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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Why They Should Offer Surrender at Blackjack, but Usually Don't

9 December 2003

Enlightened casinos let blackjack buffs surrender their hands, forfeiting half the money bet, instead of playing out the round. Most casinos don't offer surrender. Draw your own conclusions.

Late surrender ("late" owing to its taking effect only after dealers verify they don't have blackjacks) is an option the bet bookers ought to ponder more pensively than they do. The reason is that the few erudite players who employ it properly can reduce house advantage for themselves, while the mass of solid citizens deride the tactic or use it incorrectly and increase the edge.

The fly splooshes into the ointment due to the boost surrender gives gamblers who transcend the erudition of Basic Strategy and become proficient card counters. This, despite counters being rare, easy to spot by the way they bet, and readily neutralized when identified. Further, the counting cadre that creeps through the cracks takes less from moderately diligent joints than it gives because many more aspirants do it poorly than well -- thereby reinforcing rather than reversing the house's percentage.

Here's the rationale underlying surrender. If, statistically, you "expect" to lose over half your bet in an adverse situation, you're less behind by surrendering than completing the hand. That is, a sure sacrifice of $0.50 per dollar is preferable to taking a shot when you're projected to lose more, on the average.

With eight decks, ignoring cards already out of the shoe, this circumstance arises only four ways: 15 versus 10 and non-pair 16 against 9, 10, or ace. To illustrate the phenomenon, expectation is to lose almost $0.54 per dollar by hitting 10-6 versus 10 (a bit more by standing). Surrender therefore saves a theoretical $0.04 per dollar bet. The overall impact of surrender to Basic Strategy players is to shave the edge by about 0.08 percent. Not trivial, since edge is under 0.50 percent in the first place.

The bonus for card counters arises because probabilities change based on cards previously withdrawn and accordingly unavailable. As a shoe gets lean in high values, chances of making a hand as opposed to breaking by drawing to 15 or 16 improve. At some point, expected loss on nominal surrender hands falls below 50 cents per dollar and hitting is preferable. Conversely, if a shoe gets rich at the high end, chances rise of breaking when hitting totals of 14 or less, and more combinations warrant surrendering.

In "Blackjack Attack" (RGE Publishing, Oakland CA), Don Schlesinger cites the strategy variations most vital to card counters: hit 15 versus 10 at a count of 0 or below, surrender 15 versus ace at +1 or above, surrender 15 versus nine at +2 or above, and surrender 14 versus 10 at +3 or above. These four moves trim 0.12 percent from the edge. With the 0.08 percent from Basic Strategy surrenders, house advantage drops by 0.2 percent, nearly half the neutral deck total. Given the paranoia about card counters that permeates most of the world's posh punting palaces, you can comprehend why the honchos hesitate to allow surrender.

A few figures will suggest what casinos gain from players who surrender inappropriately when they're underdogs, without regard to the cutoff at 50 cents on the dollar. Nobody likes to hit a bummer such as 9-5 against ace. The expectation is to lose $0.44 on the dollar; bad, but better than giving away $0.50 at the getgo. What about 10-5 versus nine? Weak, but hitting expects to lose $0.47 per dollar bet, beating surrender by $0.03 and therefore emerging as the mathematically "correct" choice.

Occasionally, you'll find a compromise. You can have surrender, but must ask for it when you enter the game. Silly? Not if you realize it alerts the count crew to watch the person making the request. So it helps alleviate the moguls' worst worries, keeping counters from acquiring an advantage while rewarding faithful Basic Strategy players with an 0.08 percent discount. Counters who cry "it ain't fair" don't recognize the reality recalled by the renowned rhymster, Sumner A Ingmark:

Beating enemies aggressive,
Calls for barriers excessive.

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.