Aces Guide to Gambling

Blackjack Strategy & Rules :

Odds in blackjack ride on skill

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.


Casinos make their living on games of chance. Whether the roulette ball drops in your number, or whether the slot reels stop on the jackpot combination--that's chance, and there's nothing you can do to make winners come up more often.

Some casino games incorporate elements of skill. Live poker is as much skill as chance, although the recent closing of the Empress Joliet poker room leaves poker available only at Hollywood in Aurora and Harrah's East Chicago.

Of commonly available casino games, the game with the greatest element of skill is blackjack. The casino assumes it has an edge of about 2 percent to 2.5 percent against an average player. Play your cards wrong, and you can double or triple that house edge. Play your cards right, and you can cut the house edge to 0.5 percent or less playing basic strategy, or even gain a small edge yourself by counting cards.

In the next several weeks, as we continue looking at the basics of table games, let's focus on blackjack--what rules make a desirable game, what games to avoid, basic strategy for hitting, standing, doubling down and splitting pairs, even a little on counting cards.
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Before going too far, let's start with the basic mechanics of playing the game.

Blackjack can be played with any number of 52-card decks. For those who travel to other gaming jurisdictions, especially Nevada, it's not unusual to see games using one, two, four, six or eight decks. In the Chicago area, we have two-, six- and eight-deck games.

Multiple-deck games are usually dealt from a box called a "shoe." In Illinois, all blackjack games must be dealt from a shoe. In Indiana, "pitch," which is blackjack dealt from the dealer's hand, is permitted. Majestic Star in Gary has a two-deck pitch game in its high-limit area.

In shoe games, all players' cards are dealt face up and players may not touch them, while in pitch games, player cards are dealt face down and players may pick them up with one hand. In either dealing method, one of the dealer's cards is dealt face down and the other face up.

For the player, the object is to get closer to a total of 21 than the dealer without "busting"--going over 21. Numbered cards are counted as their face value, face cards are counted as 10, and Aces may be counted as either 1 or 11.

Once all players and the dealer have their first two cards, players have several options on what to do next:

* Hit: Players who want another card signal the dealer that they want to hit. In a shoe game, the player signals by pointing to the table next to his cards or motioning toward himself--anything that the dealer can read unambiguously as signaling for another card. In a pitch game, the player holds the cards in one hand and scratches the table with them.

The signals, by the way, are necessary so that not only the dealer, but the surveillance operator watching through the overhead camera, understands what's going on.

* Stand: Players who think their first two cards are good enough signal that they want to stand. In a shoe game, a flattened palm over the cards will do. In a pitch game, players slide their cards face down under the chips in their betting spot.

* Double down: If the player is in a strong situation, he has the option of doubling his bet. In exchange, he gets only one more card. In a shoe game, the player places a bet equal in size to his initial wager. In a pitch game, the player first flips his cards face up on the table in front of his bet, then places the second bet.

* Split pairs: If the first two cards are of equal rank, players may split the pair and use each card as the start to a separate hand. In a shoe game, place a second bet, equal to the first, leaving a card-wide gap on the table between wagers. Do the same in a pitch game, but first flip the cards up in front of the bet.

* Insurance: If the dealer has an Ace face up, the player may take insurance by making a second bet half the size of the initial wager. If the dealer has a 10-value card face down for a blackjack--a two-card 21--insurance pays off at 2-1 odds.

* Surrender: Some casinos, including Trump in Gary, allow the player to surrender half of his bet in exchange for not risking it all by playing out the hand. The usual version is "late surrender," meaning the dealer first checks to see if he has blackjack. If he does, surrender is not offered. Rare, but more advantageous to the player, is "early surrender," in which the player may surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack.

Which options should you take, and when? We'll start looking at that here..

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