Is your Playing Strategy
Costing you Money? - Part II

(This is a rewrite of a proposed article for the BABJ, originally written in Feb. 1994.)

In part I of this article I introduced the concept of card-clumping and its effects in today's game of Blackjack. This month I am going to continue this discussion, looking at ways you can turn this clumping to your advantage.

To most players, the concept of card clumping is a relatively new idea. If you have a copy of Jerry Patterson's Break the Dealer (first published in 1986) you will recall he gave a cursory discussion on the subject. However it may surprise you to know that the first specific knowledgeable reference to the discussion of clumped cards was made by none other than Ken Uston in his 1977 book The Big Player; although it was merely a remark made in passing: "There is the possibility, too, that when new cards are brought into play, the house advantage can be increased through inadequate shuffling of the new deck, which results in clumping of identical cards." (For more Uston quotes on card-clumping, click here.)

While card-clumping has existed to some degree since the game began, as we have seen (in Part I of this article) it was around 1982 when casinos in Atlantic City, losing their right to bar players, began to contract out for research legal methods which succeed at increasing the table hold, such as shuffling techniques which exaggerate card clumping conditions.

Although single-deck games can be clumped (have you played in Jackpot Nevada lately?), in general, the more decks in the game, the greater the degree of clumping. During the summer months Atlantic City has an even deadlier weapon. The summer humidity combined with the salt air makes the cards stick, which tends to clump the cards even further.

While A/C casinos have the right to shuffle preferentially, this will happen only under extreme conditions, for two reasons: 1) Shuffling 6 or 8 decks results in downtime, time when the dealer is not taking the players money; 2) additional shuffling will usually succeed in breaking up dealer-favorable clumping, reducing the house edge even further.

In Part I (of this article) I mentioned that most, if not all, Thorp/Braun derived strategies are based upon computer studies which utilized a near-random shuffle. Because casino shuffles are nowhere near random, these strategies teach you beat a non-existent game. As a result, Basic Strategy and most card-counting systems are seriously flawed. Think about it a moment. If Basic Strategy was really THAT powerful, would casinos selling Basic Strategy crib cards in their gift shops for about $2-$3 a pop?

Computers can Help - SOMETIMES

To beat today's games you need plenty of practice before hitting your favorite casino. Because of the educational nature of computers, playing against computer software has many advantages. A couple of obvious advantages to the use computer software is that you are spared the tedious task of shuffling the cards properly and the computer can keep statistics on your the quality of your play (if properly designed to do so). Unfortunately, most computer software available on the market has many drawbacks. Most programs do not allow you to chose your favorite casino environment, or allow you to setup a full table of players.

Most important however, with two known exceptions most Blackjack software utilize variations on a random shuffle. You are wasting your time practicing with computer software unless it is accurately simulating casino conditions; most specifically, the shuffle(s) in use there.

The only software that I know of which allows you to select proper casino shuffles as well as the correct rules of play is Boris' Casino Blackjack Simulation Facility designed by the Casino Gaming Software Systems. The "icing on the cake" with Boris is the thorough statistics kept which include information on the table/dealer as well as all the players at each table. With Boris, you practice against an accurate simulation of the real world. At any time you can review the statistics to pin-point your playing mistakes. You can even output the summary statistics to your favorite spreadsheet program for analysis.

When you play against Boris don't be surprised to find (as I did) that Basic Strategy and/or your conventional counting approach doesn't beat the dealer anymore. Don't despair, there are solutions. For example, I developed a replacement for Basic Strategy in the shoe game, known as Basic Strategy II. It not only changes the strategy tables, but also uses a different approach to betting. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to write it up here. At this point let it suffice for me to say that against clumped cards, a different approach is necessary.

To understand this more thoroughly, let's dispel a few myths regarding the game:


The dealer usually has a ten in the hole.


Only 30.8% of the cards are tens. If we add 9's to this, the number climbs to only 38.4%. Adding 8's (which are normally considered neutral cards) to this count we come up to only 46%. As you can see, assuming that the dealer has a high holecard is a BAD BET!


Tens and Aces are the most important cards in the deck.


Although the Ace can lead to a player Blackjack, with that exception, the card is actually more dealer favorable, especially when they must draw to a stiff 16. Tens are worthless if they are overly clumped. At such times, "walls" of tens usually end with players pushing with the dealer or losing. This succeeds in taking these [so-called] player-favorable cards out of play.


When you are winning, spread to multiple hands.


In a clumped game, spreading to multiple hands often upsets the delicate balance of the shoe, handing the advantage back to the dealer. Casino management is well aware of this. It is not unlike sandwiching a "loose" slot machine between two "tight" ones.


When the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 upcard, she has a breaking hand - I should double down whenever possible.


More often than not the dealer will have a low card in the hole, making a dangerous hand. If you double (amidst a clump of low-cards), you will probably get a low card. Out of a clump of low cards, the dealer will draw two low cards to beat you. If the clump switches to high, it will only take one card to beat you.


The five is the most powerful dealer card.


Recent studies indicate that 5's, 6's, 7's and 8's often combine easily allowing dealers to draw strong hands. 2's, 3's and 4's are also good drawing cards.

Possible Solutions

For card counters, there is a simple approach I call Clump-counting. Traditional counting approaches have us increase our bets as the count increases. Clump-counting works in the reverse. Think about it a moment - there is only one reason why the count increases - low (i.e. dealer-favorable) cards are coming out. To increase your bet at this time is to risk higher stakes when the dealer has advantage - clearly foolish.

With Clump-counting, you are not nearly as concerned with the actual count as you are with the direction it is going (i.e. up or down). As long as the count is increasing (i.e. a dealer favorable clump), stick with minimum bets. Eventually, the count will peak and begin to drop. With a -3 or more drop in a simple count (i.e. a player-favorable clump), you are more likely to win your hands because player-favorable cards are coming out; which is why the count is dropping. It doesn't matter whether the count is significantly negative or positive. All that is important is the DIRECTION of the count. The Rate Of Change (ROC) can give you further information about how to bet and play your hands. However, that is beyond the scope of this article.

When playing your hands, against dealer-clumps it is safer to hit your stiff hands even against a dealer's "stiff" upcard. Regardless of the dealer's upcard, you will want to be more conservative with your double-down plays. Against a player-clump, double-downs become a better play. Then again, hitting 12's and 13's become more questionable.

Quite likely, the above goes against the grain of what you know about Blackjack. However it is manifestly provable in the casino, and/or with Boris, before finding out the hard way in the casino. Boris tracks dealer-favorable vs. player-favorable clumps for you.

Do Casinos REALLY Fear card-counting anymore?

With the exception of the Barbary Coast in Las Vegas, have you noticed that most multi-deck casinos aren't too worried about card counters anymore? I bought my first copy of Revere's Playing Blackjack as a Business at (of all places) the gift shop in the Excalibur Hotel. Remember, this book used to be most feared by casino executives. That they are now willing to sell this book should tell you something.

We have seen that while Blackjack is still a beatable game, it has changed significantly. Against the shoe games, because of card-clumping most published strategies are highly flawed. In many cases, even single and double deck games exhibit these same clumped characteristics and need to be played cautiously.

The Truth is: Practice, Study, Practice

The emergence of new strategies and computer software like Boris' Casino Blackjack Computer Software brings the ship-of-state full circle to favor the player once again. However, it isn't as simple as taking a Magic Pill. Thorough study of the game and sincere practice are still required. It is better to spend a considerable amount of time learning to play a handful of different (but possibly similar) casinos, than to rush off to the play with only a smattering of knowledge and practice.

For example, in Las Vegas, because they all use a Stutter Shuffle followed by a Straight-Thru Shuffle, learning to play/beat Caesars Palace, The Mirage, Treasure Island or Bally's will keep you in practice for ALL of those casinos. Luckily, they are also all located in a [long] one block area, making it easy to bop from one to another. The differences between them lie in the kind of WASH they use when bringing in new cards.

For years the various "religions" of card-counting have been irating against the "heresy" of Clump-card play. While a few of these players have recently conceded that clumping MAY exist, they deny that there is any method which can reliably take advantage of non-random cards. We have been told by these players for over 3 years that the reason they no longer play Atlantic City is because of lousy rules and poor penetration.

I have PLAYED Atlantic City in 1996 and 97 and found not only rules equal to or BETTER than Las Vegas, but consistently 75% - 80% penetration as well. However it seems clear that Atlantic City games (which are mostly 8-deck), because of their non-random shuffles and washes, are HARDLY card-counter games. Instead of irating against us Clump-Trackers for having acknowledged that the game has changed and developed strategies to play it, they should take the time to find out what is real in life and learn to play those conditions.

As I see it, you have two choices. You can stick to card-counting and Basic Strategy, forever searching for those elusive 1 and 2 deck games with enough penetration and no heat to allow you to play. Or, you can study the shoe game, in all its non-random glory, and learn to play what is now the most prevalent of all Blackjack games: the Clumped Shoe. The choice is up to you.
Happy Blackjack!

This article is Copyright 1994, 1998 Human Insights Group - All Rights Reserved.

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