FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Credit unions can’t be afraid to make tough calls, according to one professional blackjack player and former Twitter exec, who advised CU leaders to always make decisions based on sound data.
Jeffrey Ma offered that advice during the Trellance Immersion19 meeting here, sharing stories about how making difficult decisions in his life—on the blackjack table, in business and in his personal life regarding the fate of his mother—have always paid off for him in the long run when he made moves based on good data.
Ma is a professional blackjack player, author and entrepreneur, as well as a former senior director at Twitter. He headed the famous MIT Blackjack Team on which the movie “21” is based.
He emphasized when it comes to “beating the house,” whether that be in business, life or in the casino, smart risk-taking trumps gut calls or inaction the majority of the time.
A Tough Call
Ma opened his remarks citing how he once faced a tough call at Caesars Palace years ago. A card counter who always played his hands based on data—odds determined from cards that had already been dealt—one afternoon he first lost $30,000 on one blackjack game and then $50,000 on the following hand.
“I had lost $30,000 recalled Ma,” who explained that the odds based on the cards that had been dealt to that point called for him to bet even higher on the next hand.
“When a lot of low cards have been played, the odds fall to the player,” said Ma. “A lot of low cards were left so I bet higher on the next hand to win back what I lost. The math called for me to bet more.”
On that next deal, Ma had four good hands each holding bets of $10,000, which all eventually lost when the dealer hit 21.
“I remember heading back to my room at Caesars and just lying on the floor staring at the ceiling,” said Ma. “I wanted to quit.”
The Bigger Picture
Looking at the bigger picture, and not just the huge loss he just suffered, Ma realized he had already had a good week of gambling.
“I went back and played the rest of the weekend and ended up winning $70,000,” he said. “I was 21 at the time, and so what did I learn from that weekend? To have a better long-term perspective and trust the data.”
Ma said it’s typically difficult for people, especially in the business world, to have a long-term perspective, and to also avoid making decisions based on their gut feelings; a challenge exacerbated by fear of making a decision that could lead to losing.
Ma said tough decisions and fears over losses lead many people to “omission bias,” he said, and it hampers players on the blackjack table.
“Omission bias is when you have a hand of 15, you know there are a lot low cards left, and the dealer has a higher total. You know you need to hit, but instead you just stand and hope the dealer takes a card that makes him bust,” said Ma. “A lot of times, people just don’t want to be the cause of their own demise. But that’s wrong. You need to take action based on the data. There is a matrix that outlines the basic strategy for blackjack, and if you follow that the average blackjack player loses 3% of the money he places on the table, even less the better you get. But people don’t often follow basic strategy, even though they know it.”
Ma recalled a time in his life when he had to make a much tougher call than just on a high-dollar blackjack hand. Years ago Ma got a call from his father, who told him his mother had just suffered a stroke.
“When I got to the hospital it was bad,” recalled Ma. “My mother could not talk to me, and she could not move her right side,” he said.
There was swelling in his mother’s brain from the blood. A surgeon advised waiting to see if the swelling would subside.
“If we did nothing, the doctors told us my mother’s chance of surviving and living a good life past 60 days was 20%,” said Ma. “I did not like those odds.”
A Very Risky Move
Instead, one surgeon recommended drilling a hole in his mother’s skull to remove the clot and the blood, and reduce the swelling.
“That was a very risky move,” said Ma. “But if it worked my mother’s chance of living a quality life afterward was high. So we made the tough call to have that procedure done. It was the toughest call I’ve ever had to make.”
But it worked out for the Ma family, he said.
“My mother went on to live nine more quality years, before she unfortunately had another stroke and died,” said Ma. “Before the surgery I told her I wanted her to dance with me at my wedding, and she did that.”