Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Blackjack mythology

Hang around blackjack tables long enough, and you'll pick up all kinds of "wisdom" from other players and from the dealers. Of course, a lot of what you hear isn't really all that wise, and a good part of blackjack wisdom comes from knowing when to disregard the things people say about the games people play.

A deuce is a dealer's Ace.

Let's be clear here. An ACE is a dealer's Ace. The most flexible of cards since it can be counted as either 1 or 11, Aces are almost as good for the dealer as they are for the player --- they're more important to players because you must have an Ace to get a blackjack, and blackjacks pay 3-2 to players and not to dealers.

And deuces are more important to dealers than to players. That's because dealers must always hit hands of 16 and under. Players stand on some of those hands, so dealers are in more situations where a small card like a 2 will help their hands.

Still, I usually hear this remark when the dealer has a 2 face up, and in that situation there's no comparison between a deuce and an Ace. With a deuce up, the dealer busts about 35 percent of the time. With an Ace up, the dealer busts only between 11 and 12 percent of the time. You would MUCH rather see the dealer start with a 2 than an Ace.

The object of blackjack is to win every hand. Taking even money is a sure win. Always take even money.

Even money is a form of insurance, offered when the player has a blackjack and the dealer has an Ace face up. You can accept an even-money payoff on your blackjack, and not risk the dealer also having a blackjack. Decline, and you'll get no payoff at all if the dealer has a 10-value card face down.

Countless dealers have told me even money is "the only sure thing in the house." The other piece of wisdom, that the object is to win every hand, is something I've heard from a few players. Let's dispense with that part first. The object of blackjack is not to win every hand, or even the majority of hands. If that's what you're trying to do, you're doomed to fail. Even the best card counters lose more hands than they win.

But even though the pros lose more hands than they win, they win more money than they lose. Why? Because the real object is to maximize winnings while minimizing losses. And one of the ways to maximize winnings is to go for the full 3-2 payoffs on blackjacks. Even money becomes a break-even proposition when a third of the remaining cards are 10-values. Of all cards in the deck, only 30.8 percent are 10-values.

Decline the even-money offer. You won't win as many hands, but you'll win more money.

Surrender is for people who don't like to gamble.

This sage advice isn't always expressed in those terms. I've found it more often in terms of the odd snide remark when I surrender. "I guess I came to gamble," or "Did you come to play or not?"

At the Tropicana in Las Vegas one time, I surrendered a 16 when the dealer showed a 10. A woman next to me said, "Oh, I didn't know you could surrender here. How does that work?" And the gentleman sitting at third base snarled, "I guess it depends on whether you came to gamble."

Now, playing blackjack well includes both maximizing winnings and minimizing losses. (Where have I heard that before?) Surrender comes under the heading of minimizing losses.

The majority of casinos don't offer surrender at all. Those that do offer "late surrender" --- "late" because you have to wait until the dealer checks for blackjack. If the dealer has a blackjack, you can't surrender.

When you surrender, you give up half your bet in exchange for not having the play out the hand and risk losing the full amount. It's a good deal, if you know how to use it. In a multiple-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s, surrender with hard 16 if the dealer's face-up card is a 9, 10-value or Ace, and surrender with hard 15 if the dealer's up card is a 10-value. In casinos where the dealer hits soft 17, we add one hand --- in addition to the others listed, surrender on hard 15 when the dealer shows an Ace.

Surrender is a guaranteed loss that we don't accept lightly. All we're trying to do is mitigate the damage when we're at a big disadvantage. I've seen players go the total opposite ways of the anti-surrender sages, players who surrender 14s and even 13s anytime the dealer has a 10 or Ace, and sometimes even 9s or 8s. That's overboard. We're not in that much of a hurry to give our money away.

Limit the surrendering those few situations listed above. That's the wise way, and it leaves plenty of hands to gamble.

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