Hole Card Play
The Blackjack Dealer was Flashing Her Hole Card: Tips for BeginnersBy Arnold Snyder
(From Card Player, July 28, 1995)
© 1995 Arnold Snyder
Question from a Reader: Last week, the blackjack dealer against whom I was playing kept flashing her hole card in my direction. She wasn't doing it on purpose; it was just the way she angled the hole card up as she slid it beneath her other card.
The only time that I could really tell what she had with certainty was when it was a facecard, because of all the colors. Most of my other reads were wrong.
I took insurance once when I thought that I saw an ace, but it turned out to be a three. I also mistook a five for an eight or nine once, and hit a hand that I really should have sttod on (thinking that she had a pat hand).
Probably the weirdest play I made was when I hit a hard 17 (and busted, of course), but it was the right play because I definitely saw a face card go underneath her nine up. One of the other players at the table got up and left when I took that hit!
I played against her for about two hours, and pretty much broke even. My bad plays due to my incorrect reads canceled out what I made from my good plays, when I clearly saw the face card.
I'm tempted to look for this dealer again very soon, but my reading ability leaves much to be desired. Do you have any suggestions on how I could take advantage of her more profitably? Also, are you sure this isn't cheating? Could I be arrested for playing this way?
Answer from Arnold Snyder: Ever since blackjack has been played in casinos, sloppy dealers like the one you found have been taken advantage of by smart players. Professional gamblers refer to this type of dealer as a "front loader", because the hole card is loaded beneath the upcard from the front by tipping the card up toward the player at the middle of the table. Dealers can also tip the card to either side at some point before loading it beneath the top card.
Dealers are taught specifically not to tilt their hole cards in this manner, or to shield the card with a hand during loading, precisely because a smart player can get a big edge if he or she knows what to do with such information. The precise edge available depends on what percentage of the time you're able to read the hole card, how accurately you're able to read it, how well you know what to do with the info, and how much you are willing to vary your playing strategy to take advantage of the info.
James Grosjean has run extensive analyses to figure out the best way to play hole card information under various degrees of certainty about your read. Much of his analysis is available in his book Beyond Counting. In addition, Norm Wattenberger's Casino Verite software now has the ability to run extensive hole card simulations.
If you run into a dealer who is flashing his hole card, and you haven't had a chance yet to study all the nuances of proper strategy, here is a simple emergency strategy to use.
Down and Dirty Emergency Hole Card Strategy
First, forget normal basic strategy. You're no longer basing your play on the dealer's upcard. You're basing your play on the total of the dealer's hand, which you always assume (for playing purposes) will get hit with a ten if the dealer needs to hit.
If you know that the dealer is going to be standing, it should be clear to you, based on both your total and hers, what you should be doing with your hand. The only question is whether you think it's wise to hit a hard 17 or higher.
If you know the dealer is stiff, you should definitely stand on all your stiffs, even if his upcard is a ten. The hand total is all that matters.
Also, if the dealer is stiff, you should double down and split pairs more frequently. You want to get more money on the table when the dealer is more likely to bust. If you can get away with splitting tens, do it. Double down on all soft totals.
If you know the dealer's hand totals 7 to 11, you should hit your stiffs regardless of his upcard.
Again, this is a simple emergency strategy for when you run into a flasher but aren't prepared. If you have ambitions to play blackjack hole cards professionally, you'll need all the information you can get from the above-listed books.
And there is one more thing you should know if you're going to try to take advantage of a hole card flasher--if the dealer can see you watching for the flash, she is going to very quickly correct her mistake herself.
Is Blackjack Hole Card Play Legal?
As long as you are merely taking advantage of the dealer's natural sloppiness, and are not colluding with the dealer to flash her hole card to you (that is, paying her to show it to you), you are not cheating. [For comments on this issue from an attorney, see Blackjack Hole Card Play and the Law: Is Spooking Legal?, in the BJF Library.]
The danger of using hole card strategies, however, is that the weird plays you make might cause the casino to believe that you are colluding with the dealer. For a better idea of what can happen when a casino believes you're cheating, even when you're not, see James Grosjean's article A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as well as Richard Munchkin's Interview with RC (RC is one of the all-time great hole-card players).
What To Do When You're Not Sure of Your Read
It's a lot more difficult to find flashers these days than it used to be, because casinos are much more aware of the professional players who specialize in these games. That actually tends to work out to the benefit of professional players, who have the skills to read more difficult flashes. More subtle flashes mean the pros can exploit these games a lot longer, as the casino tends not to find subtle dealer error as quickly.
Professional players are able to deal with more difficult flashes because they have spent so many hours dealing with this sort of thing. Like anything else, you get better with practice. I have a hole card practice device in my office that I've shared with various players that increases your skill more rapidly--it's essentially a card funnel attached to a viewer, which you use to flash cards past your field of vision as fast as you can handle.
But even professional players often have to make decisions with less-than-perfectly-clear information. You may have to base your playing decision on an impression of massed pips on the cards, rather than a few pips surrounded by a lot of white space, for example. Again, consult the texts recommended above for what to do with imperfect information.
The one thing you want to be sure not to do is just guess. If you really have no idea what the hole card is except when it's a face card, then you'd be better off sticking with basic strategy unless you read a face card in the hole. It can be extremely costly to violate basic strategy on uninformed guesses.
Also, do not be surprised if this flashing dealer does not flash her hole card by the time you return to play against her. My guess is that if she was obvious enough for a beginner to play, the casino will figure it out pretty quickly and coach him on his mistake. ♠
[For more information on hole card play, see Risk of Ruin, a novel by Arnold Snyder with descriptions of hole-card and next-card steering play.]
For more information on getting started at winning at blackjack, see Intro to Winning Blackjack.
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