entire chart down into 17 simple rules to remember, and it's available for free!
To give you an example, the whole approach boils down to the 4-line rhyme: SURRENDER, SPLIT, DOUBLE, HIT. In other words, you first ask yourself whether you should surrender or not, then whether to split or not, followed by whether to double or not, and finally whether to hit or not, and always in that order. For each of these rules, simple mnemonics are provided to remind you when you should take each of those actions, as well as when to ignore the decisions. For example, in the second screenshot here, you can already see that you don't think about splitting if you don't have a pair, and that the time to split 2s, 3s and 7s is only when the dealer has a 2 thru 7 showing. 2s, 3s, and 7s vs. a 2 thru 7 is pretty easy to remember.
EBCS is only a method of helping you memorize the correct play for various hands. If you're serious about memorizing basic strategy, you need to practice it during actual play, too. I've found that PepperDogSoft's Blackjack Teacher works well for this, and there are many other native apps available, as well. Instead of playing a full game, it only focuses on the initial deal and the proper choices to make. It also tracks your streaks of correct answers, and even reminds you of the length of your longest correct answer streak. Before EBCS, I had trouble getting a streak of just 3 correct answers going, but now streaks of 10 or more weren't difficult to reach less than a day after getting it.
As long you're practicing with an iPhone/iPod Touch anyway, probably the most effective approach would be to learn and practice as above. However, when you're going into a real casino game, make sure you're aware of the rules at the particular casino of your choice (the chart at that link is for Vegas only), and then use the basic strategy engine at Blackjack.info to find the best plays for that game. Usually, there are only a few plays that are different, so making up 1-3 of your own mnemonics to adjust the rules is all that's required and will be time well spent.
Dealing with memory and living in Las Vegas, I suppose it's inevitable that I should get around to discussing how to memorize basic blackjack strategy.
4 years and 499 posts ago, on Pi Day 2005, Grey Matters began! Perhaps it's time for a look back.
Some of you may not realize that parts of Grey Matters date back all the way to 1996. The first site I ever set up was called The Astonishment Site, and was hosted on AOL. This site eventually morphed into the Presentation section of Grey Matters. Note that, in tribute to the original site, the main directory is still astonishment.
Even before I started the blog, I had plenty of ideas for posts, so there was plenty of material. At the start, I hadn't yet settled into my current Sunday and Thursday blog post schedule.
From that first month, my favorite posts include my original approaches to phone-book memorizing and Bob Farmer's Deja Voodoo and Andrew Brocklehurst's review of The Encyclopedia of Card Tricks.
Later, that same year, routines like Outsmarter, DVD+M (which can now be carried in your pocket!), Remembering The Election, and the rather unusual 40 30s 4 15 were posted.
This blog was only a month old when I first posted the Memory Effects pdf. Back then, it was only 21 pages long, and has now grown to 68 pages! The look with which you associate it now, however, didn't show up until 5 months later.
Probably the biggest single event in 2006 for this blog was the release of my memory training CD-ROM, Train Your Brain and Entertain, which is available via download or as a CD-ROM.
That wasn't the only bright spot, though. Doug Canning graciously allowed me to add his Mental Shopper routine to the Mental Gym. 2006 was also the year that the video blog and the Presentation section were first added.
My favorite routines I posted that year include the 6 Degrees Memory Feat and the Clue Memory Feat.
In 2007, Grey Matters started to really get noticed. Most of my first really popular posts happened in 2007. My posts on visualization, including Visualizing Pi, Visualizing Math, Visualizing Scale and the semi-related Charlievision all attracted plenty of visitors.
My Memorable Magic series, inspired by the book Made To Stick was posted that year, too. The posts included thoughts on improving magic by adding the familiar sticky concepts of Simplicity, The Unexpected, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories. Naturally, there was a wrap-up to the series, as well.
Among the other popular posts from that year were the ones about the Prisoner's Dilemma and Learning a New Language.
This was also the year I discovered Werner Miller's work via his ingenious Age Cube routine.
Being an election year, I couldn't resist having a little fun with that. I mentioned some election-related feats and magic, discussed how NOT to memorize the states, and even a math challenge with the two major party candidates' names. I even revisited the visualization concept, with the then-proposed $700 billion bailout (see Part II here) as the focus.
Out of posts with the more usual theme of mathematics, the popular posts that year included Computing . . . Without Computers! and David Suzuki's documentary on Martin Gardner.
Let us not forget that this blog's single most popular post, How Many Xs Can You Name In Y Minutes?, first appeared in March of this year. This is the only Grey Matters blog post that is constantly updated and includes its own RSS feed.
All of which brings us to the current year, 2009. The biggest change this year, was the complete redesign of the site. For those of you who don't remember, there was the gold, red and black look, the first of the grey looks, and the second of the grey looks, which stayed largely the same up until this year's change.
With the year still in progress, it seems a little early to look back. However, if you want to go back over the 2009 Grey Matters posts, it's just a click away!
I'd like to thank all the readers who've helped build this site with their comments, ideas, e-mails and visits over the years, including you! Which reminds me, if I forgot to mention a favorite Grey Matters post of yours, please let me hear about it in the comments.
Bear with me, as this is a rather unusual post for Grey Matters. Recently, I came across five things that made me feel old. Strangely, they also share a good sense of fun.
I post quote a bit about the memory and even calendars, but this post is about why these concepts can have such a powerful effect on your audience.
When memories get placed in the context of a calendar, you can evoke powerful memories. For example, take a look at When We Were Kids, a 20th century nostalgia site. It's divided up as a conceptual grid, with categories like music, movies, television, culture, and people as one axis, and the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s as the other. This is a British site, so the focus is largely on the British experience, but there's plenty on that site for just about anyone to reminisce over.
Looking through archives is also a good way to see just how much time has passed an exactly what has happened. TIME Magazine's Birthday Cover Search is good way to find out what was happening not just when you were born, but for any date. For example, when I was born, people were just learning about young up and coming music conductor Zubin Mehta, who is now 73 and has been the chief conductor at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, Italy for almost 25 years now.
Josh Hosler provides a similar service, but his list is of the number 1 songs for any date, as ranked by Billboard Magazine. Not only can you find the song ranked #1 when you were born, but now you can listen to it, as well. What's the number 1 song when I was born? Judy in Disguise (With Glasses) - which I'd never heard of before I looked it up.
It's one thing to look back at your own life, though and remembering those long-ago concepts. If you want a real shocker, however, take a look at the life of someone younger than you, and find out what they don't remember.
Earlier this week, as they do every year when school starts, Wisconsin's Beloit College releases their Mindset List. This list details the historical events and people that this year's incoming college freshmen couldn't possibly remember, as well as newer concepts that have always been true for them. Here's the Mindset List for the Class of 2013.
Going through the archives of this list is also an eye-opener. For example, if you're old enough to remember watching the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's amazing to realize that it happened before this year's college freshmen were born.
Those are the first 4 discoveries that made me feel old. What's the 5th? Well, that gets it's own post, which you'll see this coming Thursday.
This edition of Snippets returns to the original idea, where the posts are just a good mix of links.
• Breaking the previous record of computing Pi to 1.24 trillion digits, a team of researchers at the University of Tsukuba Center for Computational Sciences has computed Pi to 2,576,980,377,524th decimal places! True, only the first 10 billion digits are available on the web, but considering that 40 digits of Pi is enough to work out the diameter of a universe-sized circle to the nearest proton, that should be adequate for most purposes.
• Here's an interesting logic game - Red Remover. The object is to remove all the red shapes without letting any of the green shapes fall off the screen. The realistic simulation of gravity makes this an interesting challenge. Fortunately, the first few levels walk you through the concept, so you can quickly learn the game.
• Howcast recently posted a video full of handy tips for helping improve your memory. These tips aren't the standard memory techniques, but rather ways to improve your brain's physical ability to retain memories:
• Think you don't have time to exercise your brain with puzzles as suggested in the above video? Then you can make time by using Mind Trainer Toilet Paper!
• Just for fun, here's a different kind of Snipets (notice the different spelling). This was a short segment played in the afternoon during commercials on Field Communications affiliates which taught kids about dealing with different kinds of people. Except for the name, this really doesn't have anything with Grey Matters' usual topics, but I thought it would be interesting.
It's been too long since my last list of free online memory tools, so it's time for an update.
• JogLab: You've probably heard of devices such as My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets for the order of the planets. You may have even wished there were such a handy mnemonic for some other topic.
Joglab, which doesn't even require registration is a free online tool that helps you create mnemonics for just about any list of which you can conceive. It's hard to describe, but the video below shows its use in detail:
In short, the basic idea is similar to the Mnemonicizer in my Free Memory Tools From . . . NASA?!? post, but taken to another level!
• Acronym Finder: This service of the Free Dictionary makes a good companion to JogLab, in that you can often find out if there's established acronyms for what you're studying.
• Mnemonic Dictionary: Besides giving definitions and synonyms like a regular dictionary, the words in this dictionary also include mnemonics to help remember the meaning. You can even sign up for a free account, build word lists, and play word games to help reinforce their meaning in your mind!
• Mnemonic Generator: Do you have a 4-digit code, such as a PIN, that you need to remember? This site will take your 4-digit number and generate a phrase to help you remember it. The number of letters in each word will remind you of a number in your code, although there will be some exceptions to this rule, such as the words nun, whole;nun, or holy;nun to help you remember zero. For example, the number 5327 returned, slimy bum ex husband (among others). slimy has 5 letters, so it will remind you of 5, bum has 3 letters, and so on. The phrases are random, so you can keep clicking the Go button for the same number until you find something you like.
• PhoneSpell: Speaking of making numbers easier to remember, how about making your phone number easier to remember for others by turning it into a dial-able phrase? For you Nintendo Wii users, you can also convert your 16-digit friend code.
• Verbatim Text Tool: I've mentioned this page before, but it deserves another mention. If you need to memorize something verbatim, such as a script, poem or speech, this page features a tool that strips all but the first letter of each word from the text you enter. The challenge is to then recall the work word-for-word, cued only by those first letters. Combined with the line-by-line approach from How To Memorize a Poem, this could make memorization of verbatim text quicker, easier and more fun than you may have previously thought possible.
Do you have any favorite free online memorization tools I missed? Let me know about them in the comments section!
My recent gambling posts Wanna Bet? and Don't Wanna Bet? stirred some interest in gambling and mathematics, so I thought I would delve into the subject further. This time, though, I'll do so with the help of History, and their series Breaking Vegas.
That series was a look at the people who tried to take Vegas for as much money as possible. Some did it using only their brains and some did it by cheating, and all are fascinating to watch.
The series actually started off as a one-shot special of the same name, but simply focusing on the story of the MIT blackjack team, whose story would also be told in the movie 21 and the BBC Documentary Making Millions the Easy Way (full video available at link).
Because of the fantasy allure that Vegas and making millions have, this documentary became quite popular, and the decision was made to turn it into a series. Including the original MIT documentary, there were 14 episodes in all, many of which can freely be found on the internet.
Among these are:
• Blackjack Man, the episode about Ken Uston:
• Roulette Assault, the story of how the Pelayo family beat roulette:
• Slot Buster, how Ron Harris used his position working for the Nevada Gaming Commission to rig various casino games in his favor (full video available at link):
If you speak Spanish, even more episodes of Desafiando Las Vegas (the Spanish name for the show) are available online, courtesy of Vegetta99's YouTube channel.
OK, the show isn't perfect. Speaking as a resident of Las Vegas myself, I do find it to be amazing that they can do 14 episodes about this town, and yet mispronounce the name of the state almost every time it is mentioned. However, if you find any more episodes of this fun and fascinating show, let's hear about it in the comments!
While the blogosphere isn't exactly devoid of political posts, I thought I'd add one with a different twist - a discussion of the mathematical side of voting.
Let's start off with a simpler but nonetheless confounding situation. Imagine a poll of 3 political candidates' popularity is taken. When the results are released, the polls show that 2/3 of voters prefer A to B, and also that 2/3 of voters prefer B to C. Obviously, the voters must definitely prefer A to C, right?
Not necessarily. Surprisingly it is still possible for 2/3 of voters to prefer C to A! In his book, Aha! Gotcha!, Martin Gardner gives a clear example of exactly how this is possible in the section on the Voting Paradox.
The principle causing the apparent contradiction is known as non-transitivity. I've even discussed the idea of employing non-transitivity and politics together, albeit for entertainment, in my Remembering the Election post. While you can find out more about the nature of non-transitivity from Martin Gardner's works, and it will help you understand some of the following discussion, I don't want to veer off the political topic for now.
It's largely non-transitivity that keeps US elections limited to two-party elections, with third-party candidates acting as little more than spoilers. Steven J. Brams, author of Mathematics and Democracy, briefly discusses this in his Plus Magazine article, Mathematics and democracy: Approving a president:
The system used in the US — and many other places, including the UK — is known as plurality voting (PV). PV is based on the "one person, one vote" principle: every citizen casts only one vote for his or her preferred candidate, and the person with most votes wins. But PV has a dismaying flaw: in any race with more than two candidates, PV may elect the candidate least acceptable to the majority of voters. This frequently happens in a three-way contest, when the majority splits its votes between two centrist candidates, enabling a more extreme candidate to defeat both centrists. PV also forces minor-party candidates into the role of spoilers, as was demonstrated in the 2000 US presidential election with the candidacy of Ralph Nader. Nader received only 2.7% of the popular vote, but this percentage was decisive in an extremely close contest between the two major-party candidates.
That whole article is worth reading, especially in relation to alternative voting procedures of which you may never heard, but are nonetheless mathematically valid ways of choosing a leader.
An excellent companion article to this book can be found in Martin Gardner's The Last Recreations, in which he reprints an excellent article in his Voting Mathematics column (this is a limited preview article, so some pages are missing).
Interestingly, the US legal system is already preparing to hear mathematical alternatives to our current voting systems. One of the aspects of the US political system that generates the most discussion for improvement is the Electoral College system, especially where it concerns the division of districts and the potential for Gerrymandering.
Back in 2006, a case concerning congressional redistricting in Texas reached the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Justice Kennedy issued a plea in his opinion for workable standards of congressional redistricting. Unfortunately too late for the Texas court case, mathematician Zeph Landau has proposed a workable idea he says is ready for the next such challenge. While the linked article describes the mathematics in more detail, it's easier to explain it with a recent Jif Peanut Butter ad that uses exactly the same idea. Think of the boys as the two parties, the mom as a third-party member without any stake, and the bread as the state:
Alas, much of this discussion is theoretical for now, as such major changes to the election system would be, by definition, unconstitutional in the US. So, until judges rule such systems to be within constitutional bounds, or an amendment is ratified to change things, we'll unfortunately probably be seeing much of the same for the foreseeable future.
After I published my post on iPhone and iPod Touch magic tricks, it seemed to renew some discussion on whether such devices could be effective in magic routines. I'd like to take the position that it can be effective.
First, people too often only think of the software magic apps that are available. Many of poorer ones are already simply rehashed versions of tricks that have already been overexposed on the internet (Flash Mind Reader, Princess Card Trick, and so on). Many of the remaining ones are obviously the unit itself doing the effect.
What makes the use of an iPhone or an iPod Touch effective when used for magic? Let's explore some of the principles that could make it more effective.
One idea is using the iPod only as part of the preparation, not in the effect itself. For example, if you have to memorize something in order to perform an effect, you could practice this with any one of the numerous Flashcard apps I mentioned recently. In this case, the iPhone's role is well hidden, as the audience never sees it in the first place!
What about when using it in the performance of an effect? Is it still possible to use it deceptively? It sure is.
Even Martin Gardner himself thought enough of magic on computers to give the idea serious consideration in his 2001 book, A Gardner's Workout. Fortunately, the entire chapter on magic and computers is available in the Google Reader preview, and can be seen here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). The principles here are a good starting point for iPhone magic routines. Some of these wouldn't work too well for
One woefully unexplored area in iPhone magic is the idea of the iPhone world and the real world interacting. Sure, there are plenty of magic apps where something from the real world goes into the iPhone, and/or vice versa, and even a few that can seemingly interact with real world magically, such as Alakazapps' Magic Compass and Magic Tattoo. The basic principle could be taken much farther, however.
Here's an example idea. Imagine you're performing Twisting the Aces (for those not familiar with the effect, here's a video performance of it). However, instead of twisting the aces to get them to turn over (or shaking, as in the linked video), you hold the stack of four card up to your iPhone, and a video plays of someone who seems to be taking an ace from the pile, turning over an ace, and then apparently putting it back into the pile. You then show that the same ace really has turned over!
The iPhone is effective in this magic performance because there is no possible way that it could be responsible for actually having the aces turn over. While you're giving credit to the device, you're also allowing the audience to see through the ruse, which in turns makes them give you credit for the magical happening, and helps take the focus off of the method. Wonder Words fans and NLPers will recognize this as a form of a metaphor restriction violation.
Barry and Stuart's ESP Test is another good example of this principle. If you're unfamiliar with the method, you can learn it here. This is an effect that someone needs to port to the iPhone as soon as possible.
One principle of iPhone use that is little talked about magic is incidental use. In other words, the iPhone is used in the routine, but isn't central to the magical effect. Yet, as Lior's Mobile Opener shows, this can be powerful usage nonetheless. The portability, capabilities and capacity of the iPhone put more information at people's fingertips than ever before, and our presentations should take advantage of this. Before I got my iPod Touch, I had to carry a perpetual calendar around in order to perform the Day of the Week For Any Date feat, but now I have several apps allowing me to verify the date (the one I most often use is QuickCal, if you're curious).
Incidental use is also important to note, as it can be a two-edged sword. Asking yourself what information people have access to can greatly affect the deceptiveness of your routine and the effectiveness of your presentation. It's not unreasonable for a person with any kind of smartphone to have instant access, online or offline, to a literally encyclopedic amount of information at their fingertips. If you think I'm kidding, consider the fact that it's possible to have the complete contents of Wikipedia on your iPhone, even while it is offline! Again, consider the good and bad sides. Sure, you might not be able to get away with some white lies that you did in the past, but consider the new possibilities for presentations that weren't possible before, too.
The discussion over the possibilities of mixing new technologies with magic has gone on a long time. David Bamberg once performed an effect with Orson Welles across a movie screen. If you've seen David Copperfield's 14th special, Flying: Live The Dream, you've seen this same routine performed. The effective usage of television and landline telephone magic is still thoroughly discussed and debated among magicians.
Have you found any effective ways to take advantage of the iPhone in your magic routines? Maybe you disagree that effective use of iPhone magic is impossible. Either way, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments!
Between work and personal tasks (like maintaining Grey Matters!), I don't always get to practice my memorized stack order as much as I'd like to. One of the first things I did when I purchased my iPod Touch was to purchase Mental Case (iTunes Link). So, when I came across the Stacked Deck native app (iTunes Link) version 1.0, I figured this was worth checking out.
One of the first things you notice about this app is the price ($4.99 at this writing), which is expensive compared to most apps. This is understandable when you consider that it is intended for magicians practicing a memorized deck, and is expensive enough to prevent the merely curious from downloading it.
To get a better idea of the program, you can see the screenshots both at the iTunes Link, and on Stacked Deck's AppShopper description page.
When you open it, the first thing you want to do is put in the stack order in which you're going to be quizzed. If you enter any of the following names as the stack name, the program offers to automatically populate the stack with the proper order for you:
• Eight Kings/8 Kings
• Joyal (but not "6 Hour Memorized Deck")
• Stebbins/Si Stebbins (Starting with the 6 of hearts)
• Tamariz (but not "Mnemonica")
What to do if you're working with another stack that's not on this list? The way the program is set up, it seems like it should allow you to set your own stack by first entering your own name, and then clicking on a position to enter a card. A screen even comes up with a great interface to allow you to easily enter a card by just touching the value and the suit. However, when you hit the Save button . . . you're returned to the deck screen without the card being saved. Whether you're entering an individual card or an entire deck order (which the interface allows you to do by sliding your finger back and forth to change positions), all clicking Save does is cause the program to forget your input.
This aspect is very disappointing, as the basic workings seems to be there, but with no actual functioning. Considering this is one of the more expensive apps in the app store, you would think a little extra time could be spent to make sure the program fully functions before release. Without a doubt, this should be the first fix in any upgrade of this program.
As it happens, I use the Tamariz stack, and as noted above, you can have the program automatically set it up, so I am able to comment on the rest of this program.
One of the more unusual features is the slideshow section, where you can have the order of the deck played forward or backward. This can be of great help, especially in the earlier stages where you're just getting familiar with the order. As the slideshow is playing, you can adjust the speed, and even pause it. Playing forward and backward are currently 2 different selections in the main menu, but it would be interesting if you could change the slideshow direction during the slideshow itself.
The quizzes, though, are the real heart of the program. As I mention in my memorized deck online toolbox, Dennis Loomis's Memorized Deck Mastery article details exactly what you should know about your particular stack before you can consider it truly mastered.
By these standards, the Stacked Deck app doesn't skimp on the quizzes. You can quiz yourself on the card on the number (and vice versa), as well as the next card and previous cards in both a random fashion, and even in sequence. If you're stumped, you can click the Help button to see the answer. No card in the quizzes will ever repeat until you've seen all 52.
The quizzes don't end until you select the home button. Once you do, you get a handy report, including the total time and number of cards, how many mistakes you made, how many times you asked for help, as well as an average time per card. One thing that could of great help here is some sort of history feature or at least a top score board, where you can go back and see your progress.
Since this is ultimately a flashcard program geared specifically towards playing cards, it would be nice to see it employ both the Leitner System (more frequent questioning of missed cards) and a spaced repetition algorithm. It is largely the lack of this feature which will prevent from relying solely on the Stacked Deck app for card memory. Mental Case may not be geared towards cards, but the more frequent questioning and spaced repetition do help.
Due to mostly to the glaring inability to add a custom stack when it seems to be offered by the program, I'm afraid I can't recommend this program just yet. However, it does have so many good qualities, it is definitely worth keeping an eye on for updated versions.