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Best of Bootlegger

OK, So How Come I'm Still Losing (Part III)

23 September 1999

Rules. Nearly every blackjack book published has a section describing the rules and the effects those rules have on a basic strategy player. Often, a card counter will decide what game is worth playing based on the rules. Often, that card counter will choose the wrong game. It is just another reason that many card counters can't seem to beat the game.

Take a look at the typical description of the effects of the rules. For instance, in Stanford Wong's Professional Blackjack (by the way, this is a must have volume for any serious blackjack player), there is a section on the rules of the game. It starts with a benchmark one-deck game, where the dealer stands on all 17s. The basic strategy player is just about dead even with the house in this game off the top of the deck. The player's edge is given as 0. From there, one can add or subtract the value of the various rules commonly available. Based on Wong's text, here is a list of the bad rules and the good rules and how they affect the edge:

Bad Rules %
Two Decks -0.32
Four Decks -0.47
Six Decks -0.52
Eight Decks -0.55
Dealer hits soft 17 -0.20
Double 10 and 11 only -0.17
Double 9, 10, and 11 only -0.08
Lose on all doubles/splits vs. BJ -0.11
Good Rules %
Double after splits +0.14
Resplit aces (4 or more decks) +0.08
Late surrender +0.08
Early surrender +0.71

Often, card counters would simply add up the effects of these rules and then decide on which game to play, forgetting that Wong says these figures apply "to the first hand after a shuffle. For subsequent hands, your edge might be higher or lower." What they tend to forget is the fact that their bet spread and style of play has an effect on the edge that can be gained or lost with these rule variations. Bryce Carlson noted in Blackjack for Blood that the rule where the dealer hits soft seventeen is less costly to a counter than it is to a basic strategy player. Don Schlesinger confirmed that in the simulations done by John Auston for Blackjack Attack, and noted that the rule is even less costly for a player who is backcounting (counting the cards without playing and only entering the game when the advantage swings over to the player, also called wonging) shoe games.

Schlesinger also noted that late surrender (LS) is much more valuable to a card counter than it is to a basic strategist. In fact, it actually increases the gain while lowering the risk, making it, in Schlesinger's words, the "holy grail" for card counters. In fact, the greater the bet spread and the deeper the penetration, the more beneficial this rule becomes. Even though double after splits (DAS) gains the basic strategy player 0.14% and late surrender gains 0.08%, late surrender actually is more valuable than DAS to a card counter. If you were looking at a double-deck game with the S17 (dealer stands on soft 17) rule and DAS, you would add up the rules and assume this game is superior to an S17, LS game, all other things being equal. In an excellently penetrated game, a card counter can increase his winnings by almost six percent simply by choosing the S17, LS game.

Looking at the rules above, one is tempted to compare rules and then, based on that comparison, pick the game with the smallest off-the-top house advantage. Having done so, one might think that the job of game selection had been done. For example, a person might come across a six-decker where the dealer stands on all 17s, double after splits is allowed and late surrender is available. Add it up and the house has a mere advantage of 0.3%. In the same pit, there might be a two-decker where the dealer hits soft 17s and DAS is allowed, but no surrender is offered. The house advantage in this game is 0.38%. Both offer 75% penetration. It's simple then. Play the six-decker, right?

Wrong! If you sit down and play all hands at that six-decker with the great rules and 75% penetration you will have to utilize at least a 1-12 betting spread to make any kind of decent profit and you will be facing a pretty steep standard deviation (remember our old friend). Even if you wong this game, playing only when the count is good and shows an advantage, you won't be ahead of playing that two-decker with the so-so rules.

That leads us back to penetration. As I said in part two, penetration makes the game. For two-deckers, 75% is damn good penetration. For six-deckers, it's only so-so. To beat the two-decker in the example I just gave, you would have to find a six-decker that offers penetration to one-half deck, better than 90%. If you found a six-decker that deals out five decks, you would be close to the two-deck game, and if you wonged that game, you could beat the six-decker.

When playing shoes, rules can be important. For example, even a fantastically penetrated six-decker can be unplayable if the rules are bad enough. As a case in point, take the casinos in Tunica. In most of those casinos, the shoe games are six decks with H17 and DAS. These games are just plain awful. Even a 90%+ penetration won't make these games attractive to the play all player, and you won't find 90% penetration on shoes anywhere in Tunica. With a large enough bet spread, you might wong those games if you can find good penetration, but that's the only way to play them. As for eight-deckers, the best rules on the planet won't do much for them, even if they are well penetrated. Backcounting the games with very good rules and very good penetration can generate an acceptable profit, but be prepared to use a lot of shoe leather. Once the pit bosses figure out what you are doing, they will start amusing little tactics like half-shoeing you or limiting your bet spread.

Hand-held games, like two-deckers and single-deckers are a little more tolerant of poor rules and mediocre penetration. With the proper betting spread, even an H17 single-decker with 50% penetration can be exploited, provided there are only three players total at the table, each playing only one hand. Two-deckers need better penetration and should at least offer DAS to make them attractive, but the dealer hitting soft 17s can be a playable game with at least 65%+ penetration. If you can find a two-decker with S17, DAS and late surrender, you can play it at 60% penetration levels with no more than four players at the table.

So, are you playing shoe games? Are you playing shoe games where the dealers cut out more than one deck? Are you playing shoes with lousy rules, such as H17, no DAS and no surrender? Are you playing crowded hand-held games with poor rules and poor penetration? Are you losing? If you aren't, take my word for it, you will. Give thanks for the lucky streak you've been on and find yourself some good games to play.

Then again, you may be playing in excellent games with great rules and great penetration and still be losing money. Stick around for part IV to see what you need to do. I'll give you a hint. It's called money management, and I don't mean the kind you've read about in most of the gambling books that talk about it.

For more information about blackjack:

Best Blackjack by Frank Scoblete
The Morons of Blackjack and Other Monsters! by Frank Scoblete
Winning Strategies at Blackjack! by Frank Scoblete
Bootlegger is a frequent contributor to various gaming web pages on the
worldwide web. His intelligent, insightful opinions and analyses have gained him quite a reputation in cyberspace as an expert who knows the games and understands the gambler.
Bootlegger is a frequent contributor to various gaming web pages on the
worldwide web. His intelligent, insightful opinions and analyses have gained him quite a reputation in cyberspace as an expert who knows the games and understands the gambler.