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Beware bad advice!

Feb 25, 2003 3:25 AM

I was enjoying myself playing and winning at blackjack when a young lady took a seat next to me. It was obvious after a few hands that she didn’t have a clue as to how to play the game so she boldly asked the young dealer for "advice" on how to play her hands. I sat there in amazement as the dealer was instructing her on how to play her hand. What disturbed me most was that better than half of the advice that he gave her was wrong. Her bankroll rapidly evaporated as she continued to make terrible plays at the advice of the "expert dealer."

I have no grudges to bear against casino dealers. They have a very tough and demanding job. But dealers are trained to deal the cards and the vast majority of them have no knowledge of winning blackjack play.

I mention this incident because in fact I’ve witnessed an increase in the number of players asking dealers for help on how to play their hands. But most dealers that I’ve observed know very little about basic strategy and nothing about card counting. Telling players to insure their blackjack hands and never to split a pair of eights when their upcard is a 10 is simply wrong advice.

Dealers aren’t the only ones giving misinformation about blackjack playing strategies. I recently picked up a newsletter that was in the racks in one of the Mississippi casinos that offered "helpful hints for table game players from the grand institute of fun and games professor." On blackjack, the advice was:

1. Split eights unless the dealer shows a 10-value card;

2. Always split aces;

3. Double down on two-card combinations of nine, 10, and 11;

4. Don’t take a hit on a possible bust hand (12 or higher) if the dealer’s upcard is a six or less; and

5. If you lose more than five times in a row, move to a different table, don’t fight the cards.

The first piece of advice is wrong. For every $100 you bet holding a pair of eights vs. a dealer 10 upcard, you will on average gain $5 more by splitting rather than hitting. Standing on a pair of eights vs. a dealer 10-value card is an even worse strategy.

The bottom line is that a pair of eights is a bad hand. You should always split eights against any dealer upcard to get a fair chance at some winning hands. Against a dealer’s upcard of three to seven, you will usually convert a losing hand into a winning hand by splitting eights. In the case of a dealer’s upcard of two, eight, nine, 10, or ace, you will probably lose by splitting but you lose less.

Always split aces is sound advice. But to double down on two-card combinations of nine, 10, and 11 is nonsense unless you specify against which dealer upcard. The fact of the matter is that you should only double down on two-card combinations of nine if the dealer’s upcard is three, four, five, or six. If the dealer has any other upcard, you should never double down.

Likewise, you should double down on two-card combinations of 10 only if the dealer’s upcard is two through nine and double down on 11 only against a dealer’s upcard of two through 10. The above is the mathematically correct doubling strategy for four, six, or eight-deck games (with single or double-deck games, the doubling strategy is slightly different).

The casino newsletter advises to not take a hit on a possible bust hand (12 or higher) if the dealer’s upcard is six or less. The fact of the matter is that the mathematically correct play, when you hold a 12 against a dealer’s upcard of two or three, is to hit. Although this is a close play, the percentages are still in the favor of hitting 12 on a dealer’s two or three and standing on 12 against a dealer’s four, five, or six.

The point I want to make is that players should not rely on casino-generated publications or the advice of dealers to learn blackjack playing strategies. If you have to ask a dealer how to play your hand, then you don’t belong on the blackjack table. There are plenty of good books, instructional videos, even hand-held basic strategy cards that you can take with you on the tables that will give you correct strategies on every hand.