Tuesday, March 27, 2012

There is Such a Thing as a Free Breakfast!

             Last Friday morning, my wife and I went to see one of the first showings of The Hunger Games at the Red Rock Station.  She had read the book a couple of months ago and has been very excited about the movie coming out.  I can't remember the last time we went to see a movie on opening day.  Maybe on the Sunday of opening weekend, but at 9:30 a.m. show on Friday?  We got there by about 8:30 a.m. to make sure we got tickets.  Fortunately, the 6 people ahead of us didn't buy them all and try to scalp them!  So, by 8:31 a.m. we had our tickets and now had tome to go get some breakfast.

            We walked over to the buffet and found out that if you have one of their Boarding Pass frequent Player cards, they'll take $3 off the cost.  I didn't have mine on me, but I knew I had one, so we walked over to the Customer Service area, got a new card and saved our $6.  While we were getting our new cards, I noticed a promotion that they were running today.  If you earn 300 points, you get a free box of Girl Scout Cookies.  Limit 2 per person and they DON'T take any of your points for the box of cookies.  If we were looking for a place to play, this might have swayed us to stay - all other things being equal.  We usually buy Girl Scout Cookies every year.  They cost about $4 per box, so there is some real value to us.  If we were diabetic, or I found they only have the one variety of cookies we don't like, then the value of this promotion has to be discounted from the $4 price.

            I'm a firm believer in taking advantage of any/all promotions that the casinos want to throw at the Player.  But, you have to be smart about deciding the value that each has to you.  If your local supermarket runs a half-price sale on cold breakfast cereal, but you like oatmeal in the morning, the sale has little value to you.  If you're the type of person who is going to stock up anyhow - just in case - well, you're going to be doing the casino a big favor by chasing everything. 

            After the movie was over, we stopped at the Rampart Casino on our way home.  It is completely on the way to our place.  They are running a promotion that gives me $10 in free slot play - which of course, includes video poker as the casinos continue to erroneously equate the two.  The rule is you have to play the full $10, but you get to keep any of the return.  I sat down at a nickel Bonus Poker machine and played max-coin.  40 hands later, the machine said $12 and I left.  It took about 5-10 minutes.  Am I that hard up for $12?  Certainly not.  But for 5 minutes of my time, the Rampart picked up the tab for breakfast for me and my wife!  If I had sat down for an hour and played their short-pay machines and lost the $10 AND another $20, I would've played right into the casinos hands.

            These are the little benefits the casinos give to Players to try to bring them into the casino.  They'll give you a discount on meals.  They'll give you some free play.  It is no different than what the supermarkets do.  They put milk on sale and hope you'll pay full price for bread, pasta and cheese.  No one has ever complained about the supermarkets doing it, so no one should be surprised that the casinos do it as well.

            Just like the supermarkets, the casinos now give you points when you play.  I've heard some Players voice concern that the casinos use your Rewards card in less savory ways.   Some are worried that the casino will have you win less often if you use your card because they are in essence paying you to play.  From a computer perspective, this is certainly possible.   But, do people really believe that the casino will cheat (aka. break the law) to not give the 1/4% back to the Player that they are telling the Player they can have.  Caesar's Entertainment (formerly known as Bally's and Harrah's) has a market cap of over $1.5 BILLION.  I don't think they are going to risk that type of money so that they can cheat some Player out of his $5 cashback!

            The lesson for today is get the Rewards card.  Get everyone you can.  Keep a little box of them with you when you head out to the casinos.  When you play in a casino, ALWAYS use your card.  That said, be smart when determining the value of the rewards when you decide where to play.  Are you better off playing at a casino that gives 50% more rewards, but has lower paybacks?  If there is a promotion running that allows you to get a free meal at a steakhouse, but you're a vegetarian, it has no value.  If it is a steakhouse you love to eat at, then it is worth its face value. 

            Especially for video poker players who are (hopefully) playing at 99% paybacks and higher, taking that extra 1/4% - 1/2% from the casino can put you very close to an even game.  It will certainly cut the house advantage down considerably and your bankroll will certainly notice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Back to Video Poker

            I've spent 3 out of the last 4 weeks discussing Soft Hands in the games of blackjack, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch.  I did this for two reasons.  The first is that it is nice to write about something other than video poker once in a while.  The second is that it is frequently easier to illustrate important concepts by using games with more straightforward differences.  If you read my column this past month, you probably can understand why you don't use the same strategy for Soft Hands for these different games.  While they may be all blackjack based games, the differences created by removing the 10's (Spanish 21) and by having a Dealer Bust of 22 (Blackjack Switch) pushing against Player hands change the math, which in turn changes our strategy.

            One thing that these games have in common, for the most part, is the payouts.  A win is a win and you get paid even money.  Spanish 21 has its bonus hands and its Charlie payouts (which also effects strategy), but you don't have to worry about looking for a paytable to know what to do.  You just have to know which game you are playing.  I must admit that a very, very long time ago, I sat down at a Spanish 21 table not realizing for about 30 minutes that I wasn't playing regular blackjack!  When it finally hit me, I'm sure I turned a nice shade of red, something I don't do very often.

            The bottom line is that from my little detour on blackjack we learn that rule changes can and will change our strategy.  What we have to learn directly from video poker is that paytable changes can do the same thing.  One could argue that there really are no rule variations across virtually all video poker machines.  You are dealt 5 cards.  You decide which ones you want to replace.  You draw that many cards.  Games like Multi-Strike and some of the attempts at a 7-Card Stud game do manage to cross the rule line, in my opinion.  In the gray area are the games that use Wild Cards (Jokers and/or Deuces).  Are these really rule changes or paytable changes?  It really doesn't matter once you realize that both can have the same impact to our strategy.

            If I pick up a copy of Winning Strategies for Video Poker, I will find 27 different paytables JUST for jacks or better.  Admittedly, some of these paytables are pretty tough to find these days, but these paytables were considered to be the 'full-pay' paytables in a number of jurisdictions when the book was revised 15 years ago.  It purposefully left out many of the short-pay machines that are some of the most common both then and today.  There are probably 50-60 paytables in use today just for jacks or better.  

            Of course, in an ideal world, none of you reading this column would actually play any of the inferior paytables if given an opportunity to play one of the better ones, but that is not likely the reality.  Also, in order for this to happen, each of you would have to know how to determine which are the better paytables to actually play.  I'll save that for another column.

            Today's column is about understanding how the strategy changes as a result of a paytable change.  With dozens of paytables out there, each game could potentially have its own strategy.  This doesn't mean that if you bring your strategy from one game to another that you'll be committing bankroll suicide, but  you won't be helping yourself either.  In some cases, you might add another 1-2% to the house advantage by using the wrong strategy for any particular paytable.

            So, what is a Player to do?  First, you can't try to master every paytable out there.  I'm guessing there are not a lot of Experts who play regular blackjack, Spanish 21 and Blackjack Switch on a regular basis.  It is too easy to get parts of the strategy confused and then you start making mistakes.  Very quickly, 3 games each with paybacks of 99%+ become not nearly as strong for the Player.  The same is true of video poker.  After a while you're going to forget which games a 3-Card Straight Flush with 1 High Card outranks a 4-Card Inside Straight with 2 High Cards. 

            The key is to target a single game.  It should be a full-pay machine with a strong paytable.  Then, go out and learn the strategy.  Read a book.  Buy some software.  Practice at your desk.  ONLY when you have mastered the strategy should you venture out to the casino and play using real money.  Before you jump to play a different game, repeat the entire process all over again.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Soft Hand "Swtich"eroo

I’ve spent the last few weeks discussing some blackjack strategy. Blackjack strategies are developed the same way video poker strategies are. Using computers, we evaluate every option the player has and decide which will make the most or lose the least, as the case may be.
As in video poker, many decisions in blackjack are fairly obvious. It is the other hands, which are less obvious, that separate the beginners from the Expert Players.
One group of hands that falls in this category is the soft hands, where an Ace counts as an 11. Players have the option to double down, hit or stick on many of these hands. If you sit at a table for awhile, you’ll quickly find very few players play these hands correctly.
In regular blackjack, many of these hands create double down situations. This is because of the ability to improve the player’s hand AND the Ddaler’s likelihood of busting.
Last week, I showed how the strategy changes dramatically in Spanish 21 with the 10’s missing, and the reduced likelihood of the dealer busting. This week, I’ll take a look at what happens in Blackjack Switch where a Dealer 22 is a push.
In Blackjack Switch, the player must play two blackjack hands with equal wagers. The player then has the option to switch the second cards dealt to each hand. So, if dealt a 5-10 and a 10-6, you can turn that into a 5-6 and a 10-10 and greatly strengthen the hands. If dealt a 5-10 and a 6-10, then switching will do nothing.
The price the player pays for this option is if the dealer busts with a 22, all player hands still in action (except natural blackjacks) are pushed. This means a LARGE number of dealer busts wind up as pushes. Since we double down looking for dealer busts, this will alter our strategy greatly.
The strategy for soft hands in Blackjack Switch is rather simple. There are only FOUR times we double down. We double down on a soft 17 or soft 18 against a dealer 5 or 6. If we have a soft 17 or less and can’t double down (3-plus cards) then we hit. We stick on all soft 19’s or higher. For a soft 18, when we can’t double, we stick against an 8 or less and hit against a 9, 10 or Ace.
 Given how much doubling on soft hands adds to our payback in regular blackjack, how is it that in Blackjack Switch we can give up this benefit and still have a game that pays in the mid 99% range? It is the nature of the ability to switch that creates a bit of a paradox. We double down in far fewer situations in Blackjack Switch than regular blackjack because the Dealer Bust on 22 rule.
However, our starting hands (after the switch) are far stronger in Blackjack Switch than in regular Blackjack. In the case of soft hands, we will frequently perform a switch that will convert it from an ordinary soft hand into a 21 or a 20, leaving the other hand frequently in no worse shape.
So, while we lose the opportunity to double down on some of these soft hands, we instead gain stronger hands we don’t double down on. A 20 (hard or soft) is far preferable to a soft 17 – especially in Blackjack Switch.
While Blackjack Switch simplifies our soft hand strategy, it also adds an entire new layer of strategy by needing to know when to switch. This part of the strategy is far more important to achieving the theoretical payback than is the altered hit/stick strategy. However, I would strongly suggest you learn both!
Just as in video poker, when you change the payouts or the rules of the game, the strategy changes with it. While many of the switch decisions will be obvious, many will leave you scratching your head as to what is the better play.
Undoubtedly, there will also be times when you do the right thing and it backfires or you do the wrong thing and it works out. However, this doesn’t change what the right mathematical answer is. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right two times a day!
To help you learn the right strategy, I’m continuing to offer our Buy 1 Get 1 Free special. Buy Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch for $6.95 and get Expert Strategy for Spanish 21 for free. Both come with pocket-sized multi-color strategy cards to bring into the casino with you. If you’d like to order, please send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How do you say "Soft Hand" in Spanish?

            A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the strategy regarding Soft Hands in blackjack.  Soft Hands are those that contain an Ace which is counted as an 11.  Many of these hands should be played as a double down because of both the ability to significantly improve the hand (to a 17-21) AND due to the high probability that the Dealer will bust - as we mostly double down against Dealer Upcards of 2 through 6.

            As is the case with video poker, however, we must remember that the strategy changes with every paytable change or rule change.  We find slight changes to our strategy if we go from the Dealer hitting Soft 17 to the Dealer Sticking on all 17's.  However, if we go to the Blackjack variants of Blackjack Switch or Spanish 21, everything changes.

            In Spanish 21, the 10's have been removed from the decks, so that we are playing with a shoe of 48-card decks.  As may of us know, 10's and Face cards are our friends when playing blackjack.  They enable us to make good solid hands like 20's.  They help us Double Down on 10's and 11's and get strong hands.  Most importantly, they bust any Dealer hand above an 11.  When you hear about card counters, they are keeping track of the percent of 10's/Faces in the deck.  When there are more than 'normal', the game tips more into the Player's favor.  So, taking 4 of them out of each deck is NOT to the Player's advantage.

            Spanish 21 offsets this by giving the Player a host of other advantages.  The Player can double down on any number of cards.  So, if you start with a 5-3 and hit a 3 for 11, you can still double down.  Player 21's beat Dealer 21's.  Player Blackjacks beat Dealer Blackjacks.  There are also several 'bonus' 21 hands thrown in for free.  Get three 7's and win a small bonus.  The house advantage for Spanish 21 is about 0.8% which makes it a little greater than regular blackjack, but ONLY if you learn the proper strategy.

            Some of the biggest changes occur in the Soft Hands.  Not much changes in terms of how your hand will turn out.  The biggest impact is to the Soft 17's and 18's which have less of a chance to draw a 10, but a slightly greater chance to draw the little card you need to improve the hand.  The problem is that the Dealer will Bust less often.  The Bust rate for a Dealer 6 goes from 44.6% in regular blackjack to 40.6% in Spanish 21.  The changes to the Bust rate is enough to get us to make radical changes to our Soft Hand strategy. 

            To begin with, we NEVER Double down on a Soft 13 through 15 in Spanish 21.  We simply hit these hands.  We Double Down on a Soft 16 only against a 6.  However, if we have 4 cards or more, we hit these hands (remember that you can Double on 3 cards in Spanish 21).  Since there are special payouts for 5, 6 or 7+ card 21's, the lure of these payouts is stronger than the ability to Double Down. 

            Soft 17's are Doubled Down against a Dealer 4, 5 or 6.  BUT, only if the Player has 2 cards against the 4, 3 (or less) cards against the 5 and 4 (or less) cards against the 6.  If he has more cards than the minimum, he hits the hand in search of the 5+ card 21.

            Soft 18's bring us the most opportunities to Double Down.  We stick against a 7, but will Double Down even against an 8 as long as we have 3 cards or less.  We also Double Down against a 6 (5 cards or less), a 5 (4 cards or less) or a 2 through 4 (3 cards or less).

            Essentially we throw out everything we know about Soft Hands in Blackjack if we are planning on learning how to play Spanish 21.

            Next week, I'll discuss Soft Hands in Blackjack Switch and the impact of the Push on Dealer 22 rule on our strategy.  For those that want to get a jump on learning, I'm offering a 2 for 1 deal.  Order Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch for $6.95 and get Expert Strategy for Spanish 21 for free.  Both books include a multi-color pocket-sized strategy card.  Send check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133.