No Hole Card Option in Blackjack…
By Dan Pronovost
Dan Pronovost is the owner and president ofDeepNet Technologies, makers of a wide range of advantage gambling training products and software (blackjack, poker, craps). Their web site is: www.DeepnetTech.com, and all products are available for free trial download. Dan is also the creator of the easy-to-use card counting system Speed Count, taught in the Golden Touch Blackjack course which is now available in Frank Scoblete's new book, "Golden Touch Blackjack Revolution!": www.GoldenTouchBlackjack.com/scbook.shtml.
European No Hole Card Option in Blackjack
For blackjack players in North America, the ENHC blackjack rule (European No Hole Card) is rarely seen. But the ENHC option is much more prevalent outside of America, especially in the UK, Europe, Asia, and the Philippines. It is often marginally mentioned in blackjack books, at best given an unglamorous negative row in edge tables for basic strategy players.
After receiving a number of questions from players about ENHC, I decided to run some detailed simulations with my own company's blackjack simulator and training products to see how bad ENHC is for the player, and what strategies they could employ to improve their edge (www.HandheldBlackjack.com). I went into this certain that ENHC would prove marginal for the advantage player, and a rule that is best avoided. However, I was surprised to discover that players can do fairly well against it, especially if they can find additional advantageous rules to offset ENHC. In addition, applying more aggressive playing strategies can greatly offset the negative ENHC rule (my experience outside of Sin City is that casinos with marginal game rules tolerate more aggressive advantage play strategies, such as sitting out negative counts or using large bet spreads at high counts).
So, "what is ENHC?" you may ask. With this blackjack rule, the dealer doesn’t get a hole card during the initial deal of cards. Once all the players have completed their hands, the dealer deals himself a second card and completes his hand as usual. Unlike standard American blackjack, the dealer never 'peeks' at their hole card prior to dealing the round when they have a ten-valued card or ace up. Insurance and blackjacks still apply, but the mechanics are a bit different: insurance is still offered but is resolved after the round is done, and player blackjacks are not paid off until the dealer determines that he does not have a blackjack as well (which would be a push if the dealer also has a blackjack).
So what's so bad about ENHC? The problem is when the dealer gets a blackjack (a ten-valued card and ace combination), and the player had unwittingly doubled or split their hand prior. In American rules, the dealer would have peeked before dealing the round, and simply taken the players’ initial wagers immediately if the house had a blackjack (or pushed against the players with blackjacks as well). And if the dealer peeks and does not have a blackjack, then the players get to play their hands with full knowledge that the dealer can’t get a natural (and player blackjacks are paid off immediately). With ENHC, the player is forced to play their hand with that dealer ten or ace looming over them and if the dealer subsequently draws a ten or ace after the players completed their hands, all players secondary bets made in doubling or pair splitting is taken by the dealer. So, if the dealer gets a blackjack with the ENHC rule, the player who doubles or pair splits loses the initial wager and the secondary wager, whereas with the American rule, the player only loses the initial wager.
Be alert to the rare game that appears to be using ENHC, but turns out to be no different from standard American rules. If the house gives back the player's secondary split and double bet in the event that the dealer gets a blackjack, then this game is no different in any mathematical sense from standard American rules blackjack. It's only the player’s splits and doubles when the dealer gets a blackjack that are relevant to ENHC, otherwise it's the same game. (Note: A casino may use a 'fake' ENHC playing method where they take only the original bet and return the secondary wager made when splitting and doubling if the dealer gets blackjack. They do this so that there is no risk of the dealer exposing his hole card to the players in advance of playing out the round.)
Basic Strategy and ENHC
ENHC means you should play a bit differently in some situations. If the dealer does not have a ten-valued card or ace up, then there is no difference from standard American rules, and the basic blackjack strategy is the same. Here are the few specific differences in basic strategy for multi-deck, DAS, S17:
The big change occurs when a player gets a hard 11 against a dealer's 10. With standardAmerican rules, you double, which is not surprising since you know for sure that the dealer does not have an ace in the hole (because the dealer checked for a blackjack before you play out your hand). With ENHC, the dealer can still draw an ace to the initial ten for a blackjack, so it's best not to increase your bet by doubling down. A similar logic applies to the other hands.
Armed with the correct playing strategy, we can now ask ourselves what impact ENHC has for basic strategy and card-counting advantage players. For basic strategy players, there's no doubt that they will go from being a loser to a bigger loser… avoid ENHC, or bet as little as possible! The more interesting question applies to advantage players using card counting. ENHC games may be the only game available in their area, or maybe ENHC comes with other advantageous rules or conditions (like surrender, or less heat and attention as they vary their bets with the count).
For basic strategy players, you can expect the casino's edge over you to worsen by about an additional 0.1%, depending on the rules and the game. Consider a typical 6-deck DAS/S17 game with and without ENHC (using correct basic strategy in both games and flat betting):
This is an increase of 34% in your average loss (win rate), which is pretty bad. This would take a $25 average bet player from losing about $8 an hour (assuming 100 rounds an hour), to $11! Ouch!
ENHC and Card Counting
Now let's look at some results with card counting usingBlackjack Audit, our advanced blackjack simulator. We'll look at two popular card counting systems: High-Low and Speed Count (www.SpeedCountBlackjack.com). We'll only use the count system to vary the count, and not use play indices (which are too hard to learn, lead to more player errors, and are impractical for average advantage players). We'll stick with the same game: DAS, S17, 6-deck game, 2 players at the table, 75% penetration, employing the standard recommended 1 to 8 unit bet spreads for both systems.
As expected, both systems suffer a substantial reduction in player win rate with ENHC (about 30% for both systems). Myself, I try hard to avoid playing in any blackjack game that delivers less than a 0.5% edge, as the hourly win rate is just too low and the variance too high. We can see from the huge increase in 5% lifetime Risk of Ruin (ROR) bankroll requirements shown above that the games are marginal at best.
I was originally prompted by one of my customers in the Philippines to complete this research (where ENHC is standard). After a few simulations, I told him basically the same story as above. But he replied that one local casino offered ENHC with early surrender (accept against a dealer's ace), so would that make it worth playing? To be clear, we'll surrender these specific hands only: 15/10 (player hard 15 versus dealer 10), 16/9, 16/10, 77/10, 88/10.
Players familiar with American rules where dealers peek for blackjack might think that the early surrender option noted above is outstanding, compared to the more common late surrender option. The difference is that with late surrender and American rules, the dealer checks for blackjack prior to providing the surrender option to players. This is not practical with ENHC, since the dealer does not check for a blackjack until the players are done playing their hands. The end result is that surrender with ENHC is always early surrender, but is usually accompanied with the restriction of disallowing surrender when the dealer has an ace up.
I'll stick with Speed Count in the analysis below, as the win rate difference was similar to ENHC, and the customer in question noted that, "The game is played so slowly here in the Philippines – maybe 40 hands an hour, so I tend to lose the count [with High-Low]. Speed Count was just easier." I'll also add one more test by using some aggressive plays. We'll not play any hands when the count is 21 or less (which is about 7% of the rounds with Speed Count), and we'll spread to two hands with 8 bet units on each hand when the count hits 35 or higher (about 9% of the time). These are the kind of aggressive plays that would likely get you labeled as a card counter in Las Vegas, and either get you backed off or severely limit the time you can play at one casino. But in my experience, playing in casinos with marginal rules (such as 8 decks or H17, common in Atlantic City or Canada), there is far more tolerance for player ploys like these.
Just adding surrender increased our edge and win rate by over 70%, and reduced our bankroll requirement by 40%. And more importantly, our edge is a healthy 0.74%… well over the 0.5% threshold I like to use as a benchmark requirement. If we add the aggressive hand exiting at low counts and bet spreading at high counts, we achieve almost a 1% edge over the house and a very healthy win rate (a $25 player would earn about $84 an hour, assuming 100 hands per hour).
Just because a blackjack game has some bad rules, this does not mean you should avoid it out of hand. Look carefully, and if there are rules like surrender to counter the negative ones like ENHC, consider playing it. Also, if you must play in such a game (for example, if it's all that is available in you area), then definitely don't be afraid to add some heavy-duty advantage-play measures such as hand-exiting at low counts or substantial bet spreading at high counts.
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