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Best of Donald Catlin

Gaming Guru

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Dealing Out Advice

1 September 2002

My favorite casino game is Blackjack. You might think that it is my favorite because I can count cards and win lots of money. Not so. I seldom count cards; most of the time I just play Basic strategy. Oh sure, I watch the cards and if a lot of little cards go by I bump up my bet and may not hit that 16 versus the dealer's 10 or that 12 versus the dealer's 3. Years ago my buddy Jocko and I used to fly to Las Vegas and play Revere level 2 against single decks (does that date me or what?). But nowadays, most of the time, I just play Basic. No, the reason I like Blackjack is that it is a very social game. When you get a table of nice folks with a pleasant dealer it is truly an entertaining and exhilarating experience, win or lose. Of course, this social aspect of the game occasionally has a downside to it as well.

In his 1995 book Best Blackjack (Bonus Books, Chicago), Frank Scoblete coined the term ploppy. A ploppy is an obnoxious, rude, inconsiderate, or otherwise undesirable person found in a casino. The term seems to work well as either a noun or an adjective. One such ploppy is the person who gives unsolicited advice to other players at a Blackjack table. I consider this behavior just plain rude. It displays arrogance and embarrasses the player receiving the advice. I never give unsolicited advice. For one thing I really don't care how other players play their hands. All of the Blackjack gurus agree that bad play by others helps you as often as it hurts you. I'll admit that when I recently sat at a game where a player stood on 14 versus 10 and then later hit a 15 against a 6 it made me wince. But I kept my mouth shut. I felt sorry for the player because I knew he was going to be a big loser but, after all, it was his money, not mine, and his poor play wasn't hurting me.

There is another reason to not give unsolicited advice to other players. A card counter or a slug cutter will occasionally make some unusual plays and I am sure that they would not like someone calling special attention to them. If you do voice your so-called expertise, you just might be giving unsolicited advice to someone who knows more about the game than you do and who doesn't appreciate either the criticism or the attention.

Occasionally some novice player at a table will ask me for advice. I am reluctant to give advice but sometimes they will be insistent. Here is what I say: "I would play the hand thus and so but it's your money so you play it as you see fit." Until very recently I had no trouble giving advice in this manner. On my last trip to Las Vegas this past June, however, I had a very unpleasant experience in this regard. It is not what you are probably thinking. No, a player did not get angry with me because he took my advice and lost the hand.

I was playing at one of the major strip hotels; it was where I was staying. My seat was at third base and a player two seats to my right was dealt a 12; the dealer showed a 2. The player asked me how I would play the hand. Giving my usual response I said "Although it's a hand that I don't like to play, I would hit that hand because it is the best play in the long run. But it's your money so do what you think best." All of a sudden the dealer piped up and started arguing with me, telling me that my advice was all wrong. She cited that old chestnut about the 2 being the "dealer's Ace" and some other stuff that I don't remember since I was so flabbergasted. I told her that the strategy cards her hotel sells in its sundries shop agree with my advice, but she would have none of it. The poor guy that had asked me how to play the hand didn't know what to do. Finally, a quiet, soft-spoken guy at the second seat leaned over and said to the player: "He's right, you should hit that hand." The player did.

Later on when a player doubling on a 5 - 5 versus the 6 was asked if he wanted one card or two he asked the dealer if anyone ever split fives. This same dealer told him yes and then went on to say: "Never split anything that begins with f." We were playing a multiple-deck game that allowed doubling after splitting; in this game one should split 4 - 4 versus the dealer's 5 and 6. Now hitting the 4 - 4 instead of splitting in this situation is no big deal but listening to this mouthy dealer hand out incorrect advice a second time was too much. I kept my mouth shut, shook my head, and left the game ($325 to the good I'm happy to report).

I know that dealers almost always advise players to take even money when their Blackjack faces an Ace. It's bad advice but I suspect that the casino, not the dealer, is the impetus behind this advice. My own view is that dealers should keep all of their advice to themselves. Even so, a player will occasionally insist on advice. There are two ways a dealer can handle this. One, the dealer can say "I'm sorry, I deal this game but I don't play it. I don't know the correct way to play that hand." On the other hand, the dealer could learn proper Basic strategy for the game being dealt so that she (or he) can give accurate advice. In this second case, however, the dealer should never give unsolicited advice. It is bad enough that Blackjack players have to occasionally deal with ploppy players, but there is no excuse for a casino to foist ploppy dealers on the gambling public.

See you next month.

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers