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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Holding Back Won't Make the Best of Blackjack Underdogs

5 April 1999

Anybody can play strong starting hands properly at blackjack. It doesn't take a Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevskii to stand and not split, hit, or double on a 20 against a dealer's eight. The kittens get separated from the alley cats on the underdogs.

The weakest starting hands are unpaired hard 16s -- 10-six or nine-seven -- and you'll get them about once every 17 rounds. Whatever the dealer upcard, expectation is as low or lower for 16 than for any other hand. Moreover, it's always negative. Ignoring dealer blackjacks, theoretical loss following Basic Strategy for 16 goes from 15 cents on the dollar against a six to 53 cents per dollar against a 10. Damages deepen when decisions defy dogma.

In games where surrender is not offered, the "book" says stand on 16 when the dealer shows two through six, hit otherwise. However, many blackjack buffs balk when the dealer has seven or above. They know if they hit, they're more apt than not to break so they'll lose no matter what the dealer does. Standing keeps them alive, beseeching the blackjack gods to make the dealer bust.

Violating basic strategy may be fortuitous any specific instance. But how a particular hand turns out is no criterion for judging the caliber of choices which must be made using what's known beforehand, not afterward.

The list below shows expected loss for hitting or standing on 16 vs dealer seven and above, along with the penalty for standing. Values for 10 and ace assume the dealer doesn't have blackjack, since player actions would be irrelevant in these cases.

   expected loss (cents per dollar bet)
 dealer upcard  hit  stand  penalty for standing
 7 41 48 7
8 45 51 6
9 51 54 3
10 53 54 1
A 52 66 14

The figures indicate that the sacrifice for standing is only a penny on the dollar standing vs 10-up. The handicap grows to seven cents per dollar as the upcard decreases from nine through seven, then jumps to 14 cents per dollar when the dealer shows an ace. These results contradict what many players think, namely that it's safer to stand on 16 versus a seven than against a 10.

The error here is the belief that the determining factor is the likelihood the dealer will bust. This is, in fact, the sole concern to solid citizens who stand on 16. It's the only way they'll crawl from the round unscathed. But players who hit and are blessed with a five or below have cleared a major hurdle. They'll not only win if the dealer busts, but also if they finish with the higher point total. In addition, they can declare a moral victory if they emerge from their poor start with a push.

The chance of the dealer breaking does rise as upcards drop from ace to seven. This is reflected in the "stand" column of the list, where losses are costliest against ace and decrease through seven. However, when players stop after reaching 17 to 21 against upcards of seven or above, dealers' chances of various final point totals become more critical than the odds of busting. As upcards go from seven to 10, the chance of a greater -- harder-to-beat -- final total rise. For instance with 7-up, the dealer has about 37 percent chance of finishing with a 17, 14 percent with an 18, and under 8 percent each with 19, 20, or 21. With 10-up, chances of finishing with 20 are roughly 37 percent, while they're only about 11 percent each with 19, 18, or 17.

You give the house extra advantage by standing on 16 against high dealer upcards. If you hesitate to hit, you relinquish the least on a dealer's 10, more as upcards drop to seven, and most against an ace. So, if you're tempted to flinch, do it where it will be least harmful. But, better, adhere to the advice of Sumner A Ingmark, whose poems are on the edge even if they have none:

A gambler who is risk averse,
By holding back may make things worse.
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.