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This past week, I got an opportunity to do something I don’t do very often. I played some blackjack.

Most of the time at the casino I play video poker. This week, my son flew in to town to celebrate my big 5-0 with me. He wanted to play some blackjack. So we went to one of the larger locals casinos near our house and found a $5 blackjack table.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any of you, but I’m a pretty good blackjack player. I know all the strategy and pay attention to the cards. I wouldn’t call myself a “counter” per se, as I don’t vary my wager much, but I might change what I do on some close calls based on the card count.

If I feel the deck is a little 10/Face light, I might not double on 10 vs. an 8. My son is a bit more of a beginner. First, he wasn’t used to having the cards dealt face down. He was used to face up where touching the cards is a big no-no. So, that had him a little flustered. Then his first hand was of the in-between type. A 12 vs. a dealer 4.

As he was thinking about what to do, the entire table could see his cards. Although frowned upon by most casinos, most were sharing their hand information with the rest of the players. The other three players at the table almost in unison were beside themselves at the possibility that he would hit this hand.

When the hand was over, the other players continued to give my son their advice on how to play blackjack. One by one, they told him how you always assume the dealer has a 10 and that every card drawn is a 10.

I’m not going to say there is no validity in this notion, but it is not an absolute either. The correct strategy for a 12 vs. a 4 is to stick. But the difference is miniscule. Hitting has an expected value of 0.7885 and standing has an expected value of 0.7941.

Now, this was the first hand from a two-deck shoe, so no counting would be possible. Under this condition, my son should stick. But, if we were two or three hands in and he was counting at all, it is very conceivable the right strategy would be to hit this hand.

In reality, I was sitting in the third spot and my son in the fourth, but if he had been able to see only my hand and I had a pair of face cards, this would have been enough to switch the strategy to hit.

I can’t imagine how the other players might have reacted had he hit the hand. Over the next half hour or so while we played, we also thankfully did not come across a situation of a 12 vs. a dealer 2, which is absolutely a hit. Using the “assume everything is a 10” rule, you shouldn’t hit this hand. The expected value of hitting is 0.7474 and for standing is 0.7113. A bigger margin than our prior example.

Lesson 1 – Just because the guy next to you sounds like he knows more and might be betting a lot more than you are, doesn’t mean he knows anything about the strategy of the game.

The dealer stayed mostly quiet through this hand. We would find out this was a bit odd as he was quite a chatty dealer about most everything else. While he was shuffling the decks, he made a passing comment about how virtually all the Strip casinos now pay 6 to 5 on blackjack. But, he didn’t seem to understand why people make such a fuss over this (even though the casino we were in pays 3 to 2). As he said, “After all, how often do you get a blackjack? You’re not really playing for a blackjack, you’re playing to win hands.”

After we left, my son looked at me and said, “If there is no difference between 3 to 2 and 6 to 5, why would the casinos on the Strip bother to lower the payout to 6 to 5?”

I have a very wise son.

The fact that the Strip has lowered the payout should be enough on its own to tell you it must make a meaningful difference to the payback. The math, however, seals the deal.

As to how often do you get a blackjack? About 4.75% of the time or 1 in 21 hands. That’s 1-2 per hour, on average. If you’re a $10 player, it means you win $15 vs. $12 for each blackjack. I’ll take that extra $3-6 per hour instead of giving it to the house.

Two days later, we were at a different off-Strip casino where the topic came up again with the dealer. This casino paid 6 to 5 and I remarked how the game was probably paying about 97.5%-98% as it was a six-deck shoe. The dealer said closer to 99%. Um… no.

It’s a simple calculation, really. If you think of 3 to 2 as paying 1.5 to 1 and 6 to 5 as paying 1.2 to 1, then the difference is 0.3 units. We multiply this by the frequency 4.75% and we get just under 1.5% impact to the game. Throw in the few times when the player and dealer have blackjack and perhaps we are closer to 1.4%. Add this to a 99.3%-99.4% base game (when paying 3 to 2) and we get about a 98% payback.

That’s two dealers who simply did not understand the impact of paying 6 to 5 vs. 3 to 2 for a blackjack. It more than triples the house advantage.

Lesson 2 – Just because the person deals it for a living, doesn’t mean you should take advice from him.

Lesson 3 – Learn the strategy from a true expert.

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is Email: [email protected].

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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