Card counting expert talks business

Thane Himes

Professional blackjack player and social media strategy expert Jeffrey Ma believes the most important lessons learned about business strategies are all in the cards.

Ma, the real life inspiration for the hit movie “21,” spoke Wednesday at the Memorial Union about his experiences as a blackjack player and how they helped him in business decisions.

“The most important thing I learned from playing blackjack is that you can’t quit because it’s what’s easy,” Ma said. “Deciding not to play and to maintain the status quo is still making a decision. Even putting off deciding is making the decision not to decide.”

Ma is the co-founder of Citizen Sports, a sports media company that brought the fantasy sports world to Facebook.

“Many of the mistakes made in gambling are due to omission bias or the preference of inactivity over taking action,” Ma said. “While it is our very nature to favor inaction, it’s all too often a mistake. You can’t win if you don’t play.”

Of course, when one does gamble there’s always the possibility one could lose. But Ma believes losing isn’t always a bad thing.

“A bad outcome doesn’t always mean you made a bad decision,” Ma said. “And at the same time, a good outcome doesn’t always mean you made a good decision. The important thing is to always make sure you have evaluated your decision from a true zero frame of reference. If you can make completely objective decisions, you’ll have your data to back you up.”

Ma said it’s important to be independent of your recent results.

“There is no such thing as winning or losing streaks. It’s all about how much you put into your decision making,” Ma said. “However, that doesn’t mean that looking to the past is a bad thing. Looking at the past is the best way to predict the future. But it can’t be your only basis.”

He said the problem is people are far more inclined to remember details that support their theories than ones that don’t.

“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket and make decisions that aren’t objective simply because a decision was your idea. In both business and card counting, there needs to be a collaborative effort,” Ma said.

Ma was part of the highly successful MIT blackjack team that won millions with Ma’s card-counting strategy.

“Blackjack is the perfect game because it’s always the same,” Ma said. “Unlike poker or roulette or any other game, it’s 100 percent based on numbers data. If you follow the basic strategy utilizing that data, you reduce the casino’s edge by a pretty good amount. It’s what my team did, and it helped take a lot of the risk out of gambling.”

However, Ma stressed that numbers aren’t everything in both business and blackjack.

“If I were to pick someone for my blackjack team, most people would assume that my first concerns are their math skills,” Ma said. “But they’re wrong. The biggest concern one has to have in both business and gambling is ‘Can I trust that person?’ If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how smart they are.”

Ma said that above all else, don’t quit.

“It’s easier, but it’s no way to win in gambling or business. It’s how you bounce back from those bad outcomes that really define who you are. And if you’re playing blackjack and have 20, always stand,” Ma said.