BLACKJACK COVER STRATEGIES
JPB has been playing blackjack and counting cards part-time since 1996. He plays throughout the country but primarily in Missouri. He has been a Green Chip member ofBJ21.com for four years and one-time winner of the Post-of-the-Month. JPB is a professional engineer with three engineering degrees and works as a consulting engineer.
Blackjack cover is generally described as disguising one’s blackjack skills by play (bet size and decisions) rather than appearance (which is generally described as act). Much has been written about cover strategies, including entire chapters and even entire books.
Cover is easy and it works-at disguising your blackjack skills. The problem is that cover is not cheap because it reduces your advantage over the house. In this day and age, with penetration deteriorating and more and more casinos switching to "Dealer Hits Soft 17", the games are getting more difficult to beat. Use too much cover, and you will not need it because you will be playing at a disadvantage (and the casino will be happy to let you play). For the vast majority of players, cover strategy is not cost-effective.
In my early years of blackjack, I refused to even consider using cover. As I played more hours, I started getting "made" as a counter quickly and got backed off more and more frequently. As I have started to find it more and more difficult to find decent blackjack games (due to being backed off and countermeasures being taken), I have been reevaluating the pros and cons of cover.
Factors in Evaluating Cover
The value of cover depends primarily on two factors: your style of play and the blackjack game being evaluated.
In order to provide meaningful guidance, I made the following three classifications of players (note: these are just classifications I made for the purposes of this article).
Player Style/ Classifications
Style A This is the player that generally meets the following criteria:
Style B This is the player that generally meets the following criteria:
Style C- This is a player that generally meets the following criteria:
The other factor is the blackjack game. Cover is most necessary at single deck and double deck. It is substantially less important at the 6 and 8 deck games because it is so much easier at a single and double deck for a pit boss to notice a few low cards come out, an increase in bet size, and conclude you are counting cards. It takes more patience and ability than most pit bosses have to count through a 6 or 8 decker.
The importance of cover also depends on the quality of the game. If it is a mediocre game (say H17 double deck with 50% penetration) why worry about cover? It is not worth the cost. If you get asked to leave, play somewhere else.
I have listed the five most common cover strategies that I am aware of.
With all due respect to Don Schlesinger, who devotes a whole chapter on evaluating the cost of these cover plays, this is one of my least favorite cover strategies. For the cover play to work, it requires a pit person to: 1) be watching closely, 2) know basic strategy, 3) know what the running count is (to evaluate some plays like insurance), 4) know what the correct index number is to vary the play, and 5) think the plays were significant enough to conclude you are not an advantage player and then record the evaluation on your players card. That is just too much happenstance for me. This is a bad idea.
What do you get in return for this cover? In my opinion, not much. When they replay the tapes and verify your bet sizing coincided with the count, do you really think they are going to let you keep playing? Sure, they will let you keep playing - slots and craps - but do not expect any leniency on the blackjack game. This strategy is not cost-effective.
The problem with losing is that it is the opposite of winning. So losing as trying to establish cover is a bad idea. If you do inadvertently lose big, take full advantage of it. There is one casino in Vegas that no matter what spread I use, they seem to shrug their shoulders. I also seem to lose big nearly every session, and the session losses are recorded on my player profile. I would suspect the profile says something like: "Must be counting cards but making big mistakes, big lifetime loser. Let him play until he proves otherwise".
Losing is good cover, but it is not something you can intentionally take advantage of. If you are in this unfortunate position at a particular casino, take advantage.
This is the one strategy at least worth looking at and in some cases worth implementing. Bet sizing cover can include the following:
Using a Tight Bet Spread
The primary factor in evaluating your blackjack skill is bet sizing and whether it correlates to the count. Obviously, the casino is less likely to be concerned about a 4 to 1 spread at double deck than 12 to 1. Once again, the cost of cover is high. For most players, using a tight bet spread is not cost effective. The exception is the Type C player that cannot afford to get backed off too may times.
Only Increasing Bets After a Win and by No More than twice the previous bet size
This strategy does not carry as much a penalty as a tight spread. You try to achieve your desired spread (say 8 or 12 to 1) but only within the constraints that you increase your bet by no more than double the previous amount or four times after winning a double down. There will be times that you want to bet 8 or more units but you have to restrain yourself and bet 2. The 8 to 1 bet spread looks less conspicuous when you are doubling up after a win or quadrupling the bet after winning a double down hand. The goal is to make it look like you are parlaying your wins. You will look more like a typical player. The cover strategy costs are not as much as using a tight bet spread, because your spread can still approach a healthy spread. The problem is that some of the big counts will occur after a loss. You get stuck betting a smaller amount than the optimal bet size.
For most players, I recommend using this strategy sparingly unless you are Type C player or a Type B player and have identified a truly outstanding game (good rules and excellent penetration).
Not reducing bets after a push.
This is an easy way to avoid unwanted attention from the pit boss. You are spreading $25-$300 at double deck, have a $200 bet on a + 4 running count, you get a 20, the dealer gets a 20, the player next to you gets a 19. The running count drops to –1. The optimal strategy is to reduce the bet to $25. The problem is that this is not what the typical player does. In addition, the pit boss can have very limited knowledge of card counting and put two and two together. This is a cost effective play for all Type C players and some Type B players. It does not cost that much as it does not occur that frequently, and the consequences of not using the cover play can be a premature back-off.
Random off-the-top Betting
This is the most cost-effective cover available. The no-cover counter bets the same amount off–the–top of the shoe because the count is always zero. Usually the bet size is table minimum or some small multiple of the table minimum. When the pit boss sees the off-the-top bet always the same amount and then a few cycles where bets increase and then decrease, it may raise suspicion. But if you randomly bet 2x, 4x, and 8x off-top when the count is neutral, the pit boss will be less likely to think counter.
The cost of this play is negligible because it occurs fairly infrequently (1 out of 5-10 hands at a typical double deck) and the cost per hand is negligible. The house advantage on a $100 bet at a zero count with favorable rules (DD, S17, DAS) is only $0.19. I can live with that when I am trying to achieve a win rate of $50-100 per hour.
Cover strategies work great at disguising your skills from casino personnel. The problem is that they come with a great cost- reduced theoretical win rate. Use enough cover and you do not have to worry about heat, because your advantage will be negligible.
Whether it is cost-effective use cover strategies will depend on your playing style (how many hours a year, bet spread, maximum bet, and the quality of the game being played). For the mast majority of players, cover should be used sparingly if at all, and the cover should be restricted to bet sizing. Play to win- worry about cover later. For the small number of professional and semi-professional players that play high stakes and find high quality blackjack games, cover strategies can be warranted. These recommendations are summarized below.
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