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Keeping sharp on strategy

Keeping sharp on strategy

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Blackjack Bob’s phone call arrived almost as if on cue.

“Are you ready to get back to the battle yet?” he asked.

I’d been out of action, taking care of personal business for nearly two months. I’d not played a hand of blackjack or video poker, rolled the dice or pushed a slot machine button. But it was getting to be time to get back to business.

So I told Bob I’d be back at it any day now.

“Good thing I called then,” he said. “I have to drill you on some basics.”

Keeping sharp on strategy is always a good idea. I practice blackjack and video poker at home with software that warns me on strategy mistakes. A little review never hurt anyone.

“I was thinking more basic than that,” Bob said.

How basic?

“Let’s start here: What is the object of the game?” he asked.

To beat the dealer, I told him. I’ve been inactive, but my blackjack roots run deep.

Bob countered, “Not to come as close as you can to 21 without going over?”

No, I said. A basic strategy player doesn’t risk busting to try to come closer to 21 if the dealer has a 4 through 6 up, and you risk busting against 2 or 3 only with hard 12. You risk busting more often if the dealer’s up card is 7 or higher.

“Good,” Bob said. “I know you know that, but just checking that the old noggin is switched on.

“Here’s another basic concept. Would you rather see the dealer stand or hit on soft 17?”

I’d rather see the dealer stand.

Bob fired back, “But doesn’t the dealer bust more often when hitting soft 17? After all, there are no busts if he stands.”

The key, I responded, is that 17 isn’t a particularly powerful hand. If you have a 17 or better, the best a dealer 17 can do is push your 17. It loses to your 18s or better, and dealers don’t get a chance to improve their hand. Taking away the dealer’s chance to improve soft 17 outweighs the greater number of busts in hit-soft-17 games.

“You sound right on form to me,” Bob said. “Let’s try another. Would you rather play a one-deck or a six-deck game?”

I told Bob it depends on other rules. If all rules are equal, I’d rather play with one deck.

“Explain,” he replied.

Some rules are more favorable to the house, some favor the player. One is whether the dealer hits or stands on soft 17, as we’d just discussed. Whether there are restrictions on doubling down or splitting pairs also are important. The big one is whether blackjacks are paid at 3-2 or 6-5 odds. If it’s 6-5, I’m not playing.

“OK,” Bob said. “Assume rules are equal. Now tell me why you’d rather play with one deck than six.”

Fewer decks increase the frequency of blackjacks. The increase favors players because they collect 3-2 (or in a bad game, 6-5) payoffs, but lose only even money on dealer blackjacks. Fewer decks also mean you’re more likely to draw a 10-value card when you double down.

I asked Bob if he wanted me to do the math.

“No, you can save that, and I know you’ve shown the work when you’ve written about this before. I’m just giving you the business — but you really should get back to your practice routine.”

I told Bob his point was well-taken. A refresher on basics is never a bad idea, especially after an extended break.

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