Questions and answers on a casino favorite
By Henry Tamburin
Blackjack continues to be the most popular table game in casinos. The reason is that it is an easy game to learn how to play, it’s a beatable game, and it’s possible to win often by learning the correct playing strategies (i.e., the house edge can be very low). What follows are the most frequently asked questions that I receive about the game and my responses.
Does it make a difference where I sit at a blackjack table?
Where you sit has no effect on the odds against you. My advice, if you are a beginner, is to sit in the middle because this will give you a little more time to decide how to play your hand. (The first base player, or player to the far right, is the first to act; the third base player, far left, is the last to act.) Now, if you are a card counter using a traditional counting system (e.g., Hi-Lo), it’s best to sit at third base so you can see and count as many cards as possible before acting on your hand.
Do unskilled players affect your chances of winning?
I know many players believe the answer to this is “yes” because of the times they’ve lost a hand when another player misplayed his or her hand. But in the long run, the skill of other players on your table has no effect on your odds of winning. Yes, you’ll remember the times you lose a hand when someone misplays his. But how many times have you congratulated a player who misplayed his hand that resulted in everyone on the table winning? Blackjack players have selective memory. Bottom line: Ignore how other players act on their hands and focus instead on how to play your hands as accurately as possible.
Why does the house edge against a player increase when the rules specify the dealer must hit soft 17 rather than stand?
A dealer will bust more often when she must hit soft 17 instead of standing, which is good for the player; however, this is more than offset by the fact that when she doesn’t bust, what would have been a 17 often ends up to be a higher total that may now beat the player’s hand. (A soft 17 is a lousy hand not only for the dealer but also for the player, which is why it’s better for players to hit or double down on soft 17.)
Which is the best blackjack game to play?
You want to play blackjack games that offer the best rules. For example, some of the better rules are: blackjack pays 3-2, dealer stands on soft 17, player may double down on any first two cards, double down after pair splitting, re-split aces, and surrender. The games you want to definitely avoid are those that pay only 6-5 (or worse, even money) for a blackjack. As a general rule, a single-deck game that pays 3-2 for a blackjack often has better odds than a multi-deck game that pays 3-2 (but not always; you need to care-fully compare the rules). (Note: You will find a list of common rule variations and their effect on the player’s expected return on the blackjack page at wizardofodds.com)
Why should you split 8s against a dealer’s 10 and turn one losing hand into two?
Often times we are dealt terrible hands and we have to make the best of them. Such is the case with a pair of 8s against a dealer’s10. Your choice is to either surrender the hand (when the rules allow it); stand on your 16; hit your 16; or split the 8s and play two hands, each starting with an 8. No matter which option you choose, you will lose more money than you will win in the long run. However, the math gives the edge to splitting the 8s because in the long run you’ll less money than the other playing options. (Trust the math!)
Do progressive betting systems work?
No they don’t. Whether you won or lost the previous hand has no effect on your chances of winning the next hand.
Is bringing a strategy card to the table legal?
Yes. Just don’t lay the strategy card on the table; simply hold it in your hand. (For security reasons, casinos don’t allow anything on the table except drink holders and ash trays.)
Is it better to play heads up against a dealer or on a table full of players?
If you are a basic strategy player, you are better off playing on a full table because you will get fewer hands to act on per hour and, therefore, have less exposure of your bankroll to the house edge. If you are a card counter, your hourly win rate will increase when you play heads up because you will be playing more hands when you have the edge.
Can blackjack really be beaten?
Yes, but you must learn the strategies on how to do it.
If blackjack can be beaten, why do casinos offer the game?
Simply because the majority of the public won’t take the time or effort to learn the well-documented strategies that could give them the mathematical edge when they play. Instead they rely on hunches and guessing when they play, which results in a ton of profit for casinos.
Is card counting legal?
Using your brain when you play blackjack is not illegal; therefore, card counting is not illegal.
I tried card counting and found it too difficult. Is there anything else I can try?
I assume you tried to learn a traditional card counting system like Hi-Lo. There are simpler (albeit less powerful) counting systems that are much easier to master that can give the recreational player either a break-even game or a slight edge over the casino. Three that I recommend are Speed Count, the Ace-Five count, and the Ace-Ten Front count.
How do casinos get away with excluding card counters from playing blackjack? Isn’t this discrimination?
The Nevada courts have allowed casinos to exclude card counters because technically they are private property, and under the ancient common law right (the so-called “Innkeeper’s Right to Exclude or Eject Guests”) a property owner could exclude anyone from his property for any reason, or even without a reason. Many players and lawyers believe that barring skillful players from playing blackjack is an unconstitutional form of discrimination. However, the Supreme Court prohibits discrimination only against persons who are members of “protected classes” based on (among others) race, creed, sex, national origin, age, or physical disability (i.e., card counters are not, unfortunately, a “protected class”). Therefore, until a law is passed or blackjack players bring a challenge, casinos will continue the practice of barring card counters (or for that matter, any player for any reason, which casinos don’t always reveal to a barred player). (Note: In some gaming jurisdictions, such as in Atlantic City and Missouri, regulations don’t allow casinos to bar card counters.)
Why should I go through the trouble of learning card counting when the casinos can throw me out?
If you are a skillful card counter, there is always the risk that a casino could ask you to stop playing. The question then becomes: Do the benefits of having the edge over the casino outweigh the risk of getting barred? In my opinion, the answer is “yes,” but only after you learn how to disguise your skills to minimize this risk. (You’ll find plenty of information in blackjack books or the Internet on how to camouflage your play.)
Henry Tamburin is the editor of Blackjack Insider Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com), the lead instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack Course (www.goldentouch-blackjack.com), and host of smartgaming.com. For a free three-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter, go to www.bjinsider.com/freetrial. To receive his free Casino Gambling Catalog, call 1-888-353-3234 or visitwww.smartgaming.com.