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BLACKJACK ANSWERMAN

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). He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WSM-AM (890) and podcasts are available at http://www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069. Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

Q. I play mostly in six-deck games. Thatís what we have close to home. I decided to review basic strategy when my wife and I planned a trip to Las Vegas, and I found a strategy chart for single-deck games. I guess I was aware that single-deck strategy was different, but never really paid attention to it. Why is basic strategy different in a single-deck game?

A. In a single-deck game, each card dealt has a greater effect on the composition of the remaining deck than in a multiple-deck game. That changes the percentages when it comes time to make a decision.

Letís take an example. You have a 6 and a 2, and the dealer shows a 5. For the six-deck games youíve been playing, the basic strategy chart says to stand. The basic strategy chart for single-deck blackjack says to double down.

Whatís the difference? You know three cards that have been dealt and are not available on the draw. In a single-deck game, that leaves 49 possible draws. Of those, four are Aces, which would give you 19, 16 are 10-values that would give you 18, and four are 9s that would give you 17. The 19s and 18s are possible winners even if the dealer doesnít bust, and the 17 could push if the dealer doesnít bust.

On a percentage basis, 8.16 percent of the remaining cards are Aces, 32.65 percent are 10-values, and another 8.16 percent are 9s. Just under 49 percent of all cards will give you a hand that has at least push possibilities if the dealer doesnít bust.

In a six-deck game, the removal of the initial cards dealt has a much lower effect on the remaining composition, and the percentages stay much closer to the starting point of a fresh deck. After accounting for the 6, 2 and 5 that have been dealt, 24 of the remaining 309 cards are Aces, 96 are 10-values and 24 are 9s.

To convert, Aces make up 7.77 percent of the remaining deck, 10-values make up 31.07 and 9s are another 7.77. Now the cards that can at least push, without busting, falls to about 46.6 percent.

A full analysis of the hand would have to take into account changes in the dealerís chance of busting as well as our chances of making a winning hand with a multi-card draw, but you can see that the chances of making 17 or better are stronger in a one-deck game. That gives us a better double-down situation.

Keep in mind that most basic strategy plays are the same in single-deck games as in multi-deck games. Where theyíre different is on close-call hands where the different effect in deck composition of one or a few cards being dealt tilts the percentages just enough to make a different play desirable.

Q. There are so many card games in casinos nowadays, it seems like there ought to be opportunity for advantage play. Is it possible for card counters to get an edge in games other than blackjack?

A. Most casino card games other than blackjack use a single deck that is shuffled after every hand, almost always with an automatic shuffler. You canít count Three Card Poker, Four Card Poker, Caribbean Stud Poker, Let It Ride or any of the poker-based games that have casino niches because the cards are shuffled for each deal.

One exception is baccarat, usually played with eight decks, and with a structure than has often raised the question of whether a card counter could gain an advantage. The late Peter Griffin tackled the question in his book, The Theory of Blackjack, and found that while it was possible to get an edge by counting in baccarat, it couldnít be done in any practical way.

Griffin wrote that a baccarat player who doesn't bet unless he has an advantage could squeeze an edge of about 0.7 percent of his maximum bets on banker and player. However, that player might play only about three hands per eight hours. That's watching, not playing. Even if you had the patience to hurry up and wait, itís unlikely that casino operators would allow you to occupy a seat to play three hands every eight hours.

For bets on ties, it's theoretically possible to count down to a 24 percent edge with six cards remaining, provided all the cards are dealt out.

In the real world, nobody deals out all the cards, and with one-half deck cut out of play, the bettor's potential edge on the last hand shrinks to just 0.08 percent.

Q. With all the fuss over 6-5 payoffs on blackjacks, has anyone tried to go the other way, and draw customers by paying more than 3-2?

A. Iíve not heard of anyone raising blackjack payoffs, nor do I expect to. Regular blackjack players know what a bad deal 6-5 blackjack is, but seats arenít going unfilled. A tourist or conventioneer on the Las Vegas Strip is going to play whatís offered.

Besides, an increase in the payoffs in blackjack would have just a dramatic effect on the house edge (just like the 6-5 payoff has), only itís in the playersí favor. A table games manager who knows his business isnít going to do that.

Thatís not to say itís never been done. Iím based in the Chicago area, and I remember licking my chops when the Alton Belle, about six hours away in the St. Louis region, started paying 2-1 on blackjacks in the early 1990s. Thatís a 2.3 percent gain for the player, and with the six-deck rules at Alton Belle at the time, basic strategy players had roughly a 1.9 percent edge. That couldnít last very long, and didnít.

The strange thing was that the casino had to be taught that lesson a second time. A short time later, it announced a Two-for-Tuesdays promotion. That included 2-1 payoffs on blackjacks for bets up to $25 on Tuesdays. They soon got all the green chip action they could handle.

It was the stuff players dreams are made of, but not something weíre likely to see anytime soon, especially when players are all too willing to settle for 6-5.

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