Q: I've been going nuts trying to memorize penalty card exceptions in video poker. How important are they? Would I be just as well off to use a simpler strategy?

A: For the uninitiated, penalty cards in video poker are those that if discarded, decrease your chances of drawing flushes or straights. With a hand such as King, Queen and 5 of hearts, 9 of diamonds and 2 of spades, holding King-Queen means there's one less 9 to complete a King-high straight. And discarding the 5 means there's one less heart to complete a potential flush. The 9 is a straight penalty card, and the 5 is a flush penalty card.

Penalty cards do make a strategy difference on some hands, but whether they're worth memorizing depends on what you want out of the game. If you're a serious player who wants everything a game has to offer, that makes taking the penalty cards into account. If you're a casual player who's happy to get close to optimal play, you might not want to spend the time on the exceptions, especially if you switch between a number of games.

The cost isn't enormous. In 9-6 Jacks or Better, you need to account for penalty cards to get to a 99.54 percent theoretical return. A simplified strategy without penalty cards can get you to 99.46 percent. Per $1,000 wagered - 800 hands at $1.25 a pop on a quarter machine - the difference is 80 cents. If you're a fast player, you're losing roughly one bet per hour and a half by not upgrading to the more complete strategy. Whether that's tolerable is up to you.

Instead of memorizing, I'd suggest using a strategy card while you play. It might slow you down a little, but not all that much if you're using it only to check the close calls. Most jurisdictions allow you to use strategy cards in the casino, though there are exceptions. Illinois, for one, does not permit their use at the games.

Q. I think I've read every blackjack book around, and everyone recommends splitting 8s against everything, even when the dealer shows a 10. I don't get it. Doesn't the dealer still have an edge there? Seems like you're just trying to lose twice.

A. The dealer does have an edge on each hand when you split 8s against a 10, but the edge is much smaller against each of your hands that starts with an 8 than it is if you play the hand as 16. Play it as 16, if you stand, you'll lose the 79 percent of the time the dealer makes 17 or better when starting with 10. If you hit, you'll bust 62 percent of the time, and lose some of rest when your 17 loses to an 18 or better, 18 loses to a 19 or better, and so on.

If you split the 8s, you'll still lose more money than you win. But 8 is a much better building block than 16, and you'll lose less money by splitting the pair than by playing the 16. That may not be much consolation, but at least it leaves a few more chips on your side of the table. Sometimes the dealer will have another 10 face down and you'll lose both hands, but that's just something you have to accept on the way to lower overall losses.

Sometimes blackjack strategy decisions are a matter of playing defense, trying to lose less. That's what you're doing when you split 8s against a dealer's 10. It's a lousy hand no matter what you do, but playing it as 16 against a 10 gives the house a bigger edge than when you split the 8s.

It's an entirely different matter when the dealer has a 6 face up. Then you have an edge when you split the 8s that you wouldn't have if you played as 16. You're playing offense, pressing your advantage. But part of the game is knowing when it's time to play defense.

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