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A Tiny Difference With Lots of Leverage

Author: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Why is the theory to bet more on a positive count when counting cards? Doesn’t a positive count also give the dealer the same chance as you of getting a good hand, and therefore the advantage of higher hand totals? Nick D.

Card counters in theory, Nick, have an advantage varying between 0.5% and 1.5% against the house. It works like this. A deck that has reduced its low cards and is flush with high cards (10, jack, queen, king, ace) favors the player with a positive count, while the reverse, an excess of low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), creates a negative count and favors the dealer.

What all card-counting systems do is keep track of the ratio of small cards to big cards remaining in the deck. When that ratio favors the player, he/she bets more money; when it favors the dealer, the counter bets less. The counter varies bets, from one hand to the next, guided by the constantly updated imbalance figure, which predicts whether the next hand will favor either the player or the dealer.

While the probabilities of you and the dealer receiving high cards when the count is positive are identical, it’s still to your advantage because the rules of the game impact differently on player and dealer.

For example, Nick, blackjacks pay 3 for 2 (a payoff of $3 for every $2 wagered), whereas the dealer wins just even money. You get to double down on 10s and 11s, and with a positive count, you stand a better than 50/50 chance of winning twice your original bet. The same holds true with certain pair-splitting prospects. Also, the dealer has to hit on a 12-16, whereas you would stand on your stiff hand. Even taking insurance can be a profitable wager when the count is high.

It’s these monetary opportunities in high-count situations, Nick, which do change a negative expectation game into a positive one.

Dear Mark: What is the correct strategy for a soft 18? Are they not strong enough hands to stand-alone without hitting them? Jerry H.

Players make more mistakes with soft hands (a hand which includes an Ace that can be used as a one or an 11) than with most any other hand in blackjack. What some of these players don’t realize is that you can never bust a soft hand with a one-card hit. If you have a soft 18, such as Ace-7, and draw a face card, you can only make it a hard 18, with the Ace now being used as a one.

Although the soft 18 looks all-powerful, looks can be deceiving. If you stand on a soft 18, no matter what the dealer's up card is, you will win approximately eight out of every 20 hands. But, if you hit until you reach a soft 19 or hard 17, you would win about nine out of every 20 hands.

Also note, Jerry, that all basic strategy charts affirm that if your hand contains an ace for a soft 18, the correct strategy for a soft 18 is to stand against a 2, 7, 8, double against a 3-6, and hit against a 9, ten or Ace.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Modern people love machines, gamblers love machines, and casino management especially love machines.” --John Marchel, KISS Guide to Gambling