Table your Hunches


            Last week, I described how all casino game strategy is based on expected values.   You hit or stick in blackjack not because you hope the next card is of a certain value, but because there are certain probabilities as to what the next card will be and how it will affect your hand and your chances of winning or losing.   If you're dealt two face cards, you don't give much thought to strategy.  Hopefully, you're not one of those Players who even thinks about splitting 10's! 

            But, if you are dealt a 16 and the Dealer has a 7, you start giving thought to the strategy.  With a 16, you have 5 cards that will help you and 8 that will bust you.  The odds don't look to good and this is why a lot of people stick on this hand, albeit incorrectly.  You can stay put, but with a 16, the only way you can win is if the Dealer busts, which will happen only 26% of the time.  So, your choices are a 61% chance of busting right away or sticking and having a 74% chance of losing that way.  Of course, by hitting you also have an opportunity improve your hand.  All of the 5 possibilities improve your hand.  If you pick up an Ace, you'll be most likely to push.  Pick up a 5 and you'll win more than 92% of the time.  Don't get me wrong, it is not a strong hand and the decision to hit is not an overwhelming one, but it is still the right move.  In the simplest form, if you face this situation enough times - which you will if you play for a few hundred hours, you'll find that you do better by hitting than by sticking.

            In blackjack, you don't have to memorize all of the math behind the game.  You don't have to figure out how many cards will bust you or bust the Dealer.  To learn to play blackjack, many Players use a simple strategy table.  It is a simple little chart that shows every possible Player hand and each possible dealer upcard.  It then shows what to do - hit, stick, double, split, surrender, etc..  Guys like me have already done all the number crunching for you.

            Video poker is no different than blackjack except the decision making process is far more complex.  In blackjack, the result is essentially binary - you win or you lose (okay, you can tie also, so it is not really binary).  In video poker, you can have 1 of many results - ranging from a Royal Flush down to a High Pair or you can lose.  Since each of the different winning hands pays a different amount, the specific result must be taken into account.  If someone invented a game of video poker in which all hands above a certain rank paid a fixed amount, then we'd be able to lump all the hands into win or lose.  But, we need to know the probability of each final outcome with a different payout in order to appropriately determine the value of getting that hand.  Surely, it is more valuable to wind up with a Straight Flush than just a Straight.

            Video poker is also more complex than blackjack in that there is more than just a handful of different possibilities for each hand.  The Player can hold all 5 cards or discard all 5 cards or anything in between for 32 different possible plays.  Yes, most of these possibilities will be quickly discarded, but they still must be considered from a mathematical perspective.  They are only discarded because the human mind can quickly recognize possible draws that would clearly not be the best strategy. 

            Despite the extra complexity of video poker, the similarities are still stronger than the differences.  In the end the decision still comes down to the expected value.  Like in blackjack, you don't have sit there trying to figure out how many cards you need to complete a Straight or the like.  Again, guys like me have already done the job.  We have looked at every possible deal, every possible draw for every possible deal and summed up all of the final hands.  Using this distribution, each possible draw is assigned an expected value.  Whichever draw has the highest expected value is deemed the right play.  The last step in the process is too try and categorize the way each hand is played into a format that a human can use to play the hands.  We call this a strategy table.

            Unlike blackjack where the strategy is a matrix that crosses Player hands with Dealer hands and tells you what to do, a video poker strategy chart lists all the possible playable hands in order in a simple table.  The table usually contains the expected value of each hand too, but this is just for information.  To use the strategy table, you basically work from the top and find the first hand that your dealt hand can make and that is the way to play the hand.  So, if you are dealt a hand that is a 4-Card Straight and a Low Pair, you start at the top of the table and work downward.  If a 4-Card Straight appears first, you play that.  If a Low Pair appears first, you play the hand that way.  If you can't find any hand that matches the hand you were dealt, then you fall to the bottom of the table and find a RAZGU which means throw all five cards.


            Next week, we'll begin breaking down a strategy table for full-pay jacks or better.  You'll be on your way to becoming an Expert Player.

What is the Allure of Progressives


            There is a theory in physics that goes for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In gambling, there is a similar theory.  For every table game there will eventually be a sidebet.  And, for every sidebet there will be a Progressive version of the sidebet.  The math behind Progressives is probably the least understood math of any type of gambling.  It really isn't that hard once it is explained properly, but I've worked with a lot of inventors on a lot of Progressives, and it is fairly obvious to me that few people, even in the industry, understand how a Progressive works mathematically.

            Generally speaking there are 3 components of a sidebet - the fixed pays, the seed and the contribution rate.  Normally when we calculate the payback of a sidebet, we simply multiply the fixed pays by the frequency of each winning hand and sum up these values.  For a Progressive, we have to alter one step slightly and add one.  For the jackpot event, we use the seed amount as the equivalent of the fixed pay for that event.  Each time it is hit, the casino is on the hook to put that money back on the meter, so it is similar to a fixed pay in that regard.  We then need to add the contribution rate - which is the amount of each dollar wagered that goes on the meter - to the total payback calculated.    I'll save more details for another day, as this is not the point of today's column.  What is the point is to discuss how a Progressive differs from other wagers.

            While the top pay for most sidebets are pretty large, the amount they contribute to the overall payback is usually pretty small.  If you pay 1000 for a 1 in a million even, the contribution rate is a meager 0.1%.   In video poker the Royal Flush contributes only 2% to the payback of the game.  If we were to look at most table game sidebets, we'd probably find that most top pays contribute about 1-2% (or less) to the overall payback.  But, when we switch to a Progressive, we find that the top pay frequently contributes 15-20% to the payback when we take into account both the seed and contribution rate.  What does this mean for the Player?

            As I said, the Royal Flush accounts for 2% of the payback of video poker.  What this usually means is that until you hit one, you're only playing at about 97.5% which can be a bit rough.  When you hit one - and if you are a regular player, you WILL hit one, you bring the theoretical payback back to 99.5%.  Hit the Royal more frequently than 'normal' and you're likely up money as you will be above 100%.  With Progressives, it doesn't quite work the same way.  That top hand is either more rare or you'll be playing a game that deals much more slowly than video poker, meaning that there are no guarantees that you will EVER hit it.  So, even if the sidebet were paying 99.5% like video poker, ONE PLAYER is going to wind up winning 15-20% of that payback and everyone else will be playing at 77.5% - 82.5%. 

            When you consider the fact that many sidebets have paybacks far lower than 99.5%, you realize that the picture for those that don't hit the jackpot is even more bleak.  So, why do people play Progressives?  There are two main reasons.  One is a bit emotional and the other a bit more practical.

            First, Players have always been willing to accept low paybacks for a chance to win a life-changing amount of money.  The Lotto has made a lot of money for a lot of states.  Most states payout only 70% on their lotteries.  This is lower than the legal minimum of any casino game here in Nevada.  But, for the chance, however slim, of winning millions of dollars, Players are willing to throw a few dollars in for the hope of getting struck by lightning. 

            The second reason deals with the way Progressives work and makes far more mathematical sense.  To the casinos, the payback of a game is the long-term payback, which is calculated as I described earlier.  You'll note that what I described completely ignores the specific value on the meter at any point in time.   This money is merely an accumulation of the contribution rate over time.  It really doesn't matter to them (mathematically), if a jackpot that is supposed to hit about once a year, doesn't get hit for 3 years.  However, to the Player, the payback of ANY wager is dependent upon the specific payouts for each winning hand at the point in which you make the wager.  It doesn't really matter if the contribution rate is 10% of 20%.  If a Jackpot which is supposed to average $250,000, goes all the way up to $600,000 then the payback at that point in time is WELL above the theoretical payback. 


            It is possible that at a particular point in time that the payback of a wager could be over 100%.  At this point, it makes sense to play the game mathematically.  The problem is, however, that it will be one person that will benefit from this occurrence and it may not be you.  Then again, it might!

Frustration

            I consider myself to be a very competitive person.  Anybody who has ever played against me in a board game or on a sports field is pretty aware of this.   I play fair and hard.  I'll never cheat and don't throw tantrums.  But I really hate to lose.  So, you can only imagine what I feel like when I'm having 'one of those nights' while playing video poker.   Gambling isn't exactly the type of thing one does if they hate to lose.  Even if you're playing video poker or blackjack, games that are near 100%, you're still going to lose more than 50% of the time over short sessions.  Not a bad record if you're the Marlins, but I prefer to win, well, closer to 100% of the time.

            When I'm on the sports field, I have a significant amount of control in the outcome.  If I'm playing tennis, well, it is just about all on me.  If I'm playing softball, I can do my best to get on base when I'm at bat and make all the plays that come to me.  I can't help my right fielder catch the ball, however.  In this regard, gambling is more of a team sport than a single Player sport.  I'm an expert at just about any game in the casino that I will sit down to play.  So, I can make sure that I'll play each hand the way I should to maximize my overall payback.

            Unfortunately, luck still plays a significant portion of casino gambling (kind of like my right fielder catching the flyball?).  I can't control which hands I'm dealt.  In the long run, I know I will get my fair share of each type of hand.  In a given night, the difference between winning and losing is about getting your fair share of key hands.  You're not going to make money off of 4-Card Straights, so you don't usually keep track of how many you got. 

            When we look at the final paying hands of video poker, it should be no surprise that most of the payback comes from the bottom 3 hands.  Jacks or better gives us about 21-22% of our payback.  Two Pair gives us 26%, and Three of a Kind gives us another 20-21%.  This is almost 70% of a total of 99.5% payback.  Straights give us over 4%, Flushes over 6% and and Full Houses around 10%.  That brings us to 90%.   Four of a Kinds give us about 6%, Straight Flushes a mere 0.5% and Royal Flushes the remaining 2%. 

            The more common a hand is, the more likely no matter how weird your session is going that at the end of it, you're going to have very close to the number of those hand that you are supposed to.   So, if you play 3000 hands and the average shows that you should have about 650 High Pairs, you're not going to find out that you only had 500 of them.  Maybe you have 630 on a bad night and 670 on a good night, but you'll get very close to the 21-22% payback you are supposed to.

            On the other end of the spectrum is the Royal Flush.  If you play 3000 hands, you're well below the roughly 40,000 hands it takes to play to catch a Royal.  If you play a session and miss the Royal, you're inherently playing at 97.5%.  If you hit one then, well, you're assuredly playing well over 100%.   As a result, there really isn't a lot to discuss where the Royal is concerned.  It is literally hit or miss.  Straight Flushes simply don't add enough to the mix and are also so rare that you can't really look to them for a good or bad night.

            The critical hand is the Four of a Kinds.  Earlier I said that they make up 6% of the payback.  That is on a jacks or better game.  Move to Bonus or Double Bonus or Double Double Bonus and these number goes way up.   You win or lose in these games based on two key factors.  Do you get your fair share of Quads and which Quads do you get (when playing the bonus games)?   If you play 3000 hands, you can 'expect' to hit about 7 Four of a Kinds.  It would not be uncommon to play this many hands and get only 2 or 3.  If you have one of these nights, you're not likely to walk out a winner.  Quite frankly, you may not walk out with any of your bankroll left.  Fortunately, it is just as common to get 10 or 11 of them.  In these cases, you are very likely to walk out a winner.  If you're playing Double Double, you'll also want to hit some of the bonus Quads and/or the 'double' bonus quad with one of the kickers. 


            Playing the right strategy is, of course, a critical component of getting your fair share of Four of a Kinds.  But, the right strategy does only so much to make the 5th card in Quad 3's also be a 2, 4 or Ace.  Sometimes it just takes luck to have that good night.  Sometimes my right fielder actually catches the ball.  All I can do is hope.

Psychological Warfare - How they 'rig' slot machines


            A few years ago, I wrote a column about a story I read in The Economist magazine.  It described a study done testing the impact of near misses on a slot machine on the human brain.  What the researchers found out was that near misses generated almost an identical reaction in the brain as an actual win.  So, if bar-bar-plum (a loser) can make the Player feel almost as good as bar-bar-bar (as winner), all the manufacturers have to do is figure out how make near misses show up a lot and Players will feel like their winning almost all the time.  Fortunately, the regulations and the technology do not make this much of a challenge.  Slot machines can legally be programmed to generate a disproportionate number of near misses relative to what might be considered random.   So, while they might throw in some fruit salad once in a while as an ugly loser, most of your losses will appear to be 'oh so close' to winners.

            Now, a new study was released this week that says the bells and whistles used on slot machines makes the Player feel like he is winning even when he isn't.  The days of coins dropping out of the slot are virtually gone, so the casinos added sound effects to the machine.  When you used to hit a cherry and get 2 coins back and heard klink-klink, this was simply not the same as hearing 20 or 100 coins going klink-klink-klink.  But, in the digital age, no one says the sound effects has to mimic the actual win.  So, the casinos can have a simple 2-coin win sound a lot like a 10-coin win.   To prove the theory, the researchers had slot Players play with sound and without sound.  Those with sound had a stronger impression that they were winning, even when they weren't.

            While this latter concept can be used for video poker, it holds a little less water because in most varieties of video poker there is no such thing as winning but really losing.  While many hands in video poker result in a push - which may FEEL like winning because your original wager is returned (i.e. Jacks or Better), there is generally no hand that returns only a portion of your original wager.  With the new generation of slot machines it is not uncommon to wager dozens of coins.  Frequently, a 'win' will result in getting only a fraction of your wager back.  Did you really win?  If you wager 20 coins and get back 5, is this a win or a loss.  Admittedly, I am the first to argue that once you wager the money it is lost and any money you get back is a 'victory'.  This seems much more applicable to table games where you play 30-40 hands/hour rather than a slot or video poker machine where you can play hundreds of hands per hour and repeatedly wagering 20 and returning 5 can quickly wipe out your bankroll.

            So, what is a Player to do when faced with all of this psychological warfare used by the casinos?  Ironically, you have to use your own type of science against them.  The science of math.  Yes, with the exceptions of some varieties of video poker, the math says that in the long run you will lose.  I've written many times that you need to look at casino games as a form of entertainment.  The question is do you want your night of entertainment to cost $20-$40 or to cost $100-$200?  I'm guessing that you'll get a lot more value for your money if you spend less money.  Most of the games in the casino are built to allow the Player to win about a third of the time over a 3 hour session.  This assumes that you learn to play each game correctly and try to pick the right games/paytables to play. 
            While I strongly advocate for playing video poker, if you wind up playing a jacks or better that pays 6-5 (Full House/Flush), you'll be playing a game that has a payback below 96% and your chances of winning will decrease considerably.   In similar fashion, playing a full-pay game has limited value if you don't learn the right strategy.  Casinos rely on these two factors for games like video poker.  Slots have no strategy and inherently have lower paybacks, so they need to come up with ways to essentially fool the Player into thinking he is doing better than he actually is.  Video Poker doesn't need to create artificial near misses.  A deck of cards and a dealt hand do an amazing job of creating these in its natural random fashion. 


            To combat the near misses and the bells and whistles of the casino requires doing a little bit of homework to learn which games to play and to learn the right strategy for those games.    It requires some discipline to stick to those strategies and to seek out the right games.  Math can be your rock to the casino's 'psychological warfare' scissors.

The Nature of the Game


            My elder son has finished up his year in college and came home the other day.  As we do our best to keep him entertained while in Vegas, we went to the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana the other night.  Invariably, when comedians are in Las Vegas, they will tell jokes about the dry heat and about losing money while gambling.  I think I've been very honest about the odds of long-term winning while gambling.  With the rare exception of some tough to find video poker games and/or the ability to count in blackjack, you're simply not going to win in the long term.  But, this doesn't mean that you have to 'lose your shirt' either. 

            A few weeks ago, I showed how playing blackjack for an hour, a $5 Player should expect to lose only a little over $1/hour.  This, of course, assumes playing properly.  If you are too timid to double down on soft hands, or don't like splitting 2's looking into a 7, then, well, all bets are off as to what your payback will really be.  The comedian was hopefully joking when he talked about struggling to add up his cards while playing blackjack.  If you're really struggling with this, maybe you should try Casino War or Three Card Poker.

            In that same column where I talked about the average you can expect to lose while playing blackjack, I also spoke of the average you can expect to lose while playing full-pay jacks or better video poker.  As the two games have similar paybacks, the only real difference is the average amount you wager in an hour of each game.  Much to many Player's surprise, a max-coin quarter video poker actually wagers more in an hour than a $5 blackjack Player.  That said, however, the game of video poker is far more volatile and while the average loss rate by only be a couple of bucks an hour (depending on speed of play), actual results will wind up all over the place.  Blackjack is a much less volatile game and we will find that our actual results will really tend to be very close to the theoretical amount.

            To help illustrate this point, I ran 100,000 multi-hour sessions of blackjack, each consisting of 100 hands.  I then tabulated the amount won or lost, rounding to the nearest dollar.   First of all, the Player had a winning session nearly 46% of the time.  He lost 49% of the time, with the remainder being breaking even.  Around 32% of the time, the Player will wind up within $20 of his starting point, with only a slight slant towards the losing side.    He will wind up within $40 of his original bankroll more than 55% of the time.   He will wind up losing $100 or more only 5% of the time.  To be clear, this is NOT the same as saying that if he starts with $100, he will go 'bust' only 5% of the time.  The simulation I ran does NOT take into account a Player who may have at some point been down more than $100 and then came back to lose less than $100.  This will not be a huge number, but it will add to the total.

            I'm not downplaying the impact of losing $100.  This is not a small amount and could be considered to be a high cost for 2+ hours of entertainment.  At the same time, we are only talking about a 1 in 20 chance.  At the same time, the Player has a 4.4% chance of WINNING $100 or more.   That's why it is called gambling.

            But, the overall point is that the notion that everytime you gamble you're going to lose your shirt is simply not accurate.  If we assume that 'paying' up to $25 is a fair price for the 2-3 hours of entertainment value, then we find that the Player will meet this goal 62% of the time.  In fact of this 62%, he will actually wind up winning money nearly 75% of the time. 

            As stated earlier, this all assumes playing properly.  This tends to be what trips up Players far more often that the basic nature of the game.  Blackjack has a payback of about 99.5% when played properly.  Played improperly, the payback could drop dramatically,  If you drop it to 98%, which is still a respectable payback for most table games, this may not seem like a lot.  However, turned around, it means the casino advantage increases fourfold.  If I were to simulate such a strategy, we would find that the numbers are not so generous to the Player, and the likelihood of losing one's shirt will go up considerably.

            Thus, while the nature of the game it still one where the Player will lose in the long run, the Player can still greatly control (within reason), just how much will be lost by learning to play using the right strategy.

House Money Breaks the Mold



            As most of you know, I wear two hats in the gaming analysis world.  There are some that might see my two roles as being opposed to each other.  Quite frankly, at first, so did I.  Over the years, however, I realize that they are more complementary than anything else.  On one hand, I analyze games already created and write about them, with the goal being to educate the Player to become the best possible Player he can be.  On the other, I help invent games.  Some may think I do this using my knowledge of how Players act to create games designed to trip them up.  This simply is not the case.  Even when working with inventors, I do my best to steer the game in a direction that offers the highest paybacks possible.

            Let me be clear.  Games are created with a house edge.  If you consider that to be 'rigged', then there isn't much more to discuss.  No casino is going to purposefully put a game on the floor that has a Player edge.  The one and only exception, to the best of my knowledge, is video poker, where there still remains some full-pay machines that pay over 100%.  However, as most of these are at too low of a denomination to really do harm to the casino, they are content to let the very few profit at the expense of the overwhelming majority. 

            In the last several years, I have the pleasure of helping to develop Mississippi Stud and Ultimate Texas Hold'em.  These two games boast paybacks in the mid to high 98% range and up.  Part of the reason they are able to do this is because they require intricate strategy in order to achieve these theoretical paybacks.  This is also one of the reasons why video poker can offer such high paybacks.  To achieve these paybacks require that a Player play using a robust strategy that most Players do not bother to learn.  Slot machines in contrast offer absolutely no strategy.  As a result, the casinos cannot rely on human error for any part of their profits and they must offer lower paybacks.

            The same is true of sidebets for table games.  For the most part, it has pained me when I see the paybacks on sidebets.  It is not uncommon for them to be the mid 80% to low 90% range.  Some, go even lower into the high 70's.  Some sidebets, especially Progressives, offer huge payouts for the Player and so Players are willing to trade this low payback for the remote chance of the life-changing payout.  Like slot machines, casinos must offer these lower paybacks because the sidebets offer no strategy and they cannot rely on any human error to drive profits.  The problem with attempting to offer sidebets with strategy is that the strategy almost assuredly works against the basic strategy of the underlying game.  This is a 'no-no' because the combined payback will now be lower than the two separate paybacks AND it can require the Player to learn some new hybrid strategy that may be more trouble than it is worth.

            Less than a year ago, one sidebet broke this model completely.  I've written about it before, and I have to admit that it is the only sidebet that actually gets me excited.  On the one hand, it is definitely a sidebet.  On the other, it is almost an entirely new game within a game.  Yet, if a Player chooses not to play it, it does not impact the base game.  Quite frankly, even if he does choose to play it, it doesn't affect the base game.  But, it does require learning a strategy for the sidebet.  The game is called House Money , and it is a sidebet to blackjack.

            The game is really quite simple.  If you make the House Money sidebet, you will get paid if the first two cards you are dealt for blackjack are a Suited AK, a 2-Card Straight Flush, a Pair or a Straight.  This works out to be about 21.5% of the time.  The most common payouts are 9,4,3,1 respectively (although there are multiple paytables).   Now, the fun begins.  After you are paid for your sidebet, you have the option to take all of your winnings from your sidebet (which includes the original sidebet wager) and you can add it to your base blackjack wager.  This is AFTER you have seen your two cards and AFTER you have seen the Dealer's upcard.   So, if you're dealt a 10-J suited, you will win 4 to 1 for your sidebet.  Assuming you wagered $5, you will now have the right to take the entire $25 (the $20 you won plus the $5 sidebet wager) and add it to your base blackjack wager. 

            In the case of the 10-J you would ALWAYS want to do this.  The Dealer will check for blackjack prior to you making this additional wager, so you are not risking your winnings if the Dealer has blackjack.  Imagine have a $5 wager on the base game and $5 on the sidebet when dealt this hand.  Dealer turns a 7 up and then flips over a 10.  Your $5 sidebet becomes $25, which turns your base wager into a $30 wager.   When you win this, you just won $50 for being dealt a suited 10-J and winning the blackjack hand.

            One strange fact about House Money is that the payback of the sidebet actually goes UP with more decks.  This is because some of the winning hand are more frequent with more decks.  With 6 or 8 decks, House Money pays 97+% and it makes absolutely NO IMPACT to the base game of blackjack.   That said, it is imperative that you choose to let your winnings ride (i.e. cap your wager) at the right times AND that you play proper blackjack strategy.  If you are dealt a 5-6 against a 7 and choose not to cap your wager OR cap your wager but then 'chicken out' and not Double Down (which requires doubling the ENTIRE wager), then you will not achieve the 97+% payback.



            Below is a matrix that shows the proper strategy for House Money for 6 and 8 deck shoes when the Dealer hits a soft 17.  There are some minor modifications if you are playing with less shoes or if the Dealer sticks on all 17s.  As for basic blackjack strategy, you can find that almost anywhere on the internet or in a book on blackjack.


Hand
Dealer Upcard
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
A
A-2
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
2-3
N
N
N
N
Y
N
N
N
N
N
3-4
N
N
N
N
Y
N
N
N
N
N
4-5
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
5-6
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
6-7
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
7-8
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
8-9
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
N
9-10
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
10-J/J-Q/Q-K
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
K-A
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
2-2
N
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
3-3
N
N
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
N
4-4
N
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
5-5
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
6-6
N
N
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
N
7-7
N
N
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
N
8-8
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
N
9-9
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
N
N
N
10-10/JJ/QQ/KK
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
A-A
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y
Y - Cap the wager                   N - Take the winnings

            House Money can now be found in Las Vegas at the following casinos - The Cannery, Fiesta Las Vegas, Green Valley Ranch, Jerry's Nugget, Monte Carlo, Palace Station, The Palazzo, Santa Fe Las Vegas, Sunset Station, Texas Station and The Venetian.
            

Win Frequency Overrated



            Why does a good blackjack Player stick on bustable hands aginst a Dealer 6?  The quick answer is that with a 6 upcard, the Dealer is likely to bust.  Of course, this is not completely accurate.  The Dealer's bust rate with a 6 is 'only' 42%, which means 58% of the time, he won't bust.  So, first he is not 'likely' to bust.  He is just more likely to bust with a 6 than with any other card.  58% of the time, he will wind up with a 17 through 21 and will beat your hand.  So, why stick?  Well, we need to take into account how often the Player will bust if he takes a hit.  If the Player busts, it doesn't matter what the Dealer does.  This is all a wordy way of saying that the Player is more likely to win if he sticks than if he hits.  Or, in other words, his expected value is higher if sticks than if he hits.  Depending on his specific hand, it might be a relatively small difference between these expected values or it might be a big difference.  But, the difference doesn't matter.  The correct play is the one that has the highest expected value.  This is the key thing to learn for EVERY casino game.

            Blackjack is essentially a binary game.  You either win or lose your base wager.  With the exception of blackjacks itself and Doubles and Splits, the wager is a single unit and the outcome is either even money or the Player loses.  Thus, the critical factor becomes win frequency because for the most part, one win is worth as much as any other win.  In video poker, the outcomes are a bit more varied and thus the analysis is actually a good deal more complex.  If we define 'winning' as any hand that is Jacks or Better, that leaves us with a win frequency of 45% (roughly), but not all wins are created equal.  There are essentially 9 different levels of winning, ranging from Royal Flush down to a High Pair.  The payouts range from 800 for 1 down to a push (which is all you get paid when you have a High Pair). 

            This explains why when playing video poker the win frequency is not very relevant.  Take the following hand as an example:

8♣       9♣       10♣     Q♣      Q♥

            There are two ways to play this hand.  A Player can keep the pair of Queens and have a sure winner.  He'll still have a chance to improve to Two Pair, Trips, Full House or Quads.  But, his win frequency will be 100%.  His other choice is to go for the 4-Card Inside Straight Flush.  If he chooses to go this route, his win frequency will be around 30%.  Of the 47 draws, 8 will result in a Flush, 3 in a Straight, 2 in a High Pair and 1 as a Straight Flush.  The other 34 will result in a loss.  If you're motivated by win percentage, then the right play is to stick with the pair of Queens.  If you're motivated to use the proper strategy, you use expected value to guide you.  When the math is all done, we find that the 4-Card Inside Straight Flush has an expected value of 2.39.  The Pair of Queens has an expected value of 1.54.  It's not really much of a choice.  The 4-Card Inside Straight Flush is by far the superior play.

            Decisions for casino games are made based on the criteria of expected value.  This is not a concept unique to any particular game.  The same methodology that developed blackjack strategy is essentially the same one used for video poker or Three Card Poker or Ultimate Texas Hold'em.  Some of the toughest decisions are of the type I just described where the Player might have to give up a sure winner to go for a hand that in the long run will pay more, but will have a significantly lower win frequency.  The example I gave here is probably not all that hard to follow.  Since the sure win is only a single unit, it won't feel like you are giving up much.  

            But, you may have to make a similar decision if you are dealt a Flush that is also a 4-Card Royal.  If you're playing max-coin quarters, you'll be giving up a sure $7.50 to go for that big payout of $1000.   IF you're a dollar player, you'll be risking $30 to win $4000.  Definitely worth it, but it might just be a little harder to walk away from that sure $30.

The Cheap Cost of Entertainment



            I received an e-mail this week from a loyal reader who was questioning some of the numbers from my recent column.  The column was discussing the definition of payback and had the amount of the buy-in is irrelevant to the discussion of the payback.  The example I cited was discussing someone who sat down to play 100 hands of $5 blackjack.  With a payback of 99.5%, a Player can expect to lose $2.80.  The point of the column was to discuss how this $2.80 will not change no matter how much the Player buys in for.  If he buys in for $20 or $100 he will still lose the same $2.80.  All that changes is the percent of the Player's bankroll that he will lose.  The $2.80 is a fixed amount.

            My reader questioned this calculation.  Not so much for its pure math, but because I 'ignored' the situation where the Player might lose his first 4 hands be 'bankrupt.'  My reader is quite correct.  The situation I described ignored the numerous circumstances in which the Player will actually lose his entire buy-in before reaching 100 hands.  With a buy-in of only $20, this is fairly likely to occur.  Roughly 1 in 16 times, he will lose the first 4 hands and be done right then and there.  This doesn't even include the times he may double or split in the first couple of hands and go broke before even 4 hands. 

            That said, this was not really the purpose behind my calculation.  Since the point was to show how the expected loss rate does not change based on the buy-in, I could have just as easily used a $100 and $500 buy-in in my examples.  With a $100 buy-in, it is far less likely that the Player will go broke before 100 hands.  However, my reader does bring up a very, very important point about the importance of being properly bankrolled for any game.  The amount will vary greatly from game to game, mostly dependent on the volatility of the game.  Blackjack is a relatively low volatility game so $100 would be good enough most of the time.

            The second part that the reader questioned was my math regarding the anticipated loss while playing 1000 hands of full-pay jacks or better video poker at max-coin quarters.  I said that it would be $6.25.  My reader wished that his expected loss was only $6.25 and that this would make it 'cheap entertainment'.  Well, I stand by this number.  On a max-coin machine, the Player will wager $1.25 per hand.  Over 1000 hands, he will wager $1250.  A full-pay jacks or better machine pays about 99.5%.  Losing just 0.5% of his total wager brings us back to $6.25.

            Of course, this is the long term average.  Unlike blackjack, video poker has a much higher volatility.  Blackjack is a lot like a coin toss.  You win about half the hands.  You lose about half the hands.  Except for actual blackjacks, splits and double downs, all  payouts are even money to the original wager.  There tends not to be huge swings in how you will do.  After 1000 hands, you'd probably be very close to the theoretical 99.5% for blackjack. 

            Video poker is quite different.  You 'win' about 45% of your hands, but an overwhelming majority of these are really pushes (High Pair).  The rest of the payouts range from even money all the way up to 800 for 1 for a Royal Flush.  That Royal accounts for about 2% of the total payback.  This means that until you hit the Royal, you're only playing a 97.5% game which means the loss rate over 1000 hands would be closer to $20.  Eventually, you will hit that Royal and for that 1000 hands, you will have a significant win.  When you add up the TOTAL amount you wager and multiply it by 0.5% (the loss rate), the total amount you've lost should be very close to this number.  At the same time, if you hit more Royals than 'average', you'll probably be up significantly.  If you hit less than average, your loss rate is likely to be quite a bit more.

            When we tie together the two thoughts that my reader brought to me, we realize the importance of being properly bankrolled when playing video poker.  Given the volatility of the game, it becomes even more important to make sure you are in the game until you get to one of the big hands.  In jacks or better, this mostly means the Royal.  In double double bonus video poker, you have the luxury of a few of the Quad payouts AND the Royal. 

            I had an opportunity to experience this first hand twice this past week.  I ventured out on 2 separate occasions to play video poker.  In one case, I was down about $40-$50 when I hit two solid hands and came all the way back and left even.  In the other case, I hung around even most of the night.  I was down about $5 when I hit I was dealt 3 Aces on a five-play double double machines.  Short of being dealt quads, this is about all you can hope for.  Now all you have to do is hit the Quads.  On the fifth hand, I was dealt an Ace and a 3.  Not only did I hit the 4 Aces, I hit the bonus 4 Aces.  About 5 hands later, I left up with a nice victory.  In the case of my first night, if I had brought only $40 with me, my bankroll would've been gone and I never would've made it to the big hands.  Also, if I weren't using proper strategy, my losses up to that point would have been that much larger, and even a $60 or $80 bankroll might not have lasted as long as it needed to.

            Proper strategy and proper bankrolling are keys to achieving the theoretical paybacks of a casino game.  In turn, this is what can lead you have 'only' that much of an expected loss rate and get a cheap night of entertainment.

Customer Power


            There were two different articles that appeared today that on the surface appeared only marginally related.  Yet, to someone like me, I found that they were far more important to one another than meets the eye.  The first article discussed the upcoming building boom here in Las Vegas.  Several major casino building projects are in the planning stages and Las Vegas may, in a few years, welcome its first major new casinos in several years.  One of the sub-plots of this article was some local columnists discussing what they felt was needed to build a perfect casino.

            In reading these suggestions, I can't say that I have a lot of hope that many (any?) of them would be implemented.  One of the suggestions dealt with the idea of putting the attractions near the front of the casino and the casino way in the back.  Another dealt with moving the restaurants closer to the self-parking garages.  Yet another suggested that casinos go smoke-free (I'm all for this one!).  The one that got my attention was the one that requested that casinos do away with blackjack that pays only 6 to 5 (instead of the traditional 3 to 2).  This one also mentioned better paying slots, but the focus was on blackjack.

            For those who have read my column over the years, you know I'm all for 3 to 2 blackjack and do my best to warn people about playing 6 to 5.  Roughly, 1 in 21 hands will be a blackajck.  That's about 2 hands per hour.  If you're a $5 player, this will cost you about $3/hour.  This may not seem like a lot, but it will increase your loss rate by about 300%!  A 99.5% game quickly becomes a 98% game and now you're playing a game that requires a great deal of strategy with a payback that is in the same range as many of the table games with little strategy.

            That brings me to the 2nd article I read today.  It talked about how gaming revenue in Las Vegas was WAY UP compared to last year, for the month of February.  A significant portion of this was due to the Chinese New Year occurring in February of this year vs. January of last year.  But, even when this is accounted for, revenue was still up.  Revenue on the strip was up even more than the rest of the city.  It is on the strip that we find virtually all of the 6 to 5 blackjack tables.

            6 to 5 blackjack was created because over time blackjack Players were getting better and better and the hold at blackjack tables was dropping.  Casinos have a lot of overhead to cover - from Dealer salaries to the massive electricity bills.  While every business should run efficiently, this is not exactly the case of they should keep the customer happy at all costs even if it means eking out a small profit.  Casinos are expected to make huge profits at the tables and slots to help offset many of the things they provide at low cost or free.  I have no idea what the cost is to present the pirate ship battle at the Treasure Island, but they've been doing for about 20 years for free every night.  The money to do these performances comes from the gambling side of things.

            So, the casino decided to come up with a way to greatly increase the house edge on blackjack.  They could have tweaked the rules a bit - use larger shoes, limit when the Player can double, etc..  But, these have limited practical impact to the house edge.  One of the most common Player errors is not doubling on soft hands when they should.  So, eliminating this as an option doesn't really help the casino at all.  So, they chose to pay blackjack at 6 to 5 and take a bit out of the bankroll of the good and bad player alike.

            Now, if you've been going to a buffet on the strip that give you free drinks included with the price of the buffet and all of a sudden they tell you that they're going to start charging you for your sodas, you might think twice about where to eat.  Yet, for some reason, paying 6 to 5 didn't have much of an impact to the amount of money people wagered on blackjack. 

            However, if we look at the report about Las Vegas gaming revenue for February, we find that the biggest spike occurred on the Strip.  If you head out to the casinos in the 'suburbs' where you find more local Players, you'll find almost NO 6 to 5 blackjack.  Local players tend to be better players (or they don't stay local very long) and the better player knows that playing 6 to 5 blackjack is very hard on your wallet.   You need to learn a complex strategy just to be able to earn a 98% payback?  A Player can sit and play a relatively simple game like Three Card Poker and earn the same payback and have a chance for a larger single payoff (with Trips of a 3-Card Straight Flush).  And, if you're not an accomplished blackjack Player, your real payback could easily drop to 95-96% which leaves a Player with very little chance of having a winning session.

            But, if nobody complains about having to pay for the soda, AND they have the same number of customers this month as they did last month (or more!), then there is little reason for the casino to go back and give out free drinks at the buffet.  This is even more true at the tables.  If a Player is just going to sit and take his 6 to 5 payout with little regard to the impact to his wallet, who can blame the casinos for making this their basic offering.

Make the Switch to Blackjack Switch



           
            Over the years, numerous inventors have attempted to tinker with the game of Blackjack.  I warn them to tread very carefully when doing this.  Of all the games in the casino, blackjack strategy has probably become the best learnt strategy.  With the proliferation of computer generated strategies, you see far less splitting of 10's/faces and far less awful choices by the average Player.  You'll still occasionally find the novice who isn't happy until their own hand is 17 or better, even if that means busting it, but you'll now get a collective groan out of the remaining Players instead of several following suit.

            This is where the trouble started for creating a blackjack variant.  Players knew that original Blackjack had a payback of 99.5% (give or take) and they had learned the strategy fairly well.  When someone created some form of blackjack with a twist, they guessed it meant a lower payback (otherwise, why would the casinos offer it?) and it meant a new strategy.  Just like in video poker, if you don't adapt your strategy for the rules of the game, you can't earn the top payback. 

            So, once in a while a new game would hit the floor, Players would give it a try, but, without the right strategy, the theory on payback turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy - and the Player invariably lost more playing the new version than the original.  The new game might have been a bit more exciting than Blackjack, but not enough to overcome the extra losses the Player had to endure.

            As well all know, over the years a few blackjack variants have stuck.  Spanish 21 is likely the most successful of these variants.  It removes the 10's (not the face cards) from the deck.  As this hurts the Players, it returns this missing payback to the Player by offering more liberal rules and some bonus payouts for some novel hands.  This added more excitement to the game and offered the Player some opportunities for something other than mostly even money payouts.   While Spanish 21 is past its prime, it continues to boast a significant presence in the casinos.   It's payback is actually quite comparable to blackjack, but the need to learn a new strategy has kept the casinos happy by having Player error contribute to the hold of the game.

            More recently, Blackjack Switch has also entered the market.  It has roughly 100 tables in the marketplace.  Blackjack Switch uses a unique method to alter the game.  If the Dealer busts with a 22, all Player non-busted hands (except a natural Blackjack) are a push.  This costs the Player several percentage points.  But, to make up for this, Blackjack Switch allows the Player to 'switch' the 2nd card dealt in each of his two hands.  So, if dealt a 5-10 and a 10-6, the 10 and 6 can be swapped to turn the hands into an 11 and a 20.  From two stiffs to two strong hands.  The payback again is comparable to regular blackjack, albeit you must play two hands at a time.

            Blackjack Switch requires not only learning the strategy for the 'Push 22' rule, but you must also learn when to switch cards.  Much of the time it will be fairly obvious as in my earlier example.  In others, less so.  Imagine being dealt a 10-7 and an 8-10 vs a Dealer face card.  What is the right play?  You have two pat hands or you can 'switch' and have a total bust (15) and one strong hand (20).  When we look at the expected values of each of these hands, there is not much of a choice.  17's and 18's against a Dealer 10 are sitting ducks in any blackjack game.  We do the swap and the combined expected value of our hands goes from 1.3 to 1.97.  If you never switched cards, you'd take a 7-8% hit in payback.  No one would ever (hopefully) play this bad, but if you go by the seat of your pants, you're likely to take a 2-3% hit.  Throw in not knowing how to alter your strategy for the Push 22 rule and you could easily take Switch down to a 97% payback from its 99.5+% payback.
           
            Just like in video poker, there is a simple solution for this.  LEARN THE STRATEGY.  To help you with this, my booklet Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch comes with a full-color pocket-sized strategy card that you can bring with you into the casino.  One side has the expected values for every hand to help you decide when to switch.  The other contains the hit/stick strategy for Push 22.  The retail price is $6.95 for the booklet and the card, but for a limited time, I'll offer them to GT readers for only $5.95.  You can also order ADDITIONAL strategy cards for $1.00 each.  If you would like to order, please send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133.
             

It's YOUR Money



            Over the years, I have frequently written about the value of comps.  Comps generally come in two different versions.  One is cash back.  The casino returns a percent of the total amount wagered in the form of additional play.  They do this because the odds are that any Player who plays that much is likely to play the additional money more than a minimal amount and will in the long run lose that money back to the casino, along with more of his own money.

            A second type of comp is that the Player can earn free items, meals or entertainment.  Sometimes, these may be earned on top of cash back and sometimes they are instead of cash back, meaning that a Player can essentially use his cash back to 'buy' something else. 

            Since both of the aforementioned comps are based on the amount a Player plays, you can really look at this as a form of rebate and that in many ways the Player has actually paid for these items.  There is another form of 'comp' which is an entirely different category.  This would be 'free play' that the casinos send out.  While there may be some correlation between how much they give each Player and his actual play, this is not a direct mathematical computation.  Casinos may throw a Player $5 or $10 or $20 just to entice you to come into the casino. 

            The question now is what you choose to do with these 'free plays'.  Unlike 'match plays', they do not require that you put up ANY of you own money.  A 'match play' coupon will pay you an extra $5 when you wager at least $5 on an even money wager (i.e. a hand of blackjack).  This still requires you to wager your own $5.  It is a great play if you are a good (or at least decent) Blackjack Player.  You'll win $10 if you win and lose $5 if you lose.  Again, the hope is that the Player will play the match play coupon and then stay and play for a while.  If you're planning on playing anyhow, that is fine.  If, however, you are not a knowledgeable Player and wind up sitting for an hour at a game that you don't know, the casino will more than get its $5 back.  Also, a match play coupon is generally only worth about half of its face value.  The coupon is surrendered whether the Player wins or loses.  Since most even money wagers are approximately a 50-50 shot, the Player will win about half of the time and lose half the time.  So, a $5 coupon will only be paid out half the time, making its value $2.50.

            That brings us back to the free play coupons.  While the mechanics of a free play coupon work differently in different casinos, the basics are the same.  You get a certain amount of money to play on a slot machine or video poker machine.  This money must be played at least once through the machine.  So, if given $5, the casino doesn't care if you play $1, quarters or nickels.   You can Play 100 nickels or 20 quarters.  You can play one at a time or max-coin.  Now, if you choose to play one round of video poker at max-coin $1, you'll play one hand.  For most games of video poker, the Player will 'win' about 45% of the time.  This means that 55% of the time, your $5 will result in absolutely nothing.   Another significant portion of the time, you'll wind up with a High Pair and you'll get to keep exactly $5.  The remaining times you'll win anywhere from 2 to 800 per unit and have a rather nice win.  If you had an unlimited number of these free plays, it wouldn't matter much how you choose to play.  But since you get only one of these every so often, it is my opinion that your goal should be to turn the free play into cash which then puts all the choices in your hand.   Unlike the match play, proper use of free play can result in the return of 95-100%+ of the face value most of the time.  Assuming identical paytables, I try to play the lowest denomination available, which allows for the most hands.  The more hands, the more likely you will approach the theoretical payback.  Thus, playing $10 on a 98.6% machine will on average result in a return of $9.86.

            If you are disciplined, at no time are you putting your own money at risk.  Thus, even if you are a bad video poker Player and play the same game at 94%, you should still expect to come out with $9.40 of the $10.00.  Not a bad deal.  I know some of you won't believe to hear me say this, but you'd be better of playing the money through Slots than not using it at all - again, assuming you are disciplined and don't keep playing the money until you lose it and then put more of your own money in.

            A friend of mine recently told me that every time he goes to Reno on a business trip, he stays in a casino that gives him some amount of money in 'free play'.  It doesn't expire for a year and in the past 12 months, he has amassed $400-$500 in 'free play'.  I asked him how come he doesn't play and his response was that he doesn't know how to play video poker and he knows that Slots are not a good play.  I did give him a copy of both "Winning Strategies for Video Poker" and "Video Poker: America's National Game of Chance" to help him along.  But, I also told him that it didn't matter how bad he played.  Even a basic understanding of Poker could probably earn him a 90-95% payback on a jacks or better video poker machine which means he should win back at least a few hundred dollars.  Better in his pocket than the casinos!


New Games at Global Gaming Expo from SHFL



            It is hard to believe that a year has gone by since the last Global Gaming Expo.  Last year, I previewed three games that were on display - Cincinnati Stud, Six Card Poker and Money Market.  To date, one of those (Six Card Poker) has had some success while the other two continue to try and make inroads into the casino.  As I've written many times, no one can guarantee the success of a game.  It is far easier to predict failure.  This is because some attributes of a game are likely to result in the game failing and because 99+% of all games developed fail.

            Because of the extensive analysis and development work that I do with Shuffle Master, I often get to provide a preview of their games to Gaming Today readers.  This year is no different.  I have been told that Shuffle Master will be showcasing both existing successful games, such as Ultimate Texas Hold'em and Mississippi Stud and some very new games like House Money (both Blackjack and Baccarat versions), 6-Card Fortune Pai Gow, Raise It Up, Straight Jack Progressive, Face Up Stud Poker and Free bet Blackjack.  I can't cover all of these games in detail in this column, but I'll do my best to give a little synopsis of each. 

House Money -  I've written about this game twice in the past few months.  Obviously, I'm not the only one who thinks this game is a winner.  This week, House Money Blackjack won an award as the Best Table Game Product or Innovation as determined by Global Gaming Business magazine.   It is a very simple blackjack sidebet, but with a twist.  If you are dealt a Pair, a 2-Card Straight or a 2-Card Straight Flush, you win.  Now you have the option to add your winnings to your base blackjack wager.  So, if you're dealt a Pair of 10's looking into a Dealer 6, you can add your winnings to your base wager and take home even more money.  A similar concept has been developed for Baccarat, but here you win if the Player or the Banker hand is dealt a Pair, and even more if both are dealt Pairs.  You may then take your winnings and place it on the Banker or Player hand  - your choice - regardless of how you played your original wager.  So, if you originally bet Player and the Banker is dealt a Pair of 9's and the Player is dealt a Pair of Jacks, you can STILL take your winnings and put in on the Banker hand - which has already won the hand!

6-Card Fortune Pai Gow -  Have you ever found the House Way to be confusing at Pai Gow?  Well, those days are gone.  In this version of the popular game, the Player and the Dealer each get 6 cards to make a 5-card hand and a 1-card hand.  The Dealer CANNOT break apart any sets (i.e. Pairs, Trips) unless he has 2 Three of a Kinds, a Straight, a Flush or a Straight Flush.  Also, the Player does not LOSE all 1-card hand ties with the house.  It is Pai Gow but even simpler.

Straight Jack Progressive -  This is another blackjack sidebet, but with a Progressive payout.  If your first 2-cards form a 2-card Straight, you win.  You win more if your third card continues the Straight.  If you get dealt a 6-card Straight (A-2-3-4-5-6) you can win a jackpot.  If at any point, your 'hit' card causes the Straight to end, you still win for the longest straight you were dealt, even if the hit card causes you to bust (but the bust card CANNOT extend the Straight).

Free Bet Blackjack-  A new version of blackjack that utilizes the Push 22 rule from Blackjack Switch.  Here you have the opportunity to get certain splits and double downs for free (no additional wagers required to play them). 

Raise It Up - A little like Let It Ride with some Ultimate Texas Hold'em sprinkled in.  This is a 6-card poker paytable game.  You combine your 3 cards with three community cards.  You're not playing against the Dealer, only a paytable.  You win with a Pair of 10's or better.

Face Up Stud Poker - A whole new concept for a table game.  You get to see the ENTIRE hand of the Dealer, but only a portion of your own.  Based on your partial hand, do you think you can beat the Dealer's hand?  If he's got a weak hand, the chances are far greater, so the payout is lower.  If you can beat a strong hand, you can win a lot of money on a single hand - 8 to 1 for beating Trips; 50 to 1 for beating a Flush, etc...

If you make it to the show, I strongly suggest you stop by the Shuffle Master booth and give these games a try.  I find the only way to get a good sense of a game is to sit and play a dozen or two hands.  I'm looking forward to playing these and also wandering around the rest of the Sands Convention Center in search of the next big casino game - almost sounds like a reality tv show, doesn't it?   If you see anything that you find interesting, shoot me an e-mail at elliot@gambatria.com and let me know where I can find it. 

It is not about the Medium


            I don't think there is a game in the casino more misunderstood than video poker.  Even in the days when slots were mechanical, most people considered video poker to just be another slot machine, but one with a computer screen.  I think many people just think that it was too hard to create a mechanical machine using cards, so they digitized it all, but it still plays like a slot machine - all because the hardware looks roughly the same.  It is NOT the hardware that makes the game.

            This past week, I met a gentleman who told me he likes to play keno slots.  I have to be honest and say I had no idea what he was talking about.  He explained that he picks a certain amount of numbers from 1 to 80 and then the machine picks 20 numbers and he gets paid if the 20 picked includes at least some amount of the ones he picked.  I politely looked at him and said there is nothing 'slots' about what he just described.  He simply was playing keno in video version (hence it is called 'video keno').  He was playing the EXACT same game as if he was playing in a keno parlor marking the little pieces of paper and handing them to the scantily clad woman.  Ironically, the video version of keno tends to pay higher than the old fashioned version because the Player can play far more hands per hour.  I explained to this man that the machine pulls 20 completely random numbers and throws them onto the board.  It does NOT decide ahead of time that you will hit 3 of the 8 you marked and then decide which numbers to pull to make that happen.

            This is in essence the very difference between a slot machine and a video keno machine or a video poker machine or a video blackjack machine.  In the latter three games, the machine uses a random number generator to decide which card to deal or which ball to draw.  You win or lose based on the specific cards/balls it randomly draws.  In a slot machine, the machine first determines whether your will win or lose.  If you are to win, it will decide how much you will win and set the symbols in the appropriate fashion.  If you are to lose, it will decide exactly which symbols to show you - always a losing combination - but potentially set up to make you feel like you almost won. 

            Over the years, when I've been asked what I do for a living and explain that I analyze casino games, a frequent follow up question is if I do it for live games or electronic games.  Since the majority of my work is in table games my response is usually just that, but I tell them it really doesn't matter what medium the game is in.  As long as the game is using essentially a random deck of cards (or ping pong balls) where each card has an equal chance of appearing, it does not matter if you are playing a game with a real life dealer, at a casino on an electronic multi-player table, on a stand-alone machine in the casino or playing at home on some software.

            Video blackjack has existed for years in the casino.  They were not always easy to find, but many Players relished the idea of playing for only $1 per hand and having the same experience (well, mathematically) as playing at a live table.  I would certainly understand those that feel that playing on your own machine is not as sociable as playing at a table, but that's not a mathematical difference. 

            In the past few years, many casinos have added multi-player electronic versions of popular table games (i.e. Shuffle Master's TableMaster games).  These games play identically to the live games.  There are times when for one reason or another the casino chooses to employ different paytables, but the probabilities of winning a hand or losing a hand or being dealt a particular hand remains the same.  Any changes to the payback as a result of paytable changes cannot be sneaked past the Player.  These payouts must all be visible on the machine.   Because the digital cards are as random as real cards, we can always calculate the exact payback of any of these games based on the paytable. 

            While the name "Slot machines" presumably comes from the different slots the wheels are in (well, were in when they were mechanical), and there is a little bit of similarity in the notion that video poker cards are in 'slots' in the machine as well, this is where the similarity ends.  The critical difference between games like video poker and slots is that in video poker your cards are determined randomly and you win or lose based on the pattern of these cards.  With slots, whether your win or lose is determined by the machine and then you are presented with symbols to match the pre-determined outcome.   Slots could never be replicated on a live table, but games like video poker, video keno and video blackjack are (or could be).

House Money Strategy



            A few weeks ago, I discussed a new game that was about to be released called House Money.  Just before the article went to print, I found out that due to a technical snafu, the game did NOT go live in the casino I mentioned in that article.  But, in the ensuing weeks, it has gone live in four casinos (Cannery in LV, Drift on Inn and Great American Casino in Washington and Pala Casino in California) for a total of eight tables.

            As a quick refresher, House Money is a sidebet for blackjack.  On the surface it seems very simplistic.  You make the optional sidebet wager before the hand is dealt.  If you are dealt a 2-Card Straight Flush, a Straight or a Pair, you win.  What makes House Money stand out is what happens next.  You can either just take you winnings and play your blackjack game as normal OR you can take all those winnings and add them to your base blackjack wager.  It then becomes a part of your wager just as if you made it before the hand was dealt.  If you double, you must match the entire wager (unless the casino allows doubling for less).  If you split the hand, you must match the entire wager and be prepared for additional splits and/or doubling.

            Some decisions are rather easy.  If you're dealt a suited K-A (or even an off-suit K-A), there is not much to think about.  You take your winnings and cap your base bet.  If the Dealer has blackjack, no big deal, it all pushes and it is as if you took your winnings in the first place.  If the Dealer DOESN'T have blackjack, then you'll win 3 to 2 for the ENTIRE wager!

            Other decisions will be almost as easy.  If you're dealt a Pair of 10's or Face Cards, you'll always cap your base blackjack bet.  The Dealer will check for blackjack first, so you don't have to worry about losing your sidebet winnings that way.   Sometimes, the decision NOT to cap your wager will be rather easy too.  If you're dealt a 6-7 looking into a 10, you'll gladly take your winnings and know that whatever happens in the base game, the hand can't be an overall loser.

            There are two strategy problems that you are going to come across.  The first are the hands in which the strategy is less obvious.  For example, it may be no surprise that we cap the wager with a 9-10 against a 2 through 8.  But, we also do it against a 9 through Ace.  Yes, you're going to lose some of the hands against a 10 with a 19 but the odds are still in your favor.  It may also be difficult for you to cap your base blackjack wager when you have a 4-5 against an 8.  Yes, you are likely to draw a 10, but there will be times you draw a 6 and are stuck with a 15 against that 8.  You'll have to have the courage to risk busting the hand even with a wager that might be 3-10 times larger than your normal wager!

            The second strategy issue is going to be the double down and even more so, the potential split hands.   If you are dealt a 5-6, you must be ready to cap your base wager and then double the entire amount in order to maximize the payback of the sidebet.   So, if you are a $5 player and you put $5 on the sidebet and are dealt a suited 5-6, you'll win $20 on the sidebet and have $25 to add to your base wager.  You're now a $30 blackjack Player and you have to be ready to put down another $30 in these cases.

            In similar fashion, if you are dealt a Pair of 8's, you cap your base wager against a 2 through 7, which is probably no surprise.  With the Pair of 8's, you'll win $15 on the sidebet and have $20 to add to the base wager, making you a $25 Player.  Now, you have to split those 8's and be ready for the possibility of being dealt a 2, 3 or 8 leaving you with $25 double downs or splits.  You can quickly have $100 on the table.

            But, as the guy who did the math for Shuffle Master for this game, I can tell you that if you want to have a shot at earning the 98.3% payback from the sidebet, you're going to have not only cap your bet at the right times, but once you do, you must play blackjack using standard strategy.  One of the incredible features of House Money is that while it has its own strategy, it does not change basic Blackjack Strategy one bit!

            If you are interested in learning the complete strategy for House Money, I have created a simple 8 1/2" x 11" tipsheet that shows you when to cap your wager and when to take the money.  It is valid for all shoe sizes.  Eventually, I hope to shrink it down to a pocket-sized strategy card that you can bring with you to the casino, but for now, this will have to do.  If you are interested in ordering it, please send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89134.

Playing with House Money



            Over the years, there have been numerous successful sidebets to blackjack.  Many people have wondered why blackjack Players would bother with a sidebet.  A good blackjack Player can play the game at 99.5%, so why would they want to play a sidebet that might pay anywhere from 75%-90%.  That would seem to defeat the purpose of playing a game with such a narrow house edge. 

            I think the success of blackjack sidebets lie in the volatility of them.  Blackjack is essentially a game of coin tosses.  You win one, you lose one.  You win two, you lose three, you win two more.   It is hard to make a real killing (or get killed) on anyone hand unless you have one of those cases where you split 8's, draw another 8 and then a bunch of 2's and 3's for Double Down situation.   The average wager at a blackjack table is a mere 1.15 (roughly) units.

            The sidebet on the other hand will frequently afford the Player the opportunity to win big on a single hand.  The more frequent payoffs might pay 4 to 1 or even 10 to 1.  The more rare winning hands might pay 100 to 1 or 1000 to 1.  A $5 wager can quickly (so to speak) become $500 or $5000.    The tradeoff for this opportunity is generally the lower paybacks associated with no strategy sidebets.  The casinos can't offer 97-98% paybacks for games with no strategy because they can't rely on human error to help drive the casino edge.

            A couple of months ago, Roger Snow, Chief Product Officer at Shuffle Master brought a game idea to me to analyze.  As is frequently the case when we work together, the game went through multiple iterations before we arrived at the final product.  After we 'ran the numbers', I think Roger liked it but didn't love it.  I, on the other hand, told him I thought we had just come up with a nearly perfect sidebet for blackjack.  It was given the name House Money for reasons which will soon become clear.

            As far as I know, it is the first and only blackjack sidebet that has strategy, yet somehow does not affect base blackjack strategy at all.  As a result, if a Player chooses not to play the sidebet, he gives up nothing to the house by sitting at a table that offers it. Also, the casinos are able to offer a sidebet with a payback in the 95+% range because there is the possibility of human error in the strategy.  With all this, the concept of the sidebet is quite simple.

The Player makes a wager before being dealt his blackjack hand.  The Dealer deals the cards as per normal blackjack rules.  If the Player is dealt a Pair, a Straight or a Straight Flush, he wins.  As always, there may be multiple paytables over time, but for now, this is the most common one for a 2, 6 or 8-deck game:



Hand
Pays (TO 1)*
Suited A-K
9
2-Card Straight Flush
4
Pair
3
2-Card Straight
1
            Those payouts may not look all that spectacular.  In all honesty, they are not.  If the game ended right here, the payback would only be about 75% and this would just be another 'nothing special' blackjack sidebet.  But, the game does not end here.  The Player now has two options:

·         Take his winnings and play out his blackjack end per usual
·         Add any/all of his winnings to his base blackjack wager and then play out his hand per usual

            There are NO restrictions on these rules.  If the Player is dealt a Suited A-K, he will be paid 9 to 1 for his sidebet and then can add the entire 10 units to his base Blackjack wager which has ZERO chance of losing.  And YES, the casino will pay 3 to 2 for this additional wagered amount if the Dealer does not also have a Blackjack.

            If the Player is dealt a Pair of Jacks, he will be paid 3 to 1 for the sidebet.  If the Dealer has a 6 up, he can add all 4 units to the blackjack wager.  If the Dealer has a 10 up, he can choose to do so too, but here's where the strategy part comes in.  Is this the right move?  In reality, it is the correct move.  I should add that if the Dealer has Blackjack, the Player NEVER risks his winnings from the sidebet.

            The real fun begins when the Player is dealt a 5-6 (or 5-6 suited) and wins even money (or 4 to 1) and has to decide whether to risk his winnings on his base blackjack wager.  If the Player chooses to do so, it becomes a part of his wager in every sense of the word.  If he decides to double down, he MUST match the ENTIRE wager.  The same applies if he is dealt a Pair and chooses to split.

            Imagine starting with a $5 wager on both the base wager and the sidebet and being dealt a Pair of 8's.  The Dealer pays you 3 to 1 on your sidebet and you now have to decide if you want to add the $20 to your base blackjack wager, making it a total of $25.  Assuming you do and you go ahead and follow standard strategy, you will now split those 8's and you'll have to put up an additional $25 of your own.  Now, you are dealt another 8 and you put up another $25.  Then you're dealt a '3' and you double down and play ANOTHER $25.  You started as a $5 Player and now you have $100 down on the table on essentially one hand!

            For the record, you would only let your sidebet winnings ride if the Dealer has a 2 through 7 as an upcard.  However, whether you cap your bet or take your winnings, you still follow basic blackjack strategy and split those 8's.  You double down on all 11's.

            So far, House Money has been very well received by the casinos that it has been demonstrated in.  It is expected to go live in the next couple of weeks in Reno at the Grand Siena Reno.  It should go live in other casinos shortly thereafter as regulatory approvals are granted.  In a few weeks, after the game has gone live, I'll review the complete strategy for the game.

           


Back to Video Poker



            I've spent 3 out of the last 4 weeks discussing Soft Hands in the games of blackjack, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch.  I did this for two reasons.  The first is that it is nice to write about something other than video poker once in a while.  The second is that it is frequently easier to illustrate important concepts by using games with more straightforward differences.  If you read my column this past month, you probably can understand why you don't use the same strategy for Soft Hands for these different games.  While they may be all blackjack based games, the differences created by removing the 10's (Spanish 21) and by having a Dealer Bust of 22 (Blackjack Switch) pushing against Player hands change the math, which in turn changes our strategy.

            One thing that these games have in common, for the most part, is the payouts.  A win is a win and you get paid even money.  Spanish 21 has its bonus hands and its Charlie payouts (which also effects strategy), but you don't have to worry about looking for a paytable to know what to do.  You just have to know which game you are playing.  I must admit that a very, very long time ago, I sat down at a Spanish 21 table not realizing for about 30 minutes that I wasn't playing regular blackjack!  When it finally hit me, I'm sure I turned a nice shade of red, something I don't do very often.

            The bottom line is that from my little detour on blackjack we learn that rule changes can and will change our strategy.  What we have to learn directly from video poker is that paytable changes can do the same thing.  One could argue that there really are no rule variations across virtually all video poker machines.  You are dealt 5 cards.  You decide which ones you want to replace.  You draw that many cards.  Games like Multi-Strike and some of the attempts at a 7-Card Stud game do manage to cross the rule line, in my opinion.  In the gray area are the games that use Wild Cards (Jokers and/or Deuces).  Are these really rule changes or paytable changes?  It really doesn't matter once you realize that both can have the same impact to our strategy.

            If I pick up a copy of Winning Strategies for Video Poker, I will find 27 different paytables JUST for jacks or better.  Admittedly, some of these paytables are pretty tough to find these days, but these paytables were considered to be the 'full-pay' paytables in a number of jurisdictions when the book was revised 15 years ago.  It purposefully left out many of the short-pay machines that are some of the most common both then and today.  There are probably 50-60 paytables in use today just for jacks or better.  

            Of course, in an ideal world, none of you reading this column would actually play any of the inferior paytables if given an opportunity to play one of the better ones, but that is not likely the reality.  Also, in order for this to happen, each of you would have to know how to determine which are the better paytables to actually play.  I'll save that for another column.

            Today's column is about understanding how the strategy changes as a result of a paytable change.  With dozens of paytables out there, each game could potentially have its own strategy.  This doesn't mean that if you bring your strategy from one game to another that you'll be committing bankroll suicide, but  you won't be helping yourself either.  In some cases, you might add another 1-2% to the house advantage by using the wrong strategy for any particular paytable.

            So, what is a Player to do?  First, you can't try to master every paytable out there.  I'm guessing there are not a lot of Experts who play regular blackjack, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch on a regular basis.  It is too easy to get parts of the strategy confused and then you start making mistakes.  Very quickly, 3 games each with paybacks of 99%+ become not nearly as strong for the Player.  The same is true of video poker.  After a while you're going to forget which games a 3-Card Straight Flush with 1 High Card outranks a 4-Card Inside Straight with 2 High Cards. 

            The key is to target a single game.  It should be a full-pay machine with a strong paytable.  Then, go out and learn the strategy.  Read a book.  Buy some software.  Practice at your desk.  ONLY when you have mastered the strategy should you venture out to the casino and play using real money.  Before you jump to play a different game, repeat the entire process all over again.

            

Soft Hand "Swtich"eroo

I’ve spent the last few weeks discussing some blackjack strategy. Blackjack strategies are developed the same way video poker strategies are. Using computers, we evaluate every option the player has and decide which will make the most or lose the least, as the case may be.
As in video poker, many decisions in blackjack are fairly obvious. It is the other hands, which are less obvious, that separate the beginners from the Expert Players.
One group of hands that falls in this category is the soft hands, where an Ace counts as an 11. Players have the option to double down, hit or stick on many of these hands. If you sit at a table for awhile, you’ll quickly find very few players play these hands correctly.
In regular blackjack, many of these hands create double down situations. This is because of the ability to improve the player’s hand AND the Ddaler’s likelihood of busting.
Last week, I showed how the strategy changes dramatically in Spanish 21 with the 10’s missing, and the reduced likelihood of the dealer busting. This week, I’ll take a look at what happens in Blackjack Switch where a Dealer 22 is a push.
In Blackjack Switch, the player must play two blackjack hands with equal wagers. The player then has the option to switch the second cards dealt to each hand. So, if dealt a 5-10 and a 10-6, you can turn that into a 5-6 and a 10-10 and greatly strengthen the hands. If dealt a 5-10 and a 6-10, then switching will do nothing.
The price the player pays for this option is if the dealer busts with a 22, all player hands still in action (except natural blackjacks) are pushed. This means a LARGE number of dealer busts wind up as pushes. Since we double down looking for dealer busts, this will alter our strategy greatly.
The strategy for soft hands in Blackjack Switch is rather simple. There are only FOUR times we double down. We double down on a soft 17 or soft 18 against a dealer 5 or 6. If we have a soft 17 or less and can’t double down (3-plus cards) then we hit. We stick on all soft 19’s or higher. For a soft 18, when we can’t double, we stick against an 8 or less and hit against a 9, 10 or Ace.
 Given how much doubling on soft hands adds to our payback in regular blackjack, how is it that in Blackjack Switch we can give up this benefit and still have a game that pays in the mid 99% range? It is the nature of the ability to switch that creates a bit of a paradox. We double down in far fewer situations in Blackjack Switch than regular blackjack because the Dealer Bust on 22 rule.
However, our starting hands (after the switch) are far stronger in Blackjack Switch than in regular Blackjack. In the case of soft hands, we will frequently perform a switch that will convert it from an ordinary soft hand into a 21 or a 20, leaving the other hand frequently in no worse shape.
So, while we lose the opportunity to double down on some of these soft hands, we instead gain stronger hands we don’t double down on. A 20 (hard or soft) is far preferable to a soft 17 – especially in Blackjack Switch.
While Blackjack Switch simplifies our soft hand strategy, it also adds an entire new layer of strategy by needing to know when to switch. This part of the strategy is far more important to achieving the theoretical payback than is the altered hit/stick strategy. However, I would strongly suggest you learn both!
Just as in video poker, when you change the payouts or the rules of the game, the strategy changes with it. While many of the switch decisions will be obvious, many will leave you scratching your head as to what is the better play.
Undoubtedly, there will also be times when you do the right thing and it backfires or you do the wrong thing and it works out. However, this doesn’t change what the right mathematical answer is. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right two times a day!
To help you learn the right strategy, I’m continuing to offer our Buy 1 Get 1 Free special. Buy Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch for $6.95 and get Expert Strategy for Spanish 21 for free. Both come with pocket-sized multi-color strategy cards to bring into the casino with you. If you’d like to order, please send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133.

How do you say "Soft Hand" in Spanish?


            A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the strategy regarding Soft Hands in blackjack.  Soft Hands are those that contain an Ace which is counted as an 11.  Many of these hands should be played as a double down because of both the ability to significantly improve the hand (to a 17-21) AND due to the high probability that the Dealer will bust - as we mostly double down against Dealer Upcards of 2 through 6.

            As is the case with video poker, however, we must remember that the strategy changes with every paytable change or rule change.  We find slight changes to our strategy if we go from the Dealer hitting Soft 17 to the Dealer Sticking on all 17's.  However, if we go to the Blackjack variants of Blackjack Switch or Spanish 21, everything changes.

            In Spanish 21, the 10's have been removed from the decks, so that we are playing with a shoe of 48-card decks.  As may of us know, 10's and Face cards are our friends when playing blackjack.  They enable us to make good solid hands like 20's.  They help us Double Down on 10's and 11's and get strong hands.  Most importantly, they bust any Dealer hand above an 11.  When you hear about card counters, they are keeping track of the percent of 10's/Faces in the deck.  When there are more than 'normal', the game tips more into the Player's favor.  So, taking 4 of them out of each deck is NOT to the Player's advantage.

            Spanish 21 offsets this by giving the Player a host of other advantages.  The Player can double down on any number of cards.  So, if you start with a 5-3 and hit a 3 for 11, you can still double down.  Player 21's beat Dealer 21's.  Player Blackjacks beat Dealer Blackjacks.  There are also several 'bonus' 21 hands thrown in for free.  Get three 7's and win a small bonus.  The house advantage for Spanish 21 is about 0.8% which makes it a little greater than regular blackjack, but ONLY if you learn the proper strategy.

            Some of the biggest changes occur in the Soft Hands.  Not much changes in terms of how your hand will turn out.  The biggest impact is to the Soft 17's and 18's which have less of a chance to draw a 10, but a slightly greater chance to draw the little card you need to improve the hand.  The problem is that the Dealer will Bust less often.  The Bust rate for a Dealer 6 goes from 44.6% in regular blackjack to 40.6% in Spanish 21.  The changes to the Bust rate is enough to get us to make radical changes to our Soft Hand strategy. 

            To begin with, we NEVER Double down on a Soft 13 through 15 in Spanish 21.  We simply hit these hands.  We Double Down on a Soft 16 only against a 6.  However, if we have 4 cards or more, we hit these hands (remember that you can Double on 3 cards in Spanish 21).  Since there are special payouts for 5, 6 or 7+ card 21's, the lure of these payouts is stronger than the ability to Double Down. 

            Soft 17's are Doubled Down against a Dealer 4, 5 or 6.  BUT, only if the Player has 2 cards against the 4, 3 (or less) cards against the 5 and 4 (or less) cards against the 6.  If he has more cards than the minimum, he hits the hand in search of the 5+ card 21.

            Soft 18's bring us the most opportunities to Double Down.  We stick against a 7, but will Double Down even against an 8 as long as we have 3 cards or less.  We also Double Down against a 6 (5 cards or less), a 5 (4 cards or less) or a 2 through 4 (3 cards or less).

            Essentially we throw out everything we know about Soft Hands in Blackjack if we are planning on learning how to play Spanish 21.

            Next week, I'll discuss Soft Hands in Blackjack Switch and the impact of the Push on Dealer 22 rule on our strategy.  For those that want to get a jump on learning, I'm offering a 2 for 1 deal.  Order Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch for $6.95 and get Expert Strategy for Spanish 21 for free.  Both books include a multi-color pocket-sized strategy card.  Send check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133.

            

What to Do When Your Hand Goes Soft


            I'm going to continue talking about blackjack this week.  No, I'm certainly not giving up on video poker!  Blackjack is very similar to video poker in that they both require learning rather complex strategies in order to achieve a strong payback.  However, blackjack has the advantage, in my opinion, in that it is a bit easier to learn the strategy.  Recognizing hands in video poker can sometimes be tricky for the beginners.  But, with blackjack a 16 is a 16.  Well, sort of.

            You can actually have 3 different types of 16's.  The first is a Pair of 8's.  For this, we use Pair Strategy.  The second is a Hard 16, where there is no Ace counting as an 11 involved in the hand.  For this, we use our Hard hand strategy.  Lastly, there is a Soft 16, where the hand contains an Ace being used as an 11.  This hand cannot bust by hitting one additional card, so the strategy is quite different from a Hard 16.  For these, we use our Soft hand strategies.

            It is these Soft hands that I would like to focus on today.  Hard strategies are pretty well known.  Don't hit anything above a 16.  Don't hit most Hard hands between 12 and 16 unless the Dealer has a 7 through Ace showing.  There are a few exceptions with 12 and 13, but if you just followed what I wrote, you'll do okay.  But, when it comes to Soft hands, people do all sorts of things - many of them quite wrong.  We've all even seen a few people try to stop on a Soft low hand.  Which card could you draw that will make your Soft 16 more likely to lose as compared to staying put?

            The reason why learning Soft Hand strategy is so important is because these hands afford us the most opportunities to Double Down.  We Double Down for two reasons.  The first is that we have a strong hand (i.e. 10's and 11's) that is likely to get stronger with a single card.  The second is that we have a good hand and the likelihood is strong that the Dealer will bust.   

            When we have a Soft Hand, we have usually have at least 5 chances to make the hand better to the point where it matters - that is to say, wind up with a hand between 17 and 21.  If you can only hit one card and you hit a 13 and it becomes a 15, you really haven't done anything for your hand - positive or negative.  Quite frankly if you hit a Soft 16 and it become a Hard 12, you haven't done anything negative to your hand either.  So, when we Double Down on a Soft hand, we have a hand that MIGHT improve and we look to do this when the Dealer is likely to Bust.

            That last part tells us the first critical part of Soft Hand strategy - we NEVER Double Down when the Dealer has a 7 through Ace up with a Soft Hand.  The likelihood of the Dealer busting is not strong enough to make it worth Doubling Down.

            Next, you need to understand that when you Double Down, you are actually REDUCING your chances of winning the hand, while INCREASING how much you will win when you do.  So, imagine if an identical opportunity came up 100 times.  If you don't Double Down, you will win 75% of the time.  If you do Double Down you will win only 65% of the time.  Which would you want to do?  Well, if you don't Double Down, you will wager 100 and win back 150 for a net win of 50.  If you do Double Down, you will wager 200 and win 260 for a net win of 60.  If you want to win more, you Double Down even though you will win less often.

            As is the case with video poker, you don't have to do any amazing calculations on the fly to figure out what the right strategy is.  Someone like myself, with the help of some computer programs has already done all the hard work.  That is, unless you consider memorizing the strategy tables to be the hard work!

            There are some slight variations in strategy depending on whether the Dealer hits or sticks on a Soft 17.  What is presented here is for the cases where the Dealer does NOT hit a Soft 17.

  • ·         Double Down with a Soft 13 or Soft 14 against a Dealer 5 or 6 Upcard. 
  • ·         Double Down with a Soft 15 or Soft 16 against a Dealer 4, 5, or 6 Upcard. 
  • ·         Double Down with a Soft 17 or Soft 18 against a Dealer 3, 4, 5, or 6 Upcard.


            If you have a Soft Hand that is more than 2 cards so that you can no longer Double Down, you Hit ALL Soft 12 - Soft 17 and Hit a Soft 18 against a Dealer 9, 10 or Ace Upcard.

            Yes, there will be times you will turn a Soft 18 into a Hard 16 and begin to wonder if you made the right move.  But, in these cases, don't just look at YOUR hand, look at the Dealer's.  If he turns over a 10/Face to wind up with 19 or 20, staying put on your 18 would still result in losing.

            Next week, I'll explain a bit more why I like to use Blackjack as a sort of training tool as we see how the strategy I've covered today might change if you were playing a Blackjack variant, such as Spanish 21 or Blackjack Switch.

Surrender and Insurance


            As I’ve described many times, the concepts of Expert Strategy apply to more than just video poker.  Essentially, they apply to every game in the casino (except slots of course).  You should always know which games to play, what strategy to play them with and what to expect.  Most games in the casino do not require learning very significant strategies to play them properly.  Two that do – video poker and blackjack (and its variants Blackjack Switch and Spanish 21 – require some serious effort to learn them correctly.  The reward for doing so is a payback that is above 99.5%.

            In order to achieve the theoretical payback, you have to learn ALL of the strategy including the less well-known parts and even the parts we might find ‘offensive.’  For blackjack this would be the concepts of insurance and surrender.  The idea of ‘surrender’ is the one that you may find to be ‘offensive’, but there are times it is the right play.

            First let’s begin with the definition of the Insurance bet.  When the Dealer has an Ace up, he will offer everyone at the table the option to make an Insurance wager (which must be ½ of your base blackjack wager).  In reality, it is nothing more than a proposition bet.  If the Dealer has a blackjack, then you win 2 to 1.  If he doesn’t you lose your Insurance wager.  Assuming you have not been counting cards, then the odds of the Dealer having Blackjack is roughly 4 out of 13 (I’m ignoring his upcard ‘Ace’ and any of the cards you can see).  Paying 2 to 1, gets us back 12 out of every 13 units wagered for a payback of about 92.31%.  Obviously, you can do some light card counting and only make this wager when it is more in your favor, but it will take a lot of non-10s/Faces to turn the deck in your favor.

            Sometimes you will hear a Player who has a Blackjack to ask for ‘even money’ when the Dealer has a Blackjack.  This is really the equivalent of the Player making the Insurance wager.  If he makes it and the Dealer does NOT have Blackjack he will win 3 for 2 on his base wager, but would have lost 1/2 unit on Insurance leaving him having won even money.  If the Dealer DOES have blackjack, he pushes his blackjack wager and wins his Insurance wager, which will pay 2 to 1 of the INSURANCE wager which is equal to his base wager – in other words, even money on the base wager.  To keep things moving along, most casinos will just allow the Player to call “even money” and get paid 1 to 1 on his blackjack wager. 

            In reality, this is no better a decision than making the Insurance wager under any other situation.  However, from an emotional standpoint, many Players hate the idea of a total push when getting a Blackjack.  This would be the outcome if you don’t take the Insurance Wager AND the Dealer has Blackjack.  The proper play is to stay unemotional and never take even money.  This situation should only occur about 1 in 275 hands (approximately) which would mean once every 9 hours of play.  For some strange reason, I seem to get it about 3 times an hour?!

            Next up is the Surrender rule.  Many of you may never have heard of it.  The casinos don’t really advertise it much.  You have the right to Surrender your hand before you take any other action by forfeiting half of your initial wager.  Once you hit, split, double down, etc… you can no longer Surrender your hand.  There are two different variations of Surrenders.  The first called Early Surrender is rarely offered.  It allows you to Surrender BEFORE the Dealer checks for a Blackjack when he has a 10/Face or an Ace up.  Thus, even if the Dealer has a Blackjack, you would have forfeited only half of your wager.  This is a big advantage to the Player which explains its rarity.  The other variation is called Late Surrender.  This version has the Dealer checking for Blackjack and only after it is confirmed that he does NOT have one can the Player opt to Surrender.

            Unlike the Insurance Wager, this is not a proposition wager better left ignored.  If that were the case, the casino would have it on the felt in big bold letters “PLEASE SURRENDER!”  Instead it is an option you need to take on occasion and you almost have to ask the casino permission to do so.  From a mathematical perspective, the decision is easy.  If you are going to win less than 25% of the time with your starting two cards, you Surrender.  At a 25%, you would win back exactly half of your initial wager which is what you’ll have left after Surrendering.  Hence, that is why this is the decision point.  There are slightly different strategies depending on whether the Dealer hits or sticks on  Soft 17. 

            You should always Surrender a Hard 16 to a Dealer 9, 10 or Ace.  You should also always Surrender a Hard 15 to a Dealer 10.  If the Dealer hits a Soft 17, you also Surrender a Hard 15 to a Dealer Ace and a Hard 17 (yes, I said 17) to a Dealer Ace.  If the Dealer has a 6 underneath, he gets to keep going and is that much more likely to wind up beating you.   These rules apply to larger shoes of 4-8 decks. 

            The impact of properly Surrendering is that the payback is increased by 0.07%.  This may not sound like a lot, but looked at differently, it can cut the house edge by about 15%.