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Can You Beat Costa Rican Rummy with Card Counting?
By Arnold Snyder
(First published in Card Player, December 1993)
© 1993 Arnold Snyder
Question from a Player: I will be vacationing in Costa Rica again this year. They have casinos there, but blackjack is illegal. Instead, they have their own variation of blackjack, which they call ďrummyĒ ó not in any way related to the card game of rummy as played in the U.S.
ďRummyĒ in Costa Rica is exactly like blackjack, dealt by a house dealer, except that they have a slew of weird rules and bonuses. The game is dealt from a 4-deck shoe, and they deal pretty deeply ó Iíd say about 3 decks dealt.
Costa Rican Rummy Rules
The one bad rule is that blackjacks pay even money. But, listen to the good rules:
*Dealer stands on soft 17.
*Unlimited resplits of pairs, including aces.
*Double down on any two cards.
*Double after splits allowed.
*Early surrender vs. both ten and ace!
*Three 7s pays 5-to-1.
*Any other 3 of a kind pays 3-to-1.
*Take insurance on a dealer ten up! (And if the dealer has an ace in the hole, the insurance pays 10-to-1!)
*Three card straight flushes pay 3-to-1!
Have you ever heard of a set of rules like this before? Iíve been an amateur card counter for many years. I use the old John Archer ten-count. Can you tell me what kind of an advantage I can get in this Costa Rican rummy game, and also do I take insurance vs. ten up at the same count that I use for insurance with an ace up? Thanks!
Costa Rican Rummy—the Killer Rule
Answer: Frankly, I doubt that you can get much of an advantage in this game. Because of the deep shuffle point, you may be able to get an edge if you use a very large spread, but it wonít be much of an edge. I admit that I have not done any detailed analysis of this unique game, because I believe itís a waste of time.
That ďone bad ruleĒ ó blackjacks pay even money ó is a killer, worth about 2.3% to the house. Even with all of the other great rules and bonuses, the house still probably has close to a 1% advantage over you off the top of the deck. That's tough to beat with card counting at this level of penetration.
Regarding the option to take insurance when the dealer has a ten-valued card up ó donít do it. This is a sucker bet. That 10-to-1 payoff is just too low. You would need almost 13-to-1 to make it a break even proposition.
Also, your card counting system will provide no help in determining when to place this bet. You would want to be counting aces vs. non-aces in order to know when to place this bet, but with such a poor payoff, youíd be wasting your time if you kept the side count. If they ever offer the option with a 12-to-1 payoff, then it might be worth it to count the aces. The house would still have the advantage off the top, but you would see occasional profitable insurance opportunities. At 10-to-1, donít hold your breath.
Despite the vast array of bonus payouts, altogether they are not worth very much. All of those 3-card hands are pretty rare. Itís more likely that the house makes more money by offering these bonuses than the players make by collecting on them. Some players will be tempted to violate basic strategy in order to try for the bonus payouts, such as occasionally hitting a two-card stiff when basic strategy tells you to stand, or hitting a pair when you should be splitting it. Such plays could be quite costly in the long run.
Few players would be tempted to hit a pair of jacks or kings in order to try for three of a kind, but more might be tempted to hit a pair of aces or eights instead of splitting. If youíve got a pair of eights, the odds against being dealt a third eight in a 4-deck game are about 14-to-1. But the payout for making the hand is only 3-to-1! The actual cost to the player who makes this blunder-bet will, of course, depend on the dealer upcard.
As for those 3-card straight flushes, the odds against your making one of these hands are even worse. Assuming you start with two of the necessary cards, the odds against catching a straight flush on the next card dealt are almost 26-to-1, or about 51-to-1 if youíre foolish enough to try for an inside or closed end straight flush! Trying for that 3-to-1 payoff for making it is very costly to the player.
Itís unlikely that any practical card counting system could be devised to take advantage of these bonuses. It would be extremely rare that any variation from basic strategy, or your count strategy, would be the optimal way to play a hand in order to try for a bonus.
Recommended Strategy for Costa Rican Rummy
If you think the game of rummy is fun, and youíre intent on playing it since itís the only form of blackjack they have in Costa Rica, hereís my recommended strategy:
Follow your normal card counting strategy for all playing decisions. Itís especially important that you take full advantage of the early surrender option, because this is the most valuable rule on the table.
(I donít believe the ďArcher MethodĒ provided early surrender decisions. If not, you should either learn basic strategy for early surrender, available in most modern card counting books, or switch to a more recently developed counting system so that you can learn a few of the important indices for altering your strategy.)
Ignore the insurance vs. ten-up option. Never try for a bonus hand; just be happy when you collect on one during the course of your normal play. Donít raise your bet until your count system indicates that your advantage has gone up by about 2% (with that unbalanced Archer Count, wait until a running count of +30!), and use as much of a betting spread as you can get away with (and afford).
If a casino with otherwise standard blackjack rules (i.e., blackjacks pay 3-to-2!) put all of those other Costa Rican rules and bonus hands in a game, it would be a very valuable game for a card counter. Even the basic strategy player would have the edge in such a game. But when blackjacks pay even money, forget it.
If you can use a very large spread, you might get slightly over the break even point in this Costa Rican rummy game. But donít expect to make big bucks at it. ♠
[Arnold Snyder is the author of Blackbelt in Blackjack and The Big Book of Blackjack]
For more information on blackjack variations, see the BJF Professional Gambling Library.
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