It was mid-morning on a Monday, and I found myself at a six-deck blackjack table. It was just an average kind of game, with the dealer standing on all 17s, double downs allowed on any first two cards, including after splitting pairs.
There was an average mix of other players, too. One played flawless basic strategy. A couple of others were a little fuzzy on the plays, mostly getting it right, but sometimes relying on instincts that were a little off.
“They say I should hit this, but I have a feeling you're going to bust,” one player told the dealer before standing on 15 against a dealer’s 8.
The dealer didn’t bust.
“Oh well, it’s only chips,” the player said as he pushed out his wager for the next hand.
One man made basic strategy plays almost all the time. But sometimes he’d stand on 12 when the dealer had a 10 face up, or stand on 16 against a 10. And it was driving the basic strategy player crazy.
“What would make you do something like that?” the basic strategist demanded after the other fellow drew a 10 and busted his 12 against the dealer’s 4. “That should have been the dealer’s 10.”
The dealer, who had a 10 down, drew another 10 to bust anyway, but if casino life were a cartoon, you still could have seen steam coming from the angry player’s ears. He was convinced it was a bad play, and worried that it could have hurt the whole table.
Now, bad plays are as likely to help the rest of the table as they are to hurt them. Through selective memory, we tend to remember the times they hurt, but it balances out. I don’t worry about the plays others make. If mistakes by other players irritate you, it might be best to change tables. You’re not going to teach anyone basic strategy in one session, and it’s their right to make their own plays anyway. So why aggravate yourself?
Anyway, I wasn’t at all convinced the guy was making bad plays. It’s possible he was an advanced player reaching beyond the basics.
It all looks cut-and-dried on basic strategy charts for blackjack. If you have a hard 12, you hit if the dealer’s face up card is a 2, 3 or 7 and up, but stand if the dealer shows a 4, 5 or 6.
If you have no information other than your total and the dealer’s up card, then the plays on the basic strategy chart have the best chance to win. And anyone who’s going to play blackjack very often should learn basic strategy. But the numbers that go into developing that chart are a continuum that’s a little fuzzy around the edges, with opportunities for an advanced player to get a little extra from the information on the table.
Take that hard 12. The basic strategy chart calls for you to hit when the dealer is most likely to make a 17 or better. In a six-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s, the dealer will bust only 26 percent of the time when starting with a 7, 24 percent with an 8, 23 percent with a 9, 21 percent with a 10-value and 14 percent with an Ace. It’s an easy call to hit your 12.
It’s also an easy call to stand when the dealer starts with 5, busting 42 percent of the time, or 6, 44 percent. We’ll lose more than we win, but we win more often by giving the dealer a chance to bust.
The line gets blurrier at 2, 3 and 4. The basic strategy chart tells you to hit 12 vs. a dealer’s 2 (36 percent busts) and 3 (38 percent), but stand when the dealer shows a 4 (just under 40 percent).
Basic strategy charts draw no distinction between standing on 12 vs. 6 and standing on 12 vs. 4. But the dealer busts 4 percent less often with a 4 than with a 6, and that makes a difference in the way advanced players approach the hand. It’s an extremely close call that even non-card counters can make. On any given hand, if a non-counter looks around the table and sees one more 10-value card than cards of 6 or lower, then it’s actually a better play to stand on 12 vs. 4.
Of course, that play works better with better information, and someone who counts is in a better position to judge the turning point. A non-counter just squeezes a tiny bit extra out of the situation by being aware of what’s on the table.
I doubt that any of that would have calmed the angry basic strategy player at my table. But it’s just possible the other guy had the right stuff.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski’s weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.