Most of the time when folks ask me questions, you know they just wanna to hear they have the right of whatever discussion we’re having. And ’cause I’m kinda amiable, I rarely turn the discussion into an argument. Life’s too short and I’m kinda on the old side to be getting into fights, so I just suck it all up — along with the alcohol to numb the senses. But every once in a while, folks are not just fishing for poker or blackjack tips. You get the feeling they actually want real answers. So, the other day when this young felloe asked me whether the Basic Strategy shaded the odds in your favor against the House, he had that look in his eye. I took him at his word.
“It depends,” I said not meaning to sound unhelpful. “It depends on the rules and the number of decks in the shoe but, at its best, the Basic Strategy should cut the House edge to no more than about 0.5%.”
I could see him chewing on that, perhaps a little disappointed you were still at a disadvantage. But the story doesn’t end there. No blackjack strategy can’t deliver more than it promises. In this case, it promises to do no more than reduce the odds of losing which is pretty damn impressive when you consider the other casino games you can play. Those that play baccarrat are always 1.06% down in the hole before they start. Casino slots rarely pay back more than 97%. Roulette gives the House a 5.25% edge. And then there’s keno, the best get-rich-quick scheme ever invented by a casino.
However you look at it, playing blackjack online or in a casino using Basic Strategy only ccosts you 50c per $100 bet. And that’s before we start talking about card counting.
“So how does the Basic Strategy work?” The young fellah has kinda got his teeth into this. I wave my glass and he gets me a refill. He knows enough to pay his dues.
I take a deep breath. “There are fifty-two cards in a deck and 30.77% have a value of 10. That’s four suits of 10 through king. Now think about a three spot. They’re only four of them — that’s 7.7% — so you’re four times more likely to draw a 10 than a trey.” He’s got that slightly glazed look, but I’ve got the bit between my teeth now. “So suppose the Dealer’s upcard is high. Let’s call anything 7 and above, including an Ace, a high card. The odds now favor a strong total. If you’re holding a stiff, that’s any total of 12 through 16, you should hit. You can’t take the risk of standing with a hand when you can see the Dealer’s got better odds of having a 10 to beat you.”
He’s waving his arms around in distress. The poor fellah’s got a brain. He’s thinking about this. “But if the odds favor drawing a high card, you’re more likely to bust the hand.”
I slow down again, fixing him with my calming look. “Sure, you’re more likely to bust a stiff if you hit, but you’ll lose more if you stand when the Dealer’s upcard is high. Put it the other way round. Suppose the Dealer’s upcard is low. Even if the downcard is high, the Dealer’s almost certainly gonna hafta hit. In that case, the odds say the Dealer’s more likely to bust. Now, go back to where we were. With that high upcard, the Dealer’s looking good for a winning total against your stiff. You’ll lose more money in the long run if you stand on that stiff. You hafta take the chance of improving your hand.”
He’s still looking unhapppy. “But that means I’m deliberately busting my stiffs when I still have a chance of winning.”
“You gotta take the long view. Busting the stiffs some of the time is part of the price you pay for following the Basic Strategy all the time. It evens out over all the hands you play. The odds say you’re sitting with a losing hand if you drew a stiff and the Dealer’s upcard is high. If you’ve already got a loser, you’re not making it any worse by busting it. You’re just giving yourself the better chance of turning it into a winning hand.”
This time, I buy him a beer. He’s a charity case.