Misplayed Blackjack Hands—Part I

I see it often enough that I can’t avoid commenting on it anymore. I feel so frustrated when I see players—both new and old misplaying a hand. Deviating from basic strategy. And I feel so bad for them.

But on the other hand, I can understand. Sometimes the right play just seems so wrong to our brains. But you will be better off sticking with basic strategy.

Let’s take a look at a couple of those hands.

Pair of 8s vs. a dealer’s 10

Basic strategy says to split here. And so you should. I know, it’s hard. But two hands of eight are a much better place to start than a hard 16. Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re going to play this as a hard sixteen—and I know you most certainly are not going to play that hand as a hard 16—basic strategy says to hit.

And you stand a greater chance of busting a hard 16 than two hands that start with an 8. Do both have a chance of busting? Sure they do. But this is blackjack not solitaire. Yes, you are going to lose hands—that’s part of playing at a casino.

In the long run, the 8s will lose less money than a hard sixteen will. So. Take a deep breath and split those 8s!

So while we’re on the topic of hard 16s…

16 vs. a dealer’s 7

You know what’s funny?

You will have a player who will hit a hard 16 (a real hard 16, not a pair of 8s that someone isn’t splitting when they should be) against a dealer’s 10, but will not hit against a dealer’s 7. Why? Both have a high risk of busting. However, hitting against a dealer’s 7 has a smaller loser percentage than hitting against a dealer’s 10: 40% as compared to 52%.

Man up and hit!

Blackjack is not a game in which you can guarantee yourself that you will win every hand. Get that notion out of your head. And while you’re at it, get rid of the notion that you don’t have to risk. Sometimes in this game you have to risk in order to win.

And really it may not statistically be a risk, but it just feels like it because your brain is telling you that the right move is the wrong one. Tell your brain to shut up, and stick with basic strategy. Get it in your head that there is risk in casino games and gambling, and that you must stick with basic strategy—it’s your best chance of winning.

Keep an eye open for Misplayed Blackjack Hands—Part II

Card Counting Days Numbered—Update

Just a quick update, blackjack fans. Details have been released about Kris Zutis’s card counting detection software.

You all remember Kris Zutis, right? He’s the 22 year old from Dundee in Scotland who has created a computer program that will detect card counting in blackjack—this is after he decided not to write a program that would undermine poker strategy, his game of choice.

Details have been released on the basics of how the software works. Zutis’s program uses various visual recognition techniques that collect information. Some of this information that is collected is contour analysis which detects what cards have been flipped. Stereo imaging is also used to measure the height of chips tacks to determine how much a player has bet.

After this and other data is collected, the program will analyze what cards have been played and a player’s betting strategy. The casino is then alerted if the program thinks that the analysis on the player’s actions is suspicious. At that point they can take action against a blackjack player.

Already casinos are interested in Zutis’s program, and it’s no wonder. If having an edge over a player isn’t enough, the casinos want to take away our strategy now too.

Zutis has been invited to present his paper on his program, entitled ‘Who’s Counting?: Real-Time Blackjack Monitoring for Card Counting Detection’ at the International Conference on Computer Vision Systems (ICVS) in Belgium. He’s hoping to generate more interest in his program so that it can be further developed and made ready for sale.

Sweet Sixteen

I find a lot of people are not quite sure what to do when they are dealt a sixteen in blackjack, be it a hard sixteen or a soft sixteen. I can kind of understand this. We all know to stand on hard seventeen and to hit on a soft seventeen. But sixteen…

A soft sixteen is easy to deal with. You hit with that one. Unless you can double down. If doubling down is allowed then double down when the dealer’s up card is a 4, 5 or 6. You can always reduce the total of your hand if you draw what would normally be a bust card.

Let’s say that you have a soft sixteen, and you draw a 6 or higher. Normally you would bust, but with a soft sixteen you can change the value of the Ace from eleven to one. So say you draw an 8. That would normally give you a hand of 24. But you can bring that Ace down to 1 to make your hand worth 14. Depending on what the dealer’s up card is, you can either stand or hit. Hitting on a soft hand is almost like having a second chance. And that applies to both land based casino blackjack and online blackjack.

But a hard sixteen, that one is harder to deal with it seems. And I agree that it can be tough especially if you’ve been on a winning streak with blackjack. You get dealt that hard sixteen and in your head you go ‘Oh, no.’ Because you want to keep on winning. And it’s so close to seventeen and standing that you just want to stand. But you know you shouldn’t because basic strategy says hit. But if you hit you feel that there’s a good chance that you will bust. What should you do?

As hard as it is, and as much as you want to stand, you need to follow basic strategy. In blackjack basic strategy gives you the best possible statistical chance in the game. Remember that it doesn’t guarantee a win for every hand, but it does lower the house edge over time. So this might be one of the hands you lose, but it doesn’t mean that you will walk away a loser overall. Just stick with basic strategy.

And it’s not all dark in the tunnel that is a hard sixteen. You don’t stand on every single hard sixteen. You only stand on a hard sixteen if the dealer’s up card is a 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. If the dealer’s up card is a 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King or Ace by all means, hit!

So while a hard sixteen can be a bit hard to swallow, always follow your basic strategy chart. Always keep it in the back of your mind that it holds the best statistical plays for you, and that following it can lower the house edge in blackjack to 0.5%.

To: The State of Florida, From: Blackjack Fans

This has been going on for awhile now. In the state of Florida the Seminole Tribe and state law makers are still in a stalemate about whether the Tribe should be allowed to have table games, including blackjack, in all seven of their casinos. I started following this closely. And then a little less closely. And a little less closely. Then it was just a part of my routine. The same things were being said over and over again.

Let me sum it up: In 2007 Florida Governor Charlie Crist stuck a compact with the Seminoles that allowed them to have table games. State law makers weren’t happy with Tribe casinos having what they viewed as a monopoly on table games within the state. Now, two years later, they’re still fighting over it. Like a tennis match. Back and forth. Specifically House Speaker Larry Cretul says that the governor had no such power to make such a deal with the Tribe. The Tribe says that the Supreme Court okay’s the compact and that they are operating within it. Florida says no, and the Seminoles say yes.

This morning I came across a news notice that Cretul wants the Tribe casinos shut down, saying that they are violating state law by continuing to operate without a compact. Again, the Tribe says that they are still operating within the 2007 compact. But what got me was here is this man, this House Speaker, that wants to cut off a source of much needed income for the state of Florida, money that can fund schools, money that can help to educate the state’s children.

He’s not alone either. Owners of dog racing tracks don’t want the Tribe operating either. They’re worried about losing business to the casinos because the Seminole casinos will have popular table games like blackjack and their race tracks won’t. What these dog track owners need to realize that while they might lose their customers that are at the tracks specifically to gamble, they will hold onto their fans who love to watch dogs run around a track. It seems like tracks owners don’t want to worry about competition. It’s almost like they want to be the only ones to offer gambling—which would give tracks the monopoly on gambling in Florida—this coming from track owners who believe that monopolies are bad.

Dog tracks are not Wal-Marts—they are not going to be able to offer every form of gambling avenue possible to gambling and blackjack fans. They can keep their dog races, which have their own following, and the Seminoles can have their table games like blackjack, which have a different following.

What everyone—Seminoles included—is that this state needs the money. Schools are suffering: teachers are being laid off, books are becoming out-dated, and schools are closing. Children are not receiving the knowledge they need to be productive members of society in a few years time. What these law makers, track owners and, yes, even the Seminoles need to be concerned about is the state’s children and their education, and not worry about how can line their pockets more.

I’m all for heading out to a casino and playing blackjack face to face with a dealer—sometimes you just need a break from online blackjack. But really what’s more important—profit or smarts? I’ll go with smarts, thanks. And while money for education comes from multiple sources, the Seminoles are willing to pay a couple million down to have the games and to keep contributing a good chunk of their profits from blackjack and other table games—and they designate that money to be put towards education. But the children’s interests first, guys and ladies.

I say if they’re willing to pay, let the Seminoles pay. Who are the state and track owners to say what is best for Florida gamblers? If we want to play, let us play. If the money I lose is going towards a teacher’s salary, show me to the blackjack tables! Let us play!

Perfect Basic Strategy

Does such a thing exist? Yes, in fact it does.

So why haven’t casinos banned this too?

Simple. People can’t seem to play it right or stick with it.

It’s true. I don’t know how often I hear about how there is no way to beat casinos. That there’s nothing that can be done about the odds. And maybe this is because today is a Monday, but I finally decided to put in my own thoughts on this.

Yes, it is completely true that you can not beat the casinos—online or otherwise. There is no absolutely guaranteed way to win every single time. This is why it’s called gambling, folks. You aren’t supposed to know whether or not you’ll win. That’s where the thrill comes from. If you want to know that you will win every single time go play Monopoly—you can buy your win there.

Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t even the odds a bit though. That’s what strategy is for. No, there is no strategy for games of chance like roulette, craps or slots. But not every single game in a casino is a game of chance; blackjack and poker are both games of skill. This means that with work and practice and patience, the odds of the game can be changed.

I know, I know, I said that changing the odds means putting in some effort. But anything that is worth achieving requires effort. And the money you win will feel better because you know you will have earned it rather than knowing that it just fell into your lap. You can hold those chips, look at the people around you and know that you are the better player, not them.

So how can you change the odds in blackjack? Easy. Play perfect basic strategy. Don’t look at that and think, “Wow, perfect, that might take a lot of time,” or “That sounds hard.” Trust me it’s not hard.

You’ve seen a basic strategy chart. All you need to do is print one and take it with you to a casino. Or pull it up in a window so that you can reference it when playing online. Now comes the hard part—and I can’t believe that this is thought to be hard—do exactly as it says to do. That chart tells you the best statistical play that you can make based on the hand that you have versus the dealer’s up card. Do what that chart says every time and you will, over time, lower the house odds from 2%-5% to 0.5%.

The biggest misconception, and why casinos haven’t banned basic strategy, is that people think that they will win every single hand that they play when using basic strategy. This is not true. You will not win every single hand. However, you will win more hands playing with basic strategy than you will if you don’t. Casinos will play that misconception against you. They will allow you to keep thinking that you will win every hand using basic strategy. And then they will watch you throw the chart away after you lose three or four hands, thinking that you have been lied to.

The hard part in playing perfect basic strategy is sticking with it. This tends to be hardest when faced with a stiff hand, better known as a hard 12 through a hard 16. When holding those hands versus a dealer’s up card of 2 through 6 basic strategy dictates for you to stand. It will be so hard not to hit. But the dealer has a better statistical chance of busting than of winning. And you also have a better statistical chance of busting with those stiff hands and dealer up cards than you have of winning. So logically the best option for you is to stand, which offers you better odds, while the dealer keeps hitting and hopefully busts—which he has a better chance of doing.

If you can do what that chart says every single time then you will be playing perfect basic strategy. That’s all there is to perfect basic strategy—do exactly what the chart tells you to every time. If you do so, the house edge will be lowered to 0.5% over time.

So put in the effort and patience and, while you will not flat out beat the casino, you can at least come as close to even odds that you can. And doing what that chart says is not a hard thing to do either.

Tip or Not to Tip—When and How to Tip Your Blackjack Dealer

You would tip for good service at a restaurant right? Yes, you would. Or you should. They are providing you with the service of bringing you food and drink and making sure you have a clean steak knife. When they’re nice you tend to give them more of a tip, yes? And when they’re first rate jerks to you, you leave them next to nothing right? I’ll own up to it. I remember years ago in high school, a group of friends and I went to a Steak n’ Shake after bowling. The waitress never brought us enough glasses of water, we had to share, and she forgot to bring us our food when it came up. So pooled together our change and left it in the bottom of a water glass. Bad service deserves a bad tip. But good service deserves a good tip. And the same applies for blackjack dealers.

Just like how you tip for good service, you should be tipping for good dealer service. But why should you? It’s not like they’re bringing you steak and the best baked potato of your life. They are serving you your cards after all. And if you’ve asked for their advice or for help that defiantly counts as a service. If your dealer has been pleasant and helpful go ahead and tip them. But how do you do so?

There are a couple of ways in which you can tip a good blackjack dealer. The first is the easiest and is most often seen when a player is ready to leave the table. He or she will place a chip on the table, and tell the dealer, “That is for you.”

The other way is to make a bet for the dealer. And this way is actually more fun than just handing out a chip or two. This gives the dealer a stake in the game and will cause them to root for you. Do not think that by making a bet on their behalf will cause them to throw the game or cheat—that is not what tipping is for.

But there are a couple of ways even to place a bet for the dealer. If you place the tip bet outside of the betting area the dealer has control of the dealer—meaning that if you win the dealer will pay himself. That’s like a waitress taking her tip out of your change before handing your change back to you.

The other way to make tip bet, and by far the more suave way to do so, is to place the tip bet inside the betting area. In this way, if you win, the dealer will pay you and then you can hand over a tip to the dealer. If you made a tip bet by the first method, say with a $5 tip bet, and you won, the dealer would pay themselves $10. If you make a tip bet the second way, you give the dealer a $5 chip. It’s up to you but you can leave the other $5 chip in the betting space to make a second tip bet. In this way you appear to be a more consistent tipper. Also, as far as the casino is concerned, you are betting $5 more since the tip is inside your betting area rather than inside. It’s kind of like making a second bet and paying leaving the outcome won for the dealer—kind of like combining the very first method of tipping with making a bet for the dealer.

Only tip what you are comfortable with. And only tip for good service. Tipping a disgruntled blackjack dealer would be like me and my high school friends giving that Steak n’ Shake waitress a decent tip for her complete lack of service.

Zen and Blackjack Strategy

Blackjack is an exciting game. Very exciting. I was at a family function and after dinner my mother, brothers and I sat around playing blackjack. Granted we were only playing for fun, but you wouldn’t have thought that watching my mother play. She’d bounce up and down in her car when she won and pout when she lost a hand. You’d have thought we were playing for real rather than playing for animal crackers. But novice players can actually learn something from my mother.

Shh, calm. Be Zen.

Yes, I said Zen.

Okay, I don’t mean Zen in the Buddhist nature of the term. I mean the calm that being Zen is. So how does this Buddhist idea of contemplation apply to blackjack?

Let’s start with just the feeling of Zen. Calm. Remain calm when playing. As evidenced by my mother, blackjack can be rather excitable. And while you should enjoy the game, don’t let your excitement ruin your game. Work some Zen into your blackjack strategy. Stay calm. Breathe. Do not sacrifice good judgment—better known as sticking with basic strategy—for an adventurous fling with Lady Luck. It will not end well. My mother lost all but two of her animal crackers by the time we called it a night.

In all seriousness, getting caught up in the game, becoming over emotional, can cause you to throw better judgment out the window. And that’s the same as throwing money out the window. Yes, winning is great. A winning streak is very exciting. But remember to stay centered on yourself, you blackjack strategy and your discipline. Keeping a calm clear mind will help you focus on how to bet and how to play. This is the best state of mind to play in. Work being calm and focused into your blackjack strategy.

Now, onto contemplation. You’d think that following basic strategy requires no thought at all. Wrong. It takes thought and discipline. Especially when you are dealt a stiff hand.

Imagine you’ve been dealt a stiff 13 and you’re against a dealer’s five. You want to hit so bad. You are so tempted. You can visualize a third card sliding into your hand. Stop a moment. Take a breath. Basic strategy says to stand. Why? Because the dealer has a better chance of busting than you have of coming in under 21. Now if you played that hand like my mother, were all excited and worked up over the game, you would hit. And then you would bust and lose your animal crackers. Or money.

This is where the Zen and the calm come into play with your blackjack strategy. Stop for a moment and breathe. Think about why you want to hit. Is it because you’re over-excited? Think about why basic strategy says to stand. It says to stand because you have a better chance at busting if you hit. Stop, breathe, and remember that. Then make the best play.

While I whole-heartedly agree that blackjack should be fun, and that you should be excited about it, it’s also very wise to remain in control of yourself. Being over-excited is as bad as playing drunk. So work a little Zen into your blackjack strategy and hang onto your money…or your animal crackers.

Are Card Counting Days Numbered?

Casinos the world over must thinking that their day is coming and are getting ready to celebrate. To my blackjack friends, I am sorry to say that a computer program is in the works that will be able to detect card counting.

Or so its programmer says. Kris Zutis, a final year student at Dundee, is claiming that he has developed a program that will be able to track a game as it progresses by monitoring the cards played and by tracking how a player bets. It is explained that a camera will watch a game of blackjack, collecting information about the game. It then somehow uses a complex system of algorithms to analyze how the game is being played. It will compare betting done by players to what cards have been played.

In other words, this card counting detection system is going to count cards to see if how a player is betting is reflected in how this detection system has counted the deck. I have to admit that this Zutis kid is pretty smart to think of this—what better way to detect card counting players than to have the casino count cards and compare it to how blackjack players are betting. Actually I’m surprised the casinos haven’t figured that idea out already. But this kid takes it the idea further by creating a program to compute that comparison. Nice way to make money, Zutis.

So not only will we blackjack players have to find a new system, but now we’ll have to be mindful of how we’re betting. Seems we won’t be able to bet how we wish anymore without upsetting these poor casinos. Seems Big Brother has finally tapped into the world of gambling—let’s tell them how they can and can’t gamble.

Zutis says his program isn’t ready to go on the market quite yet; he has to develop it further. Calling all investors—help develop a program that will do the counting that we will be forbidden to do. A bit hypocritical, no?

Zutis is a self-proclaimed poker enthusiast. Originally he said he wanted his project to be related to poker. He wanted to sully his own game. But after learning the system was better suited to crackdown on blackjack he went that route. More like he realized, ‘Oops, I don’t want to somehow limit the game that I play.’ And while he will most likely be rather disliked if his card counting program for detecting card counting is sold to casinos, I can’t imagine anyone liking a guy who sells out to the casinos’ side.

Blackjack Players Forced Into Hiding

As we all know games of chance are illegal in the US. But around the country—or at least in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and South Carolina—courts are ruling that poker is a game of skill rather than a game of chance. So what does this have to do with blackjack?

Everything! If poker can be deemed a game of skill, so can blackjack.

Let’s look at this. Poker is being considered a game of skill because it takes skill in knowing when and how to play the cards you’ve been dealt. It’s not like slots—put a coin in, push a button and cross your fingers. In poker you choose to keep your cards or to hit. A poker player isn’t stuck with the cards he was dealt with no decisions at his disposal.

And if poker was a game of chance then everyone would have an equal opportunity to win. And in poker that just isn’t the case. Let’s say that you get five people together to play. If poker was a game of chance then each one would win ten percent of the time. But realistically a skill hierarchy will form, with the most skilled player winning a greater percent of the time than the others.

So what does this have to do with blackjack? Blackjack is also a game of skill, and its players shouldn’t have to hide or feel unwelcome in a casino. Of course, an online casino can’t tell the difference in players since each player is playing a Random Number Generator (RNG), which makes online casinos a nice home for blackjack players. But the point is that blackjack players should feel just as welcome in a land based casino as any other player.

Blackjack is a game of skill because you as a player have a decision to make in how to play your hand. Do you stand? Or do you hit? Should you double down or not? If blackjack was a game of chance you would be dealt your cards and that would be the end of it. But it’s not.

So like the example of sitting a five people down to play poker, let’s change the game to blackjack. If blackjack were a game of chance, then like the example above, each player would statistically win ten percent of the time. But as we all know, through mastery of basic strategy and card counting, a skill hierarchy will develop in this playing group as well.

So why should poker only be ruled as a game of skill and not blackjack? It could only be that poker is a better known game. But blackjack should be recognized as such too. It is by far a game of skill.

What determines the difference between a game of skill and a game of chance? It’s in how the game is played. If a player can do nothing to alter his odds then it’s a game of chance. But if the player can alter his odds through strategy or practiced methods then it’s a game of skill.

Skilled blackjack players shouldn’t have to skulk around casinos feeling that as soon as they sit down the pit boss’s eyes will be on him. The casino will make their money without a doubt. They have slots, craps, roulette and more to bring in their money. And not every single blackjack player is going to beat the casino. Some don’t even play with basic strategy, let alone card count. A skilled player shouldn’t be rewarded for being skilled by being unwelcome to play the game. And besides, casinos should remember that even professional blackjack player isn’t going to win every single hand.

You and Blackjack Software—Be Wary, Be Very Wary

How many times when cruising the internet, have you seen advertisements and entries on websites boasting the superb advantages of blackjack software? Too many times to count.

I recently visited a site for blackjack software that makes such claims. And I was blown away with the used car salesman pitch. And I sincerely hope that none actually purchases such software in the belief that they will bet the casino or get rich quick.

It’s one thing to advertise practice or training software, but another to try to rip off players who are trying to learn to play and those who are trying to get better at it. So what do you keep in mind when you are looking at blackjack software?

What type of software is it? While I still maintain you and practice are your best trainers for blackjack, we are in the computer age and some players—new and old—will be tempted by blackjack software. But before making any purchases check what it’s labeled for and compare it to what it actually does. Is it really training software or is it a great rich quick scheme? Read through all the information provided about the software you are considering.

Avoid the get rich quick advertising. General rule of thumb here is that if it sounds too good to be true, it is. If you read the disclaimer (and for the site-that-shall-not-be-named, I did read the entire disclaimer) you will see that they make no actual guarantee that you will not only make what their advertisement says, but they don’t guarantee that you will make anything. In other words, they aren’t guaranteeing that you haven’t thrown your money away if you purchase their software.

Beware the ‘Beat the House Every Time’ advertising. You cannot beat the house every single time. Do not for a second think you can. The site-that-shall-not-be-named above actually makes the claim that their software is undetectable in online casinos, but it tells you when to ‘change tables’ so that you don’t get detected. Sound a bit fishy? Don’t worry, it’s thoroughly fishy. You don’t want to get involved with software that can get you into trouble, whether it’s trouble that will simple get you booted from the online casino or trouble that will get you into a legal tangle.

Roll your eyes at claims that software can count cards. This one thoroughly makes me angry. This one is a downright lie. You cannot count cards online. I don’t care if the casino tells you how many decks their blackjack games use. Many players make the mistake of thinking that if they know how many decks are being used that they can count cards. But what is forgotten here is the Random Number Generator. The RNG is what makes card counting in online blackjack impossible as there is no way to predict what cards haven’t been dealt. The RNG in online blackjack can be likened to this: imagine at the end of a round all the played cards are gathered up and shuffled back into the deck. This is exactly what the RNG does, and it doesn’t matter how many decks are being used since the RNG “shuffles” all the cards before each round. So. Any software that claims that it will count cards for you is a definite rip off. You’re a smart player, and smart players know that you can’t count cards online.

Keeping all of that in mind, this is why I’m all for using practice as my trainer, pulling a basic strategy chart up in another window when playing online blackjack. But if you really want to use software be careful of what’s out there—you don’t want to get ripped off and lose money you never had to.