Aces Guide to Gambling

Blackjack Strategy & Rules :

Blackjack rules can be a big deal for players

About The Author

John Grochowski is the author of four gaming books including The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Casino Answer Book.

Grochowski was recently named by Casino Player magazine as one of the 100 best gaming authors of the 20th century.

He also runs a gaming column in the Detroit News and the Chicago Sun-Times, which examines issues ranging from blackjack and video poker strategy to casino etiquette.

BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI

Not all blackjack games are created equal.

Blackjack comes with a mix-and-match set of rules from which operators tailor their own games. Some casinos have the dealer stand on all 17s, while others have the dealer hit soft 17. Some allow the player to double down after splitting pairs. Some restrict doubling down to two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11.

You might even find blackjack tables with different sets of rules in the same casino. It's not unusual for casinos that offer single-deck blackjack also to offer multiple-deck games with different rules.

Some of those rules increase the house edge, others give a little back to the player. Most rules that favor the player involve options. Any added player option is good for the player who knows how to use it, but can hurt the unwary.

In almost any blackjack game, there are tradeoffs. One game may use only one deck (good for the player), but have the dealer hit soft 17 (bad) and limit double-down opportunities (bad). Another game may use six decks (bad), but permit double downs after splitting pairs (good) and offer late surrender (good).

We can expect to take the good with the bad. It's when the casino piles on minuses without offsetting pluses that we should head for the exits--or perhaps to the craps tables. If our game with the dealer hitting soft 17 and limiting double downs also was dealt from six decks, it might be a game to avoid.

How much difference do the pluses and minuses make? The long-standing rules at Empress in Joliet offer a six-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s; the player may double down on any first two cards, including after splitting pairs, and may split any pair, including Aces, up to four times. The house edge is 0.33 percent against a player who follows the basic strategy outlined in this column the last few weeks. On the other hand, Hollywood in Aurora long offered a two-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17, the player may not resplit Aces, may double down only on two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11 and may not double after splits. The house 0.68 percent edge is more than double Empress' six-deck game edge.

Watch for these rules variations on your casino visits:

* Number of decks: The fewer used, the better for the player. A single-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s and there are no other exotic rules is an even game for a basic strategy player. The house edge jumps by 0.34 percent when two decks are used, then increases in smaller increments when more decks are added. Note, though, that a game with fewer decks won't always be the best available. We still need to compare the other optional rules.

* Dealer hits soft 17: On all blackjack tables, the dealer hits totals of 16 or less. The difference comes at 17. Better for the player is if the dealer stands on all 17s. If the dealer hits soft 17--hands in which an Ace is counted as 11, such as Ace-6 or Ace-2-4--it adds 0.2 percent to the house edge.

* Restricting double downs: Most tables allow the player to double down on any first two cards. But some tables have restrictions, limiting players to doubling on two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11, or, even worse, limiting doubles to 10s and 11s. The more restrictions, the worse for the player. It's to our advantage to double on Ace-5 when the dealer shows a 4, 5 or 6, to give an example from last week's column on strategy for soft hands. We want that option.

* Doubling after splitting pairs: Let's say we split a pair of 8s. On the first one, we draw a 3, for a two-card 11. If the dealer shows anything but an Ace, our best play is to double down. Some casinos allow us to double down in that situation. Others don't. It's better for the player to have the option to double after splits.

* Limits on the number of split pairs: Let's go back to our pair of 8s. We split, and draw another 8. Our best play is to split the new pair. If we draw another 8, we want to split again. Some casinos don't allow us to resplit pairs. Others place limits--we may split twice to make a total of three hands, or split three times for a total four. This doesn't come into play as often as doubling after splits, but we'd still prefer the option to resplit.

* Resplitting Aces: At most casinos, if you split Aces, you get just one more card on each. Draw another Ace, and you're stuck with a 12. The option to split the Aces again is a plus.

* Surrender: When a casino offers surrender, the player may give up half his bet in exchange for not playing out the hand. (Usually, "late surrender" is offered, meaning that the player may surrender only after the dealer has checked to see if he has blackjack.) It's an option to be used sparingly, when the player is at an extreme disadvantage. Surrender a hard 16 against a 9, 10 or Ace, and a 15 against a 10. Exception: Split a pair of 8s instead of surrendering. Stick to that strategy, and surrender is a plus for the player.

There's one major player option we've not yet discussed, and that's insurance. We'll check it out next week.

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