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PAULíS POINTERS: MORE CRACKINí ACES: DOUBLE DOWN?

by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. Heís an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

If you read my column in last monthís Blackjack Insider, youíll recall that I discussed playing some common hands involving Aces and how Iíd seen a plethora of player missteps in recent outings. This month weíre going to continue the Aces theme and examine double-down opportunities involving player Aces. Weíll discuss some of these "soft hands" and begin with a brief discussion of the merits of doubling down and why itís imperative to make these plays when the opportunity presents itself. Since there are so few playable single-deck games in casinos these days, the following soft doubling strategy covers the playable double- and multi-deck games you are most likely to encounter. The strategies outlined below center on the more commonly found blackjack games in which dealers hit soft 17 (H17). For games in which dealers stand on soft 17 (S17), there are some slight strategy changes that I will annotate briefly.

Double-Down: What Is It and Why Do It?

The double-down option allows you to double your original wager in exchange for one draw card. You canít take any additional cards, so this is a strategy you want to employ when you are in a favorable situation. Since approximately 31% of each deck is composed of ten-count cards, itís a popular and very good play to double on two-card totals of ten or eleven, depending on the dealerís up-card. Over the long run, you can expect to win about 48% (excluding ties) of the individual hands of blackjack that you play. To limit your losses and maximize your gains, you need to have more chips in the betting circle for the winning hands. Proper double-down strategy allows you to do this.

Casino rules vary as to when a player may double-down. You should be able to double down on any first two cards (DOA); also after splitting pairs (DAS). Most double-deck and multi-deck shoe games allow this, but be sure to inquire before you sit down. There are quite a few poor blackjack games out there these days and they should be avoided.

Double Down on Ace-3 through Ace-5 Versus Dealerís 4, 5, or 6

Blackjack hands that include an Ace that counts as an eleven are called soft hands. Examples include Ace-3 (14), Ace-4 (15), etc. No matter the dealerís up-card, you should always hit these hands. You canít bust or exceed 21 when you do. Itís a "free" hit. You can only help your hand and not hurt it. Make sense? Based on my recent playing adventures, it doesnít for far too many folks. However, if you are reading Blackjack Insider, Iím guessing you are a smart player or at least aspiring to improve your game, so I trust that this is an easily understood concept.

Now that weíve determined that most soft hands should be hit, letís look a bit closer at the double-down option. When it comes to doubling soft hands, the dealerís up-card is the determining factor. Letís face it, you donít have a strong hand (Ace-3, Ace-4, or Ace-5), but you are going to hit it. By drawing a card you may improve your hand or it may still be a stiff hand (12-16). We want to attack weakness when the dealer shows a 4, 5, or 6. Over time, the dealer should bust with a 5 or 6 up 42% of the time, (combine sentences). The number is about 40% with a 4 showing. Remember I said earlier that we want to double down when we are in a favorable position. In this discussion, the favorable position is derived from a weak dealer up-card.

If youíre a natural skeptic like me or just need a little convincing, letís look a little further into this topic. Knowing the dealer should bust 40% or so every time is a nice starting point, but what about the other 60% of the time? If Iím laying twice my bet and only winning four out of ten decisions, Iím not going to last very long. This is where the "free" hit aspect of this play comes into the equation. Letís start with the theoretical worst hand in our subject line above: Ace-5 (16). Remember you are going to draw a card with no fear of exceeding 21. All things being equal, 5,4,3,2, and another Ace improve your total to a "pat" hand (17-21). The simple math is that five of every thirteen cards in the deck will improve your hand. Thatís over 38%! (Itís the same for Ace-3 and Ace-4 though the cards that improve your hand change). Granted in our example you are holding a 5 and if we are doubling this hand, another low card is already in play; namely the dealerís up-card, hence the math is slightly less and varies based on remaining deck composition.

By drawing a "free" card in hopes of making a strong pat hand out of seemingly nothing and combining that outcome with the increased probability that the dealerís hand will exceed 21 and bust, we have the advantage long-term by doubling down on Ace-3, Ace-4, and Ace-5 versus dealer up-cards of 4, 5, or 6. Keep the above concepts in mind as we move on to the next hand that seems to give players trouble.

Double Down on Ace-2 Versus Dealerís 5, or 6

This is a strong hand for the player that should not be ignored. As I noted above, we can attack the dealerís weak up-card knowing that they should bust about 42% of the time. Also, like the discussion above, five of every thirteen cards in the deck will improve your hand. This time, itís 8, 7, 6, 5, and 4 that improve your total to a "pat" hand. Like in the previous section, thatís 38%. Granted, we can easily pull a card that doesnít improve our hand, but you arenít going to sit on "three or thirteen" are you? Please shake your head "no" with me as you read this. I have seen Ace-2 tucked with the explanation of "I have 13 and I donít want to take the dealerís bust card." Remember, you canít bust your Ace-2 hand; itís a free shot! Take the hit and double down in the process. More times than not, youíll be glad you did.

Double Down on Ace-6 versus 3, 4, 5, or 6

To begin this section let me remind you that Ace-6 is never 17. If you read my column last month, I tried to make this point abundantly clear; however, I saw Ace-6 "tucked" numerous times in my blackjack forays this month; often against 10-count dealer up-cards! Needless to say, the results didnít help anyone, except the house.

The Ace-6 starting hand is another example of a "free" hit situation that I mentioned in the previous section. Expounding on the "attack dealer weakness" theme, this hand often presents a double-down opportunity that players fail to seize.

Letís take a closer look. For starters, when you draw a card, the 4, 3, 2, or another Ace improves you hand. Thatís four of every 13 cards (almost 31%) in a deck that can strengthen your hand. Also, drawing a 10, Jack, Queen, or King will give you whatís known as a "hard 17." Thatís another 31% of the cards that allow you to make 17. Combined, and all things being equal, over 62% of the cards in a deck will give you a pat hand. Granted, thatís not always enough to get paid, but itís a good starting point, especially when doubling the amount of chips youíve placed in the betting circle.

We discussed the probability of the dealer busting with an up-card of 4, 5, or 6 above. Again weíre trying to attack apparent weakness in their hand and there is nothing to add to the discussion from the previous section. Everything still applies to the Ace-6 scenario presented here. However, in this section Iíve thrown the 3 as an up-card into the mix. A 3 isnít necessarily a bad card for the dealer, but itís not great either and is still considered a "bust" card. In fact, in the long-term, the dealer should bust or break with a 3 showing 37% of the time. Iíll be honest; this isnít a favorite play of mine, but itís the correct play. I lose the Ace-6 double my share of hands, but I also win my share. Hence itís the play I make. Dealer bust frequency coupled with your potential draw outcomes cited above gives you a fighting chance and over time gives you more chips in the circle with the advantage. Be disciplined and double your Ace-6 against the dealer 3, 4, 5, or 6; and by all means, donít tuck it!

Double Down on Ace-7 versus 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6

I rarely see other players double down on Ace-7. Personally, I seem to have more success making this play against an up-card of 5 or 6; but I donít track it and your results may vary. Regardless of my experiences or recollections of them, as weíve seen above, the dealer should bust 42% of the time with a 5 or 6 showing; 40% with a 4 up; 37% with an up-card of 3; and 35% with an up-card of 2. (Note: If playing an S17 game, do not double-down on Ace-7 against 2). Again, we have to think about attacking apparent weakness. Everything I wrote in the previous sections applies to playing Ace-7 versus the up-cards in the subject header. However, there is an added twist.

Many players have a tough time doing anything with an Ace-7 except tucking it under their chips and standing pat. After all, it is 18. Believe me, I get it! Hitting Ace-7 is not for the faint of heart and now I am telling you to double down on that hand in some situations too! Well, hereís the "twist" I mentioned. Did you know that the average winning hand in blackjack is 18.3? Thatís why basic strategy tells us to hit our Ace-7 versus a dealer up-card count of 10 or 9. Basically the thought process is that over time, standing on Ace-7 for a total of 18 is going to get you beat more often than not by dealer 20s and 19s. Itís important to realize that by hitting this hand, you arenít going to improve it very often with the third card. Only 3, 2, or another Ace (3 of 13 or about 23% of the cards in a deck) will improve your hand immediately, but like in the Ace-6 discussion above, 31% of the cards in the deck (10, Jack, Queen, or King) will give you a hard 18. Combined with the dealer bust frequencies of the up-cards weíve mentioned, this gives us an edge according to basic strategy. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and double down. Nobody worth their salt ever said playing winning blackjack was easy!

Putting It All Together

This month I discussed doubling down on player hands involving Aces. For whatever reason, hands with Aces tend to confuse players and double-down opportunities are often ignored or simply not recognized. I discussed some relatively common situations where the correct basic strategy move is to double down versus weak dealer up-cards. Unlike the relatively "easy" double down hands of ten or eleven where they player is doubling from a position of strength in their own hand, soft doubles are made against the dealerís position of weakness. The fact that we can improve our hand with the draw is an added bonus, but donít get me wrong, when you double a soft hand, you are hoping and playing that the dealer will bust their hand.

Before I complete the summary, let me mention one more difficult hand. In double- and multi-deck games where the dealer hits their soft 17, players should also double down on Ace-8 versus 6. (Note: Do not double this and instead stand in S17 games.) The idea is again to be aggressive and attack the 6 up-card. Remember by hitting soft 17 the house increases their advantage over the players by 0.20%. They are going to make more pat hands. To counteract this edge, players should be aggressive in their soft double-down opportunities.

As Iíve said before and will undoubtedly say again, winning blackjack isnít easy. It can be nerve-wracking and downright humbling at times. However, if you want to make your bankroll last and come out a winner in the long-run you have to recognize opportunities and act correctly when these situations arise.

Always double Ace-2 against dealer upcards of 5 and 6, and Ace-3, Ace-4, and Ace-5 against 4, 5, or 6. Remember that Ace-6 is not 17 and double it when the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Realize that 18 isnít really a good hand in the long-run and donít be afraid to double Ace-7 when the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing. By doubling down on seemingly poor hands against dealer bust cards youíll increase your odds of being a long-term blackjack winner. Believe me, you wonít win them all, and youíll cost yourself some hands along the way, but youíll also win your share. Over time, that will improve your blackjack bottom line.

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