The TRUTH about Basic Strategy

Part II

by Boris

Part I of this article series introduced the topic of Basic Strategy in Blackjack; what it is; what it isn't and how it applies in today's games. We even looked at how to drill it.

You will remember I said that suprisingly, Basic Strategy is one of the most least-understood aspects of the game. This may seem surprising when you consider that virtually every book on Blackjack has a write up on Basic, or at least a mention of the importance of adhering to Basic Strategy if you aren't counting cards.

While most Blackjack book authors espouse the importance of Basic, you might be surprised to discover that many of these "reputable" books differ (even considerably) regarding certain [so-called] Basic Strategy plays. For example, in his books and videos on Blackjack, John Patrick calls us boobs and idiots regarding our knowledge of the game; and yet Patrick hands us a Basic Strategy riddled with errors and discrepancies. Hmm.... Patrick's defensiveness sounds more like an almost-found-out reaction, than anything else.

In this Second Installment on Basic Strategy we are going to consider the following:


Basic Strategy: a Simple Definition - Revisited

Basic Strategy - Basic Details & Assumptions

Contemporary Problems with Basic Strategy

Some thoughts on improving Basic Strategy

Beyond Basic Strategy


Basic Strategy - a Simple Definition

The idea behind Basic Strategy is to provide the average player an approximately-optimum way to play the cards, taking into account the player's hand/total and the dealer's upcard only.

You should know that Basic is a lose-less strategy; not necessarily a winning strategy. Its purpose is to drop the house edge as much as possible, given minimal information and minimal skill. Because of this, it is crucial that you not only memorize the Basic Strategy plays, but understand the logic behind those plays. Even if you plan to advance to other strategies (such as card-counting or clump-tracking), Basic Strategy is still important knowledge to possess, if for no other reason than to serve as a point of comparison.


Basic Strategy Details and Assumptions

In Part I of this article, we took a cursory look at Basic Strategy and how it is influenced by a number of little-known aspects of the game of Blackjack. For example, we saw that the dealer's SOLE advantage comes from the fact that if BOTH the player and the dealer break, the player loses. As I said in Part I, it can be well argued that a player's over-all win-rate in a given playing session comes down to a handfull of Double/Split plays; the remaining Hit/Standing decisions serve to maintain the win during non Double/Split situations.

Because today's non-Random shuffle procedures produce an astatistical clumping of like-cards (high-cards, low-cards and mid-cards), we end up with four visible aberrations to the multi-deck shoe game:

  1. The percentage of dealer 10, 9 & Ace upcards increases from 31%, 38% & 42% to more in the vicinity of 40%, 50% and 60%. As we have seen previously, having a high upcard in noway guarantees a corresponding high-card in the Hole. Against a 9, 10 or Ace upcard, Basic Strategy players hit ALL stiffs, risking breaking-ahead of the dealer. Break-aheads cost a player 2X his wager; even more than Surrender errors (which only assess a 1.5X penalty).

  2. Like-card clumping consistently produces games with an excess of low & mid rounds, coupled with a dearth of high-ratio rounds; and many of those end up as 19 & 20 PUSHes with the dealer - effectively WASTING those 10's. Who needs to cheat (by taking high cards out of the deck) when you can more easily (and legally) ORCHESTRATE them OUT of the game, subtlely using nothing more than a carefully-designed shuffle.

  3. Because there is an increased number of low/mid rounds, it should not be surprising to find that the dealer break-ratio drops from a statistical average (expressed as a Mean) of 28.3% (against a theoretical-Random shuffle) down to a real-world statistical Mode of 18 - 22 %. Wash-card games often produce dealer-breaking in the 40%+ range - IF you can survive the low-ratio rounds where the dealer's average total is 19.5+, AND, not break-ahead of the dealer. Wash-card games (ie. new cards) often produce a "clumping" of successive dealer-breaks, followed by several WIPEOUT hands in a row. Because of this, players using negative-Progressions, and even positive-Progressions are easily Wiped-out against wash-cards. In the web-article The Truth about Dealer-breaking - Are We being Mis-led?, I examine this situation in detail.

  4. If the dealer is breaking LESS, they must by definition be making more PAT hands. In today's game, we see the dealer's average ending-total jump from a statistical 18.5 to a horrifying 19.2. In other words, even 19 is more and more a losing hand.

  5. Statistically, we should see our blackjacks push with the dealer 1-time every 441 hands (1/21 X 1/21). In today's games we see blackjack-pushes in every game; often in every shoe. HElllllllllOOOOOO!


All too often I hear players explain-away these aberrations - there's always an excuse for losing. Bottom-line: The above-mentioned Factors happen in today's shoe games more often than they don't. Basic Strategy was devised assuming the above-Factors largely don't exist.

To review, Basic Strategy has at its root a number of assumptions. Many of these assumptions have interesting implications in today's Blackjack games; especially when you consider that contemporary card-shuffling procedures can hardly be said to produce random cards; and this goes for the various card-shuffling machines such as the various ShuffleMaster's and the Random-ejection Shuffler.
(To understand the different shuffle machines and their implications checkout the Shuffle Machine Section at the Boris on Blackjack Website.

Remember that Basic Strategy was derived from computer-simulations utilizing a "random" card shuffle, by way of some manipulation of the computer's Random Number Generator (RNG) algorithm. In actuality, the card shuffling procedures used in today's Blackjack games produce cards that are nowhere near random. In general, as the number of decks increase, so does the non-randomness of the cards resulting from the shuffle; unless the number of riffles per deck also increases (which RARELY happens).

Basic Strategy assumes that the dealer always has a 10 in the hole. This is actually a fallacious assumption when you consider that only 30.8% of the cards are actually 10's. To assume the dealer always has a 10 in the hole is to be wrong 69.2% of the time. Can you say Oooops?
It is for this reason, many professional players consider Basic Strategy to be flawed when used in today's shoe games.
It was this realization that led me to the development of the first iteration of Basic Strategy II.

Because the computer simulations (which produced Basic Strategy) assume the cards to be random, it is also assumed in this "model" that the dealer break-ratio averages 28.3% (as computed by the Mean). In the article: The Truth about Dealer-breaking - Are We being Mis-led?, I argued that evaluating the dealer break-ratio in terms of the Mean (and not the Mode) may be to base your game evaluation regarding the efficacy of Basic Strategy on a flawed statistic. Such mis-evaluation discourages players from discovering the REAL REASONS for their losses when they play.


What is wrong with Basic Strategy

In Part I of this article series I suggested that Basic Strategy has some serious problems in today's live casino play; whether hand-shuffled or shuffled by machine. We also saw that a couple of mistakes per-hour can wipe out a player advantage; leading often to an eventual losing playing session.

Because Basic Strategy assumes random cards , players using such fixed strategies in today's fluid-games will find themselves increasingly out of synch with the games they play; blaming their losses on reasons other than the not-so-obvious orchestration of card-randomness.

When utilized in today's games, Basic Strategy's assumptions can be QUITE costly to the average player; and the casinos KNOW it. That is why casino managements go to great lengths to "orchestrate" their game offerings. While we're at it, has it ever occured to you to question WHY casinos allow Basic Strategy cards to be sold (for around $2) in their gift shops, if it TRULY drops the house edge from 8% down to 0.5%? You might rationalize that with thousands of hands dealt every day, they make it up in volume. Think about it - it would take MILLIONS of hands per day for the casino to overcome 8% with 0.5% in volume. The REAL reason casinos sell Basic Strategy cards is because their consultants have shown them that real world procedures take the theoretical 0.5% and quietly skew it to around 5% - not bad eh?

For example, it is manifestly proveable that Basic Strategy players suffer an increased house-edge when playing in [near-]full table conditions. Depopulate the table to 3 or 4 players and on average you will tend to see player improvement. Depopulate the table once again to 1 or 2 players, and Basic Strategy results improve, even more. This is one of the factors pointing to card non-randomness during casino play - in a "random game", number of players at the table should have virtually no effect on strategy outcome.

In Atlantic City, pit bossess have learned the art of creating 6 & 7 player games by closing down tables and giving dealers paid breaks. If you ask them why (as I did a shift-manager at the A.C. Tropicana) they will tell you that closing down tables saves on dealer costs. BULL! Those dealers are simply sitting in the break room or in a training session. As soon as they see potential players wandering around (because all current tables are full), out come two dealers and more tables are opened up. Dealer's are only paid minimum-wage (plus tips). If a casino is concerned about the cost of a few extra $50/day dealers, then either they are near bankruptcy, or, there is something ELSE going on.
The REAL reason tables are crowded is because FULL tables produce bigger win rates, given the same number of players playing.

The effects of the average number of players can also be linked to the shuffle in use by a casino. For example, in the early 90's Atlantic City's boardwalk "strip" near-universally adopted the dreaded "V-Shuffle". Against 5, 6 & 7 player games, the V-Shuffle is DEADLY to most players; in particular Basic Strategy. By 1994-95, the V-Suffle was almost universally abandoned, in favor of a series of other shuffles when it was "discovered" by some players that the V-Shuffle "breaks-down" in games with under 4 players; which frequently occurs from midnight to 3AM. As of April (2003) the V-Shuffle is back all over the Boardwalk; although not universally.
As a side-note: the Claridge has used the V-6 shuffle from 1993 to present.


Some Thoughts on Improving Basic Strategy

In order to survive in today's games, today's Basic Strategy players need to make a few modifications to their play. Blindly adhering to certain Basic Strategy plays can be quite costly.
For example, the three plays considered to be the most powerful in Blackjack are splitting Aces and Eights and Doubling-down on 11. If you look at the Action-Profit statistics for todays games using the Boris-for-Blackjack Simulation Software you will find that the efficacy of these plays has seriously eroded. My recommendations?:

  1. Against a 9, 10 or Ace, do NOT Split-Aces; count them as a TWO and HIT them instead. You have TWO chances to make a hand. (I've even seen players DOUBLE Ace-Ace against a dealer's 5 & 6 upcard; during low-ratio rounds, of course).

  2. Against a 9, 10 or Ace, do NOT Split 8-8. If surrender is offered, TAKE IT. If not, you have a 16. While basic normally hits 16 against a 9, 10 or Ace, because of like-card clumping in today's games you may wish to STAND on this border-line decision.

  3. Against a 9, 10 or Ace, do NOT Double-down; HIT your 11 instead. It's better to miss out on an occasional Double-down opportunity than to LOSE DOUBLE,when you consider that Low-ratio rounds are more prevalent than High-ratio; High-ratio rounds being double-down favorable.

Because Low-ratio rounds are more prevalent than High-ratio rounds, we see that the dealer's break-ratio is dramatically reduced. Well, think about it a moment: if the dealer faces a reduced risk of breaking, then so do you. Therefore to BLINDLY stand on all 13's (and most 12's) will find you "handing-over" many "recoverable" hands to the dealer. My recommendations:

  1. Hit ALL 12's - regardless of the dealer's up card - you only face a 30.8% (i.e. 4/13) risk of breaking. Because the dealer breaks more with a 5-Up than a 6-Up, you may wish to stand on 12 .vs. a 5.

  2. Hit ALL 13's except against a Dealer upcard of 5 or 6.

Just the above changes alone will give you back a few hands that you would normally blindly concede to the dealer. If you have trouble getting used to these plays, a few dozen shoes of practice against various 6 & 8 deck games in the Boris-for-Blackjack Simulation Software will go a long way towards building your confidence. With Boris, you can look at the stat-screen evaluation of these plays - the results may surprise you.

You may be asking where BETTING fits into all this. In fact it doesn't. Money management and methods of betting are actually separate topics.
In general, betting schemes and money management are WORTHLESS against a negative-expectation game. Correcting some of your playing mistakes paves the way for "creative" approaches to betting. Towards that end, I have been researching the Boris Universal Reverse Progression (B.U.R.P).
When we find the exact combination of game conditions best suited for B.U.R.P + modified-Basic, I will write it up for the Boris on Blackjack Website.


Beyond Basic Strategy

As discussed earlier, Basic Strategy is a "lose less" strategy. While we can make a few improvements to Basic for today's shoe games, those changes still represent a FIXED (not fluid) approach to a fluid-game. To consistently win $$$'s at Blackjack, you need to tackle one of the many card-count or clump-track strategies available. Articles atthe Boris on Blackjack Website will give you ideas of what kind of play (counting or clumping) best suits your abilities and temperment.

If you are a casual player, you will find Basic to be the perfect compromise between quality play and ease of learning to play accurate Blackjack. You probably won't win much money, but with judicious money management, you probably won't lose much either.



Updated: 05-20-2009

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