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Yes and No ... Because Card Counting

Changes Everything

by Basil Nestor

Basil Nestor is author of "The Smarter Bet Guide to Craps," "The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack," and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit and drop him a line.

From a viewpoint of pure probability, when measuring the chances of receiving a particular card in a particular seat, any blackjack seat is as good as any other. Period. This is true even when you're counting cards. However, third base (or any position later than first base) is actually statistically preferable. How do those facts fit together? Actually, quite neatly. Moreover, when we examine how those two things go together, it delivers a fascinating view into the depths of blackjack optimal strategies.

Letís consider a double-deck game, and weíll also consider six decks. By the way, these principles obviously apply to single decks, too, but of course, itís less likely youíll find them under favorable conditions.

And speaking of favorable and likely conditions, the whole subject of seating obviously becomes moot if you play head-up against a dealer. In a perfect world, heads-up is a perfect game, which is easiest to count, with fewer variables to consider because other players arenít taking cards. And perfect dreams sometimes do come true. However, often, in the real world, your good game will be populated with other players. In addition, if you spend too much time heads-up, you may be recognized as a counter. SoÖ Where to sit?

Physical Advantages

One classic argument for sitting at first base (the seat farthest to the dealerís left) is entirely physical. From this vantage point, you can see the whole table without turning your head, and the discard rack is also directly in your line of sight. This makes counting the table easy. A similar argument can be made for third base (the seat farthest to the dealerís right), though youíll need some minor eye-shift to check the discards. However, thatís hardly a deal-breaker unless youíre the sort of counter who is really bad at cover (which is a subject for another article).

Another option that is favored by some counters is to sit in the "shortstop" position, one off third base. This serves multiple functions. It still gives you a good view of the table, and it discourages people from squeezing into third base unless the casino gets really crowded. So third base tends to stay open (fewer players), and you can put an extra bet there if the count warrants additional action.

Does Any Seat Get Better Cards?

Do cards that come to third base, or any later seats, differ in potential value from the cards that come to first base? The answer to this is a resounding no! All the seats are equal.

This doesnít seem intuitive to some people. Letís say the true count is +6. Arenít all those delicious big cards just bursting to get out of the deck? Shouldnít you want to sit at first base because the nice cards are more likely to come on the next hand rather than later hands? Alas, no. Imagine if you flipped the deck over and dealt from the exposed side. Ya, it would be weird. However, do you think those extra big cards would now somehow magically float to the other end of the deck so they could come out sooner? Or is the other end of the deck somehow permanently "dry"?

No. Those big cards are just as likely to be at the end of the deck, or somewhere in the middle, compared to the top. Therefore, unless you see additional cards that change the count, then third base is just as likely to get those big cards as first base. Remember, youíre required to make a bet before anyone sees cards.

Moreover, itís true that all the players have a better chance of catching big cards compared to situations when the count is neutral or negative.

The Third Base Advantage

Therefore, third base has no disadvantage compared to first base, but no advantage either, right? Not quite. Third base always acts last, and sees more cards. And thus, it affects decisions about how to play some hands. But wait, we just proved that position doesnít matter. If youíre sitting at first base and the count is +4, then you have the latest information for that situation, right? If youíre sitting at third base, and the count drops to -2 during the play from first to third, then you may make a different decision (letís say to hit a 13 against a 3), but both seats have equal "power" in the application of their strategies, right?

No. Third base has one extra small advantage. Extra penetration. Granted, itís minor, especially in a six-deck game. However, it becomes more powerful in a double-deck or single-deck game. How many extra cards will you see? Sometimes none, if everyone stands. Nevertheless, sometimes a lot can happen between first base and third, and the deeper you go into a deck, the more potent your decisions become.

The actual measure of this difference depends on your counting system and overall penetration. Depending on how you measure, itís less than 10% of your total advantage (less than 0.1% of your edge). But in the right game, when the right cards come, it can make a difference.

Is this an argument to always play third base? Not necessarily. Other factors can easily outweigh the minor advantage. For example, one extra favorable rule in a six-deck game combined with a crowded casino and one open seat at first base can easily swing the decision. Still, the third-base advantage exists in some situations. My reason for highlighting it is not to make a case necessarily for switching seats, but to discuss the inner workings of the game. Real strategic thinking, the creative kind that spurs innovation, begins when you see all the little things that contribute to winning.

Enjoy the game!


© copyright 2013 Basil Nestor

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