By John Grochowski
There are certain plays in blackjack that will draw attention in the pit. “Splitting 10s,” I’ve heard the dealer call out to the pit supervisor. Or “Doubling on hard 12.”
The pit supervisor might just glance over and nod, taking note of the player making the odd move. Or the supervisor might walk over and watch the hand. Surveillance might even get in on the act. They’ll want to know if the player splitting 10s just doesn’t know or doesn’t care about basic strategy, or if he or she is a card counter who’s spotted a favorable situation.
Sometimes a play is so unusual that everybody has to see how it plays out. So it went when I found myself at the same Las Vegas table as a player determined to hit hard 17. It’s not an advanced counter’s play, just a bad one. But everybody had to watch.
It started with a player who was dealt a 9 and an 8 while the dealer had a 10 face up. The rest of the table had decent cards. No one busted. I had an 18, while there were a couple of 20s table, a 19 and two more 17s. None are guaranteed winners against a 10, but we were all in the game.
When the player signaled to hit, there were groans all around. “You have 17,” the dealer said flatly. The player nodded and signaled again. “You can’t be serious,” one 30-ish man said, while another older gent said, “You really don’t want to do that.”
He insisted he did indeed want to hit, and the dealer called out, “Player hits hard 17.”
That brought stares from other dealers and players throughout the pit, and brought two supervisors over to watch the outcome.
A 3 came out of the shoe, and now the player had 20. I laughed, others shook their heads, and the older fellow said, “Someone watches over fools, I guess.”
It was the dealer’s turn. Her face down card was a 2. The next card was a 9. She had 21. The entire table lost.
Now the older fellow was shaking. “Do you see that? If you hadn’t taken that 3, she’d have had it, and then that 9 would have busted her.” He picked up his chips and stormed off.
I just took a deep breath and stayed put. Others’ bad plays help you as often as they hurt you. This was just a time that it hurt.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just a random, atypical play. It was part of this player’s normal playing pattern. I was at the table another half hour, and watched as he hit hard 17 twice more, once against a 9, once against another 10. He busted both times.
When he signaled to hit against the 9, I leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath. Every other player at the table tried to talk him out of the play. He held firm, and offered an explanation.
“You have to assume the dealer has a 10 down, don’t you? That means he probably has 19, and my 17 loses. I have to hit. I don’t know why the rest of you don’t.”
Of course, assuming the dealer has 10 down will lead you astray. Only 30.8 percent of the cards in the deck are 10 values. Taking into account that the dealer checks for blackjack when he or she has an 10 up and so we can assume there is no Ace face down when it comes time for our hit/stand decision, the dealer will have something other than a 10 down two-thirds of the time.
But no one at the table could convince Mr. Hit-17 of that, not even the fellow who screamed, “IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY.”
The supervisors and everyone within viewing distance watched every time. Sometimes, you just can’t look away.
ONE FOR THE TABLE: The player who insisted on hitting hard 17 did wind up costing the whole table money the first time he did it, but I can’t stress enough that bad players will help the rest of us as often as they hurt us. There’s nothing magical about card order, and a bad play is just as likely to take away a card that would strengthen the dealer’s hand as it is to take the dealer’s bust card.
It’s been a couple of decades since I reached the point that I could just take it calmly when someone else’s play cost me a bet. Maybe next time their misplay will help me win. If you can’t convince yourself of that, then your best play is probably the one the older fellow made after the hand in question. Leave for a different table, where there’s no bad player to agitate you.
John Grochowski writes about casino games and the gambling industry in his weekly “Gaming” column, which is syndicated in newspapers and Web sites across the United States. John is also the author of six books on casinos and casino games.