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Basic Strategy Blackjack Has Its Exceptions

22 February 2008

By Fred Renzey

Any decent blackjack book will contain a basic strategy chart that tells you the correct basic way to play all your hands. Even casino gift shops sell a credit-card sized, multi-colored chart that gives you the same information. Play by the chart, and you'll have only a half percent disadvantage to the house.

There are three misconceptions about these charts however. First, the casino gift shops usually market them as "win cards," which they are not! Second, most players jump to the conclusion that if they play in exact accordance with their basic strategy card, they should beat the game. But I repeat: They'll still have a half percent disadvantage to the house.

In plain English, a half percent disadvantage means if you play 200 hands of blackjack and the odds fall perfectly true to form, you'll be one bet behind. Those are your odds. It takes more than basic strategy to beat the house at blackjack. That's why it's called "basic".

Now, for that third misconception about basic strategy cards. Once a player sees the strategy clearly printed in red, blue, green and yellow, he assumes it's gospel, that messing with it constitutes heresy. In truth, a few of those colored squares are very close decisions and actually fall into a gray area that depends upon some variables. The color in the basic strategy chart simply goes with the variables that will be in place most often. Here are two common examples for blackjack played with a multi-deck shoe.

Soft 17 Rule: Most basic strategy cards assume the dealer stands on soft 17. When that's the case, your card will correctly tell you to just hit with 11 against an Ace and to stand with Ace/8 against a 6. But if the dealer hits on soft 17, you should now double down with both hands. Yet, most basic strategy purists consider anyone who doubles on soft 19 to be a lunatic. The reason you double those hands in a "hit soft 17" game is if the dealer turns over a 6 underneath her Ace, or vise-versa, she'll bust that soft 17 (a made hand) roughly one time out of five.

Those are just a couple of "rule sensitive" basic strategy variations. They're correct. You should play by them. But the art of playing your blackjack hand skillfully goes beyond that. There are also more detailed exceptions to basic strategy.

Hand Composition Plays: This means your correct play sometimes depends upon the exact cards that make up the hand you hold.

Suppose you have 10/6 against the dealer's 10 up. A pure basic strategy card says to hit that hand, and correctly so. But what if you're dealt say, 8/5 against that 10, hit and catch a 3 to make 16? These kinds of specifics go beyond a pure basic strategy chart. Whenever you've taken that ultra-valuable 5 out of play, rendering it unavailable to your lame 16, you should now stand with 16 against a 10.

In fact, anytime your 16 contains either a 4 or a 5 (you don't need both), you should stand against a 10 –- but only against a 10. That's called the "Rule of 45". It's correct. You should play by it.

Here's another hand composition basic strategy play, but it applies only when the dealer stands on soft 17 in games with six decks or less. Your basic chart says to stand with 12 against a dealer's 4 up. To most players, anyone seen hitting this hand is thought of as an idiot. In truth, this is a very close call. Once again, your card just tells you to make the play that'll be "mostly" correct. More specifically, if your 12 is made up of 7/5, or 8/4, or 9/3, or is a multi-card 12, you should indeed stand.

But if your 12 is a 10/2, you should hit. This is because when you hold the 10/2, your dead 10 and deuce is no longer available to hurt either you or the dealer when hitting. But if you held say, 7/5, the 10 and the deuce are still theoretically available (a bad thing), but now the 7 and the 5 can no longer be caught to help either of you –- and you should stand.

Standard basic strategy is a great thing. It's the foundation of your play. Just understand that there are valid considerations that go beyond it, and learning them can improve your game further.

Fred Renzey
Fred Renzey is a high-stakes, expert poker player. On a daily basis he faces--and beats--some of the best players in the country in fierce poker room competition. Now for the first time, Renzey offers his perceptive insights on how to play winning poker. For Fred's 13-page blackjack booklet "Ace/10 Front Count", send $9 to Fred Renzey, P.O. Box 598, Elk Grove Village, IL, 60009

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