Stay or Hit, The Risk Remains

Few people realize that the success of the Houston Astros was birthed at the Blackjack tables of a Lake Tahoe casino before Billy Beane employed Moneyball to save the Oakland As.

Working as a dealer at the table, an engineering student majoring in statistical analytics noticed a pattern. Whenever blackjack players “hit” when they already had a score of 17 or more, they almost always busted (exceeded 21, thus losing). However, if they hit on 16 or less, they often got close to 21, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.

This student watched as players lost hundreds, if not thousands, by making emotional decisions, hitting on 18, or staying at 16. To consistently perform well, this student concluded that 17 was the magic number. Stay if more than 17, hit if 16 or less.

From this experience, the student learned the value of rational decisions that are data driven. That same student went on to develop the analytics program of the Houston Astros, which was instrumental in the development of the roster that won the 2017 World Series.

That program analyzed prospective players not only by their stats, but also by their experiences and physical characteristics, using patterns identified by analyzing the prior 30 years of MLB draft picks.

The book, Astroball, by Ben Reiter, outlines how the Astros built a perennial winner out of a team that was built and developed, not bought.

Despite the success of the Astros, their trek was not without failures. The Stros often released players who went on to brilliant careers, and retained players who flamed out.

Despite all the data and direction offered by a sound analytics program, the Astros were unable to eliminate risk from the equation when it came to analyzing prospective players.

Which takes us back to the blackjack table. Even if you religiously follow the data-driven wisdom of when to hit, and when to stay, sometimes you bust, sometimes you win, and sometimes the House wins.

Obviously, as The Chaplain’s Corner, this blog is not about how to win at the card table, and I’ve never been successful as a sports writer. Seeing the intersection of cards and baseball, however, I do see some life lessons.

In either of those situations, there is risk. There’s risk in action, and there’s risk in inaction. There are consequences for taking the leap, and there are consequences for staying put.

The Astros took a risk in spending millions to pioneer a new form of analytics for player evaluation. Had it not worked, the team would have wasted a fortune to stay in last place. But it worked, and the evidence is right there on the field.

Had they stayed put, they may have still built a winning team, but they’d likely have overpaid, the way they did in 2005.

In blackjack, taking the hit can win the hand, or it can bust you. Staying will keep you from busting, but it may or may not win the hand.

And in life, you have choices. To change careers. To relocate to accept a promotion. To start a business, invest in the stock market, or to buy bonds.

Maybe the business succeeds, maybe it fails, or if you don’t start the business, maybe you miss an opportunity. The stocks rise, the stocks fall, or maybe you don’t buy and you miss an opportunity. You buy the bonds with a guaranteed yield, but inflation negates your gain.

Risk is inherent in every decision, every opportunity, and every moment in life. Stay or hit, the risk remains.

Fear and avoidance of risk is futile. The reasonable thing to do is to evaluate risk, choose the risk with the maximum upside and minimum downside, and hedge against losses.

But losses will happen. So will successes. The key is to live life, to move forward (even if that means staying) and to glorify God in the process.

So the choice is yours. Stay, or hit?

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