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Back in the days when men were men and women played slots, back when blackjack was dealt exclusively from a single deck down to the last card, everybody who knew anything agreed that playing head-to-head against the dealer was the only way to go. In the first place, more players meant less rounds in favorable situations. Situations which you might have waited hours for in order to jump your wager. In the second place, once you finally reached the promised land and encountered a plus deck, you didn't want the knucklehead playing first base to get the no-brainer you were betting on. Thirdly, if the house was foolhardy enough to deal all the way down to the bottom of the deck and you were fortunate enough to have the table all to yourself, there were some devastating tactics made possible by the technique known as end-play. The only downside to such a scenario was that if you were flying solo, your act had better have been damned good. After all, the pit boss had nobody to look at but you.
The Demise of the Single Decker
Sad to say, but the day of the juicy single-decker has gone the way of the penny slot machine. Although there are indeed single deck games being offered, the nature of the game has changed so dramatically that even the most powerful of attacks have proven all but futile. The rules have been bent so far in the house's advantage - doubling only permitted on 10 & 11, no re-splitting allowed, dealer draws to A6 - that what had once been even money to a basic strategist and a candy store to a card counter is little better than a slot machine with cards. End play has been relegated to the bone heap since I have yet to see a see a casino that would consider dealing more than 66% into the deck on its one-deck games. Not to mention the fact that spreading your bet more than 1-3 in both single and double-deck games will get you the bum's rush in no time flat. While there are still a few playable double-deckers out there, those that permit the same rules as typical shoe-dealt games and deal at least 75% into the cards, playable pitch games have become something of an endangered species.
Mousetrap for Card Counters
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Speaking of danger, I remember all too well a single-deck game that used to be offered at the Gulfport Grand back in the late 90's. It was a solo act with a big sign that read, "1-Deck Dealt all the Way to the Bottom!" I remember several of my teammates pointing out this anomaly to me. What was even stranger was that the game was offering phenomenal rules that were virtually the same as those offered on their 6-deck games. The game was so juicy that I immediately realized why the casino offered it.
"Boys, what you have there is a mousetrap for card counters," I explained to them as soon as we hit the parking garage. Instead of having to watch every game looking for knowledgeable players, why not simply offer a game with a big old piece of cheese instead? I guarantee you they watch that table like a hawk. Don't any of you even think about sitting down at that game.
The More the Merrier
That brings us to the multi-deck game. Where in the single-deck environment, rules and penetration are antithetical to a player’s fiscal health, both rules and cuts in many shoe-dealt games are generous to say the least. Doubling permitted after splitting, player may re-split up to four times, what's not to like? It also isn't unusual to find a deck to deck and a half cut on six-deck games, the equivalent of a dealer in a one-deck pitch game dealing down to the last 9 cards. Nor is it difficult to get away with considerable bet spreads in multi-deck games. However, in any shoe-dealt game - be it 4,6, or 8-decks - playing head-to-head is the worst possible way you can play.
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By its very nature, a multiple deck game can produce negative counts for hours on end. The ratio of big bets to rent bets at a full table in a six-deck game is something on the order of 1-8. This is on a table that you the card counter know is producing plus counts. If you walk up to a cold table, one where the dealer is standing with his or her arms folded, the amount of rent you could wind up coughing up before you encounter favorable conditions could well be staggering. Besides the fact that unless a shift change is in progress or you are opening up the day shift, a dealer standing at a dead table is a sure sign that the previous players have all been summarily executed. The only time that a knowledgeable player is happy to be at a six-deck game all alone is when the count is high and everyone else has taken a powder. Then it's off to the races.
Blackjack: The Next Generation
Perhaps future generations will be able to relive the glory days of head-to-head play should the casino industry once more offers fair one-deck pitch games. Maybe casino management will someday realize that an occasional winner, far from being detrimental to the bottom line, serves to bolster player participation which in fact increases profitability. However, until that fateful day comes, I'm sorry to say that head-to-head is dead.
Carl Van Eton is a blackjack player with more than 20 years of professional playing experience. If you want to play better blackjack, check out his Big Game Blackjack website.