Saturday Morning Gaming: Blackjack Theory

Las Vegas Commercial – 1986

Blackjack is a somewhat elegant game. The version I knew when I was a kid was “get to 21, don’t go over”. So when we all played against each other, we just yelled “HIT ME HIT ME HIT ME dang”.

Growing older, I learned that there are additional rules for betting. You’ve heard the phrase “double down”? That’s from Blackjack! You’ve heard “never buy insurance, seriously, that’s a crappy bet”, that’s from Blackjack too! (And “splitting aces” as well but that didn’t really make it into the wild.)

Growing older than that, I learned that there are folks out there who are good enough at counting cards that they get kicked out of casinos.

Growing even older than *THAT*, I learned that there’s actually a strategy to the game. It takes advantage of some patterns that exist in the deck of cards. There are a bunch of pairs that add up to 11. 9 and 2, 8 and 3, 7 and 4, 6 and 5. The Ace makes for another eleven. Add to that, a bunch of tens (well, and face cards).

Then, when I was even older than that, I was old enough to go to Las Vegas and lose $100 at the table myself (I had the session from heck, folks… I played $5/hand blackjack, I played about 18 hands, I did not win a *SINGLE* one… most of my starting hands were between 12 and 14, the dealer never busted once, I never once got an ace, and on the rare time that I started with an 11, my doubling-down gave me cards like 2 or 3 or 4… meanwhile, the dealer could hit on 14 and draw a 7).

But it was not until I played Red Dead Redemption that I really *GOT* Blackjack.

Red Dead Redemption has a handful of little arbitrary gambling goals to achieve: win so many hands of poker, bust out so many players, win a hand of Blackjack at each casino… but the interesting one was the goal to win 3 hands of Blackjack with 5 cards. That means that you not only have to say “hit me” three times, your five cards can’t go over 21, *AND* you have to still beat the dealer (who remains really good at doing stuff like hitting 14 and drawing a 7).

And when I was trying to win using some really weird criteria, I saw a *LOT* of stuff that I had never truly noticed before. (I mean, it took me more than 300 hands to win those 3 games according to that broken criteria.) The hand you’re most likely to be given won’t be one that can be hit more than once. On the off-chance that you have two low cards, you’re pretty likely to get a high card next. Like, you’re going to jump from having a 5 or 6 to having a 15 or 16. And *THEN*, on the off chance that you make it to 11 with your first three cards, you’re now in position to win automatically on your next card or you’re in position to bust on the fifth because you’re (probably) hitting on a 14, 15, or 16. (I won one of the hands by hitting on 19 and getting a 2. I felt my inner gambler guy yelling “WHAT ARE YOU DOING THE DEALER HAS AN UP CARD OF 5!!!!” but his hole card was a 4 so we would have pushed if I stood and, more importantly, I wouldn’t have gotten the achievement.)

So, all that to say: if you want to figure out how a game *REALLY* works, deliberately play it with a strange and broken criteria. You’ll see the patterns that may have eluded you when you find yourself hoping “oh, it’s a 2 and a 3! Yay!” followed by an “Oh, crap… the dealer has an Ace! I’d better buy insurance, given that that’s the best way to ensure that he doesn’t have a 10 hole card…” Heck, I even learned why table position was important. (When I sat to the dealer’s right, I saw a lot more cards turned face up than when I sat to the dealer’s left. I figured out whether it was more likely than not that I’d get a face card or a number card.)

But anyway, I got my achievement and now I never have to play Blackjack again.

(Well, maybe I’ll go to Vegas again someday and try to get my $100 back.)

So… what are you playing?

(Featured image is “BlackJack” by Dave Stone. Used under a creative commons license.)


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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14 thoughts on “Saturday Morning Gaming: Blackjack Theory

  1. My approach to blackjack is “only buy as many chips as you’re willing to lose in less than three minutes”. I know basic strategy, I know not to go with my gut. I know that betting bigger to win back your money faster makes you lose your money faster. Anything over five minutes at the table is gravy. Lately I’ve been starting to get into roulette. It provides options for losing slowly or losing quickly. It’s more obviously fixed than blackjack, because you can see the 0 and 00 on the wheel, and you know there’s no mercy in it. “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? It is the sound of inevitability.”

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    • Well, the joys of Red Dead Redemption allow me to play 2 cent hands with a buy-in of 3 bucks.

      Since I’m running around with around two grand in my pocket, it turns Blackjack into something with no risk whatsoever. (Well, it costs *TIME*. Jeez, I played a lot of hands of 2 cent Blackjack.)

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    • When the company used to send me to Las Vegas for trade shows I always visited the blackjack areas of the hotel/casino where they put me up. Not because I wanted to gamble — I know the odds and have never been lucky that way — but to watch all the things you read about the casinos in action. Nothing that gives away what time of day it is. Really hard to find the exit. Carpet patterns designed to hide wear. How promptly people who get ahead of the house are offered free booze by attractive young staff.

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      • See, I outwit them by losing before the hostess ever spots me. That way, I’m not the one losing money because I’m drunk; I’m the one who already lost his money because nobody wins at blackjack. (I say that in jest, but I’m sure a lot of people lose more than they would have when early winnings lead to free drinks.)

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  2. The best gambling session I ever had was in Prague. I was red-hot at blackjack: hits turned into 19s and 20s, and stays into dealer busts, and my luck continued at roulette. By the time I decided to quit while I was ahead, I was up over 2,000 koruna. Which, in the cold light of day, worked out to about sixty bucks.

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        • I have a friend who counted cards when he lived in Vegas (got banned from a number of casinos). When I asked him about it, he said that, for him, it was a ball in his head that shifted from green to red and spun faster/brighter the better (or worse) things were.

          He said that, for me, I should instead count 5s. “Just think of the 5 as the worst card in the deck. The more of them behind you, the better off you are. So when you see a 10, do a -1. When you see a 5, do a +1. The more positive number you have, the better off you are. Until she shuffles again.”

          I would have tried that, I suppose, but I had the worst day at the table ever.

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  3. My interest in blackjack started early — my parents had a copy of Beat the Dealer on the bookshelf and I think I wasn’t even a teenager yet when I picked it up and read it. It gave me dreams of making a killing, but I never did play for real money — too young at that point, then later I was like Hermann in The Queen of Spades,”The game interests me strongly, but I am not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in hopes of winning the superfluous.”

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  4. For certain values of “playing”…

    I have said before that henceforth, my children’s families will be getting small robots for holiday gifts (or new software for old robots). I have also mentioned my son’s girlfriend’s problem with feral cats and the need to chase them off the grass in her backyard. The current plan for that is to have a small wheeled robot in a hamster ball, under control of a computer vision system mounted elsewhere, that chases the cats and then returns to its shelter to recharge. Not unlike certain small dogs I have known, only quieter and without the poop.

    Since I had to start somewhere, I bought a small kit with a processor that I had the tools to program rather than buying all the bits individually. I believe that the correct technical description for the software that came preinstalled — shown in obstacle avoidance mode here — is “brain damaged”.

    So I’m “playing” with the robot, figuring out all of the things that are wrong with it that have to be corrected in the next version.

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  5. I can usually win $200 in few-to-several hours of playing blackjack.

    That’s operating off a potential loss amount of $200. I win more than I lose but when I lose that’s the floor.

    I’ve got card patterns down well enough but not enough to raise my loss window to thousands which is why I don’t win a lot.

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  6. One *MAJOR* disappointment in Red Dead Redemption 2: in the cutscene for one mission, the matriarch of an old family mentions that people should come back later and play cribbage.

    The game does not, in fact, allow you to play cribbage with the woman.

    (Seriously, if they put cribbage in the game, I’m not sure I’d ever leave.)

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