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The easiest way to win the hand isn't always the best play
By Fred Renzey | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/18/2008 12:22 AM

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Suppose in blackjack you've got a pair of 9s against the dealer's 2. If you just stay pat with your 18, you'll win the hand 56 percent of the time (after adjusting for pushes). But if you split the 9s, you'll win with each 9 only 54 percent of the time (adjusted again for pushes). So you tell me -- what's the right play?

The answer is -- you've gotta split 'em, because going 54/46 twice makes more money than going 56/44 once. Not only that, but sometimes you'll catch a deuce on one of your 9s and be a favorite to make even more money by doubling down!

This graphically illustrates that the play which provides your best chance to win the hand is not always the best play to make. It all depends upon how much money another alternative figures to win -- even though it may win less often.

Blackjack basic strategy takes all this into account when it tells you the correct way to play your hands. This principle comes into play in many of your situations. Another run-of-the-mill example is when you have 10 against the dealer's 8. Here, if you just hit you'll win 60 percent of the time. If you double down, you'll win only 57 percent of the time, because you won't be able to take a second hit if you buy a small card. But again, the play that wins less often makes more money (because you're doing it for twice the amount), so double down you must!

If it seems to you like splitting some pairs and doubling down with some hands is more risky than taking the "safe" way out -- that's because it is. But you can't turn your back on these optimizing opportunities or you'll have no chance at blackjack.

Doubling for less: This brings up an excellent opportunity to illustrate the reason why you should never double down for less than the maximum amount. Take the hand above where you've got 10 against an 8. Doubling down changes two things about your hand.

The first is that you get to increase your bet after you've already seen your cards. This, of course, is to your advantage.

The second is that you can take one, and only one, hit. This is to the house's advantage because it usually lowers the win percentage on your hand. Now, why give up the right to take as many hits as you want in exchange for raising your bet -- if you don't raise your bet as much as you can?

Let me show you what happens when you bet $20 and have that 10 against an 8. Hitting your hand 100 times, you go 60/40 to net a $400 profit. Doubling down for $40 total, you go 57/43 to win $560 -- a definite improvement. But if you doubled for less by putting just an extra $5 chip next to your original $20 bet, you'd again go 57/43, but would win only $350! You'd have made more money by just taking a hit! All you did was find a creative way to reduce the natural profit on your hand.

If you learn nothing else from reading this article, please learn this one thing -- never, ever double down for less!

But wait! We're still not done with maximizing profits by winning less often. There's still one more type of hand that makes more money if you gamble with it rather than take the safe way out. Can you name the hand?

It's when you have blackjack against a dealer's Ace. There, your $20 bet will win $20 13 out of 13 times for a $260 profit if you take Even Money. But if you just gamble that the dealer doesn't have blackjack, you'll win $30 nine times, then push the other four and make $270. Passing up Even Money wins less often but makes more money.