Arnold Snyder discusses blackjack rules and basic strategy for surrender and double down. The more blackjack rule options a casino provides, the better the blackjack game for players, whether you are a card counter or blackjack basic strategy player.
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Blackjack Rules: Every Rule Option is Good
By Arnold Snyder

(First published in Avery Cardoza's Player Magazine)
© 2005 Arnold Snyder

A player recently emailed me asking if it was better if a casino allowed players to surrender, or if it was better if this was not allowed. He wrote: “Every blackjack player I know thinks this a great rule. But it seems to me that I give up a lot of hands I would have won. Now, I hardly ever surrender unless the cards are running really bad for me in a shoe. Why would casinos allow players to surrender if the house didn’t make money on it?”

Here’s something to remember: Every time a casino gives you an option, no matter what that option is, it can’t hurt your chances of winning unless you misplay the option. Let me give you a radical example. Every blackjack player has the option to hit a total of 20. Not that any of us would hit a 20, but we all have the option. Because we don’t hit our 20s, the option has no effect on us. We know how to play this option. We stand. If a casino suddenly posted signs that said, “Hitting 20s is not allowed,” no player would care.

So, hitting a 20 is an option that would hurt us if we exercised the option, since we’d bust 92% of the time, but in reality it doesn’t hurt anyone because no one exercises the right. If a casino posted a sign that said, “All players are now allowed to double down on 3-card hard 16s,” it wouldn’t matter. All intelligent players would recognize the option as an option that would be foolish to exercise. So an option can’t possibly hurt us unless we exercise it incorrectly. By definition, an option means we have the right to not exercise it.

Surrender, A Blackjack Rule with Great Value

Surrender is an option that, in fact, has real value when exercised correctly, and you don’t have to be a card counter to take advantage of it. Unfortunately for most players, it probably does hurt them more than it helps. In fact, I suspect from the email I got from the reader above that he was correct in his conclusion that he would have done better if he just didn’t surrender at all. His statement that he now only surrenders when the “cards are running really bad” is worrisome.

Surrender decisions have nothing to do with how the cards are running. The decision to play a hand or give it up, along with half the bet on it, should be based purely on math. And the major problem that many players have with this option is that they surrender way too frequently.

Some players will give up on almost any stiff total against any dealer high card. That has a huge cost to the player. Purely based on the math, do you know how often you should surrender any total of 12, 13, or 14?

Never.

It doesn’t matter if the dealer has a ten, an Ace, or any other upcard. And it doesn’t matter how the cards have been running. Purely based on the math, you will lose more money surrendering any of these hands than you’ll save by giving up half your bets.

The only hands you should ever surrender are hard 15 against a ten, or hard 16 against a ten or Ace. That’s it, as far as the math goes.

One player tried to argue with me once that if he had a hard 15, basic strategy was to hit it against any dealer 7 or higher. Since seven of the thirteen possible hit cards he could get (any 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, or K) would bust him, he’d be better off surrendering 15 against any dealer 7 upcard or higher. His argument: “If I’m going to bust more than half the time, then I save money by just giving the dealer half of my bet.”

That sounds logical, but it’s a twist of logic. Let me explain...

If I were to flip a coin with the understanding that if it comes up heads, I win, and if it comes up tails, I lose, this is a dead even bet. Since I know that the odds are that I’m going to lose this bet half the time, would I have the same result if I just surrendered half of my money on every bet?

No way. Without surrendering, I’ll break even on a coin-flip in the long run. If I surrender half my money on every bet, I’m losing at a 50% rate for all the money I bet! Surrender doesn’t become a break-even bet until I know I’m going to lose twice as often as I’m going to win. It takes two half-losses to make up for one win. A total of 15 against a dealer 7, 8, or 9 may be a pretty bad hand, but believe it or not, it doesn’t lose twice as often as it wins.

Good Blackjack Rules Sometimes Entice Players to Make Bad Blackjack Plays

Some years ago, a mathematician did a study of the general public’s play at casino blackjack. He literally watched players in Las Vegas and Reno and kept a record of how they played their hands.

One of his more interesting findings was that players in Reno made fewer errors than players in Las Vegas. Why was this? Because players in Las Vegas had more options.

In Reno, blackjack players were only allowed to double down on 10 or 11, while in Las Vegas they were allowed to double down on any two cards, including doubling after splits. If you are only allowed to double down on 10 or 11, you will very rarely make a double-down error, since it’s almost always correct to double down on 10 or 11. But there are lots of errors you can make if you are allowed to double down on any two cards.

In fact, the options to double down on any two cards, and to double down after splits—just like the option to surrender—are player-favorable options. If you know when to exercise the options, and when not to, these options will make money for you in the long run. But if you do not exercise the options correctly, then you’re making the options work for the house.

Surrender is one of those options that almost always makes money for the house because most players give up too many “bad” hands too often. The fact is, if it ain’t a 15 or 16, and if the dealer doesn’t have a ten or Ace showing, it just ain’t that bad. You’ve just got to be brave and hit that sucker! ♠

For more information on every aspect of blackjack and its variations, see The Big Book of Blackjack by Arnold Snyder. For information on how to win at blackjack, from card counting to the non-counting methods professional gamblers use, see Arnold Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack.

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