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Best of John Grochowski

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Blackjack options

1 September 2009

I didn't realize family friend Alex played in casinos. Our conversations tended to be about kids — and in his case, grandkids — sports, music, TV. Just everyday living.

So I was slightly surprised when Alex opened a conversation with "I've noticed they change the rules on blackjack sometimes."

Yes, they do. There are a number of optional rules that vary from casino to casino, or even pit to pit.

"Well, I haven't been playing very long," Alex said, "but my wife and I have been going on park district bus trips. She likes the slots, but I don't really care for them much. I know the basic rules of blackjack, so I figured I at least had that going for me.

"The last time we played, I noticed the dealer hitting ace-6. I'd always seen the dealer stand on ace-6. Does that make a difference?"

Sure it makes a difference. The house edge increases by about two-tenths of a percent when the dealer hits soft 17. All else being equal, you want a game where the dealer stands on all 17s.

"Two-tenths of a percent doesn't sound like much."

It is when you consider that the entire house edge against a basic strategy player in a common six-deck game is only about a half percent, a few tenths more or less depending on house rules. Compared with five-tenths of a percent, an extra two-tenths is a huge chunk.

"I understand. I haven't learned basic strategy yet, but I can see where that's huge. But tell me, are there other rules I should watch out for?"

There are a bunch to watch for. Are you permitted to double down on any two-card total? Some casinos restrict double downs to two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11. That costs you about a tenth of a percent. Others restrict doubling to totals of 10 or 11, eliminating even the 9s. That takes the cost up to nearly two-tenths of a percent.

"Really? How often do you double on 8, anyway?"

Inability to double on hard 8 costs very little. It's the inability to double on soft hands that hurts. When you have ace-4 and the dealer has a 6 up, you want to be able to double down.

"What else?"

Among common rules, it hurts if the casino doesn't allow you to double down after splitting pairs, to the tune of a little more than a tenth of a percent. It hurts if you're not allowed to resplit pairs. If you have a pair of 8s, split, then draw an 8 to make a new pair, you want to be able to split again. If you're restricted to one split, it costs about a tenth of a percent.

On the plus side, it helps if you're allowed to resplit aces. In most casinos, if you split a pair of aces, you get just one more card on each ace, regardless of what you draw. If you draw an ace on top of one of the split aces, you're stuck with a 12. If you're allowed to split again, you gain 0.08%.

Another good one is surrender. It's not common, but if you're allowed to surrender half your bet instead of playing out the hand after seeing you're first two cards and the dealer's up card, you gain a bit. In the only version I've seen in years, "late surrender," in which you can surrender only if the dealer does not have a blackjack, you gain 0.07%.

"What else?"

Well, there's one real lowlight, a rule that for me is a deal-breaker.

"Don't keep me in suspense."

If blackjacks pay only 6-5 instead of the common 3-2, I will not play. That costs the player 1.4%, far more than the entire house edge against a basic strategy player in most games. That's become fairly common on the Las Vegas Strip, especially in single-deck and double-deck games, but even some six-deckers have 6-5 payoffs. And the rule has started to spread to other parts of the country.

"I haven't seen that, but I haven't really been looking, either."

That's one to watch out for. If you find it, keep looking for another game. Meanwhile, be prepared to weigh all the mix-and-match rules at different casinos. You want as few restrictions on player options as you can find. You want to be able to double down when you want to, split pairs when you want to, surrender when you want to. And you don't wanted to be shorted on payoffs, such as 6-5 pays on blackjacks.

Alex looked only moderately perplexed.

"OK, I get it. Player options are good. There's just one thing."

Yes?

"I bet you're going to tell me I need to learn basic strategy to know how to use those options."

Yep.

"I knew it was going to come to that."

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:

> 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:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski