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Best of Fred Renzey

Gaming Guru

 

Blackjack and Poker Share Several Important Similarities

7 August 1999

Most casinos offer about a half-dozen different table games on which gamblers can court lady luck. Blackjack, roulette, craps, Caribbean stud, baccarat and live poker are all common inhabitants of this green felt jungle. But of these six, there are only two at which the player can gain an outright advantage. They are blackjack and live poker. This is the first and most important of the many similarities between these two games.

What is it that makes blackjack and poker beatable while the other table games are not? All gambling games are games of chance, but some are games of pure chance with no element of skill.

In roulette, for example, you simply bet your money on a color or a number and wait to see if you've won or lost. Since none of the previous numbers (or colors) that came up have been eliminated from the wheel, they're all equally likely on the next spin. So there's never a reason to choose one color or number over another. I'm sure many recreational gamblers don't understand this critical principle. Furthermore, once you've put your chips down on, let's say, black, there's absolutely nothing you can do to influence the outcome.

With poker and blackjack, however, you make several decisions after you've placed your bet. These decisions affect your chances to win and can ultimately determine whether you'll be a long-term winner or loser at the game.

Here's what I mean. If you bet $10 on the pass line at craps, all you can do is hope the shooter makes a pass. Your chance is 49.3% and it's out of your hands. But when you've bet $10 on a hand of blackjack and are dealt a pair of 6s against the dealer's 5, you're a 41% shot if you hit and 43% if you stand, but a 52% shot if you split! You're simply not given the opportunity to turn yourself into the mathematical favorite at the other four games. That makes blackjack (as well as poker) a game of skill.

How else are poker and blackjack similar? In both games you can raise the stakes while your bet is in progress when you see that you've got the advantage. In 7 card stud, for example, if you're dealt a pair of kings on your three card starting hand, you can raise and force players with weaker hands to either pay more money to chase you, or give you the pot. And in blackjack, when you have 11 against the dealer's 6 up, you'll win that hand two times out of three; so a skillful player will raise the stakes by doubling down. This is how you use skill in these two games to make the most of an edge that has come your way by chance.

In poker and blackjack you can also react effectively to the cards that have come out. In 7 card stud, if you start out with the 4/7/jack of hearts, you have a 3-flush and would normally be happy to stay because of your flush potential. But if four other hearts were on board, your chances for a flush would be severely diminished and you should now fold. Likewise in blackjack, if everybody at the table is dealt pat 20's and blackjacks on the first band, the shoe has been depleted of valuable high cards. You should now cut back your bets, and if lots of little cards don't come out soon, it would be wise to leave the table.

There is a point however at which poker and blackjack strategies diverge. It's where psychology enters into the picture. You see, blackjack is entirely a game of odds. When you stand with 12 against a 5 in blackjack, it's because you know the dealer absolutely must hit his hand and may bust. If he turns over an 8 in the hole, he cannot say, "Hmm, I've got 13 and that beats your 12, so I'll stand." Hence, your own decision to stand with 12 is based upon how you know the dealer is going to play his hand.

But in poker, when you bet with something like a pair of jacks, you never quite know whether your opponent will call, raise or fold. And if he raises you, does he really have a big hand, or is he bluffing? Because of this interactive psychological element, poker becomes a "mind" game as well as an "odds" >game. This is what separates winning poker strategy from winning blackjack strategy.

Here's a good example. You're playing blackjack and are dealt an 11 for a starting hand. The dealer has a 10 up and, after checking his hole card, motions for you to play your hand out. Since you know he cannot be "sandbagging" with a blackjack, your best percentage play is to double down. If the dealer had the option of concealing his blackjacks until the hand was over, you would have a psychological decision to make based upon what you've learned about your dealer's "playing style". But in blackjack, all dealers play exactly the same way.

Now let's switch over to draw poker. You've opened with two pair kings up, and got raised by the player in the last seat. Everybody else folds. You draw one card and so does he. Assuming you don't improve on the draw, should you bet or check afterwards? Does your opponent have a smaller two pair, or is he tricky enough to draw just one card to trips so that he can suck some extra chips out of you after the draw by representing that he has only two pair? If he always draws two when he has trips, you should go for the extra bet on the end. But if he plays with psychology, you have to be more careful, don't you?

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

Books by Fred Renzey:

> More Books By Fred Renzey

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

Books by Fred Renzey:

> More Books By Fred Renzey