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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Blackjack Players Don't Glorify Sweet Sixteen

6 November 1995

veryone dreads pulling a "hard" 16 at blackjack when the dealer shows nine, 10, or ace. With good reason. They're among the worst hands you can draw, the stiffs with the least chances of winning. But, if you play them correctly, you can trim the expected losses.

Here are the options:

Draw a card. You hope your hit won't wipe you out with a total over 21. Then you beg the gambling gods to send cards that bust the dealer's hand or end it below or equal to yours.

Stand. Then pray for a dealer bust.

In casinos offering the option, surrender two-card 16s against those nines, 10s, and aces. You lose your whole bet if the dealer has blackjack; otherwise you lose half.

If your 16 comprises two eights, split the pair. You make a second bet equal to the first, then play each eight as the beginning of a separate hand.

The accompanying table shows how vulnerable 16 is against dealer nine, 10, and ace. Entries give expected losses for $10 initial bets with each of the four playing options. For perspective, "fair" bets would have zero expected loss; favorable hands would have expected gains for instance over $6 for 19 against dealer seven, almost $1 for nine against dealer eight.

In deriving the table, I assumed cards are drawn from shoes containing humongous numbers of decks; figures for the six- and eight-deck games found in most casinos would be within pennies either way. Also, values for splitting eights are conservative; they ignore benefits of doubling down if a two or three is drawn to a split eight and they don't allow re-splitting if another eight falls both of which lower expected loss.

The table shows that when it's appropriate, splitting eights is the best tactic. Certain solid citizens erroneously believe that splitting eights against nine, 10, or ace is suicide because basic strategy for optimum blackjack play is predicated on the "unknown card being a 10." The table proves this is a costly myth.

The table further indicates that for hard 16s not formed by pairs of eights, surrender is the best option. On $10 bets, surrender saves $0.09, $0.37, and $0.12 relative to hitting against nine, 10, and ace, respectively. Lots of folks, including experienced players and casino personnel, consider surrender a cop-out that favors the house. The table reveals this as false for 16 versus dealer nine, 10, and ace. It's also false for 15 versus 10, where surrender saves $0.04 on a $10 bet. Surrendering other hands, though, gives the casino more edge than necessary.

Further, the table shows that if the 16 is not a pair of eights and surrender is unavailable, hitting is preferable to standing. It saves an average of $0.34, $0.01, and $1.03 on $10 bets when the dealer shows nine, 10, and ace, respectively. Many players stand, though; they seem to fear being instruments of their own doom, choosing to let the dealer seal their fate.

Why are 16s often misplayed against dealer nine, 10, and ace? Partly because they're fragile no matter how they're handled. And partly because even strong probabilities aren't certainties. So everyone remembers when they split eights or surrendered nine-seven, drew a five, and wished they'd hit. Or when they hit and busted with a seven, feeding the dealer a six that made 21 when the seven would have been a breaker, and regretted not standing. There's also a penchant to be gun-shy and exercise what seems like but actually isn't caution. They therefore stand rather than hit, or hit one hand rather than split and risk two bets. Finally, there's a tendency to misunderstand surrender, considering it a sign of a weak player rather than a valid way to cut losses under the right circumstances.

Sumner A Ingmark, poet of the punting pits, put it pointedly:

Casinos promise more elation,
When players turn from speculation,
And put their faith in computation.

TABLE
Expected loss for an initial bet of $10
when the player has a 16 against a dealer nine, 10, or ace
for four alternate playing strategies
dealer up-card stand on 16 hit 16 surrender 16 split eights
NINE $5.43 $5.09 $5.00 $4.20
TEN $5.76 $5.75 $5.38 $5.37
ACE $7.69 $6.66 $6.54 $5.80
Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.