Saturday, April 27, 2013

Blackjack freedom of choice helps if you know how to choose

Freedom of choice is a good thing for blackjack players who know their basic strategy, but for many players, it largely means the freedom to choose poorly.

Players who take the time to learn well are best off with a game that gives them plenty of options. Being allowed to double down on any first two cards and to split and resplit pairs is to the advantage of players who know how to use the options wisely. On the other hand, I see players every week who would be better off if double downs were restricted to hard totals of 10 or 11.

Of course, such players would be better off still if they just took a short time to learn how to use the options presented. Let's take a look at rules that can be beneficial to the player, but need to be handled with care.

Double down on any first two cards: When it comes to doubling down, I've seen some truly odd plays. I once watched a fellow double down every time he started with hard 12. Doubling when it's possible to bust in one card is such an unusual--and bad--play that the dealer was required to call "Double on hard 12!" to the pit supervisor every time the play was made.

I also once played at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at the same table as a man who doubled on every soft total--hands in which an Ace is at least temporarily being counted as 11 and which can't be busted with a one-card hit. He peeled off $100 bill after $100 bill, getting his comeuppance for doubling Ace-2 against a dealer's 9, and Ace-4 against a 7. The play that had the whole table trying to show him the error of his ways was when he doubled on Ace-Ace against a Jack, instead of the far superior play of splitting the pair. Such players would be better off if opportunities to double down were limited.

In multiple-deck games where the dealer stands on all 17s, it's to the basic strategy player's advantage to double on hard 11 unless the dealer's up card is an Ace, on hard 10 against everything except an Ace or 10-value, and on hard 9 against 3, 4, 5 or 6. If the dealer hits soft 17, double on 11 against all dealer up cards, including the Ace. No doubling on hard 12 or above, or on hard 8 or below.

As for soft hands in stand-on-all-17s games, double soft 17 or 18 if the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6, soft 15 or 16 against 4, 5 or 6, and soft 13 or 14 against 5 or 6. If the dealer hits soft 17, also double on soft 18 vs. 2, and soft 19 vs.6.

Resplitting pairs: I've occasionally been in casinos that allow only one split--if you split 8, 8 and are dealt another 8, you're stuck with 16 as the start to one hand. Most allow you to resplit pairs, so in that situation, you could have three separate hands, each starting with 8. Some allow up to three splits, giving you a total of four hands.

Players who do strange things such as splitting 5s or 10s--awful plays--are better off with a rule that stops them before they split again. But really, being allowed to resplit is to the player's advantage, provided the player knows when to split in the first place. As far as the basic strategy player is concerned, if splitting the pair is the proper play the first time, so is each potential resplit.

When should you split the pairs? Always split Aces and 8s, but never split 5s or 10-values. For everything else, it depends on the dealer's up card.

If allowed to double down after splitting pairs, split 2s or 3s if the dealer shows 2 through 7, 4s against 5s or 6s and 6s against 2 through 6.

If doubling down after splitting is not permitted, split 2s or 3s against 4 through 7, never split 4s and split 6s only against 3 through 6.

Regardless of whether doubling after splits is permitted, split 7s against 2 through 7.

The trickiest play is splitting 9s. Split (and resplit, given the opportunity) against 2 through 6 and against 8 or 9, but stand against 7, 10 or Ace.

Surrender: Surrender has become a rare option,. but when it's permitted, you can give up half your bet instead of playing out the hand. It's been about 15 years since I've seen early surrender, where you can make the play before the dealer checks for blackjack. In late surrender, you can't surrender when the dealer has blackjack -- you lose the whole bet.

I've seen players surrender 14s against 7s and 12s against 10s. I even watched one player surrender every 16, regardless of dealer up card.

If the dealer stands on all 17s, you can limit losses by surrendering hard 16 when the dealer shows a 9, 10 or Ace, and surrender hard 15 against a dealer's 10. If the dealer hits soft 17, surrender hard 15 vs. 10 or Ace, hard 16 vs. 9, 10 or Ace, and hard 17 vs. Ace.

A player who surrenders more than that could do with a little less freedom of choice.

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