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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. If the house edge on a six-deck blackjack game is about a half percent --- I play basic strategy --- and the house edge on a video poker game like 9-6 Jacks or Better is also about a half percent, will I do better betting $5 a hand in an average one-hour session in blackjack or video poker?

A. The average video poker session wonít include a royal flush, which comes up only about once per 40,000 hands. Royals account for just fewer than 2 percent of your overall payback, so in the average session youíre seeing more like a 2.5 percent house edge if you play at expert level.

Also, video poker plays much faster than blackjack --- 500 hands per hour is an easy pace in video poker, with some players topping 800 hands per house, compared to about 50 per hour at a full blackjack table. So given $5 bets each, youíll lose money much faster in an average hour at video poker. On the other hand, when the royals come, you get back a lot more at once than you can playing $5 blackjack.

Q. Iíve been thinking about video blackjack machines. Not the new ones where people play together, but the one-player kind. Iíve heard that the games are bad because they pay even money on blackjacks.

My question is, are video blackjack games dealt from one deck? Wouldnít that make up for the blackjack payoffs? Also, arenít single-deck games easy to count? Could you beat these games by counting cards?

A. One-player video blackjack games, the kind that have been around for three decades and usually pay only even money instead of 3-2 on blackjacks, are almost always dealt from a single electronic deck. However, that single deck is shuffled for every hand. It doesnít matter whether youíre playing at a table or a machine, when the deck is shuffled every hand, you canít count cards.

Even if you could, even-money payoffs on blackjacks add too much to the house edge for counting cards to overcome. Paying only even money on blackjacks adds 2.3 percent to the house edge. Dropping to a single deck canít begin to make up 2.3 percent. Counting cards couldnít make that up, either, if counting was possible on one-player blackjack machines. Which, itís not.

Q. When you have three or more cards in blackjack, basic strategy still applies, right? I ask because of some grief I took from a dealer and other players the other night. I started with Ace-3, and the dealer had a 10 showing, so I hit. Then I got a 4, so I had soft 18.

The basic strategy charts say to hit Ace-7 against a dealerís 10, so I assumed itís the same for Ace-3-4 and hit again. The dealer did a little pause and looked at me, and I had to signal again for my hit. Then one guy said, "What are you doing?" and another muttered something about "amateur hour."

Was I wrong?

A. No, you got it right. If youíre playing basic strategy, it still applies with three or more cards --- except, of course, that you can no longer double down or split pairs after you have more than two cards.

For those who dig a little deeper than basic strategy into composition dependent strategies, there are exceptions. To stick with soft 18 as an example, if you have four cards, Ace-2-2-3, in a single-deck game, then so large a percentage of cards that could help your hand have been removed from the deck that youíre better off standing.

But you played your Ace-3-4 correctly. Your critics just donít know the strategy as well as theyíd like to think.

Q. I had a typical day at the casino not long ago. I won a little money at the blackjack table, and then I piddled it away a little at a time. 20 bucks on a slot machine, another 20 at video poker, then I went back to blackjack and lost a little more. The bottom line is that instead of winning a little, I wound up losing about $50 for the day.

My friend and I got to talking about this, and he said that every time you play, thereís a time that youíre ahead of the game, and if you could just discipline yourself to quit then, youíd win. That seems right to me, but I never seem to be able to walk out ahead.

A First off, I donít buy the notion that thereís a time weíre ahead every time we play. Havenít you ever had a day when youíve lost your first five or six hands at blackjack, and never recovered? Or blown through a couple of $20 bills at quarter video poker or $100s at dollars before ever seeing a hand better than two pair? I sure have.

The house edge is working basic strategy or lower-level players from the very beginning of a day at the casino, and there are times that players on the downside of the ledger from the outset and never climb back to even.

On days you do get ahead, how quick do you want to be to end the day? If you win your first hand, are you going to take your profit and go home? Not likely. Even stopping after big wins will rob us of some of our biggest, most memorable days. One winning, I hit a royal flush on a quarter video poker machine for $1,000 in the morning, won a few hundred dollars at blackjack in the afternoon and wrapped it up with an $8,000 royal on a $2 poker machine in the evening. Should I have stopped after the morning royal and gone sightseeing or to the movies?

Now then, recreational players who do not have an edge on the game should take steps to protect some of their winnings when they get ahead by a sizable amount. The game is different for advantage players seeking to balance driving home their edge and avoiding recognition of their play with bankroll considerations, but basic strategy or lower-level players ought to protect a share of profits when they come.

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