Q&A With A Master
Blackjack Legend Don Schlesinger on His Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Cards
In our October edition of Casino Player, we ran an interesting and informative article, “Master Class: Learning The Basic Blackjack Strategy,” by Don Schlesinger. Don is the leading authority when it comes to the game of blackjack. He is a gaming mathematician, author, lecturer, player and member of the Blackjack Hall of Fame, and his work in the ﬁeld has spanned more than four decades. He’s probably best known for his book Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros’ Way and Don Schlesinger’s Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Cards.
This month, Casino Player delivers a revealing interview with Don on the making and development of his Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Cards.
HOW AND WHY DID YOU DEVELOP THE ULTIMATE STRATEGY?
It has been a well-known fact, for many years, that a slight improvement to traditional basic strategy can be realized by considering not simply the total of the player’s cards but also the individual cards that comprise the hand. Examples of such a composition-dependent basic strategy (C-D BS), as opposed to a total-dependent (T-D) strategy, were featured prominently in Peter Griﬃn’s masterwork, The Theory of Blackjack. However, although there were dozens of varieties of basic strategy cards on the market, I had never seen any that incorporated the C-D plays. So, we set out to build a better mousetrap! I would like to acknowledge the work of “Cacarulo,” one of the Masters of Blackjack on my former website “Don’s Domain,” for his outstanding contributions to the development of the “Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Cards.”
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRADITIONAL BASIC STRATEGY AND YOUR ULTIMATE STRATEGY?
As mentioned above, most BS players don’t pay much attention to how they achieve a certain total. For example, if their ﬁrst two cards add to 12, they really don’t care if the two cards are 7,5; 8,4; 9,3; or T,2. They ﬁgure, “Twelve is twelve; what’s the diﬀerence?” But, in fact, in certain circumstances, and especially in single-deck blackjack, there really is a diﬀerence in the correct way to play those hands, primarily against the dealer’s upcards of 4, 5 or 6. Following, I’ll give some additional, speciﬁc examples of such plays.
CAN YOU GIVE SOME EXAMPLES OF COMPOSITION-DEPENDENT STRATEGY?
Sure. Let’s start with the above situation. Suppose you’re playing in a double-deck game, and you’re dealt T,2 (total of 12) vs. the dealer’s 4. What is the correct BS play? Well, most basic strategists will tell you that when you have 12 against the dealer’s 4, you’re supposed to stand. But, in this case, it’s the wrong play! Hitting is superior to standing by a small margin. And this is true for all numbers of decks until we get to eight, when standing now is the proper play. Again, as I mentioned in Part 1, knowing these ﬁne points is not going to line your pockets with untold riches. Rather, if you employ them, you will know that you are simply playing the most perfect strategy that you can without counting cards. I believe this provides a certain amount of intellectual satisfaction for some people.
In the six-deck game that was the focus of Part 1 of this article, last month, we learned that surrendering 15 vs. the dealer’s T is the correct BS. But, in fact, if your 15 is the result of 8,7, hitting is slightly better than standing. Interestingly enough, the moment we increase to seven decks or more, surrender becomes the better play, even for 8,7.
Sometimes, a C-D play involves the number of cards in your hand. For example, most BS players know that, regardless of the number of decks we’re playing against, it’s best to hit our two-card holding of 16 vs. the dealer’s T (assuming that surrender is not permitted). But, what if our 16 is composed of three cards, such as 9,3,4? Do we still hit? It turns out that, now, standing is the better play.
In all, without getting into ridiculous detail, there are about a dozen such plays where the content of the hand, and not just the total of the cards, can alter the traditional BS play.
HOW MUCH DOES THE ULTIMATE STRATEGY IMPROVE A PLAYER’S CHANCE OF WINNING?
The exact percentage of increased return depends upon the speciﬁc rules of the game we’re playing and on the number of decks being used, as explained fully in the “Information Sheet” (see below) that accompanies the Ultimate cards. Most importantly, using these cards will squeeze out every conceivable edge (short of counting cards) by helping the player to make perfect strategy decisions. And since, in most venues, one may play with the BS card right on the table, why not extract the “ultimate” edge from the casinos? When one factors in the potential casino comps, the nearly negligible house edge, and the fun of using them, the cards pay for themselves many times over.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO LEARN THE ULTIMATE STRATEGY?
We all learn at diﬀerent rates, but players I’ve spoken to tell me that the cards are clear, concise and very well organized. Whether you memorize the material for the game or games you play most frequently, or simply rely on looking at the cards while at the table, for your advice, I think you will ﬁnd them both enjoyable to use and easy to consult.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE FORMAT OF THE ULTIMATE BLACKJACK STRATEGY CARDS AND THE ACCOMPANYING INFORMATION SHEET?
Gladly. I’m proud to say that the format of the cards is unique. Again, we have Cacarulo to thank for the original concept and Viktor Nacht, the former proprietor of RGE Publishing, for the attractive and highly functional layout and design. Most BS cards traditionally furnish the player’s hand vertically, down a left-hand column, while listing the dealer’s possible upcards horizontally, across the top of the card. Where a row for the player’s hand and a column for the dealer’s card intersect, we ﬁnd the correct BS play. Our cards improve on this scheme by adding a second column for the player’s hand, where the distinction is made, when applicable, between the T-D and the C-D plays. If need be, the box in which the correct BS play is to be found will be split, to accommodate the two versions of “correct” BS. Thus, in the beginning, the novice might choose to follow the advice of the T-D plays only. Later, for more accuracy and precision, the C-D plays can be added to the player’s repertoire, thus raising his or her game to the “ultimate” level.
The cards themselves are beautiful multi-color, tri-fold laminates, and can be purchased separately, or in sets, for single-deck, double-deck and multi-deck games. Each card has four distinct charts to account for when the dealer hits or stands on a total of soft 17, and for when the player is or is not permitted to double down after splitting a pair. Thus, no matter what the rules of the game, there is a separate card one may consult. Also included in the tri-fold is a “Quick Reference: Playing Decisions & Deﬁnitions” panel, which explains all of the terminology and how to use the cards.
Finally, included with the cards is the pocket-sized, 12-page, folded “Information Sheet,” which goes into greater detail than can be furnished on the cards themselves, and provides many examples of the ﬁner points of basic strategy. The sheet also tells you which rules are best for the player and what your precise expectation will be, against all numbers of decks and various rules, when you employ the Ultimate Basic Strategy.
WHAT ADVICE AND TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE TO THE NOVICE BLACKJACK PLAYER?
First, it is imperative to learn the basic strategy cold for the game that you’re playing. If you don’t, for every hand you play incorrectly, you’re simply throwing away money. Next, since basic strategy doesn’t give you an advantage, you need to play slowly, in order to stretch your dollars. Play at crowded tables, to get fewer hands per hour. Don’t play against automatic shuﬄe machines, because they replace hand shuﬄing and, well, you can’t lose any money while the dealer is shuﬄing! Finally, always look for the best possible rules, to keep the house edge to a strict minimum. Know which rules are favorable for the player, such as dealer stands on soft 17, doubling after splits is permitted, and surrender, and try to ﬁnd games that incorporate as many of these rules as possible. And NEVER, ever play at a table where blackjack is paid at 6:5, instead of 3:2.
Thank you for this opportunity to tell Casino Player readers about my Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Cards.
Editor’s Note: If you missed last month’s article, you can ﬁnd Part 1 “Master Class: Learning The
Basic Blackjack Strategy,” on our website www.casinocenter.com.