Aces Guide to Gambling

Blackjack Strategy & Rules :

Blackjack variations make a big difference

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.

John Grochowski

More than any other casino game offered, blackjack combines elements of skill with chance, from choice of hit; stand strategies to money management techniques to, for some, counting cards.

But one blackjack skill that's often overlooked should be applied before you even sit down to play. Choosing a game with favorable table conditions is as important a skill as any other.

When you walk onto a riverboat or even a land-based casino that's alone in its market, you have no choice of rules and conditions - what's on board is what's on board. Still, the smart player will take note of the rules in force at each gaming site, and take that into account when planning excursions. In the case of a particularly unfavorable set of rules, he or she might even avoid the game.

In Las Vegas, comparing conditions is even more important. There, if you encounter an unfavorable set of rules, you can walk from casino to casino until you find a better game. Other parts of Nevada, Mississippi and Atlantic City also offer some chances to comparison shop.

Here are some common blackjack variations, some that favor the player, some that favor the house:

Number of decks: All other conditions being the same, the fewer the decks, the better for the player. That doesn't mean a single-deck game is always good or a six-decker always bad. One of my regular haunts has a two-deck game with rules so restrictive that it's much weaker than the same casino's good six-deck game. Look at the whole package, not just one rule.

Dealer hits soft 17: A bad rule for the player. The average winning hand is 18. Hitting soft 17 gives the dealer a chance to improve a so-so hand.

Double down after splitting pairs: Any rule that gives the player more options is good, as long as the player uses it wisely. When the casino allows the player to double after splitting, a slight adjustment to basic strategy is needed. Basic strategy if doubling after splits is allowed is slightly different than the strategy presented in this column a few months ago. If your casino allows doubling after splits, adjust basic strategy as follows: Split 2,2 and 3,3 if the dealer's up-card is 2 through 7 instead of against 4 through 7; split 4,4 against a dealer's 5 or 6 instead of hitting; split 6,6 against 2 through 6 instead of 3 through 6.

Surrender: Occasionally, you'll find a house that will allow you to surrender half your bet rather than playing out your hand. If the house allows you to do this before the dealer checks his down card for blackjack, it's called early surrender. If, more commonly, the house checks first and collects all bets if the dealer has blackjack, it's late surrender. A good rule for players is to surrender hard 16s - except a pair of 8s - against the dealer's 9, 10 or Ace, and surrender 15 against a 10. Play out all other hands.

Resplitting Aces allowed: It can be maddening to split Aces, only to be dealt another Ace. That 12 wins only if the dealer busts, and almost all casinos limit you to a one-card draw on a split Ace. If the house allows resplitting of Aces, do so.

No dealer hole card: This variation, common on cruise ships, would make no difference if not for a nasty little rule that goes with it. The dealer does not deal himself a second card until the players have completed their hands, and so he does not check for blackjack before players double or split. If the dealer then completes the blackjack, the house takes both bets on doubles and splits. A horrendous rule.

So what's the best set of rules you can expect to find in a package? From time to time in Las Vegas, you'll find a single-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s and doubling after splits is allowed. The basic strategy player has about a one-tenth of one percent advantage over the house. It's not a common game, although in the days before card counting those were the standard Las Vegas rules.

The worst? Well, I once saw a casino on a cruise ship that dealt an eight-deck game with no dealer hole card, no double after splits, no resplitting of pairs. An ugly game, but the captive audience kept the tables busy.

The above article is excerpted, with permission, from John's book "Gaming: Cruising the Casinos."

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