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Best of Alan Krigman

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Is Basic Strategy at blackjack really right about soft 18s and 19s?

5 March 2012

Blackjack buffs have positive prognostications with 19s regardless of the dealers’ upcards. This total beats a dealer’s final 17, 18, or bust; pushes on an ending 19; and loses to a finishing 20 or 21. With 18s, players are in decent shape versus 2- through 8-up. This total is less promising than 19 because it only beats a dealer’s 17 or bust while it pushes an 18 and loses against a 19, 20, or 21. When either total is “hard” – for instance 9-4-6 or 10-8 – bettors shouldn’t do anything but stand and await fate. Drawing is much more apt to cause an immediate loss by busting than to improve a position. The odds are 11-to-2 this will be the case with 19, and 10-to-3 with 18.

While 19s are all favorable, they’re not uniformly so. The total is best against 7-up where chances are 76.90 percent of winning, 15.25 percent of losing, and 7.85 percent of pushing – for an average gain of $61.65 per $100 bet. It’s weakest against 10-up; considering only hands when the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack, probabilities against a 10 are 47.22 percent of winning, 40.66 percent of losing, and 12.12 percent of pushing – for an average gain of $6.56 per $100 bet.

Although an 18 is projected to bring joy more frequently than sorrow against 2- through 8-up, it’s strength also varies with what the dealer is showing. The total is strongest against 7-up where prospects are 63.11 percent of winning, 23.10 percent of losing, and 13.79 percent of pushing – for an average profit of $40.01 per $100 bet. An 18 is unfavorable for players facing 9, 10, or ace. This total is weakest against a 9 where chances are 34.93 percent of winning, 53.28 percent of losing, and 11.80 percent of pushing – for an average setback of $18.35 per $100 bet.

With soft 18s or 19s – such as A-7 or A-8 – another card can’t bust the hand. It may raise, not affect, or lower the total. So, can you improve by hitting or doubling? Basic Strategy tells when and which of these tactics is preferable to standing on the soft total.

For soft 19, expectation is greatest by standing under all circumstances. Hitting or doubling always reduce the average profit – often substantially. Against 10- and ace-up, they flip the outlook from positive to negative. Against a 9, hitting drops expectation close to zero and doubling to a small loss. In two situations, though, the penalty for doubling over standing is relatively minor. Players eager for big returns may therefore feel warranted taking the shot under generally favorable conditions – presumably recognizing that although doubling in these instances will pay twice as much as standing in successful coups, they’ll prevail less than half as often and losing hands will set them twice as far back. The closer of the two calls is A-8 against 6-up; standing yields an expectation of $49.44 per $100 put at risk at the onset of the round and doubling an average gain of $48.01 per $100 so wagered. The other is A-8 against 5-up, where the projections are $44.20 standing and $41.18 doubling per $100 wagered before the deal.

Soft 18s are more idiosyncratic. Four situations of possible interest arise.

1. Against 2-up, expectation is positive hitting, standing, or doubling. It’s at a peak for standing – an average of $12.34 per $100 bet – so this is what Basic Strategy dictates. Doubling cuts expectation slightly to $12.07 per $100 bet at the start of a round; it scores just under half as often as standing and costs twice as much when it goes awry. But the attraction of earning the extra money when it succeeds may appeal to solid citizens hell bent on going for broke.

2. Expectation is positive against 3- through 6-up for all possible plays. The average profit per dollar bet at the outset of the round is smallest by hitting, intermediate by standing, and largest by doubling. This is accordingly what Basic Strategy ordains. The gains per $100 starting bet by doubling over standing are from $15.04 to $17.89 against a 3, $17.91 to $24.58 against a 4, $20.22 to $30.19 against a 5, and $28.12 to $38.25 against a 6. Recognizing that the higher returns come at the expense of less frequent wins and more money at risk, bettors with small bankrolls might seriously consider whether they’d rather settle for less of a payoff with a lower amount at risk and a higher likelihood of winning.

3. Against 7- and 8-up, expectation is positive and greatest by standing. Hitting imposes a big enough penalty to be ruled out. Doubling is better than hitting against 7, but worse against 8.

4. When the dealer shows 9, 10, or Ace, expectation is negative standing and worse doubling. Hitting, when a player can draw more than once if desired, is still adverse but the average loss is less than by standing so this is how Basic Strategy indicates the hand should be executed.

Decisions that maximize average gain on the good hands and minimize average pain on the bad isn’t the only criterion proficient players may use to govern their blackjack action. Understanding this may offer good reasons to avoid selected Basic Strategy dicta about doubles on soft 18s and 19s. This is a far cry from some players’ fatuous notions that their intuition is stronger than the laws of probability. The justification arises when short-term objectives differ from lifetime gambling goals. Here’s how the wary wordster, Sumner A Ingmark, described the dilemma:
Tween rocks and those hard spots you sometimes get caught,
When personal preferences say “take a shot,”
Though Strategy Basic decrees you should not.

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.