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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Single-deck 6-to-5 blackjack isn't always hazardous to your wealth

26 March 2007

Say you play the usual version of blackjack offered in casinos these days. You'll be able to split any pair, double down on any two cards including hands formed by splits, and will be paid 3-to-2 for a winning blackjack. Unless you're a high roller, the game will be dealt from an eight-deck shoe.

If you follow Basic Strategy in making decisions, the edge you fight will be roughly half a percent. The "standard deviation" – which you can think of as the average amount your bankroll rises or falls per hand – is about 1.13 times your bet.

Make believe you bet a constant $10 per round on a single spot. Were you to play for three hours at a table with four total spots in action, you'd get about 250 hands. The total you'd have bet would be $10 x 250 or $2,500. Based purely on edge, you'd expect to be down half a percent of this "handle," or $12.50.

Not an excessive price to pay for three hours of excitement. Especially because you probably got a few beverages for the cost of the tip alone. And, well-mannered person that you are, a kindly floor person might even stretch the criteria a bit and reward you with a comp for the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Hopefully for better but possibly for worse, edge isn't the whole story. Other factors, think of them as luck, superimpose bankroll swings on the gradual erosive effect of the edge. Just as you may encounter hills and valleys, highs and lows, while driving from the mountains to the sea while losing elevation on the average.

Of particular practical importance to many solid citizens is the likelihood their bankrolls will be enough for them to survive the downswings of a normal session. Playing the game as described with a $250 bankroll at $5 per round, you'd "pay" only $6.75 in edge and would have better than 99 percent chance of remaining in contention for the three hours. If you couldn't find a $5 game and played for $10 instead, edge would make your action worth $12.50 to the casino and you'd have 82 percent chance of getting three hours of thrills and chills without going broke.

Maybe it's a Saturday night, the joint is crowded, and you can't even find a $10 table. At $15 per round, you're sacrificing a theoretical $19.25 in edge, which doesn't seem outrageous. But your chance of survival is only 63 percent. At $25 per round, the figures are $31.75 in edge and a 40 percent chance of endurance.

You look around and see a few tables with signs touting "one-deck blackjack" in big letters, and "blackjacks pay 6-to-5" somewhere in the fine print. Lo and behold, limits are more affordable. Maybe $5 or $10 while eight-deck 3-to-2 tables are $15 and $25.

Most gambling gurus warn that 6-to-5 blackjack is a sucker game. This, despite whatever benefits accrue from the single-deck deal. Should you heed the warning or play at the lower level anyway?

The gurus are right in that the edge is almost three times as heavy. In 250 rounds at $5, the house figures an average take of $17.75; at $10, it's $35.50. The standard deviation is smaller, 1.11 instead of 1.13. Overall, chances of survival on a dollar-for-dollar basis are less in the 6-to-5 as the 3-to-2 game. But only marginally so. With $250 in your fanny pack, you still have over 99 percent chance of remaining in action for three hours at $5. At $10, your survival rate drops from 82 to 80 percent.

When you compare $15 or $25 3-to-2 blackjack with its $5 or $10 6-to-5 counterpart, the situation may not look bad at all. Playing the less favorable game at lower limits, you'll be contributing more modestly to the casino's coffers while improving your prospects for a satisfyingly long session.

Sure, if you find yourself on a roll, you're not apt to earn as much as you might have with larger bets at a game with a smaller edge and a greater standard deviation. But, hey, if you think gambling's only about money for its own sake, you must have never memorized this mantra of the immortal muse, Sumner A Ingmark:

Casinos ain't no bargain store,
Where betting less can win you more,
But is that all you're looking for?

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.