Fast Forward Focus

I’ve always had trouble focusing my mind quickly because my thoughts tend to be akin to a pinball wildly bouncing around a full tilt gaming machine. This can be troublesome when trying to sit down and play a game of chess! For the last three years, I’ve been studying the game of blackjack from a mathematical standpoint. In my studies, I’ve also learned the art of card counting which any good blackjack player will tell you, drastically improves your chances of doing well against the casino (reducing the odds). I should note that this article is not in any way an endorsement for either card counting or gambling. To be able to card count at a blackjack table takes years of practice and is only a small part of mastering the game, mathematics being the lion’s share of the work. However, I will say that taking a single, well shuffled deck of cards and counting it (using the basic Hi-Low system) is an excellent way to focus your ability to quickly concentrate. Again, don’t think that simply doing this is going to make you a high roller at the casinos (they frown upon card counters and you don’t want to visit the casino’s pit boss in his dark, smokey and frightening back office)!

When you watch a Hollywood film about blackjack card sharks, you tend to see either one or two character types. You have your rain man type, savants who can’t string two words together but seem to be able to instantly count the exact number of tooth picks that fall out of a container and onto the floor. The next character is the guy who walks up to the blackjack table and a though bubble appears over his head filled with calculus equations. From these two highly exaggerated examples, people think you have to be a gifted idiot or rocket scientist to pull off card counting. The good news? If you know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply, you have the prerequisite skills required. Learning card counting is easy but mastering it extremely difficult (especially when faced with a six decks, 312 cards, a standard in Las Vegas). Doesn’t this sound like a familiar game we all love? However, to do this concentration exercise you just need to learn the basics.

Because you have to concentrate heavily while doing the counting, it focuses your mind, narrowing the thought process down and in doing so, helps to point your thinking in a single direction rather than a scattered one. I now count a single deck of cards before sitting down to play chess (whenever possible) because it gets rid of the scattered thoughts that damage my ability to singularly concentrate on one thing. Here’s how it works:

A deck of card has four suits, diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades. These are completely ignored in the count. It’s all about the card numbers! There are thirteen numerically valued cards within each suit, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace. You might be thinking, with thirteen different types of cards, how am I supposed to keep track of them all? The good news is that we’re going to divide all of those cards into one of three numeric values: +1, -1 and 0 or the neutral card.

Any card with a value of 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 is assigned a value of +1. This means they’re worth one point. The 7, 8 and 9 have a value of zero. The Jack, Queen, King and Ace are worth -1. This means they’re subtracted from the positive numbers. Let me clarify this with an example:

After shuffling the deck, you flip over the first card and it’s a 2. This means it’s worth 1 point. The next card up is a 5 which is worth another point. You now have two points (1+1=2). The next card up is a 4, so you now have a total of 3 points (1+1+1=3). The fourth card dealt from the deck is a Jack. This card is valued as -1, which means you subtract 1 point from your total (1+1+1-1=2), leaving a total value of two. The next card up is a 8 which has a value of zero so you don’t worry about it (1+1+1-1+0=2). You go through the deck, mentally adding and subtracting as you go along. You’ll get it wrong at first but don’t worry because the idea here is to focus your thought process on this single procedure, clearing all those random thoughts out of your mind as you count. If you really need to see if you’re counting correctly, go through the deck of cards first and write down the value for each card and the final total, carefully keeping them in the order they were shuffled in, and then go back and do it in your head. Compare the two answers.

Again, this is not an advertisement for improving your blackjack techniques or an invitation to take up gambling. Trust me when I say, the house or casino always wins in the end. Most people are NOT suited for gambling, period! However, if you’re looking for a quick way to sharpen your focus, give this a try. Of course, I feel like a bit of a dullard since I didn’t think to try this as a chess tool when I first learned how to do it! It only became a training tool because I was waiting for an opponent who was running late and just happen to have a deck of cards in my car. You know, I think this counting business really works because this is the shortest, most “to the point” article I’ve written to date! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week and remember, chess is not a game of chance so you shouldn’t be taking any!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).