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PAULíS POINTERS: PLAYING BLACKJACK WITH FRIENDS

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.

Ever play blackjack with a friend? Howíd it go? Was it an enjoyable experience or was it stressful? Iíve had some experience in that realm and in fact have had gambling friends in town three times in the past five months. This month weíre going to talk about how playing blackjack with friends can affect your performance, theirs, and possibly your friendship.

Iím Coming to Town Ö When are you free to hit the casino?

I have a small circle of friends that like to gamble. One tends to prefer poker, but plays some blackjack. Another is strictly a video poker player. Another bets sports and plays blackjack. While yet another prefers blackjack and the occasional slot machine. All are intelligent people and I have no problem sitting down with any of them. Recently one was in town and asked me to take them to play blackjack somewhere with a good double-deck game and low house minimums. Where we ended up doesnít matter, but suffice it to say the house advantage was less than 0.60% over a basic strategy player. This leads to my first bit of advice Ė agree beforehand on what limits and what game you want to play together. Discuss any other variables, like the crowd that usually plays at this casino, dining options for later, cocktail service, distance to their hotel, etc. Also, how much are you willing to lose if things go bad? If things go well, how much are you looking to win, before shutting it down and taking profits? Have a plan before you enter the casino.

Youíre the Expert

Ever hear that line when your friend asks you for advice on how to play a hand? Naturally youíre a genius when you advise them to hit their 12 against the dealerís 2 up-card and your friend pulls a 9, making 21 for him or herself and even saving the table when the dealer has a King in the hole and busts on the next card. What happens when the 10-count card and the 9 are reversed? Hopefully youíre friends are smart enough to know a little basic strategy and understand that taking the hit was the correct play. If they arenít, itís probably going to be a long night.

Iím fortunate in that my friend is a pretty decent player and understands basic strategy conceptually. When in doubt he asks me how to play a hand. Generally, he already knows, but sometimes needs a little encouragement when doubling down on soft hands or hitting his 12 against the dealerís deuce. His basic strategy isnít flawless, but overall, I have no qualms with his game. On our most recent adventure, he played better than at least two of the other players on the table.

Unfortunately, we both were dealt bad cards from the outset and ran into a dealer that seemingly refused to bust. It seemed we were in negative counts constantly and when we were dealt a pair of face cards, we either pushed or lost. It was one of those nights. However, things can change. I made minimum bet after minimum bet and even sat out hands until the shuffle multiple times. I encouraged my friend to do the same. Changing tables wasnít really an option as available spots were at a minimum even though it was still early on a weekend night. I even left the table and took a couple of laps around the casino twice. I wanted to get out of the bad counts and maybe change the flow of the cards (to hopefully positive counts) to help my buddy. This leads to my next bit of advice Ė play your hands properly and donít worry about affecting the cards your friends draw or are dealt. Take your hits and make your splits. If you are in the hand, be in the hand completely, or sit out.

Even is Leaviní Ö I Wish I Were Even

We were both down over ten units before things finally seemed to bottom and we began to hold our own at that level. I continued to counsel patience, but knew we probably werenít going to have time to get out of this hole without being overly aggressive or foolish. Weíd been at it for about two hours and the night was getting away from us. Being overly aggressive or making foolish bets werenít good options for either of us and shouldnít be for you. Itís tough medicine to swallow, but sometimes you have to take losses and save your remaining ammo for another day.

As you might have guessed by now, this isnít a tale of glory and we didnít need a wheel barrow to carry all our chips to the cashierís cage. To make a long story short, things finally started to turn and I was able to get a bit more aggressive and even hit a few double-downs to claw my way back to even. At that point I quit. After the first hour of pain, we had both lowered our goals to just trying to get even. Unfortunately, my friend missed a couple of big double-downs in positive count situations that would have got him back in business and eventually settled for a ten-unit loss. Believe me, it could have been worse. Over a late beverage we discussed the outing and I reminded him of how being patient and making all those minimum bets at least kept us in the game. At one point, when the count was positive and weíd manage to win a hand I looked at my friend and said, "if weíre ever going to up our bets, now is probably as good a time as any." This leads me to my next point, if you are a decent card counter and your friend is not, work out a code to give your friend hints as to what is going on; advise them on when to raise or lower their bets based on the count. It doesnít have to be as elaborate as in the movie 21(2008) or even complicated like some team-play techniques. (For the record, I highly recommend Ben Mezrichís "Bringing Down the House." Itís the book 21 is based on and is better than the movie in my humble opinion.)

Talk, Talk Ö Voices Carry

In this section, Iím going to elaborate on that last point about communication at the table. If you are going to play your best blackjack and try to help a friend in the process, there has to be some level of trust. Questioning strategy or turning a situation into a debate at the table is bad form and wonít help anyone. I have experience playing blackjack with friends of varying skill levels in three major casino markets in the United States. To the best of my knowledge, they all trusted me and I never gave them bad long-term advice. Unfortunately, we tend to play in the short-term. Make sure your friends are aware that basic strategy and card counting doesnít necessarily mean you are going to win every hand or show a profit every session. It hurts when you tell your buddy that youíd split those 3ís against that dealer 7, then when they re-split and end up with 7ís and 8ís on top of those threes and ask you if they should double-down Ö Well, sometimes the dealer has a four in the hole and draws a picture to make 21. Make sure you friend understands these things can and do happen before they do.

When I play with friends, we generally work out a quick set of phrases to communicate a move. For example, when the count is negative I might sarcastically say something like, "I feel so good about this hand, Iíll bet the minimum." When the count is positive and itís a good time to get another chip or two into the circle, I might tell my buddy, "Weíre due," or "Iíve got a feeling about this one." The later are things that illogical gamblers say all the time, so it goes unnoticed, except by your friend who follows your lead. Also, when asked about basic strategy plays, I often hesitate and say, "thatís a tough one," even though my comrades know good and well I know the correct strategy play. No one likes a "know-it-all" and you donít need to appear too smart in front of pit personnel or even some dealers. After all, voices carry.

Putting It All Together

This month I discussed some of the nuisances and variables involved when playing casino blackjack with friends. Needless to say there are countless more and individual situations vary. However, like any relationship, communication is the key. Agree on table minimums and playing conditions you are both comfortable with beforehand. Also, discuss loss limits and how long you are willing to play if things go bad. Also, talk about locking up profits if things go well. Itís bad form to watch your seemingly red-hot friend make a killing and then give it all back and then some. Iíve seen it; not with any of my buddies mind you, but it happens every day.

If you are a decent card counter and recite basic strategy in your sleep, your friend probably already knows it, but make sure they donít hesitate to ask advice. When giving it, donít make them look bad or embarrass them. Hesitate and commiserate before telling them they really should hit their 16 against the dealers 10. If you advise them to go against "the book" due to a very negative count or unusual situation youíve noticed, explain it later over drinks or dinner. Carry on casual conversation while playing and mix in commentary about the situation at the table that is easy for your friend to decode and understand. Ideally in a manner or delivery youíve pre-arranged.

In conclusion, be responsible. Be a friend and donít let your friend lose too much, drink too much, or get in a situation that might hurt your friend or you in the long-run. I donít know about you, but I have a difficult time making friends and find it easier to try to keep the ones I already have. Ultimately, your friendship is more important than winning or losing blackjack sessions, but it sure makes for good times and good memories when you both win. When you are up and your friend isnít, offer to pick up the tab for a meal or leave the tip if you are both eating on a comp. If the situation is reversed, be happy for you friend and donít let your loss put a damper on the rest of your visit.

Until next time; remember, friendship is like money, easier made than kept.

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