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Best of John Grochowski

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A mistake at the blackjack table

14 September 2010

On any given day, at any given blackjack table, you'll find players making mistakes. Either they don't know basic strategy, or don't care, or are just playing hunches, but they're making decisions that on the average will cost them money.

My basic strategy for coping with such players is to ignore them. Sometimes their bad plays will hurt me, sometimes they'll help me, and in the long run, it's a wash. Still, sometimes I see a play that's unusual enough that I have to take note.

Such was the case as I sat down to play a six-deck game. It's pretty decent as six-deck games go. The dealer stood on all 17s, players were allowed to double down on any first two cards, including after splitting pairs, and were allowed to resplit up three times for a total of four hands.

With the dealer showing a 7 face-up, a player three spots to my left signaled for a hit to go with his pair of aces, and that brought some wary glances from players around the table. The dealer slid him a 3, face up, and the player signaled to stand, bringing groans around the table. Every player at the table urged this fellow to hit again. So did the dealer. He refused. He was determined to stand on his soft 15, which could not win unless the dealer busted.

I can't completely fault him for not taking the word of other players. One thing that a couple of decades of blackjack play has driven home to me is that the majority of players don't know basic strategy, or at least don't follow it. I see a lot of players who are at least shaky in certain areas of basic strategy, and the area where they're shakiest is strategy for soft totals, where an ace counted as 11 could just be counted as 1 instead, leaving a hand that can't be busted with a one-card hit.

And a couple of decades of blackjack have also taught me that dealers don't really know basic strategy, either. I've been told I'm throwing money away by hitting soft 18 against a 10, hitting 12 against a 3 and declining to take even money on blackjacks — all correct basic strategy plays.

But in this instance, having every player at the table plus the dealer urge him to change his decision should at least have given the player pause. It didn't.

After the remaining players were done, The dealer turned up a 6, then a 4 for a 17. So far, so good. Anyone following basic strategy who didn't bust would do no worse than push.

I was paid for my 18, and the woman next to me was paid on her 20. The man next to her had busted.

The fellow with the 3, of course, lost the hand after standing on soft 15.

Now, there's no reason ever to stand on soft 15. You can't bust it with a one-card hit. The worst you can do is take a hand that can't win unless he dealer busts and turn it into another hand that can't win unless the dealer busts.

But that wasn't the first mistake. When the player picked up his first two cards and saw a pair of aces, his best play would have been to split the pair. Basic strategy calls for splitting aces no matter what the dealer's face-up card.

Bad plays are not destiny for any one hand. I've seen players win when they've stood on soft 15 — which also can be counted as five — when the dealer busted. Once, at the Lady Luck casino in downtown Las Vegas, the dealer gave it a craps call: "WINNER FIVE," he shouted. "Five's a winner at the Lady Luck."

Trouble is, you don't know when those winners are coming. Over time, you'll win more often when you hit soft 15 than when you stand, and that makes hitting soft 15 a better play than standing every time, even when it doesn't work.

The first mistake, the ace-splitting issue, reminded me of a time I guided a group of novices to a blackjack table in Las Vegas. The dealer and pit crew could tell none of these people had ever played, and they were very lenient in allowing the newbies to ask me questions during play. One player was dealt a pair of aces, and the dealer showed an 8. He asked me what to do, and I replied, "Always split aces." He won both hands.

A little later, he was dealt another pair of aces, this time against a dealer's 10. "Now John," he asked, "what would you do with this?" Fast learners all, the entire table shouted, "ALWAYS SPLIT ACES!"

He did, winning with a face card on each ace.

Obviously, things don't always — or even usually — work out so neatly. But a little preparation goes a long way toward better results.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski