John Grochowski, Casino Answer Man

Q. I was grumbling at a blackjack table about the switch to dealer hits soft 17. The casino closest to me had the dealer stand on all 17s ever since it opened, close to 20 years ago. Last year, they switched.

The dealer tried to convince me that it really was better for the player this way. She said, "I bust more than I used to. Those 17s all used to be standing hands, and now I bust some of them. That has to help you."

I checked in books I have at home, and they all say the dealer hitting soft 17 increases the house edge by about two-tenths of a percent. I searched online, and I say you've said the same thing. But in a way, what the dealer said makes sense. She has to bust more hands than she used to. So why is that worse for players?

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A. Think about the situation when the dealer has an Ace face up and a 6 face down. Basic strategy players with totals of 16 or less will be hitting when they see the Ace. Many will bust, and the dealer will collect their money before they ever see the face-down 6.

By the time the 6 comes into play, the only player hands remaining will be those of 17 or better, the pat hands where players stand against a dealer's Ace. If the dealer stood on all 17s, then all players remaining in the hand would either win or push. By hitting soft 17, the dealer has a chance to improve the hand and beat instead of push 17s, beat or push instead of lose to 18s, 19s and 20s, and even push 21s.

The cost to the house? Not much. When the dealer busts, the house will lose to some 17s it would have pushed by standing, and lose to higher hands that would have beat 17 anyway.

Seventeen is not a powerful hand. It can't beat any pat totals. The best it can do is push another 17. The situation is more jumbled when a low card is face up. Then players with stiff hands will stand, and some will win when the dealer who hits soft 17 busts. On balance, the house gains about two-tenths of a percent.

Q. In video poker, is the first card of a new hand the first card off the top of the remaining deck from the previous hand? What brings this up is a hand I had in Double Double Bonus Poker. I had Aces of clubs, hearts and spades, a 2 of hearts and a 9 of clubs. I threw away the 9 and held the three Aces and the 2, so that if I drew the fourth Ace, I'd get the 2,000-coin jackpot.

My husband says that's the wrong play, that I should just hold the Aces and throw away the 2, too. On the next hand, my first card was the Ace of diamonds. He said, "See? If you'd thown away the 2, the next card was your fourth Ace and at least you'd have gotten the 800."

Is that really the way it works?

A. No, video poker cards are randomly shuffled for each hand. Your Ace of diamonds was the first card of a fresh shuffle.

I'm with your husband on the strategy question, though. If you hold the 2 along with three Aces, there's a 1 in 47 chance of drawing the fourth Ace. Discard both the 2 and 9, and you double you chances, to 2 in 47, of getting Ace No. 4.

If you start with Ace-Ace-Ace-2, there are 47 possible draws. One is the fourth Ace you're chasing, giving you the 2,000-coin bonanza for four Aces plus a low-card kicker. Three draws are deuces, completing a full house. The other 43 leave you with three of a kind. On 9-6 or 9-5 Double Double Bonus, the average return is 59.14 coins per five wagered.

If you discard 5 and 9 and start with three Aces, there are 1,081 possible draws. Eleven will bring the four Aces plus kicker jackpot, and 35 more will bring the fourth Ace without a low kicker for a nice 800-coin pay. Of the rest, 66 will bring full houses and 969 will leave you with three of a kind. Average return: 62.45 coins.

So your husband is wrong about how the cards are dealt, but he's right on the strategy point. Hold the three Aces and discard both of the other cards to maximize chances of drawing the fourth Ace.

Gambling author and columnist John Grochowskis 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.

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