My blackjack-playing friend Jim phoned to ask if he could meet me for lunch. "I want to see the exasperation in your face when I tell you," he said.
Tell me what?
"See you at lunch."
I'm not easily exasperated, so I was puzzled as to what he thought would do it.
"You wouldn't believe the blackjack system some guy tried to convince me to play," Jim said as we sat down to order.
A blackjack system? That's what you think will exasperate me.
"I know," he said. "You've seen them all, and probably a few more. But this one is so simple, it's stupid."
OK, tell me about it.
"The premise is that players lose by approximately the amounts they 'waste' doubling down and splitting pairs. The guy even handed me a paper with an explanation. Take a look at this."
Jim handed me two pages stapled together, with big type at the top that said, "Why Do You Lose at Blackjack?"
There followed this explanation:
"Why do you lose at blackjack? If you're like I used to be, it's because you get caught up in too much of the sideshow. You don't stick to the game. You make extra bets. You pay extra money to split pairs, and you pay extra money to double down.
"Now look at the dealer. He doesn't split pairs. He doesn't double down. And before long, he has all your money.
"Count it up at the end of a session sometime. I did, and the light came shining through. I'd lost a THOUSAND DOLLARS playing $25-a-hand blackjack. How much do you think I'd wasted in extra bets, the splits and doubles, in that session? A THOUSAND DOLLARS."
At this point, I started laughing, the paper shaking.
"Is that an exasperated laugh?" Jim asked, starting to laugh himself.
I wanted to make sure I'd heard right in the first place, that somebody just gave this to Jim.
"Yeah, after I'd walked away from a table. He handed me this paper, and told me, 'Here, maybe this will change your luck.'"
For the worse, I would imagine. At least he wasn't selling it.
"You haven't even read the whole thing yet. It says you should never waste money on extra bets --- splitting pairs and doubling down --- and that you should just make the same plays as the dealer, standing on all 17s or higher and hitting all 16s or lower."
What I'm about to tell you is not from my conversation with Jim. He's a good player, and knows all this already.
Playing dealer's strategy is one of the worst ways around to attack blackjack. You're not playing under the same conditions as the dealer. What's different? You have the first chance to go bust, and if you bust, you lose, even if the dealer also busts.
That's the entire basis for the house edge in blackjack. If you and the dealer both play dealer's strategy, you'll each bust 28 percent of the time. There's an overlap of 8 percent --- on 8 percent of all hands, you and the dealer will both bust. You lose those hands.
The house gives us back 2.3 percent of that 8 percent house edge by paying us 3-2 on blackjacks. (In games that pay 6-5 on blackjacks, the house gives back only 0.9 percent. Avoid those games.)
The remainder of the house edge, you have to fight to take back, and you don't do it by playing dealer's strategy or by refusing to "waste" money on extra wagers. Playing proper basic strategy for hitting and standing gives you back part of that edge.
You take back most of the rest by making those extra bets, by splitting pairs and doubling down at the proper times. In situations where you have an edge, you want to drive it home by getting more money on the table. You do that by doubling down on the right hands, and in many pair-splitting situations. Other times, you play defense, splitting a pair that gives you a bad total to make two playable hands instead.
The system on the paper handed to Jim would leave you facing a house edge of 5.7 percent. Blackjack played that way would be one of the worst table games in the casino. Learn your basic strategy, split and double at the right times, and you cut the house edge all the way down to about 0.5 percent on a multiple-deck game, a few tenths of a percent more or less depending on house rules.
When are the proper times to split and double down? I've written about that before, but I'll give a little refresher course next week.
Meantime, if anybody tries to give you a system that calls splitting and doubling a waste, well, you know what to do with it?
"Do you want to shred it, or shall I," Jim asked.
Let me take it home, I told him. I'll shred it there.
Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds" tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago, streaming online at www.wbbm780.com, and to his casino talk show from 7 to 8 p.m. Saturday on WCKG-FM (105.9), streaming at http://1059freefm.com.