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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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How Much Does Sacrificing Edge in Blackjack Really Matter?

24 May 1999

Of the starting hands most commonly misplayed by blackjack buffs, soft 18 -- ace-seven -- may be the costliest. Solid citizens often err by standing on this hand when hitting or doubling would be more beneficial. The following list shows Basic Strategy, the decisions giving players the greatest expectation, along with the theoretical penalty per dollar of initial wager for standing, in each soft 18 situation. The information is for eight-deck games

dealer upcard 2-card decision penalty for standing,
per dollar bet
A hit  $0.0055
10 hit  0.0294
9 hit  0.0837
8 stand  0.0000
7 stand  0.0000
6 double  0.1012
5 double  0.0996
4 double  0.0667
3 double  0.0285
2 stand  0.0000

Against nine and above, soft 18 is an underdog regardless of how it's handled. The figures indicate that hitting lowers the statistically-expected loss -- the greatest improvement exceeding eight cents per dollar of initial wager against nine, and the least being just over half a cent per dollar with an ace-up.

Soft 18 is favored for three-up through six-up whether you hit, stand, or double. Hitting or doubling, chance is 23 percent of improving, 31 percent of remaining the same, and 46 percent of worsening. You'll therefore win more frequently by standing than hitting or doubling. A hit therefore cuts expectation; a double, however, raises it because the extra money in action outweighs the fewer hands won. Gain is highest against six-up. It's least, but still almost three cents per dollar bet, against three-up.

Impact on house edge depends on how often each hand is likely to occur as well as on the penalty for playing it poorly. For the eight-deck game, soft 18 errors raise the house edge by 0.046 percent. Say you average $10 per bet for four hours during the course of a day. Depending on table conditions, you're apt to receive 300 hands. This means you bet a total of $3,000, and can expect three or four soft 18s during this period. Overall, you're only giving up a theoretical $1.38 to increased house advantage.

As a practical matter, though, when soft 18s do occur, the theoretical sacrifices represented by weak play can be substantial. For $10 bets, the penalty figures show that when you stand rather than double against five or six, or not hit against nine, you're giving the casino a bonus of about $1.

Results differ somewhat when fewer decks are in play. For instance with a six-deck shoe, misplaying soft 18s raises overall edge to 0.049 percent. In 300 rounds of $10 each, you can still anticipate three or four of these hands, but the theoretical sacrifice resulting from the higher edge would be $1.47. On individual hands, penalty rises slightly against dealer nines, sixes, fives, and fours; it drops against dealer aces and deuces.

Changes are more radical in single-deck games. It's better to stand than hit on soft 18 versus ace-up with one deck, but the other decisions are the same as on the eight-deck list. You'll get a fractionally higher proportion of soft 18s and the sacrifice in edge will be 0.064 percent -- $1.91 in 300 bets of $10 each. On a hand-by-hand basis, the penalties for violating basic strategy are greater in single than in multi-deck games, typically by a few cents per dollar bet; the exception is on doubles against three-up, where the handicap is slightly less.

Considering only edge, none of the common departures from basic strategy has much impact on session results. Under $2 difference after putting $3,000 in action, if soft 18 is your sole Achilles heel, will hardly be noticed. So, why bother? Optimal play of each hand can be significant when the situation arises. And small differences -- here and now -- weed out the victors from those who talk more about the buffet than the play. Sumner A Ingmark, noted for sweating the details of his verses, said it like this:

The betting world's great connoisseurs,
Exploit each chance as it occurs.
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.