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BLACKJACK ANSWER MAN

By John Grochowski

John Grochowski is a blackjack expert and a well-known and respected casino gambling columnist. His syndicated casino gambling column appears in the Chicago Sun Times, Denver Post, Casino City Times, and other newspapers and web sites. Grochowski has written six books on gambling including the "Answer Man" series of books (www.casinoanswerman.com). Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

 

Q. Why is Hi-Lo card counting better than just counting face cards?

A. Let me preface this by saying it is possible to devise a fairly accurate counting system by counting SMALL cards and ignoring the high ones. It requires some adjustments, but the Speed Count detailed in Frank Scobleteís Golden Touch Blackjack Revolution book shows how itís done. Itís the easiest accurate card counting system I know.
 
But to go at this from a hi-lo counterís standpoint, the key is the balance between high and low cards remaining in the deck. Knowing only the proportion of high cards remaining to be played might tell you when blackjacks are most likely, and thatís a key component of a card counterís edge. They canít tell you when to make certain strategy decisions, or when your double downs will play truest.
 
A run of hands like King-7, Queen-8, and Jack-9 is different from a run of King-6, Queen-5, and Jack-4. In the first, neutral cards accompany the faces. In the second, low cards offset the faces. Youíve counted the same number of faces, but I see a Hi-Lo count of -3 in the first case, and 0 in the second. In the first, not only have three cards that are great for my double downs been removed, but so have three that are not bad for my double downs. In the second case, the three high cards have been offset by eliminating three cards that are bad for double downs.
 
That can make a difference in playing strategy. If I have 13 vs. a dealerís 2, basic strategy says to stand. But in a true count of -1, I hit instead. I donít know that true count unless I track both high and low cards.
 
All that said, adjustments can be made and the count simplified. If I were recommending a system to a beginning counter, Iíd advise them to try the Speed Count. Itís much, much easier than Hi-Lo, with a small loss in accuracy.

Q. Is there any advantage to playing blackjack head-to-head with the dealer instead of at a full table?
 
A. Only if youíre an advantage player and have a mathematical edge on the house. Fewer players mean more hands per hour, and that favors whoever has the edge. Most of us are better off at a full table with fewer hands per hour and fewer chances for the house edge to work against us.

In addition to the number of players at the table, speed of the game is affected by the method of shuffling. A hand-shuffled game brings fewer hands per hour than a machine-shuffled game, and continuous shuffling machines, with no break to cut the cards, are the fastest of all. Non-counters are best off at a hand-shuffled game with more players at the table. Advantage players are best off with a non-continuous machine-shuffled game with fewer players. No one should play with a continuous shuffler.
 
Q.  I recently saw 21+3 blackjack games for the first time. The side bet on the player's two cards plus the dealer's up card combining for a flush, straight or three of a kind, paid 9 to 1. What are the true odds on the side bet?

A. In a six-deck game, there are 5,013,320 possible three-card combinations. Of those, 485,096 are winners, while 4,528,224 are losers. That's between 9.3-1 and 9.4-1, and gives the house an edge of 3.3 percent.
 
Like most blackjack side bets, 21+3 has a higher house edge than blackjack itself, especially if you know your basic strategy. In common six-deck games, the house has an edge of about half a percent against a basic strategy player, a few tenths more or less depending on house rules. An average blackjack player faces a house edge of 2 to 2.5 percent. Only when you get into the realm of poor blackjack play do you face house edges as high as 3.3 percent.
 
A couple of other side bets that have had runs of popularity give the house even bigger advantages. Royal Match, which has made a comeback on electronic blackjack tables, has a 6.7 percent house edge in its most common six-deck version. The version of Lucky Ladies Iíve seen in casinos has a house edge of 24.7 percent, and even the "good" version has a 17.6 percent house edge.
 
I can understand why players might want to make the side bets and give themselves a chance at a bigger payoff than they get on a regular blackjack winner. In the long run, though, theyíre costing themselves money. Basic strategy for nearly all side bets is to skip them.
 

Q. My brother-in-law just about has me convinced to take even money on my blackjacks when the dealer has an Ace. That way, I always win the hand, and the object of the game is to try to win every hand.

A. I disagree that the object in blackjack is to win every hand. That's a philosophy that is doomed to failure. The natural advantage that the casino has because it wins anytime both player and dealer bust means we're going to lose more hands than we win, no matter what our strategy.

The real object is to maximize wins and minimize losses. One of the ways we maximize wins is to take the 3-2 payoffs on blackjacks and not give the money away on insurance.

Unless you are a card counter, the assumption when the dealer has an Ace up against your blackjack is that there is a 69.2 percent chance the dealer will not have a 10-value card down, and only a 30.8 percent chance that the dealer will have a blackjack. Let's say you're betting $10 a hand, so that the 3-2 payoff on blackjack is $15. When you take even money, settling for a $10 payoff instead of risking a push if the dealer also has blackjack, there's better than a 69 percent chance that you're giving away $5 of your winnings. You don't maximize wins by giving away money.

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