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by Ariadne

Ariadne has over 15 years of experience dealing and supervising casino games in multiple states for diverse companies. He offers his observations of how most players misplay their hands at blackjack.

Note: Atlantic City rules are assumed for this article.

P.E. means a positive expectation.

N.E. means a negative expectation.

In Part 1 of this series, I summarized the most common errors I've observed while dealing and supervising blackjack games. This month I'd like to go a little further to broaden the scope. If you know perfect basic strategy, or know advanced strategies that take into consideration the count, nothing here is going to be shocking, however you might, in fact, use the general rationale to help novice players whose strategy you may find frustrating.

Let's face it, blackjack can be intimidating. "What the ____ did you do that for? Are you a _____?" People use language in casinos that would get them thrown out of many establishments. Take a breath... If it was "their" table, it would be reserved and you wouldn't be able to play blackjack on it. How you choose to play your hand is exactly that, your choice. I am recommending playing wisely to give yourself the best chance of winning. Let's continue where we left off to try to help you out.

The most common mistake I've come up with is this: the side bet. Let me digress for just a minute because I'm going to pick on the "Lucky Ladies" side bet this month. If you are unfamiliar with the "Lucky Ladies" bet, it is an optional side bet that your first two cards will total 20. The pay table, like with Three Card Poker, varies, and the bet is surprisingly popular.

The big payout comes when someone is dealt a queen of hearts pair in the first two cards and the dealer has a blackjack. The payoff for this unlikely event is 1000 to 1 (125 to 1 if the dealer doesn't have a blackjack). Think about this: the dealer gets blackjack about 1/21 hands. In a six deck game, there are (obviously) six queen of hearts cards. So only 6 cards out of 312 are especially valuable -- you have to get 2 of them and the dealer has to get blackjack.

According to my favorite analyst, the house advantage is over 24% compared to a measly 0.43% for the main blackjack bet (take a look at the decimal). In dollars and cents, a single $1 bet on the "Lucky Ladies," with a 24% house edge is an expected loss of 24 cents whereas a bet of $50 on main blackjack game has an expected loss of 22 cents. (Notice that you'll lose less betting $50 on the hand than $1 on the side bet in the long run.) I've even seen the minimum on the "Lucky Ladies" at $5. You'd have to be betting over $275 on the main wager to have the same house advantage!

"But it pays 1000 to 1"... I'm not going to have this argument with you. If you're going to throw caution to the wind, at least count the number of Q's of Hearts and don't expect a reasonable return. As more valuable cards are spent, the jackpot payout approaches impossible to hit. I have heard of players counting to try to beat the side bet. Let's just assume for the moment that it was possible to do so. Jackpot payouts at 1000 to 1 are going to likely require disclosing your social security number, while all the while you were trying to conceal your identity. Payouts like this often involve paying taxes. Do you want to go down this path?

Let's get back to the main game. Most commonly misplayed hands are usually the result of someone getting terrible advice or someone reacting to memory of a limited sample size. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the following:

"A player who was winning told me _____."

"A dealer told me that I should ______."

Dealers, players, and supervisors can be extremely helpful, but I can't emphasize enough that most "statistics" quoted in casinos are wrong. Dependable information about strategy and house advantage is available if you know where to look (right here is a great starting place). When a dealer or player tells you, "The book says you should _____," they are often wrong. (Supervisors are more frequently right in my experience.) What are you supposed to do? Print yourself a strategy chart according to the specific rules before going to play. Then practice either at home or on your computer with sound strategies. In time, you'll ignore all the voices in the casino. What do I mean by specific rules? The two most common variations are having surrender as an option, and the dealer drawing on a soft 17. When the casinos change the rules, your strategy needs to change to minimize the house advantage. (This article focuses mostly on "Atlantic City Rules" which means 4-8 decks, the dealer stays on a soft 17 and the casino does not offer surrender.)

What I mean by limited sample size is this: you don't experience enough hands to draw conclusions from memory. Say a "good" double down arises (again) but you've been losing on that play all day. Specifically, you have 11 and the dealer is showing a 10. You have lost the last five times you have doubled down in this same situation. "I never win when I double this hand." If you don't continue to double, you will likely not be winning more either. Doubling brings the Positive Expectation (P.E.) from to 17% from 11% for a Hit (you will make 6% more in the long run).

The player basing on memory of the day he hits and gets a 10. "You see, I only get a 10 when I don't double." (But this player would have had 21 with twice the bet!) We are wired to remember small samples of events and extrapolate, but this urge can be overcome with a vision of the larger picture. Sound play will rebound in the long term. In a single session or two, vast swings representing statistical anomalies are possible.


Let's focus on more specific hands that I see misplayed all the time. Most bad plays are the result of over-aggression, doubling when you don't really have the advantage or lowering your advantage by doubling. For example, you have 10 against an A. "The Dealer doesn't have Blackjack, so I'm going to double." Hitting has a P.E. of 8%; doubling has a Negative Expectation (N.E.) of 1%. You are costing yourself 9% in expected return, turning a win into a loss.

Take almost the same scenario of having 11 against an A-you go from hit P.E. of 14% to double P.E. of 11%. "I heard some mathematician say you're supposed to double every 11." That is only true when the dealer hits a soft 17's, but I'm staying focused on A.C. rules for the purpose of this article.


RULE: Double hard 10 against everything except 10 or A.

I see a lot of players double 10 against a 10. Why? They see a lot of face cards on the table and feel the dealer doesn't have a 20. Knowing the running count can be a helpful transition into advanced strategy (knowing the true count would be ideal), but in most cases, the cards in just one hand make almost no difference to the true count in six- or eight-deck games. Players often overvalue what they think is left in the shoe and adjust their play, incorrectly assuming they are playing advanced strategy.

Can you ever have the advantage in some of these situations? Yes. You're only going to have an advantage doubling a 10 v 10 or 10 v A at the true count of +4. I'm treading in waters better left to other professionals here, but suffice it to say that this doesn't happen often.


RULE: SPLIT 4's against a 5 and 6 and HIT against everything else.

I see 4-4 and all hard 8's misplayed a lot. Basic Strategy for multi-deck game with DAS says split 4-4 against 5 and 6 and hit against any other dealer upcard (always hitting a regular hard 8). You see a lot of players double down on these hands. Let's analyze 4-4 vs 5. P.E. values are as follows: Hit 7%, Double .3% and Split 8% (note Split implies doubling A-4, 9, 10, 11 and resplitting when possible). Against a 6, the P.E. values are Hit 11%, Double 8%, Split 15%. In all these cases, doubling the hard 8 costs you percentages! You are not being "greedy" by splitting. You are getting the best rate of return on your money.

You split, you resplit, you double. The dealer draws to 21. Some idiot starts yelling at you. "Why didn't you double like I did?" Let it go. That's gambling. Blackjack is not a team sport and you don't cost them, only yourself.

A-2, A-3

RULE: DOUBLE A-2 and A-3 against 5 or 6 and HIT against everything else.

Blackjack players at nearly every minimum level over-value their hands and undervalue the dealer's hand. Let's examine A-3 against 4, which I see frequently (and incorrectly) doubled by players. P.E. goes from 8% to under 6%. You are costing yourself 2%. Maybe part of you feels that a few percent isn't particularly dramatic. You may be thinking, "But the return is still positive." The return is taking into account the extra unit AND the possibility of hitting again when you are not doubling.

Imagine you're A-3 draws a 2. If you can hit this hand you are looking at P.E. of almost 4% vs having a forced stay (because you doubled) with N.E. of 21% (at 2 units). Yes, you might have drawn a 7 (1/13) approximately... I'm trying to paint the bigger picture.

A-2, A-3 vs 2

"A deuce is a dealer's ace." It's not. But I promise you that you'll hear this if you play blackjack long enough. Remember what I said about what people say in casinos.

Let's go with the preceding example and focus on A-2 vs. 2. Hit P.E. is 4.66% vs Double N.E. 8%. A 12% swing on return is more than significant. This comes from expecting the dealer to break far more frequently than he or she is likely to do so. Standing on any hand less than 17 against a 2 has a N.E. of 29%. In other words, if you have less than 17, expect to lose 29% of your money against a dealer 2. Even if you have 17, you still can expect to lose 15%. You will not have a positive expectation against a 2 until you have 18, 12%.

Note that it doesn't follow that it would make sense to hit a hard 13 or higher against a 2, because the N.E. would rise from 29% to 30% (Hard 13) to 47% (hard 16). Blackjack isn't always about winning more; you often have to play to lose less. (See examples from of 12v2 or 8's in Part 1.)

vs A

Just to offer a bit of perspective of how powerful a dealer Ace really is, standing with less than 17 represents a 66% loss, but beginning players often do it because they inaccurately assess the probability of the dealer breaking. Consider that even getting 18 vs A represents a 10% loss, hence the reason for hitting A-7 vs A. You don't approach a P.E. until you get to 19, 27%.

Here's a not so fun fact that might appear to contradict what I said earlier. The dealer is most likely to draw 21 having a 2 showing. This does not count times the dealer has blackjack, so the statement, while true, can be misleading. Further, it does not follow, that a 2 is worse than an A (the upcard A breaks less frequently as already established). More cards taken only mean more combinations that can equal 21 when all is said and done.


RULE: Double A-7 against 3-6 and hit against 9, 10, A.

We just saw the true value of 18 against an Ace. Against a 9 or 10 the N.E. values are about 18%. This is why you are hitting. I have seen players double A-7 against a 2. Remember that anything less that 18 is a loser against a 2. Building on what we know already, we know that less than 18 is a loss. You can only improve your hand to a P.E. by drawing A-3 (3/13) and you are betting twice as much money!


RULE: Always stand on A-8

Players undervalue their soft 19 just as they overvalue a hard 18 (in the case of 9-9). Players get confused as they try to rationalize the preceding rule with the following rules.

RULE: Double hard 9 vs 3-6 and hit against everything else.

RULE: SPLIT 9's against everything except 7, 10, or A.

So why not double a soft 19? If splitting 9's against a 6 is good and doubling 9 against a 6 is good, why not double soft 9? You get two chances, no? P.E. Stand 49% vs Double almost 48%. Granted, this is close. It's actually so close that if the dealer were to hit a soft 17, the move would be to double. And it would only take a minor blip in the true count to make it a profitable play.

The whole point of using strategy in blackjack is to bring the advantage down as low as you can. Face it, you're only face a 0.43% disadvantage with Atlantic City rules (it should be noted AC rules are not standard for every table in Atlantic City post deregulation). Casinos take that less than half of a percent advantage over you and grind it out, hoping that you will play in a fashion that will increase their expectation significantly above 0.43%. And I'll be very blunt. Casinos are not profitable because every blackjack plays perfect basic strategy-they are so profitable because of side bets and derivations without advanced strategy.

My advice is to practice the basic strategy rules, learn to tune people out when you play, and play skillfully to enjoy an extremely low house-advantage game.


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