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Ethnographic participant-observation can be distinguished from purely observational methods in that the researcher attempts to live within the community being studied and to participate in their lifestyle and practices as opposed to standing outside the community. My role as participant, then, was as a fellow gambler, who traveled to the casinos; risked, won, and lost money; and engaged with the other gamblers as one of them. If the player has a higher point total than the dealer, or if the player does not bust and the dealer does, then the player wins the amount of their original bet. Players can bet as much as they would like constrained by a minimum and maximum bet as indicated by a sign at each table. The total number of decks depends on the casino and on the table's betting limit. I also learned that the variance in wins and losses, even when betting with the minimum stakes possible, was beyond what I could afford, given the potential reward. Had I first learned about blackjack as a gambling clinician or researcher, I believe my evaluation and understanding would again be considerably different. In , Americans spent more on legal gambling than on movies, theme parks, spectator sports and video games combined Morais, At the same time, a number of researchers have suggested that too much of this research has been conducted in laboratory contexts using non-gamblers Lesieur, ; Walker, Ethnographic work exploring casino gamblers' subjective understandings and rationales for their beliefs is nearly as difficult to come by for some exceptions to this see Hayano, ; Hayano, ; Henslin, ; Lesieur, ; Oldman, The current study takes a step toward addressing this paucity of real-world research. In particular, I think I would be more inclined to see the players' strategies and beliefs as both more reasonable and more correct than I currently do. Players are not allowed to touch their cards; instead they signal their play choices using hand motions or by placing additional chips on the table. First, the researcher often has no means through which to identify causal relationships such as among thought processes, the environment and behavior. Once the hands have been dealt, play proceeds with the first player to the dealer's left, who must make all of his or her play choices before the next player's turn. If the player and the dealer have the same amount, called a push , no money is won or lost, and the player may take his or her original bet back, leave it out for the next round, or add to it. The choice to study blackjack players was largely influenced by this background and experience with the game. Finally, the conclusion will summarize these findings and consider what has been learned of relevance to the study of gambling behavior and problem gambling. In this case I might be more prone to see the strategies and beliefs as a consequence of irrational or biased cognitive and motivational processes. Much of their education has been devoted to learning about the inherent biases and failings of human subjectivity, and much of their approach is designed specifically to overcome these shortcomings through the use of careful control, replication and hypothesis testing. Had I first learned blackjack from extensive experience in the casinos, as did most of the gamblers I observed, I believe that my normative evaluation of these players, and my understanding of their actual decision processes, would be considerably different. Blackjack-specific vocabulary will be defined as it is introduced, but the author recognizes there is a lot to digest. Just after turning 21, I bought a used copy of Edward O. The player also receives a bonus for blackjack of an additional one half of the original bet assuming the dealer does not also have a blackjack, in which case the player and dealer push. A glossary of blackjack-specific terms that will be used throughout the article can be found in the Appendix. In Indiana, blackjack is played on a felt-top table with seven places for players as compared to the six places in the image below who sit around a crescent-shaped table facing the dealer, a casino employee. Part two will discuss the two most widely acknowledged normative models for how to play casino blackjack: basic strategy and card counting. My own background and experience with blackjack has contributed importantly to my decision to study this particular game and to the lens through which I have interpreted and evaluated players' performances. Research psychologists, and cognitive psychologists in particular, tend to be implicitly attuned to the weaknesses of ethnographic method or any attempt at a holistic understanding of human behavior. Beat the Dealer is for card counters something akin to what The Origin of Species must be for evolutionary biologists: the first great book on the subject, esteemed for its theoretical and scientific rigor, still held in high regard and a classic in the field. If the first two cards are an ace and a value card, the player or dealer has a blackjack. This current project is primarily concerned with how the sociocultural context influences gambling decisions. Each player competes only against the dealer, not against the other players. The payout system in blackjack works as follows: If the player busts or if the dealer does not bust and the player gets a lower point total, the player loses and the dealer takes the player's bet. The focus will be on the practices and beliefs surrounding casino blackjack play: what common strategies do blackjack players use when playing the game and how are these strategies understood by the players themselves? The real world is inherently messy, with few if any controls to allow for correlating independent or dependent variables or for replicating results in cases where apparent causal relationships can be identified. As few as one person can play, and one person can play more than one hand, although the minimum bet per hand is higher for players who wish to play more than one hand per round. Cards are dealt from a plastic box called a shoe , which holds either six or eight normal decks of cards that have been shuffled together. A blank plastic card is inserted about two-thirds of the way into the shoe after shuffling. Both of these assume the goal of blackjack should be to win as much or lose as little as possible over the statistical long run. Before the cards are dealt, players place their bets in front of them on the felt in a circumscribed space. The psychologists' concerns are just, and the findings presented in this paper should be seen as tentative. My interest in card counting dwindled. This section will provide a useful background on casino blackjack. As such, a few of the details of this background will be provided here. Second, participant observation allows the researcher a richness of content that is not available with methods involving pre-arranged questions and pre-determined causal variables. When the plastic card is reached after several rounds of play, that particular round is finished, and all of the cards are again shuffled to begin the next round. Once all bets have been placed, two cards are dealt face up to each player and two cards to the dealer, one face up and the other face down. At this point the player receives exactly one additional card, no more, no less.{/INSERTKEYS}{/PARAGRAPH} Yet there has been comparatively little research examining the practices and beliefs of actual gamblers within their natural gambling context. This includes blackjack rules as offered in the casinos where I conducted my fieldwork, and an introduction to both the basic strategy and card counting. {PARAGRAPH}{INSERTKEYS}A great deal of research on the psychology of gambling has been conducted that has looked at non-experienced gamblers in laboratory or classroom settings. Participant observation, on the other hand, is ideal. Most of the fieldwork was conducted either on a casino shuttle carrying passengers to and from downtown Chicago hotels or at blackjack tables in the two casinos. A significant observation that I made during this period was that most experienced players not only systematically violated basic strategy, but also that they often adamantly and vociferously opposed many of the basic assumptions of card counting and, apparently, of probability theory. These may be purchased from the dealer at the table. Doubling down is an option on the player's first two cards. At the same time, the shortcomings of experimental methods and the benefits of ethnography are also undeniably true. It also opens the researcher up to both implicit and explicit values and beliefs that will often not be visible to non-participant observers or to others more markedly outside the community being studied. Non-participant observation, an experimental paradigm, or structured interviews are simply not as well-suited to answer these questions. Thorp's Beat the Dealer in preparation for an upcoming drive through Nevada. Bets are made in the form of casino chips that have various monetary values signified by both a color code and a printed dollar amount. The research examines blackjack players' strategies for and beliefs about winning as explained and understood by the gamblers themselves. For that reason, a glossary of blackjack terms has been included in an appendix as a reference. Where a non-participant-observer often approaches subjects with pre-existing categories or concepts to be measured, the participant-observer tends to seek out the categories and concepts widely shared by members of the group being studied. The remainder of this paper will be organized into three sections. At the same time, two important shortcomings to ethnographic participant observation should be stated up front. It uses blackjack's basic strategy and card counting as organizing principles around which to discuss and assess these strategies and beliefs. The first section will provide details regarding the game of blackjack itself. Yet they also tend to be relatively unreflective about the shortcomings of reductionism and the ways in which behavior in context is more than the sum of individual psychological processes. This requires doubling the original bet. Blackjack is the most powerful hand in the game, winning against all other hands, including other hands worth 21 points that are not blackjacks. Although I did not know it at the time, Thorp is widely viewed as the father of contemporary card counting. Part one will introduce the rules of the game in the casinos where I conducted my fieldwork. For a detailed description of participant-observation as a research methodology see J. The two most common choices are between hitting or standing which involve, respectively, either taking additional cards or not taking additional cards and ending the turn. It allows the researcher to share the subjective experiences of members of the community in this case, the subjective experience of gambling. To understand this, a rich sense of this context is essential: what are the gamblers' world views, what are their values and beliefs, how is information structured and selectively available within the gambling environment and what are the components and dynamics both of that environment and of the gambling experience. The goal of blackjack is to get a higher point total than the dealer without busting getting more than 21 points. Knowing the basic strategy by heart is a prerequisite for the successful implementation of any card counting system. Casino blackjack is a somewhat complicated game with its own vocabulary, as many as five types of choices per hand, significant consequences on one's chances of winning depending on these choices, and a variety of rules and norms surrounding play. Spradley's Participant Observation There are three main strengths that I believe make ethnographic participant-observation ideal for studying gambling behavior in context. Participant observation allows the researcher to be surprised with relevant information that may have been inadvertently screened out by other research methods. The latter is known as the hole card. Third, and most importantly, participant observation allows the researcher richer access to the practices, values, beliefs and experiences of the people being studied compared with other methods. For the next two years after that, I read several books on card counting, eventually learning advanced methods. The use of basic strategy and card counting in blackjack, both as normative models and as organizing structures for describing actual blackjack play are largely a result of my path into blackjack and the theoretical perspective which that path provided. Players have up to five different choices in blackjack: hitting, standing, doubling down, splitting , and taking insurance or even money. The second section will present the ethnographic findings. Gambling is a large and growing industry in the United States and around the world Gu, ; Morais, In Europe between and , legalized casinos expanded from 20 to 32 countries Gu, In the U. Without the ability to rule out confounding variables, to measurably quantify results or to replicate findings, it is difficult to be sure whether ethnographic findings are really findings at all or simply the idiosyncratic outcome of a complex mish-mash of cause and effect. A few additional conversations took place in other venues as well β€” at the casino buffet, waiting in line to board the ship, and, in one case, during an interview with a floor supervisor. All cards are worth their face value with two exceptions: face cards jacks, queens and kings are each worth 10 points, and aces are worth either one or 11, depending on which makes a better hand. The current research contributes to the naturalistic study of casino gamblers. The current study should be seen, then, as just one part of a larger research program, the part important primarily for its absence from the larger whole, which is currently unbalanced on the side of experimental, quantitative research. The second weakness is that what the researcher observes and remembers is necessarily subjective since there are no concrete criteria for what to record or what to attend to, and there is no permanent record to refer to for verification that what seemed significant actually is or what one remembers actually occurred.