John Grochowski, Gaming Guru

In the never-ending quest to get an edge over the casino, players try any number of tricks. Most of them don’t work. A few do, in the less-than-a-handful of games where players’ actions can alter the outcomes.

Blackjack is one of those games, and not long ago I had the opportunity to see two advantage seekers meet head-on. My friend Mark and I had settled into a low-limit game. Mark is a card counter, and a pretty good one. He doesn’t play for high stakes and his profits are small, but he likes the feeling of being able to beat the casino at its own game.

We had been at the table for about 45 minutes, and with a $20 bet on the table, Mark was dealt a blackjack while the dealer had an ace face up. Mark called for even money, meaning he’d take a $20 payoff on the hand without waiting for the dealer to check for blackjack. He was giving up the chance at a 3-2 payoff worth $30 for the sure thing of the instant profit.

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No sooner were the words “even money” out of his mouth than another player jumped in, a 40-ish man with a shaved head and goatee. “Can I buy your hand for even money,” he asked.

Mark shrugged and said, “Why not?” He didn’t care where his $20 was coming from.

The dealer turned up a 6, and the third party collected the $30 payoff on Mark’s blackjack. Minus the $20 he’d paid to buy the hand, he had a $10 profit.

Here’s why each did their thing:

Even money would be a break-even proposition if a third of the cards were 10 values. But only 30.8 percent are 10s and faces. It costs you money to give away the 3-2 payoff that comes 69.2 percent of the times you have blackjacks while the dealer has an ace up.

If you faced that situation 1,000 times with a $20 wager on each, a player who always took even money would collect $20,000. A player who declined even money would get no payoff on 308 hands, but collecting $30 on each of the 692 winners would bring $20,760. That’s $760 out of your pocket and into the casino coffers if you take even money as a matter of course.

The player who bought the hand obviously knew that. Far better, in his view, for the money Mark was passing up to land on his stack of chips instead of in the dealer’s tray.

But as a card counter, Mark had some extra information. He knew that more than a third of the cards remaining to be dealt were 10-values. That changes the bet dynamics considerably.

If 34 percent of the remaining cards are 10 values, then the player who passes up insurance would win the 3-2 blackjack payoff only 660 times per $1,000. With $20 bets and $30 payoffs, the winnings would total $19,800 — $200 less than the $20,000 in winnings on even money.

Mark, as a card counter, made the more profitable play given the information he had. The third party made the opposite play, a long-run profit-maker for a non-counting basic strategy player.

I laughed about it with Mark afterward.

“Any regrets?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Of course not,” he said. “The count said even money was the right play. That doesn’t mean it’ll work every time. And I admire that guy. It takes a little nerve to ask, and it’s a good play most of the time.”

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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