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One-Deck Blackjack: Be Careful What You Wish For, You Might Get It!

21 November 1999

While in Las Vegas for the 30th Annual World Series of Poker, I decided to make a nostalgic return to the blackjack tables that had helped put me through college and law school.

I no longer try to play blackjack as a regular source of income, so I felt free to indulge some impulses that I never would have yielded to back when the ability to play regularly was important to me. In those days, I never stayed very long in one casino, kept a very low profile, and in general tried my best to ensure that casino personnel, were they to notice me at all, would file me away in the category of "typical tourist, ignore."

My need for theatrics and skulking about now gone, though, I decided to have some fun.

I sat down in a one-deck blackjack game, always a risky move for a card counter since casinos scrutinize these games much more closely. You reach significant counts much more often in a one-deck game, even if they don't deal all the way down to the bottom of the deck. I first got interested in card counting as a teenager, from an episode of the old TV show, "Alias Smith and Jones," when Pete Duel pointed out to Ben Murphy that his huge bet had been completely safe, because the six cards left in the deck were the four 8s and two 7s. (Figure it out: if you know that's the situation, you can't possibly lose, because no matter what two cards you get, you stand and the dealer has to bust!)

Non-counters (and that's almost everyone who plays, no matter what you might hear) frequently seek out one-deck games, because they've been told that even without counting, a player using basic strategy has a slightly better chance in a one-deck game, and viewed in a vacuum, that's true: mathematically, the house edge in a one-deck game is a few tenths of a percent less than in the four- or six-deck games more commonly found in casinos.

Actually, with perfect basic strategy play, you're in a dead-even game with the house if the rules are: dealer stands on soft 17, player can double any first two cards, and can re-split pairs.

You don't play blackjack in a vacuum, though. First of all, you won't find many one-deck blackjack games offering these favorable rules. For example, the dealer didn't stand on soft 17 in this game, which gave a 0.2% edge back to the house. Pretty much every casino offering single-deck blackjack employs this sort of trade-off. If the casino offers both one-deck and multi-deck games, the rules in the one-deck game will be less favorable, to compensate for the player's single-deck edge.

Anyway, I started out betting $15 a hand, which was a bit more than the other five players in the game. This got me noticed right away, which is good if you're seeking out comps and bad if you're counting cards.

With six players in the game, the dealer could only deal two rounds before reshuffling. So I usually got to see about 20 cards and then had to make whatever counting decisions I was to make, based on those 20 cards.

Ten minutes into the game, the first round contained an impressive assortment of fours, fives and sixes; so many little cards came out that I suspected the dealer wouldn't deal another round before shuffling—a major problem for the non-counter.

You see, if lots of little cards have come out, the deck becomes player-favorable, because with lots of tens and aces left, blackjacks happen more frequently. Because the house merely wins when it gets a blackjack, but you win 1.5 times your bet when you get one, exchanging blackjacks with the house is very profitable.

Also, because the dealer must hit stiff hands (12, 13, 14, 15 and 16), while you can exercise strategy and stand with these bustable hands, an excess of tens in the deck means the dealer will be busting more often. As a result, this "little card" first round meant a very favorable situation for all players, even if they weren't counting and didn't realize their advantage.

So where's the problem? If the house is counting—and in one-deck games, it often is—the house recognizes this favorable situation and reshuffles. So the players—whether they are counters or not—never get to face the more favorable situations. They get to play in an even game, or an unfavorable one, but not a favorable one.

In this case, though, it was a $2 table and most people were betting small, so the dealer went ahead and prepared to deal the next round. As soon as I realized I was going to get a hand at this favorable count, I increased my bet from $15 to $50.

The dealer looked over her shoulder to the floorman, who took a sudden interest in the game, and I knew I'd been "busted." It had taken exactly one hand, and exactly one increased bet (and a not hugely increased bet, at that), for the house to suspect they had a real player in the game. The hand was dealt out, and my 17 lost to the dealer's 20 (an important lesson for you would-be counters: just because you've become a tiny favorite doesn't mean you're going to win!).

I stuck around for a little while to see if my surmise about house suspicions was correct. Sure enough, the next time the first round brought about a favorable count, the cards were re-shuffled.

Since I was just having fun, trying a little experiment, and since I didn't want to ruin the game for the recreational non-counters, I left. No big surprise, but it was strangely fulfilling to see that my old paranoia had a factual basis. Like they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't necessarily mean someone isn't out to get you.

So, for you recreational blackjack players out there, understand that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Be careful about wishing for one-deck blackjack action, because if you get it, you might find yourself in a much less favorable game than that four-decker right next door. As long as the shuffle point stays the same, your one-deck game is probably the place to play. But if you find that sometimes the dealer shuffles early, and sometimes late, your one deck game is no bargain.

If you're out to have fun, watch out for one-deck games where one or more players are making significant bets. You might find that the little edge you've been seeking out is a sharper edge than you'd thought--sharp enough to slice a hole in the bottom of your wallet.

©by Andrew N.S. Glazer and Casino Conquests International, LLC
All Rights Reserved

For more information about blackjack, we recommend:

Casino Gambling the Smart Way by Andrew N. S. Glazer
Best Blackjack by Frank Scoblete
The Morons of Blackjack and Other Monsters! by Frank Scoblete
Winning Strategies at Blackjack! Video tape hosted by Academy Award Winner James Coburn, Written by Frank Scoblete
Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer:

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer: