Columnist

Can you play basic blackjack with no house edge?

 
 
Published: 3/14/200 12:13 AM

Typical blackjack players give about a 1½ percent advantage to the house because of the mistakes they make playing their hands. But even those who get their entire basic strategy down cold still have a ½ percent disadvantage in the game.

So then, is a perfect basic strategy player doomed to end up a loser if he doesn't become a card counter? Probably not -- if -- he uses his table smarts! But he'll have to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives. Here's what I mean.

A $25-a-hand basic strategist loses a long term average of about 12 cents per hand. His disadvantage accumulates by the hand -- not by the hour or by the visit. So the more crowded the table is -- the better off he is. The biggest reason is:

Game speed: A seven-handed blackjack game moves along at an average pace of about 55 rounds per hour. But when you're alone with the dealer, it's not hard to get in 220 hands during that same time period. So the slower the game, the less money a basic strategist loses. At a full table, he drops maybe $7 per hour. Playing heads up, it's about $28! But there are other benefits to playing blackjack at a full table. This time, it's because of:

Hand interaction: This consists mainly of capping off other players' double downs when they double for less than the max, or going partners on their advantageous splits. Scavenging these plays brings an outright advantage, usually between 5 percent and 10 percent of the money one puts up.

If you're playing alone with the dealer -- hand interaction is not an option for you. But if the table is full, somebody else will have a doubling hand or a pair split every round-and-a-half, on average! It's surprising how many of them you can get a piece of if you keep your focus leaned in that direction.

Hand interaction is of the greatest value to a player when he's betting the table minimum. This allows him to gain healthy advantages on many bets larger than his own, thereby multiplying their positive effect.

High/low layouts: Even though a basic strategy player doesn't count cards per se, he certainly should be able to recognize an occasional blitz of high or low cards lying right there on the table.

Playing heads up, he'll see only five or six cards in a round. That's no help to speak of. But at a full table, he'll see 20 or more cards laid out in plain view on the board. That many cards can swing his chances on the following hands either way by as much as a full percentage point!

So when a glaring flock of Aces and Faces hits the board at a full table, save your spot, and go somewhere else for the rest of the shoe. Also, triple your bet whenever you see a board that contains at least 8 more low cards (2s through 6s) than high ones (10s and Aces).

Summary: So how much can a $25 basic strategy player help his game at a crowded $25 minimum table?

1. The slow pace keeps his long term hourly loss down to about $7.

2. Each hour, the other players should have about 35 doubles/splits. If he gets in on just two of them for $30 apiece, it should earn him back about $4.

3. He walks away from one shoe per hour where a heavily painted board layout would've increased his disadvantage, saving him about $1.

4. He triples his bet for the rest of the shoe once an hour when he notices a qualifying flurry of small cards on board, earning him perhaps another $2.

These projections are somewhat elastic. But it's entirely feasible to exploit these opportunities enough to eradicate that last ½ percent the house holds over you. And that's not counting your comps.