Critical Play: Blackjack – Jiwon

For this week’s critical play for games of chance, I chose to play Blackjack online on the Washington Post. Blackjack is a game played against the dealer, where the goal is to have a hand value closer to 21 than the dealer without exceeding it. Players are initially dealt two cards and can choose to either risk it and receive additional cards to get closer to the 21 sum value without exceeding it or keep their current hand. Playing online by myself against a non-human computer dealer, I did not get to experience the collective joy or frustration with other players who are usually seated at the table also playing against the dealer, but nonetheless I enjoyed the game even with fake money.

What makes this game fun, and subsequently addicting, is the feedback mechanism of making certain decisions based on both chance and logic. For example, if you choose to take a risk and receive additional cards and you end up right at 21 or right below it to win that round, you are rewarded for taking that chance. The feeling of being rewarded may encourage you to be more risky, but that might end up with you taking a risk that leads to loss just by nature of chance. To feel the dopamine rush of being rewarded by making a certain decision again, you keep playing — but the more you lose, the more frustrated you feel, and the more you feel like you have to make up for what is lost by continuing to play. But because of the randomness of the cards, and almost everyone will at least lose sometimes. This incentivizes people to keep pushing to make up for their loss, even though it is somewhat inevitable.

Compared to a game like poker, this game differs in the sense that it is much more chance based and there’s nothing you can do about a bad draw. With poker, you can still play well by reading the room and people and bluffing to get your desired outcome, even with a bad hand. But in Blackjack, chance plays a much higher role, which subsequently might make it more prone to addiction because one might reasonably think “I’ve had a string of bad luck for the last few rounds, so surely I’m due for good luck next round!” This combination of chance and logic required to decide whether to hit or pass is what makes Blackjack fun.

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