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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Fun and (Table) Games: Try Blackjack

21 December 2004

Anyone who's played kitchen table blackjack can sit down to the casino version of the game. Anyone can get lucky, too. But most novices would fare better by knowing four little facts.

First, the goal isn't to get closer to 21 than the dealer. It's to beat the dealer. Your total and the dealer's upcard determine how this is most apt to be achieved. Whether to take cards, attempting to raise your score but not exceed 21 and lose at once. Or to stand, hoping the dealer will end with less or bust.

Second, the house gets a big edge from bettors losing if they go over 21, even if the dealer subsequently breaks. However, choices open to players, but not dealers, cut that edge by a lot. These are: the chance to stop below 17 to avoid busting when there's a good likelihood the dealer, who must hit anything less, will go over; ability to gain strength or reduce weakness by splitting pairs then betting on and playing the halves separately; and the option to exploit strong two-card starts by doubling-down -- making favorable auxiliary bets then drawing single cards.

Third, pictures are all ranked as 10, twos through 10s as their face values, and aces as one or 11. You don't declare aces one way or the other. They have whichever values work best under the circumstances, and switch automatically as appropriate.

Fourth, optimum decisions for all cases are known from rigorous computer analysis, so it's possible to make the statistically best moves and not rely on hunches. Further, while the optimum set of plays, known as "Basic Strategy" (or as "the book"), can be a bit much, wallet-sized tell-all charts are widely available. And casinos let you keep them on the table to check at will.

Since beginners can and should use the charts, they oughtn't fret over when to do what. A quick glance will do the trick. Instead, fledglings should familiarize themselves with why and how to split and double, as above, then learn a few procedural ABCs.

Start by checking the sign on the table for the limits, to ensure you're comfortable with the minimum bet. Take an empty seat. Unless the dealer puts cards into a continuous shuffling machine rather than a discard rack, good form is to await a new "shoe." That is, the cards are shuffled and ready to be dealt. Then drop your money on the table, don't hand it to the dealer. Take the chips you're given in return. Bet by placing chips equal to at least the table minimum in the indicated spot in front of you.

You'll receive two cards, face-up. The dealer will take one card up and another down. Consult the handy-dandy chart based on your total and the dealer's upcard. On your turn, show your intent with a hand signal -- always keeping your paws off your cards.

To stand, wave your hand over your cards. To hit, tap or make a scratching motion toward yourself on the felt. To split a pair, place chips equal to your original wager beside the bet already in action -- two to three inches away. To double, place chips equal to your original wager adjacent to and slightly behind the bet already in action. Dealers usually know when good players are splitting or doubling; they'll ask whenever there's any doubt.

To quit, wait for the end of a round, then shove your mountain of chips toward the dealer and say "color, please." The dealer will change them for a smaller stack of higher denomination. Assuming the dealer has been congenial, it's OK to slide a tip forward and mumble, "thanks for the action." For a $5 player, $5 is fine -- more, if you've made a huge haul or had an especially great time.

One more thing. Some solid citizens talk the talk, but mock the laws of probability and balk at risking extra money on splits and doubles. Others think their intuition is superior to the math that governs the galaxy as astronomers now understand it. Go into blackjack planning to play by the book, or don't go in at all. For, as the pensive poet, Sumner A Ingmark, pedantically penned:

Though you can sometimes prosper by dint of intuition,
More often scorning science will weaken your position.

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.