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Your best strategy

Nov 4, 2003 1:48 AM

Blackjack or "21" is the casino’s most popular table game. The rules are simple to learn, and, if sound basic strategy is followed, the player can greatly reduce the casino’s edge and possibly swing it in his favor.

The game is played with one or more decks of 52 cards. Cards are valued at face value, except for the aces, which can be valued at either one or 11 points. Face cards ”” jacks, queens and kings ”” are valued at 10 points.

The object of the game is to beat the dealer. A player does this by having a higher valued hand than the dealer, while not "busting" by exceeding 21 points. If either the player or dealer busts, the other wins automatically.

A major advantage for the dealer is that the player must play his hand first. Even if a player busts and the dealer subsequently busts as well, the player loses. Ties are a standoff or "push," and neither wins.

If either the player or dealer is dealt an ace and 10-valued card, he has a blackjack. A blackjack is an immediate winner and ordinarily pays the player at 3-2 odds. Other winning hands are paid at 1-1 or even money. If both the dealer and player are dealt a blackjack it is a standoff.

In recent years, some casinos have been paying blackjack at odds of only 6-5. While this doesn’t sound like a monumental difference, it gives the house a substantial edge it didn’t previously have.

Try to find a casino that pays the full 3-2 blackjack odds, or a table that offers it. Usually, the 6-5 is paid at single-deck tables, so you’ll have to play at a six- and even eight-deck table to get your 3-2 odds. But it’s worth it.

The play begins with the dealer distributing two cards to each player and two to himself, dealt one at a time with the first card going to the player. One of the dealer’s cards is exposed to help the player decide whether to hit (take another card) or stand (play the ones he has). In addition to standing pat, the player may double down his hand or split pairs.

By doubling down, the player doubles his initial bet and accepts one additional card to complete his hand.

By splitting pairs, the player also doubles his bet but separates his two identical cards into two separate hands, to which he draws additional cards. Each hand is played separately, taking hits as needed. The only exception is that a player who splits aces is only allowed to take one additional card for each ace. If that additional card is another ace, however, the player can split again.

Doubling down and splitting are powerful techniques to increase your chances of winning.

The Rules

1. The player can double down on his first two cards. Some casinos allow doubling down only if the player’s two-card total is 10 or 11. This is a disadvantage to the player, and he or she should find a casino where doubling is not so restricted.

2. The player can split any pair.

3. After splitting pairs, the player may not double down, except at a few casinos.

4. The dealer must stand on hands totaling 17 or higher. Some casinos, notably in downtown Las Vegas, require their dealers to hit a "soft" 17. A soft hand is one that contains an ace. Again, this is to the player’s disadvantage; it’s better to play against a dealer who will not hit a soft 17.

5. Insurance pays 2-1. When the dealer’s up card is an ace, he or she will offer the player a chance to insure himself against the dealer’s possible blackjack. The player can risk half his original bet and win 2-1 should the dealer hold a blackjack (the net result, if the dealer holds a blackjack, is the player breaks even). This is usually a bad bet, even when the player holds a blackjack of his own, because the casino is offering 2-1 for an event that should pay 9-4. Unless a player is an expert and counts cards, he or she should not take the insurance.

Basic Strategy

The basic winning strategy for Blackjack, based on computer-generated studies, is given below. It tells the player when to hit, stand, double down or split pairs, depending on the dealer’s up card. Using basic strategy is not prohibited in casinos, and many dealers are allowed or even encouraged to advise gamblers as to how to properly play. In fact, most casinos don’t mind if players use a "crib sheet" that charts the strategy.

Hit or Stand: With a hard hand (no aces) against the dealer’s 7 or higher, the player should hit until he reaches at least 17. With a hard hand against the dealer’s 4, 5 or 6, stand on a 12 or higher; if against dealer’s 2 or 3, hit a 12. With a soft hand hit all totals of 17 or lower. Against a dealer’s 9 or 10, hit a soft 18.

Doubling Down: Double down on any 11, no matter what the dealer shows. Double down on 10 when dealer shows anything except a 10 (dealer’s "10" also includes face cards). Double down on 9 when dealer shows 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Double down on soft 17 (Ace-6) if dealer shows 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Double down on soft 18 (Ace-7) if dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6. Double down on soft 13, 14, 15 or 16 against dealer’s 4, 5 or 6.

Splitting Pairs: Always split aces and 8-8. Never split 5-5 or 10-10. Split 4-4 against the dealer’s 5 or 6. Split 9-9 against the dealer’s 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 or 9. Split 7-7 against the dealer’s 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7. Split 6-6 against the dealer’s 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Split 2-2 and 3-3 against the dealer’s 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7.