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Best of Gary Trask

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Top-10 mistakes made at the blackjack table

1 December 2008

Let's face it: It's difficult enough to win when you visit a casino. But when you make simple or careless mistakes, the dreaded "house edge" is painfully exacerbated, particularly when it comes to blackjack.

Blackjack is the most popular game and it has the lowest house edge of any other game in the casino. There's even a "basic strategy" to follow in case you have no idea what you're doing. But even still, beginners are prone to making the kind of mistakes that can quickly drain their hard-earned bankroll.

In the spirit of helping those players improve their chances at the blackjack table, Casino City sought out the thoughts of three experts in the field – including Jeffrey Ma , the protagonist of the best-selling book "Bringing Down the House" and the motion picture "21" – to find out what they think are the Top-10 mistakes amateur blackjack players make. Here's what they came up with.

10. Sitting at the wrong table
It's the first decision you make and if you don't do it wisely you are setting yourself up for failure before you even pull out your wallet.

"If you're a beginner or someone who is new to the game you don't want to come in and sit down at a $25 minimum table or you're going to lose everything you have in a hurry," says Nick Kallos, the owner of the Casino Gaming School in Las Vegas.

"Check the card on the table before you sit down. Make sure you're comfortable with the minimum bet and check the rules of the game because they vary from casino to casino. Check and see if it's a single-deck table or a multiple-deck table. Find out if you can double down on something other than a 10 or an 11. These are the kinds of things that you need to know before you start playing."

9. Using the "Martingale Theory"
Some blackjack players like to adjust their bets according to how they fared in the previous hand. There's even a strategy called the Martingale Theory that says you should double your bet after a loss and keep doubling it until you win a hand. The theory behind it is that you are eventually going to win a hand. But Alan Brechman, an instructor at the Casino Dealers Academy in Florida and a self-professed blackjack card-counter, says this is a recipe for disaster.

"This is something that could work for a while and for a short period of time it may seem like a perfectly logical strategy," says the 70-year-old New Jersey native. "But there will always be that time when you lose 10, 11 or 12 hands in a row and then you're completely busted in matter of 15 minutes. You're playing with fire if you do this."

8. When and when not to hit a "stiff"
There's a time to hit on 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 and time not to.

"If the dealer has a six or less and you're also sitting there with a 'stiff,' you don't want to hit," says Kallos, who says he has worked in the casino industry for more than 35 years. "But if the dealer has a seven or better, you've got to try and improve your hand. You've got to remember that the object is to beat the dealer's hand, not try and get to 21."

7. Not splitting 8s
It's pretty obvious that you should split your hand when dealt aces. It's not so obvious to do it with 8s.

"You want to do it against every hand except for a 10, if surrender is available," says Ma, the former MIT student who made millions as part of a team that counted cards in casinos across the world. "Most people don't realize it but that's the correct play."

6. Splitting 10s
Sure, if you split 10s you're giving yourself a chance to start two hands with a good chance of winning. But you're also giving away a 20, which is as good as you can get without hitting blackjack.

"Never, ever, ever, ever split 10s," Kallos warns. "I can't say it enough, yet I still see a lot of people do it. It's a crazy move."

5. Not doubling soft hands
Soft hands – those that include an ace – can be the most confusing for a beginner. One thing many players forget to do is to consider doubling down when presented an ace-6 or ace-7.

"It's the right play," says Ma, who is working on a book about casino gaming and is also involved with a social networking-fueled company called Citizen Sports Network. For more information you can become one of Ma's friend on Facebook . "It's part of basic strategy, but a lot of people don't do it and it can cost you."

4. Misplaying a 13
This is another hand that a lot of people misplay, according to Ma.

"I think most people realize that if you've got a 12 and the dealer is showing a 2 that you want to hit," Ma says. "But for some reason I don't think most people do it when the dealer is showing a 3 and that's a mistake."

3. Confirmation bias
This is a term that Ma has coined and he will explain in thoroughly in his forthcoming book. Basically what it means is that the decisions that other people at the table make shouldn't affect the way you play the game.

"I get asked all the time about what people should do when other people at the table make bad moves and I always say that it shouldn't matter to you what everyone else is doing," Ma explains. "The cards are random. And believe me, the player who makes stupid moves will help you just as much as they will hurt you. People don't want to believe this because they only remember the times that they were hurt by it. It helps you just as much."

2. Buying insurance
Unless you're an experienced card counter, buying insurance is never a good play.

"It's simple math," Brechman says. "The odds of a dealer having blackjack if they are showing an ace are 9-to-4 and you're paying 2-to-1. Does that sound like a good bet? Of course not. Then why do people even consider insurance?"

1. Not learning basic strategy
The lesson to be learned by this article is pretty simple. Many of the above mistakes can be avoided simply by learning basic strategy. And that doesn't mean looking at basic strategy card for five minutes before you go out and play.

"A lot of people think they know it, but they don't," Ma says. "I have people tell me all of the time that they know it and then I ask what they would do in a couple of quick scenarios and they don't know the correct play."

"People can be lazy and they don't want to take the time to learn it," Brechman says. "If everybody played basic strategy the casinos would have to change the rules of the game. They'd still be making money, but it would be at such a small rate that they'd have to do something about it. In blackjack, there's always a right play and a wrong play. A lot of the time the player makes the wrong play and that's when the casino makes their money. It's that simple."

Recent Articles
Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT