Saturday Morning Gaming: Blackjack Theory
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.)