Blackjack players can be a bit uncomfortable talking strategy during breaks at the table. The more advanced players may not want to tip the casino off to how good they are, though it really doesn't take much observation to tell those who know their basic strategy from those who don't.
So the table talk at shuffling time often turns to asking the dealer about her hometown, or finding out if other players have tried the steakhouse, and the occasional gem about something unusual that's happened at casinos games.
But every once in a while, players let their guard down, and a little strategy is mixed in with the tales people tell at the table. The table talk that follows was collected on three different casino trips.
Bradley wanted to talk about the even-money form of insurance. When you have a blackjack and the dealer has an Ace face up, you can call for even money, and take a win equal to your bet. If you don't take even money, you could wind up with no win at all if the dealer has a 10-value card face down to complete a blackjack, or you could get a 3-2 payoff if the dealer doesn't have blackjack. The better percentage play is to turn down even money and play out the hand.
"You know how dealers are telling you to take insurance?" Bradley asked as dealer Tom exchanged one six-deck pack for another in the shuffling machine. "What about you, Tom? Do you tell players to take insurance? No? Well, I hear a lot of dealers saying that.
"I was playing some $15 a hand blackjack, and was on a hot streak. I got a blackjack, and the dealer had an Ace face up, and he asked if I wanted to take even money. I shook it off, the dealer didn't have blackjack and I won $22.50. It happened a couple of more times within 15 minutes, and I won those, too.
"Then another guy got a blackjack, and the dealer had an Ace, and the guy asked the dealer what he thought. The dealer told him he was sure to win if he took even-money, that it was the only sure thing in the casino. So the other guy took the even money, and sure enough, the dealer had a blackjack. And the guy said, 'I guess that's why you make that play,' and the dealer smiled and nodded. I shook my head, but didn't say anything. I was happy with my wins."
Jonas knows basic strategy calls for the player to hit soft 18 whenever the dealer's face up card is a 9, 10-value card or Ace. A "soft" 17 has an Ace being counted as an 11, such ace Ace-7 or Ace-2-5. If you draw a 4 or higher, you don't go over 21 and bust the hand, the Ace just counts as 1 instead and you go from there.
"I had Ace-7, and the dealer had a King face up," he recalled. "I signaled to hit, and a lady called out, 'Wait!' The dealer looked a little startled and looked at my while the lady called out again, 'You have 18!' I signaled to hit again, and the dealer nodded and dealt me a 3. I had 21 and I needed it all, because the dealer had a 10 down.
"That other player said, 'You got lucky this time, but you shouldn't be hitting 18.' I just smiled and took my chips. I wasn't going to go through the whole strategy explanation."
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.