Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Beginner's Blackjack

When I go to Las Vegas, I like to play blackjack. I've been playing for about 8 years and while I'm no expert, I've read several authors' books on the subject and I regularly read the articles at Casino City Times. I'm not an advantage player. I've read books on that subject as well, and actually given it a try but I don't think you'll see me bringing down the house anytime soon. I've enjoyed some winning sessions, and also suffered my share of losing streaks. I'd estimate my overall results to be right on par with the expected -0.5% of a basic strategy player.

When a friend recently expressed interest in learning the game, I offered a few tips to help him get started. Nothing that couldn't be found in books or online but a condensed, quick-start guide. I decided to share it with the world, or at least that small part of it that occasionally hits my blog through a Google search.

Basic Strategy:
Basic strategy was developed by running millions of computer simulations to determine the optimal way to play your first two cards, depending on what card the dealer is showing. Sometimes, optimal means winning more money. Doubling down falls in this category. Sometimes optimal means losing less money. Splitting 8's against a 10 falls in this category. In either case, optimal means that in the looooooong run, that particular play will win more or lose less. On any one hand the recommended play may or may not produce the desired result. The point is, don't fret about it if you occasionally make a basic strategy error. If you always play a hand wrong then over the long run you are giving the house a slightly higher edge. But an occasional misplay may help you as much as hurt you.

Boiled Down Basic Strategy:
The basic strategy chart can seem a little daunting to memorize when you first look at it, especially if you take into account variations in game rules (surrender allowed, dealer hits/stands on soft 17, etc ). But if you remember a few simple rules, you'll cover most of the basic strategy.
1. When the dealer shows a 7 or higher, hit until you have a hard 17 or higher. ( if you already have hard 17 or more, just stand)
2. When the dealer shows a 6 or less, hit until you have a hard 12 or higher. ( if you already have hard 12 or more, just stand)
3. Always split Aces or 8's.
4. Double down if you have 10 or 11 except when the dealer has 10 or Ace.
If you do the above, you can take your time learning about splits and soft doubles, and be confident you are playing a good game of blackjack.

Game and Table Selection:
Not all blackjack games are the same. Variations in the rules can raise or lower the edge against you. A game where the dealer must stand on all 17's is better than a game where the dealer hits soft 17. 2 decks are better than 6. 6 decks are better than 8. Surrender allowed is better than not allowed. Even within the same casino, you will find these variations at different tables. The caveat is that the better games are usually at higher limit tables. I usually try to find the best rules at a table limit I can afford to play. The worst game however, is the single deck, blackjack pays 6 to 5 game. This rule triples the house advantage on the game.

There are other factors that don't change the edge against you, but do affect how much you lose. Since the house has an edge on every hand dealt, a way they can make more money is to deal more hands. So you will see some tables where the dealer must stop and shuffle 6 decks between each shoe, some where there are automatic shufflers and the dealer only stops long enough at the end of the shoe to transfer the cards between the shuffler and the shoe, and other tables with continuous shuffling machines that the dealer feeds the cards from each round into, and never stops dealing. The more hands per hour you play, the more your bankroll is exposed to the house edge, so I usually try to play the slower game, but again the table limits are usually lower at the faster game so that may be the overriding factor on table choice.

Even though I'm not all that talkative of a person, I enjoy the camaraderie that often develops at a full blackjack table, so I usually try to find a table with several people already seated at it. Another reason for this goes back to the previous paragraph about hands per hour. A full table plays much slower than a table with only one or two players, so your potential loss per hour will be less. Card counters want just the opposite. Since they are playing with an advantage against the house, they want to play as many hands as possible.

While the primary objective is to get lucky and win, we realize that the house has an edge and we are playing a negative expectation game, so the secondary objective is to be able to play long enough to enjoy our casino blackjack experience. To do this, you must have enough of a bankroll to withstand a losing streak and still be in the game when your luck turns around. While there is a lot of win one, lose one in blackjack, it is not uncommon to experience a 10 hand or more losing streak. If you buy in at a $10 table with $50 you could find yourself getting up again before the waitress even takes your drink order. As a rule of thumb I usually buy in with about 15-20 times the minimum bet, but that's just how much I put on the table at one time. I actually like to have a bankroll I am willing to lose that is at least 40 times the minimum bet. Risk of ruin calculations show that with 40 units, you stand a 95% chance of playing 300 hands (about 4 hours at a mostly full table) without losing your entire stake ( and a 5% chance of losing it all ). If you're interested you can go to wizardofodds.com for all kinds of mathematical info about blackjack and other casino games.

Win Goals and Loss Limits:
Setting a win goal and a loss limit is usually a good practice simply because it gives you a reason to get up from the table instead of continuing to play until you've lost your entire stake or given back all your winnings. However, it is important to realize that these money management techniques cannot make you a winner at blackjack. You cannot always 'quit while you're ahead'. Eventually the 'quit while you're down' sessions will catch up and overtake any winnings you reserved. It's just the nature of a negative expectation game. The only way to stay a winner is to quit while you're ahead and never play again. A problem with win goals/loss limits is what happens when you hit them too quickly? It's not very satisfying to go to a casino for an evening of gambling and be finished in 10 minutes. So, while I set goals, I sometimes adjust them as I go.

1 comment:

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