TOP 10 BLACKJACK QUESTIONS
Robert LeRoy Parker is the host/moderator of The Parker Pages at www.advantageplayer.com, and has also been a frequent contributor to BJ21.com and various other blackjack message boards and newsgroups through the years. Based in San Diego, CA, he makes frequent trips to Las Vegas, as well as occasional trips to Reno, Tunica, and other blackjack Mecca’s. You can read more information about Parker at www.advantageplayer.com/blackjack/parker/About_Parker.html. Parker is also the author of Magnum Blackjack to be published by RGE Publishing later this year. The following article is an excerpt from the book.
During the three years in which I have been hosting the Parker Pages, I have noted that certain questions keep popping up. Here are ten of the more common ones, in no particular order, along with my answers and comments.
1. What is the best counting system?
This is one of the most discussed topics on advantage player message boards, yet it is really one of the least important. Any of the popular systems will get the job done, and the difference between systems at beginner levels is insignificant. I recommend that everyone start with a level one count, as the more complex systems provide a small increase in performance at the cost of a large increase in complexity.
Keep in mind that this is not a once-in-a-lifetime decision. A person can always switch to a more complex system after gaining some playing experience. Hi-lo is the oldest and most popular system, so there is a huge amount of documentation supporting it. Unbalanced systems such as Knockout (KO), Red 7 and Fred Renzey's KISS counts provide added simplicity in that they do not require a true count conversion. These have rapidly gained popularity. The bottom line is that any of the popular systems will bring home the money.
2. So which is better, KO or Hi-lo?
Hi-lo has been around at least since the 1966 edition of Beat the Dealer, so there is a wealth of information concerning it. The first edition of Knockout Blackjack was published in 1997, and it has quickly become the second most popular system, undoubtedly due to its simplicity. KO was viciously attacked by many when it first appeared. People simply could not accept that anything that simple could work.
However, extensive computer simulations have shown that KO and Hi-lo are neck-and-neck, with KO out-performing Hi-lo under some game conditions, and Hi-lo taking the edge in others. In no case is the difference significant. Note that it is not a fair comparison to pit the KO Preferred system against Hi-lo with the I-18 indices. The I-18 includes splitting 10's against 5 and 6, powerful indices that KO's creators opted not to use due to the heat that these plays nearly always draw. A fair comparison would either use the "sweet 16" with Hi-lo (the I-18 without the 10 splitting) or simply add splitting 10's at the pivot point to the KO Preferred Matrix.
3. Where should a beginning counter start, single deck, double deck or six deck shoes?
I suggest starting with the six deck shoes. If one has mastered counting down a six deck shoe without losing the count, single and double deck become incredibly easy. Someone first learning double deck may experience problems with losing the count after a couple of decks when initially attempting the shoe. Six deck shoes can be found in nearly any casino in any part of the world. There are many parts of the country where the question is moot, since the only games around are shoes.
I have to confess that I did not personally follow this advice, as I have played single and double deck games almost exclusively since I first learned to count cards. But if I had it all to do over . . .
4. When is a game considered unplayable? Is it based on EV, $/hr, basic rules?
It can be a combination of these, and it is different for different people. One common standard used is that any game with a SCORE (as defined in Don Schlesinger's Blackjack Attack) of 50 or above is considered a good game.
Some people might consider any game with positive EV to be playable, especially if it is at an upscale casino and their level of play is sufficient to earn lots of comps. Another "benchmark" commonly quoted is that a good game should have an EV of at least two units per hour.
Heat is another factor. A game might have mediocre rules and penetration, but if huge spreads go unnoticed and/or heavy wonging is acceptable, then that game might be playable, and even desirable. On the other hand, a game might have great rules and pen, but if the pit boots anyone who seems to have a clue how to play, then the game is unplayable.
Finally, betting level is also a big factor. What is unplayable to a red chip player may be quite lucrative to someone betting heavy black or more. Likewise, simple table minimums may make a game "unplayable" for a low stakes bettor.
5. What are some good blackjack books?
There are a lot of good blackjack books out there. There is also a lot of garbage. First, one needs the basic text for the counting system of choice, which usually also covers basics such as rules, basic strategy, etc. Here are a few suggestions, along with the counting systems covered by each:
Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong (Hi-lo, Halves)
Blackjack Take the Money and Run by Henry Tamburin (Hi-lo)
Knockout Blackjack by Ken Fuchs and Olaf Vancura (KO)
Blackjack Bluebook II by Fred Renzey (KISS, Mentor)
Blackbelt in Blackjack, 3rd Edition by Arnold Snyder (Red 7, Zen)
These books cover the basics. After mastering basic strategy and a counting system, a must-have book is Blackjack Attack, 3rd Edition, by Don Schlesinger. This book is a gold mine of information for the serious card counter. The answers to nearly every question posed on The Parker Pages relating to blackjack strategy or mathematics can be found in this book, if one is willing to look.
6. Every time I split 8's against a dealer 10 I end up losing two bets instead of one. Why does basic strategy say to split eights vs. 10?
There are a handful of basic strategy plays that are not intuitive, and this is one of them. It is important to understand that some pair splits are offensive in nature, that is, we want to get more money on the table when we have an edge, and others are defensive, that is, we are trying to salvage a bad situation. 8, 8 vs 10 is most definitely the latter. Consider that if we don't split our 8's we are looking at a 16 vs 10, the worst hand in blackjack. By splitting, we convert this to two hands of 8 vs 10. Note that this is still a losing hand, but
not nearly as bad as 16 vs 10. In the long run, we will lose less money playing twice as many hands of 8 vs 10 as 16 vs 10.
To put some numbers on it, in a typical 6 deck game (dealer hits soft 17. double after split okay), our expectation is -.594827 for standing, -.538561 for hitting, and -.517931 for splitting. In other words, if we were to play this hand a few million times, we could expect to lose an average of $.594827 for every dollar wagered if we were to always stand, etc. Note that the numbers are close, that all three options (stand, hit, split) are losers, but yet we lose less in the long run by splitting, despite the fact that we must put more money on the table. (These numbers are from Appendix A in Blackjack Attack, 3rd Edition, by Don Schlesinger.)
Further complicating things is something called selective memory. Sometimes we will win both hands of the split, sometimes we will win one and lose the other (this is okay – we turned a probable loss into a net push), and of course, quite often we will lose both hands. Guess which result we are most likely to remember?
Bottom line: Trust the math.
7. I'm going to Las Vegas and would like to hook up with some other counters. How do I go about this?
The short answer is that you probably don't. Card counters are a notoriously paranoid bunch. The only thing I can suggest is to be patient and network. Continue to post on the various blackjack message boards, always using the same "handle" or username. Open a web-based e-mail account and use that address with your posts so that people may contact you privately if they so desire. Consider attending social events such as the parties hosted by BJ21.com.
Eventually you will begin to meet other counters, but it will not happen overnight. By the same token, be extremely wary of anyone who seems too eager to get together. When meeting another counter in person for the first time, suggest a public, non-casino location such as a coffee shop. If you see someone in a casino who appears to be counting cards, never, ever approach them in the casino.
8. Why was my post deleted? Don't you guys believe in the First Amendment?
Okay, no blackjack content here, just a quick civics lesson. The First Amendment reads, in its entirety: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Note that there is nothing here guaranteeing the right to post whatever one likes on a privately operated Internet message board. Unless it is an agency of the government doing the deleting, the First Amendment is simply not applicable here. Anyone who has a post deleted is perfectly free to post elsewhere, or start his/her own message board.
9. Should I turn pro?
I am reminded of the old saying usually associated with the price of yachts or luxury automobiles: "If you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it." Someone asking on a public discussion board if they should become a professional advantage player almost always should not. Playing at the professional level requires a large bankroll. Anyone with the necessary bankroll has almost certainly found an easier way to make money.
In addition, unlike other professions, success at advantage play means being treated like a common criminal. It is a lonely existence and like all forms of self-employment has no medical plan, paid vacation, retirement plan, etc. No one should consider turning pro until they have several years experience as a serious part time player.
It is not an easy way to make a living. I am fortunate to know a handful of successful high stakes professional players. These are truly exceptional individuals who would undoubtedly succeed in any endeavor that they chose to pursue. They have my utmost respect.
If you are ready to turn pro, you will not need to ask on a message board – you will know it. In fact, your close friends and family will not be able to talk you out of it.
10. What is the future of blackjack?
People have been predicting the demise of blackjack since Beat the Dealer was first published in 1962. I believe that this goes in cycles. The current cycle started in the mid-80's when Steve Wynn opened the Mirage and started a wave of casino building. This continued with the opening of riverboat and Indian casinos elsewhere in the country. Conditions probably peaked in the mid-90's (MIT teams, etc.) and have been declining ever since.
They may have bottomed out. In April, Steve Wynn's new mega-resort will open. I predict there will be some good games there for those with sufficient bankroll (don't expect many $5 tables). Some are predicting that this will be the start of another building boom. If they are correct, we may soon see a rebirth of playable blackjack.
We also have casino greed on our side. While there are the 6:5 junk games, etc., the casinos know that there is a significant portion of the population who are not advantage players but know enough to differentiate a good game from a bad game. The casinos want everyone's money, so they offer some higher quality games to entice these people (albeit often at higher minimums).
Meanwhile, away from Las Vegas, casinos are popping up everywhere. New casinos mean new opportunities for the advantage player with his wits about him (or her). As Dickens once wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Things are indeed getting tougher for the high stakes pro, but opportunities abound for the low to mid-stakes player. In addition we have an unprecedented amount of information and tools available, what with the Internet and modern simulation software. All in all, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of blackjack.
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