This week's column is again in response to an e-mail I received this past week. It's good to see that after nearly 15 years of writing for Gaming Today that my readers finally seem comfortable to shoot me an e-mail! This one asked how come I never talk about Surrender in blackjack. I gave it some thought and realized that I don't think I have written a single word about the Surrender option in blackjack through those 15 years! As I thought about it some more, I'm not sure I've talked about Insurance either. So, this week, I'm going to talk about both.
Let's start with the easy one - Insurance. DON'T DO IT! There is one exception to this rule - if you are a counter. Insurance appears to be an integral part of the game of blackjack, but in reality it is a simple prop bet. When the Dealer has an Ace face up, the bet comes into play. The Dealer will ask everyone if they want insurance. You can wager up to half of your base wager and you are paid 2 to 1 if the Dealer has blackjack. There are two possible results. The Dealer doesn't have blackjack, you lose your Insurance wager and the game continues on. The second option is the Dealer has blackjack, you lose your base wager (unless you also had blackjack) and you get paid on your Insurance wager the amount you lost on your base wager. In essence - you push overall. So, why is this a bad wager?
Well, there are 13 possible cards the face down card can be. Four result in you winning and nine result in you losing. But, you're paid only 2 to 1. This amounts to a payback of 12/13 - roughly 92+%. Now, this is the 'simple' math. In reality one of the losing cards is already exposed to you. You can also see at least your own 2 cards as well. Hence, the exception. If you know that more than 1/3 of the remaining cards in the deck are 10/Face, then you can make the wager. But, if you haven't been paying attention, you have to assume the deck is essentially random per normal distribution and you're looking at a 92% payback. Yes, even if you have a blackjack yourself and call 'even money' (which is the same as you making the Insurance wager). I understand the desire to make sure you win SOMETHING on your blackjack, but mathematically, you are hurting yourself to take even money if you haven't been counting cards.
Next, up - the Surrender rule. First, let's explain what this is for some of the novices. After the Dealer checks for blackjack (if it applies), the Player has the option to surrender half of his wager and throw in his hand. Not every casino allows this and quite frankly, I can't remember the last time I saw someone do it! This is half the reason I've never written about it. Player's don't like to surrender. We hate to give up. We hate folding. If you're in it, you still have a chance to win. All true and technically all against our own best interests.
But, not by much. Overall, the Surrender rule impacts the payback by LESS THAN 0.1% for a 6-deck game where the Dealer hits Soft 17. The impact is a little less when the Dealer stands on all 17's. First let's cover the math behind the strategy and then I'll talk about the strategy itself. When would you mathematically want to Surrender? When you surrender, you are losing half of you wager. The expected value is 0.5. So, you would want to surrender anytime NOT surrendering would on average cost us more than half of our original wager. This means that we only surrender when we are expected to win LESS than 25% of the time. If we win just 25% of the time, we will win back our original wager plus the winnings that 25% of the time for an expected value of the same 0.5.
Fortunately, this situation happens VERY infrequently in blackjack. Even the worst hands just barely fall below this line. A 16 vs. a Dealer 10 has an expected value of just over 0.46, so it should be surrendered, but you'll notice - not by much. In fact, in the most common version of blackjack in Las Vegas (6 Decks, Hit soft 17), there are only FOUR situations that are worthy of a Surrender. A 15 vs. a 10 and a 16 vs. a 9, 10 or Ace. That's it. In the Stand on all 17 version, there are 7 conditions under which you would Surrender. The four just mentioned, plus a 15 vs. an Ace, a 17 vs. an Ace and a Pair of 8's vs. an Ace. In the Hit Soft 17 version, the Pair of 8's vs. an Ace would still be a Split.
Now, 0.1% is not nothing and this is relatively easy strategy to remember. But, I'll still put it into an 'advanced' category in that if you are learning blackjack, it is far more important for you to learn when to Double and when to Split, not to mention when to Hit and Stick than when to Surrender. I see way too many people who have no idea when to Double on Soft hands and this can be just as costly, if not more so than knowing when to Surrender.