Sunday, December 10, 2006

Blackjack Is a Game of Perfection

Last time we talked about what a complex game live poker is and how nobody plays error-free poker. Everybody sometimes misreads what they think their opponent has, everybody sometimes calls when they should fold, and everybody sometimes checks when they should bet. Still and all, you'll be okay if you just make fewer mistakes than your opponents.

In blackjack, however, your opponent is the house, and you've got the built-in disadvantage of having to play your hand first. The good news is, you can make that up with expert play – just barely. But the odds of the game are so close that even if you do play like an expert, there's practically no room at all for mistakes. You have to know every correct play like the palm of your hand just to keep things almost 50-50. And if you want to actually gain the upper hand over the dealer, then you've got to keep some kind of reliable track of the cards.

Let me give you an example of how playing errors in blackjack will shoot you down. There's a right and a wrong way to play every hand and if you never make a mistake, odds are the dealer will still pull four bets ahead of you for every 10 hours of play.

Of course, that would be in a perfect world. But in the green felt jungle you're subject to the moody swings of Lady Luck. In fact, 45% of the time, you'll actually win enough extra lucky hands to end up a winner for that 10 hour period.

Now instead, what about the average Joe Blackjack who plays about 1 out of every 10 hands wrong? What are his odds? Because of the way Joe plays, he should fall 12 bets behind every 10 hours. Lady Luck will help him out enough to make up those 12 bets only 33% of the time! And the more mistakes Joe makes, the luckier he has to get to come out ahead.

Now, suppose you play all your hands perfectly, but still don't like the odds of probably falling four bets further behind every 10 hours. Suppose you want to have the odds in your favor at blackjack. Fortunately, gaining the upper hand in the game is possible. Unfortunately, it requires keeping track of key cards that have been dealt.

When most blackjack players hear that last statement, they back away, feeling it's too much work. But what pinochle player worth his salt would play pinochle and not keep track of trump cards? In stud poker, if you were drawing to a diamond flush, wouldn't you count the diamonds on board? Why should it take any less effort to win at blackjack? Do you think the casino's going to give their money to you just because you memorized a basic strategy "win card" from their gift shop?

Oh no! To gain the upper hand over the house, you'll have to play more perfectly than just perfect basic strategy. You'll have to know when the right cards are left in the shoe. Then you'll be in the position of probably pulling two to six bets ahead every 10 hours. Your actual chances of coming out ahead over any 10-hour stretch wouldn't be 45% or 33% anymore -- but 53% to 57%.

Many methods have been devised for tracking the cards in blackjack. The strongest ones require the dedication of a fanatic, and the weakest can be mastered by most average players in a few hours.

super bowl bet