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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Playing It Smart: Can you save more by betting more? Part 4: Blackjack

5 May 2008

Blackjack players not only can keep the edge extremely low, but sometimes switch it to their side. This, by choosing games with the best rules and following optimum playing and betting strategies. None of these things come free, though. Lowering house advantage, and flipping it so solid citizens are favored, generally require raising the amount of money up for grabs.

The number of decks from which cards are drawn affects edge. The fewer the decks, the lower it is. Specific values depend on the actual rules and way hands are played. Here are figures for strict Basic Strategy in games where dealers must hit soft 17, blackjacks pay 3-to-2, and bettors and can double on any initial two cards, double after splitting, resplit any pairs except aces, and surrender against anything except a blackjack. One deck: the house has essentially no edge; six decks: the casino has approximately 0.4 percent advantage; eight decks: the bosses have about 0.5 percent hammer.

Games with under six decks are rare. The usual options are six or eight. In joints that offer both, six-deck tables generally have higher minimum bets so you must put more at risk to play. An exception is that some continuous shufflers use three decks. High rollers dislike them so they're often found at low-limit tables. If you're interested in this method of shaving the edge, look for these machines but ask how many decks are used.

Dealers hitting soft 17 and rules letting players double after splitting and double on any two-card totals are fairly standard and typically don't hike the price of admission. But resplitting isn't exactly common, and when offered tends to be restricted to high-limit tables. This feature is worth about 0.03 percent.

Basic strategy, itself, implies additional lucre on the line for certain hands. Statistically-correct occasions to double, when allowed on any two-card total, occur with 9.6 percent frequency. For splitting, the probability is 2.5 percent. If you're betting a flat $10, this means that in over 12 percent of all hands you'll increase your exposure to $20 more with doubles after splits or resplits. On the average, for every 100 rounds, your gross wager won't be $10 x 100 or $1,000 but in excess of $1,120. If you don't double at all, the house has 1.6 percent more edge than necessary; the penalty for never splitting is 0.4 percent.

The biggest boost for blackjack buffs in edge, the strategy that puts them in the catbird seat, is card counting. The technique is conceptually simple. When the cards remaining to be drawn contain roughly the original proportions of high and low ranks, the house is a slight favorite if players adhere to Basic Strategy. During the course of a shoe, purely at random, cards drawn in earlier rounds and therefore currently unavailable may be balanced with respect to ranks, or may leave a surplus at the high or low end.

When the remainder of a shoe is rich in high ranks, players have an advantage. When it's rich at the low end, players are at a worse disadvantage than the nominal 0.4 or 0.5 percent.

Card counters track the net of low versus high discards, with the difference indicating the edge entering a round. When high ranks dominate, they have an edge and press their bets. The trick is to maximize the effect by pumping wagers way up as the count climbs.

Most serious card counters won't play with a "spread" below 10-to-1, say $10 per hand on negative or neutral shoes to $100 per hand in highly positive situations. They need the spread so a few propitious coups outweigh multiple adverse rounds. This escalates bankroll demands. It also takes guts. Few folks content starting with $10 are at ease betting $50 or $100 when opportunity knocks, especially knowing that subsequent doubles or splits may mean more money yet. And, of course, it's foolish to think that even having a huge edge is anything like a guarantee of success. As the beloved bard, Sumner A Ingmark, reminded gamblers:


A winning hand is not assured,

Until the proceeds are secured.

So you may find you're out of scratch,

By counting chickens ere they hatch.

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.