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PROFESSIONAL GAMBLERS AND BLACKJACK STRATEGY:
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|PROFESSIONAL GAMBLERS AND BLACKJACK STRATEGY: SHOULDN'T YOU HIT?
By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XXI #2, Summer 2001)
© Blackjack Forum 2001
Four blackjack players, all of them professional gamblers, were sitting at a quarter table in a Vegas Strip casino. I stopped to watch the game because the bets on the table were unusual. Two players had bet the table minimum — $25; one player had bet the max — $2000; and the other player had a $200 bet on the hand. Often, if I see a pro playing, I can tell whether the count is positive or negative by looking at his bet size. Here I was looking at four pros, and I didn’t have a clue. It was a typical six-deck Strip game with all the good rules – including DAS and surrender.
I knew each of the four players, but to my knowledge, none of them knew each other. I suspected that they had each independently chosen this table, unaware that the other players at the table were also pros. Pros don’t generally like to sit down with other pros because their bets tend to mimic each other’s as the count rises and falls. One thing I do know about those who have been playing professionally for any length of time, however, is that their strategies, on the surface, are not easy to analyze. That, in fact, is what has kept those with staying power in the game.
As it happened, the round I stopped to watch was one of the most unusual rounds of blackjack I would ever witness. Every one of the four players was dealt a pair of 4s! I won’t waste any time estimating the odds against four players at the same table being dealt identical pairs. As it turned out, that was not the most unusual occurrence in this round. What truly boggled my mind was the way each player played his hand. The dealer had a deuce up. Here’s what happened:
The first player doubled down.
The second player split the pair.
The third player stood.
And the fourth player surrendered!
As any neophyte basic strategy player knows, the correct way to play a pair of 4s versus a deuce is to treat the hand as a hard eight, and hit. Yet, not only did no player hit his hand as expected, but every player played the hand differently from every other player!
I wandered away from the pit scratching my head. Over the next few days, I contacted each of the four players to find out why each had bet and played his respective identical hand so inexplicably.
As I suspected, none of the four did know any of the others. As soon as I mentioned that I had witnessed this bizarre round with four pairs of 4s, each player immediately recalled the round, and commented on the absurd plays the others at the table had made; but every one defended his own weird play.
Here are their explanations…
The first player, who had the $2K table limit bet, said: “I was tracking the shuffle and I was in a monster slug of high cards. That’s why I had the big bet out. When all those 4s hit the felt, I was stunned, because it meant the remainder of the slug was even richer in high cards. Generally, when you’ve got a pair of 4s against any dealer low card in a DAS game, splitting the 4s supersedes doubling down on the eight total. But not with 4s against a deuce. With Hi-Lo, you can double down hard eight versus 2 at a true of +13, but you need +15 to split the 4s. Using the NRS formula, I estimated this slug was now up around +13 to +14, but not quite high enough to split, so I doubled down. I played the hand correctly.”
The second player, who had a $200 bet on the hand, said: “I was counting, and the count was up, so I had a mid-size bet out. This was a rookie dealer and to my amazement, she flashed her hole card! It’s pretty unusual to get a hole card on a shoe game, but she was very clumsy with the cards and caught the edge of her hole card on her upcard when she was doing the turn over. She probably trained at home and had some uncle in the pit who had juiced her into the job. With four of us sitting there with a pair of 4s, imagine how shocked I was to see she had a 4 in the hole! What are the odds? But essentially, I wasn’t playing my pair of 4s against a deuce; I was facing a hard 6. With any plus count, the best play is to split your 4s against a 6 in a DAS game. So I split. I played the hand correctly.”
The third player, with a $25 table minimum bet, said: “The fact is, I was looking for a good cheap camouflage play when I got those 4s. I had beaten that joint out of a lot of money in my last few sessions, so I was in there to slow play it, lay some cover, and feel them out for heat. The count was up, but I had a small bet out because I had lost a number of hands in a row; I didn’t want to raise my bet after losses. A hard eight against a deuce only has a negative expectation of about -2% if you play it correctly and hit. The dealer’s got about a 35% probability of busting when he shows a deuce. But I’m side-counting the 7s, 8s, and 9s, and I know that the shoe is virtually depleted of all of these cards! I know his bust probability is actually much higher than 35%. With a normal distribution of these cards, standing would cost me 65% of $25, or about $16. But with the positive count, and very few 7s, 8s, and 9s left in the shoe, I figure his bust probability is closer to 50%. Since my bet’s only $25 on the hand, I figure it’s maybe costing me twelve bucks for making what looks like the stupidest play on earth, standing on an eight total against a deuce! Did you see the boss smirking when I made that play? Of course, I acted like it was an accident, and I misread my hand as a twelve, but that idiot play bought me a lot of time in that joint. I played the hand correctly.”
The fourth player, who had also bet $25, said: “I wasn’t playing a count game. I was sequencing the aces. I had the table to myself for the previous shoe, then those jerks showed up. I was going to leave, but figured I’d play out this last shoe on the off chance I could catch one of my aces, despite having these other players crowding the game. The last hit card that was dealt to the jerk who split his fours was the third key card I was looking for to indicate an ace was coming. The first two keys were 4s. Since my sequence cards tend to be spaced about seven cards apart with this shuffle, it appeared at that point that I’d never get the ace myself. With two players and the dealer left to play out their hands, then three players in front of me on the next round, I had no hope. Then, the imbecile to my right stands! He uses no cards! It occurs to me that if I use no cards, I’ve got an excellent chance of steering that ace to myself on the next round, provided the dealer uses only one card, maybe two, for his own hand. So I surrendered. The dealer only busts about 35% of the time with a deuce up, so standing would cost me -65%. Surrender, at -50%, has a higher EV than standing. I was basically paying $12.50 for the ace on the next round, when I intended to spread to two hands of table max. That’s a small price to pay for an ace. I played the hand correctly.”
Anyway, the dealer hit to a 7-card 21, wiping out all bets except for the guy who had surrendered (though assuring the surrenderer that he would not get the ace he was hoping for on the next round).
Blackjack, alas, is always a game of probabilities. Virtually nothing is ever certain. Because of this, there may be numerous “correct” ways to play a hand or bet on a round. The betting and playing strategies of a traditional card counter, a shuffle tracker, a hole card player, and an ace sequencer, sitting at the same table, will make little sense to each other. Yet, all of them are playing with an advantage, and playing correctly, given the information that each is using.
The two players who made the most inane looking plays — standing and surrendering — both had a pretty good idea what these plays cost, in dollars, based on the percentage of time the dealer will bust with a deuce up, or the depletion of 7s, 8s, and 9s, or the potential value of an approaching ace.
What is the moral of this story?
Simply this: Those players who continue to play blackjack at a professional level are often invisible to the casinos because their blackjack strategies are invisible even to each other. They are looking for opportunities that don’t show up in the Blackjack Survey Voice analysis. Everybody in the pit knows what a card counter's blackjack strategy looks like these days. If you’re going to make it now, you won’t look like a counter. Your blackjack play would make perfect sense, but it would leave Arnold Snyder himself scratching his head in bewilderment. ♠
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