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PAUL'S POINTERS: BUILDING BLOCKS: MAKE YOURSELF A BETTER BLACKJACK PLAYER

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. He's 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 2014 issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas. G2E is the premier conference event and trade show for the global gaming industry. The four-day event includes seminars on various topics relevant to the gaming industry. There were two main hot topics at the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) this year: marketing to millennials and Daily Fantasy Sports. Approximately 25,000 people attend the trade show and over 500 companies displayed their products and services in booth space on the exhibit show room floor.

I've attend G2E in the past, but this year was a little different. Thanks to a friend of mine, I was able to get a behind the scenes look at the trade show floor before it was a "show." My buddy was a coordinating agent for about 30 exhibitors. He was able to view their booth orders and materials before they arrived, make sure ordered products were delivered, and serve as a liaison with trade show exhibitors and show management prior to G2E opening through the close of the event. Needless to say there were lots of moving parts. If you've never seen an empty exhibit hall turned into a massive trade show, it's quite the process and takes several days. It's like building a small city. Sharing my friend's experience and even meeting a few of the exhibitors before the show got me thinking about logistics and process management. How can we apply these concepts to blackjack? What steps can we take to build a better blackjack player?

Learn the Rules

This first step should seem instinctively simple, yet many players don't fully grasp the rules and what they mean with regards to subsequent playing decisions. Blackjack has a set of relatively simple rules. Many of them are even printed on the felt of the table layout. Examples include Blackjack pays 3:2; Insurance Pays Even Money; and Dealers must hit soft 17. However, there are other rules that may not be printed or at least readily visible from your seat position. These may include Re-split Aces up to 4 times; Double-down on any first two cards; Double-down after splitting; and Split and re-split pairs up to 4 times. Like most things in life, the rules are in place for a reason. Some rules favor you as the player, while some favor the house. It's up to you to learn how use them to your advantage or to minimize your disadvantage.

Learn the Language

Blackjack, like any other game or discipline, has its own language. Its alphabet is derived from a standard deck of 52 playing cards. There are 13 values in four different suits in each deck. Some games use only one deck, others might use two, while others may use as many as eight. The combinations of these cards generate descriptive terms such as a "pat hand," where a player's hand totals 17 or more; or a "bust card," often referred to when the dealer shows a two through six valued up-card. Slang such as "Face", "Monkey," or "Paint" are often heard around the table. Players should understand the terminology of the game and what is meant by double-down, split, insurance, or surrender. What is meant by a shoe versus a hand-dealt game? Continuous shuffler, cut-card, and discard tray, plus a few other common terms that a player should understand, can probably be added to the "BJ Language List."

Learn Basic Strategy

This is the most important concept in this column. I can't emphasize it enough; learn basic strategy! What exactly is basic strategy you might ask? Basic strategy is simply the correct way to play your hand when the only information you have available is your hand and the dealer's upcard. It's comprised of mathematically-derived playing decisions for each possible card combination based on the numerical total and composition of the cards in the player's hand and the dealer's up-card. It is displayed in either a black-and-white table or a colored matrix chart, and provides the correct playing decision to increase the player's chances of winning a hand more often or losing a particular hand less often. Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott, often referred to in the literature as the "Four Horsemen of Aberdeen," developed the first reasonably accurate basic playing strategy for blackjack and they published their work in 1956 in the Journal of the American Statistical Society, and then, a year later, in the book "Playing Blackjack to Win." Later, Dr. Edward Thorp refined the basic strategy, which he discusses in Chapter Three of his classic book, "Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One" (1962, 1966). (This book goes into detail and is a good read for those that need more than just "blind faith.")

Basic strategy is an indispensable aid to your blackjack game and can lower the house advantage to as little as 0.05% if followed properly (rule dependent). It's important to realize that there are variations to basic strategy based on the number of decks being dealt and the table rules that are in play. By learning even a rudimentary version of basic strategy and applying it consistently, you can improve your blackjack results dramatically over time.

Build Your Bankroll and Learn to Manage It

Let's face it; it takes money to play blackjack. Where does that money come from? You tell me, but it shouldn't come from the rent or mortgage money or the money needed to pay the monthly bills. I'm often asked, "What do I need to do to become a successful gambler?" There's really not a short answer there, but the first thing out of my mouth is generally, "Save an independent bankroll that you will use solely for gambling." While you are working towards your bankroll goal, you can work on the other three building block items above.

Once you've established an independent gambling bankroll, it's important to learn how to manage it. This means sizing your bets in relation to the size of your bankroll. If your entire bankroll is $1,000 you don't need to be betting $25 per hand at the green chip tables. However, if your session bankroll is $1,000 then, perhaps that makes a little more sense. I recommend having an overall bankroll and taking portions of it for each session you play. This way, you'll bet less and if you get wiped out during a session, you still have ammunition in the form of funds for future sessions. A conservative rule of thumb is to have 100 times your minimum bet available for each session. If you are going to bet $10 per hand, then you should have $1,000 for that session. That may be overly conservative or stretch your overall bankroll. However, it's important to realize the limitations of your bankroll and acknowledge that losing is part of the game. By not over-betting your bankroll, your chances of staying in the game and becoming a long-term winner increase dramatically. As your winning sessions outweigh your losers, you'll be able to grow your bankroll and increase the amount of your bets over time.

Learn a Card Counting System

This one is for extra credit, but if you've mastered the four items above, then I encourage you to take the time to learn a simple card-counting system. The importance of each individual card takes on more meaning the more advanced one's blackjack skillset. When I first began playing blackjack, the idea of keeping track of the Aces and then the 10-count cards seemed pretty instinctual. After all, lots of Aces and "Faces (Jacks, Queens, and Kings)" are generally good for the player.

Dr. Thorp also realized the relationship of deck composition and the impact removing individual cards would have on individual hands. He was an early card-counting pioneer and explains much of his work in "Beat the Dealer." Card counting isn't terribly difficult and basically gives the player a reason to decrease or increase the amount of their bets. It can also be used to deviate from basic strategy under "extreme" conditions. One of the most common count methods is known as the Hi Lo method. There are many others. The common element is that all of them assign a value to high cards and to low cards. They use this value to determine if there are more higher valued cards remaining in the deck to be dealt (favors the player) or more lower valued cards remaining (favors the dealer). You want to bet fewer chips or even not play when the deck composition favors the dealer. Conversely, when the composition favors the player, you want to have chips in the circle and maybe even an extra one or two.

Putting It All Together

I began this column comparing building a trade show floor with building a better blackjack player. In many ways, I've oversimplified both. Books could be written on both topics. However, I wanted to stress the "building blocks" concept. Rather a long-time professional or mere novice, at some point you have to have a foundation in your game. That's your basic starting point. Use the items above to build your foundation and find others that help you improve your knowledge and strengthen your overall game.

This month I introduced some basic topics to help you build your game. These include learning the rules and realizing that rule variations can affect your results. Secondly, I discussed learning the language of the game. Like any discipline, blackjack has its own language. Master it and you'll improve your ability to learn the game going forward through study, reading, and conversing with other players - perhaps smarter than you. I also stressed that learning basic strategy is paramount. This one is not open for discussion. In conjunction with learning and practicing basic strategy, I emphasized the importance of having a bankroll and managing it responsibly. Finally, I introduced the concept of card counting. Once you've mastered the other building blocks, card counting can help take your game to a higher level.

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