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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Wrong Calls Can Win, If You Get Enough Right Cards!

27 March 1995

blackjack recently, a fellow player kept making big bets and clumsy calls. His worst foible? Hexadecimaphobia, fear of hitting 16s. He stood on them regardless of the dealer's position.

This play is weak against strong dealer upcards. Rather than list percentages, I'll just remind you that the dealer can't stop below 17, so a player's 16 never ties and only wins if the dealer busts. For the best profit potential with 16:

stand for dealer upcards of two through six;

draw for dealer upcards of seven and eight;

surrender for dealer upcards of nine, 10, and ace if this is an option and draw otherwise.

My table mate won on a few 16s when following the 'book' would have cost him all or half his bet. On these hands, he'd mutter something like, "I had a hunch the dealer would break!"

Mostly, standing when the best strategy was to hit or surrender 16 didn't affect his final result. He would have won or lost, as the case may be, either way. He'd then mumble, "See, it didn't matter," or words to that effect.

And, of course, tempting fate sometimes cost him cash. As you can imagine, he was bereft of braggadocio in these instances.

At one stage, this solid citizen got three 16s in a row against dealer eight, eight, and nine. He stood on them all, losing to "pat hands" with 10, nine, and ace in the hole. Worse, by drawing, he would have won two and tied one because the next cards turned out to be four, ace, and five, in that order.

He moaned, "I'm getting killed." I guardedly volunteered, "It's tough to win with 16 against a high upcard. And you can't tie." He replied, "Yeah, but everyone stands with 17 and I don't see much difference between that and 16."

How did it finally turn out? The nice guy in me wants to report we both won, I from skill and he from luck. My sanctimonious side wants to claim I won and he lost because knowledge is power. My humble nature wants to say I lost and he won since, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "our wills and fates do so contrary run." Unfortunately, my truthful self has to admit we both lost.

Still, no incident lacks redeeming value. Even the worst ordeal can serve as a horrible example with lessons for the future.

1) Numerical lesson: less isn't more. A 16 is as good as a 17 if the dealer busts. A 17 is as bad as a 16 if the dealer "makes" 18 through 21. But a dealer's seven will yield 17 in almost 37 percent of all cases. And, a dealer's eight, nine, 10, or ace will each yield 17 roughly 11 to 13 percent of the time. A 16 loses and a 17 ties under these conditions.

2) Logical lesson: odds don't cause outcomes. Gamblers influence their chances by following or flaunting the odds. But, the odds predict the fraction of bets you'll win; they don't bring about particular outcomes.

3) Tactical lesson: skill and luck are complementary. Some people believe skill certifies attainment. They don't perceive when they've been lucky; they're puzzled when they've been unlucky. Other folks believe luck is the essence of success. They don't appreciate how skill can help; they discount how inability can hurt. Neither element stands alone, the less there being of one the more there's need for the other.

But, I'd better stop here. Else, I'll soon be speculating whether gambling is life's experience writ small, in which case this anecdote is a parable and the lessons are homilies. Still, as Sumner A Ingmark, a truly parabolic poet, once predicted:

With adroitness alone you may not succeed,
But the more skilled you are, the less luck you'll need.

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.