Blackjack Questions Answered

blackjack 21Last night I appeared on GSN’s premiere episode of “World Series of Blackjack,” in which 25 of the world’s top players compete in 30-hand, five-person tournament matches. Each week’s winner gets $10,000, and the ultimate winner earns $100,000. (I finished second in my heat and qualified for a “wild card” episode that airs later this month.)

Blackjack, or “21,” is one of the most interesting games in the casino because it can be beaten by expert players. Unlike, say, roulette, where the odds are fixed each and every spin, the probabilities in blackjack fluctuate with each subsequent card. This fluidity sometimes offers the gambler an edge over the casino — something that never happens at the baccarat table or keno pit. Indeed, the public perception that blackjack is beatable may be why it’s the most popular game in most gambling halls. Unfortunately, most people don’t play expertly, and the casinos make jillions from degenerates who have an incomplete grasp of the game.

Since “World Series of Blackjack” has aired, numerous correspondents have asked me a variety of questions (and proposed a variety of theories). Here are some of the answers.

Since the House always seems to win, isn’t that smartest strategy to mimic what the dealer does – don’t split or double anything and hit until you get to 17?

At most blackjack games, the House has less than a 1% advantage over the player. By employing the Mimic strategy, you increase the casino’s edge to around 5%. Much of the player’s best value moves involve doubling and splitting basic strategy chartand not indiscriminately hitting all hands until reaching 17.

I don’t have a photographic memory. How could I possibly count cards?

Counting cards doesn’t require a good memory; it requires the ability to quickly add and subtract integers. A 10-year-old child could do it. By assigning a simple numerical value to each card in the deck, the player can easily keep track of how many “good” cards (Aces and 10-value) and “bad” cards (fours, fives, sixes) remain to be played.

Is card counting how most professionals win at blackjack?

No. The edge you derive from counting is so small and the “heat,” or aggravation, you incur from intolerant casino personnel makes counting a terrible way to make a living. Most pros these days employ advanced concepts like shuffle tracking, card steering, and front-loading to beat the games. To learn what all these concepts mean you should buy my books!

What’s this Basic Strategy I always hear about?

This is the unimpeachably correct play for every combination of dealer upcard and player starting hand. The right decisions have been gleaned from computers playing billions of simulated hands, and there’s no arguing with the math. To vary from Basic Strategy because you’ve got a hunch or because your Uncle Jed said you should is to give money to the casino. The only time you ought to vary from Basic is when you have additional information – like when you’re counting or you know the dealer’s hole card.

chips on the tableI play perfect Basic Strategy – literally, I have a strategy card that I carry to the table – and I still don’t win. Why?

Basic Strategy reduces the House edge in most games to well under 1%, sometimes as little as .2%. But it doesn’t completely obviate the casino advantage. Over the long run, if they have an edge, albeit tiny, they’ll still win and you’ll still lose. Which is why you have to learn techniques that work in harmony with Basic — like counting, tracking, etc.

What’s your advice about which game to play in Las Vegas? I bring $500 to gamble with, and that’s it. I like the rush of playing at the $25 table. Is this the best place for me?

With a $500 bankroll, you ought to be playing at the $5 table, and, if you can find one, the $1 table. Since you can’t beat the game, you ought to find the fullest, loudest, silliest table, bet the absolute minimum on every hand, and slurp down as many free drinks as you can handle. You’re expected loss with this method is around $2 an hour.

My uncle has a cool method. When he loses his first hand, he doubles his bet. If he loses that one, he doubles again, and so on. Eventually he wins. If everyone did that, wouldn’t the casino always lose?

If everyone did that, the casino would own most of North America. In the example given, if your uncle started out betting $10, by the fifth hand he would be wagering $160 – all to recoup $10. If he had an infinite bankroll and, more important, there wasn’t a table maximum bet, this progression (called a Martindale) could work. But in the real world it’s a recipe for disaster.

Is it illegal to beat blackjack with techniques like card counting?

No. But the casinos employ private detectives and use facial recognition software to dissuade accomplished experts from gambling at their tables. The House would always rather deal to suckers.

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