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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Best not to murmur while card-counting

23 December 2006

Dear Mark: Unfortunately, the video poker machines where I play are all "tight." Therefore, I have been considering going back to the $5 blackjack tables. I try to count, most of the time, and I'd say I was fairly proficient at it but I've always wondered . . . if you had your druthers, which table seat would you like to have (first base, third base, anywhere, when you're counting). Does a different seat have any advantage, at all? Don H.

For the average player, or even someone who benefits from the use of perfect basic strategy, seat position has little significance on the player's expected return. But for card counters who use strategy variations, it is probably best to sit at the last taken seat to the dealer's right (third base) in order to see as many cards as possible before playing your hand.

By the way, Don, it is a mistaken belief that incorrect play by someone at third base always "takes the dealer's bust card" or "gives the dealer a card that always seems to beat the table." Not so. As long as the shuffle is randomized, improper play by other players will just as likely help as hurt you. Randomness neither sulks nor guffaws.

Dear Mark: What is the easiest card-counting system there is for blackjack? Daniel P.

Card counting, Daniel, is not restricted to any one method. There are plenty of systems available, but there is a tradeoff between ease of use and theoretical power. The more complex the system, the harder it is to use. The central idea is simply that a deck rich in high cards favors the player and a deck rich in low cards favors the dealer. Therefore, the goal of any worthwhile counting system is to track the changing imbalance of big to little cards in the diminishing deck. When that ratio favors the counting player, he or she bets more money; when it favors the dealer, the counter bets less.

The crudest and probably easiest form of card counting is eyeballing the game, that is, when you see a lot of big cards played you decrease your bet, with small cards you increase it. It is still a form of counting in the eyes of some in casino management that just recently got Yours Truly backed off a game.

The next simplest would probably be the ace/five count; it requires that you count only the aces and fives, and it's preferably used on a multiple-deck game. You increase your bets from one to three units when there are more aces than fives still in the deck. It doesn't give you the biggest edge, only around a half of 1%, but supplementing it with perfect basic strategy, you're at least playing in the black against the house.

One of the easier and more popular card counting systems for the game of blackjack is a one level count, a.k.a. the Hi-Lo system. The Hi-Lo system consists of assigning a point value of +1, 0 or –1 to every card dealt. Cards numbered 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 get +1; 7, 8 and 9 cards are counted as 0; and aces and 10-point cards are assigned a value of -1. You keep a running total and vary your bets, from one hand to the next, guided by the constantly updated imbalance figure, which predicts whether the next hand will favor you or favor the dealer.

Any bookstore would carry books on the subject of card counting, but your best bet is to check at the Gamblers Book Shop (gamblersbooks.com or 800-522-1777). The Gamblers Book Shop probably has every book written and software program created on the subject, meritoriously described in their FREE catalog.

Final recommendation: Even with a theoretical advantage varying from 0.5% to 1.5%, you shouldn't quit your day job!

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Having experience playing poker is a very useful tool. It allows you to recognize your mistakes when you make them again." --VP Pappy

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.