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25 June 2016
By Henry Tamburin
Donald Schlesinger, in his excellent book Blackjack Attack: Playing the Pros’ Way, shows what it costs a player in dollars and cents when he deviates from the basic playing strategy. You’ll be surprised to learn which playing errors are the costliest.
The definition of basic strategy is this: It is the mathematically optimal way to play every hand dealt to you, assuming the only information you have is your hand and the dealer’s up card. The basic strategy is a set of rules that tell a player whether to hit, stand, double down, split or surrender on every hand.
As Arnold Snyder succinctly states in his book The Big Book of Blackjack, “Contrary to what many gamblers think, blackjack is not just a guessing game. Most casino games are guessing games. But with any blackjack hand there is a correct strategy and an incorrect strategy. The correct strategy is the mathematically optimal strategy — that is, it will maximize your wins and minimize your losses on each hand over time.”
Many years ago, before the invention of computers, professional gamblers figured out a good approximation of basic strategy by dealing hands to themselves on the kitchen table (and kept the information private). When computers came into existence, mathematicians were able to analyze every possible hand you can hold against all possible dealer up cards to devise the optimal playing strategy (i.e., the basic strategy, which is readily available in books and on the Internet).
So if basic strategy is readily available, why don’t all players use it when they play blackjack? I believe it’s because many players don’t understand the logic of basic strategy, they don’t understand the costs when they deviate from basic strategy, and because many players still believe the game of blackjack is nothing more than a guessing game.
Several years ago, in an article that I wrote for Casino Player, I addressed the issue of not understanding the logic for using the basic strategy for several popular misplayed hands (“Non-Intuitive Basic Strategy Plays,” October 2010 issue). This time, I want to address the naysayers who believe blackjack is a guessing game, and then show you what it costs when you don’t follow the basic strategy.
I take a standard deck of 52 playing cards, shuffle them, and ask a player to randomly pick a card from the deck. Beforehand, he guesses whether the card he will pick will be a red one or a black one (red meaning a heart — or diamond-suited card; black a spade or club). At this point, this is a guessing game because the odds of drawing a red or black card are 50-50.
Let’s suppose he guessed a red card and then he randomly picks a red card from the shuffled deck. I place that red card aside, reshuffle the 51 cards, and ask him to guess again, and then pick another card. Which color would you guess and why? Even though he is still guessing when he randomly picks a card, the odds are slightly in his favor if he guesses a black card (because there is one more black card than red card in the 51-card deck).
He could still lose if he picks black, but he’ll have the odds in his favor if he picks black over red. The point is this: the game is no longer a pure guessing game because you have the odds in your favor if you pick black.
That’s the way it is with basic strategy. If you always hit 16 against a dealer’s 10 up card because basic strategy says to do so, you may lose, but if you stand instead, the odds are slightly worse, and your expectation is to lose more in the long run. In other words, the basic strategy is the mathematically best way to play every hand to put the odds in your favor, such that your expectation is to win more or lose less on every hand. Therefore, unlike other casino games, blackjack is not a guessing game.
So what does it cost you when you play hunches and deviate from the basic strategy? It turns out that some basic strategy errors are very expensive while others are not. Table 7.3 in Schlesinger’s book summarizes the hourly cost when a player deviates from basic strategy. The information in the table considered the frequency of occurrence of each hand, the bet size, and the number of hands per hour to arrive at the “real” costs. (It would be unwieldy to show the costs for a single-, double- and multi-deck game, therefore, I’ve used the data in Table 7.3, which, as a compromise, is for a four-deck game.)
Below is a list of several hands from the above table and their cost in dollars per hour (assuming a $100 flat bet and 100 hands per hour), so you get a feel of what it costs you every time you don’t follow the basic strategy. Rather than show the individual costs for a hand against each dealer up card, I’ve summed the costs for a range of up cards (e.g., total hourly cost for splitting 10s whenever the dealer shows a 7-A up card is $246).
Notice that splitting 10s against any dealer up card is a very expensive error ($246 against a 7-A, and $73 against a 2-6). Standing on hard 14 or 16 against a large dealer up card is another costly error ($71 and $29 respectively). When you get the urge to hit on 16 when the dealer’s up card is small, think again because that error costs $68. The point is that the cost of deviating from basic strategy can add up to a lot of your hard-earned money going into the casino’s coffers. (Go to Table 7.3 in Schlesinger’s book to see the costs for other misplayed hands.)
Note: If you’re wondering why the cost isn’t much if you always take even money when you are a dealt a blackjack and the dealer shows an ace (only $1.35 for a $100 bet), it’s because the frequency of getting a blackjack when the dealer shows an ace up card is rather low (about once every 288 hands).
ERROR: COST PER HOUR
Split 10s against 7-A: $246
Stand on 12 against 7-A: $111
Split 10s against 2-6: $73
Hit 16 against 2-6: $68
Stand on 14 against 7-A: $71
Stand on 16 against 7-A: $29
No double on 10 against 2-6: $38
Insure every hand: $28
Hit 13 against 2-6: $23
Stand on A-6 against 7-A: $20
Take even money on blackjack: $1.35
Yes, you can get lucky and have one (or more) big wins by playing “your” way rather than following the basic playing strategy. However, over time, you will always fare better if you religiously follow the basic playing strategy. You can take that to the bank.
Henry Tamburin, Ph.D. is the editor of the Blackjack Insider e-Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com), and host of smartgaming.com.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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