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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). 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 had one of those hands where the dealer strung out several low cards and wound up with a 21 that beat my 20. After three or four cards, the dealer had a 14, and we were all waiting for her to bust. Then she got a 2, for 16, then 5 for 21.

I noted that the 2 was a killer for me. If sheíd gotten the 5 without the 2, sheíd have had 19 and Iíd still have won with my 20. The dealer said, "Honey, a 2 is like the dealerís Ace."

Iíd had other dealers and other players tell me the same thing. The deuce is a dealerís Ace. Is that true? Can you explain?

A. An Ace is the dealerís Ace, and a 2 doesnít help the dealer anywhere near as often as an Ace does. A deuce doesnít have the 1-or-11 flexibility of an Ace. Itís never the last card to finish off a 21, since neither you nor the dealer would be hitting with 19. If the dealer has a 2 face up, he or she will bust about 35 percent of the time. If your only known card is a 2, you will bust about 35 percent of the time.

In my humble opinion, the 2 gets its reputation as the dealerís Ace because itís a key card in stringing out long-sequence 21s, and the dealer has more opportunities to do the stringing than players do.

When stringing out multi-card hands, 2s are no more likely to help the dealer than they are to help you. A 2 will help or hurt you in the same proportions of draws that they help or hurt the dealer.

However, the dealer draws to more hands than you do. In the situation you described, the dealer will hit that 14 every time, because the dealer is required to hit all totals of 16 or less, as well as hitting soft 17 at some tables. If you have 14, youíll stand if the dealerís up card is 2 through 6, but your up card makes no difference to the dealerís play.

What that means is that 2s will help the dealer string out more hands into long-sequence 21s, but not because the 2 is any more helpful to the dealer than it is to you. Itís simply because the dealer hits more hands and gets more chances to string out the long ones.

Q. I'm new at counting cards, and getting on OK. It seems like I'm seeing a lot of continuous shufflers and games where blackjacks pay 6-5. Is my counting completely useless there?

A. You canít count cards against a continuous shuffle, where cards are being shuffled back into play without any break. The effect is close enough to having a freshly shuffled deck for every hand so that you get no real advantage by counting.

Iíd add that continuous shufflers are no bargain for basic strategy players or average players, either. With no stoppage in play, there are more hands per hour, and more hands per hour works in favor of whoever has the mathematical edge on the game. If youíre a basic strategy player or average player, thatís not you.

If youíre at a game that does not have a continuous shuffler, but pays only 6-5 on blackjacks, you can improve your chances by counting cards, but overcoming the entire house edge to gain an advantage becomes difficult to impossible. In better circumstances, card counters gain edges of only about a percent to a percent and a half. Paying 6-5 on blackjacks adds 1.4 percent to the house edge. Even if youíre really good, using a powerful count, youíre going to be struggling just to tread water.

Why waste all your finely honed skills on a game where you may or may not be able to play the house to a standstill? Find a better game, one where the house pays the full 3-2 on blackjacks.

By the way, my nightmares are filled with games that both use a continuous shuffler AND pay only 6-5 on blackjacks. One or the other is bad enough, but when I see both together Ö thatís just piling on.

Q. I had a coupon for a 2-1 payoff on my first blackjack, but it said not valid on one-deck or two-deck games. Can you tell me why?

A. Without knowing where you were playing, or the specific rules of their games, my best guess is that the one- and two-deck games were paying 6-5 on blackjacks, while perhaps the six- or eight-deckers were paying 3-2.

When casinos were first adopting 6-5 payoffs, they usually were seen on single-deck games with good rules other than the blackjack payoffs. In addition, some of those casinos offered coupons in their fun books for 2-1 payoffs on the first blackjack.

Sharp players were using the coupons at the single-deck tables. If a casino offered a single-deck game where the dealer stood on all 17s, no double after split, no exotic rules, and blackjacks pay 2-1, thatís essentially a break-even game, with a very slight edge to a basic strategy player. If blackjacks pay 6-5, the house reclaims the edge in a big way, at nearly 1.4 percent.

However, if a player goes to that single-deck game armed with a coupon for a 2-1 payoff on blackjacks, the 6-5 payoff doesnít come into play. The player gets a game with a 2.4 percent player edge, plays until the first blackjack, and then leaves when the edge turns hard back in favor of the house.

Offering sharp players a single-deck game with good rules is obviously not the casinosí intent in distributing the coupons. Some quickly moved to deny the coupons at single-deck and double-deck games, and some eventually moved to put the conditions in print on the tickets.

Thatís probably what happened to you. The casino wanted the coupons used by tourists at six-deck tables rather than by advantage players at single-deck and double-deck tables.

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