Sklansky Talks Blackjack

David Sklansky is well-known as a poker authority, having written The Theory of Poker. But Sklansky is also a general gambling writer, especially as it relates to the math of gambling. And Sklansky Talks Blackjack offers a way to learn basic strategy and its deviations without memorizing charts.

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Review and Summary of Sklansky Talks Blackjack

David Sklansky is well known as one of the leading authors on poker today. He is less well-known as a blackjack expert, but according to his introduction to Sklansky Talks Blackjack, only about 50 people in the world play blackjack better than he does. We tend to think that Mr. Sklansky enjoys making claims about how smart he is, but we also thought that Sklansky Talks Blackjack was an excellent book for someone who knows nothing about blackjack.

Sklansky's approach in Sklansky Talks Blackjack is to explain basic blackjack strategy without using charts and to teach a simple enough card counting strategy that most players (if they'll apply the effort) can gain about a 1% edge over the casino by counting cards, using basic strategy, and deviating from basic strategy when the count indicates you should.

The book is a slim volume, and it's divided into 3 parts:

  • Blackjack Theory
  • The Totals
  • In The Casino

The book also has an introduction and a conclusion, and 3 appendices:

  • The Game of Blackjack
  • Playing at the Table
  • Recommended Reading

Blackjack Theory

Why Basic Strategy Works

In this section of the book, Sklansky explains why you can get an edge over the casino playing blackjack. He also explains 3 problems that make it harder to get the edge over the casino in blackjack:

  1. You have to learn basic strategy and how to count cards, which aren't easy things to do, especially if you're lazy. Most gamblers are lazy and skeptical and don't pay enough attention to the math of the game.
  2. Even when you play perfectly, the edge is pretty small, only about 1%. This means that if you're playing $100/hand, your earn rate is expected to be $1/hand or $100/hour. Betting $100/hand requires a bankroll of at least $20,000.
  3. Casinos know that blackjack can be beaten and will try to stop skilled counters. In fact, they pay particular attention to players who are betting $100/hand.

Sklansky goes on to explain that basic strategy details how a blackjack player should play a given hand when compared to a given dealer upcard. Basic strategy has been determined via computers, and provides the best expected value in every blackjack situation. Blackjack basic strategy is NOT a  matter of opinion. He provides several clear examples of the math behind basic strategy.

Why Counting Cards Works

The next subsection of the Blackjack Theory part explains why card counting gives a blackjack player an edge. One point that he makes is that when you're playing basic strategy, you're playing a close to even game with the house anyway. So adjusting your game based on which cards are out ought to give you more of an edge.

Since players get paid 3 to 2 on a blackjack, any time the deck has a lot of aces and 10's in it, the player has an edge. The house also has to play by certain rules no matter what cards have been played, and these add to the player advantage:

  1. The dealer has to hit an total lower than 16. But a player doesn't have to.
  2. A player can double down. (Double your bet and take exactly one additional card.)
  3. The player gets paid 3 to 2 on blackjack, but the dealer does not.

Some options that aren't available at every casino which can also help a player include:

  1. Insurance
  2. Splitting
  3. Surrender

How to Count Cards

Sklansky explains that there are literally dozens of card counting systems, but they all do the same thing: track the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck by keeping up with which cards have been played. Some card counting systems are complicated because they try to be perfect, but simple card counting strategies can be 90% as effective as a complicated strategy, and you're less likely to make a mistake.

Sklansky recommends using the high low count, which was introduced decades ago by Edward Thorp in Beat the Dealer. The count starts at 0 and only involves in adding or subtracting 1 from the count based on what cards are dealt.

  • 2's through 6's count as +1
  • Aces and 10's count as -1
  • 7's, 8', and 9's are ignored

When playing with multiple decks, this running count must be converted to a true count. This is done by dividing the count by the approximate number of decks still in the shoe.

Sklansky explains that he'll use the following terms to refer to the count in the text:

  • Slightly positive (+2)
  • Moderately positive (+4)
  • Highly positive (+6)
  • Slightly negative (-2)
  • Moderately negative (-4)
  • Highly negative (-6)

He uses those terms to describe when and how to deviate from basic strategy based on the true count. The number in parenthesis is the true count that corresponds to the term.

He suggests that you learn to count through a single deck 1 card at a time and finish with a total of 0. (Since there are an equal number of +1's as -1's in a standard deck, if you've counted through the deck correctly, you should always finish with 0.) Then when you've mastered that, count through the deck by dealing out pairs. Eventually you should be able to recognize 2 card combinations as 1 number. Finally you should practice with 3 card combinations until that's easy. When you can do this, you're ready to play in a casino.

We thought it was interesting that Sklansky did not discuss ranging bet sizes based on the count in this section. He seems mostly concerned with adjusting the strategy for how to play the hands by the count, rather than by getting more money in on the hands when the count is favorable.

The Totals

Sklansky uses the 2nd part of the book to explain how to play each of the possible totals you could be dealt (2 through 21) versus various dealer upcards. He also explains why each of these plays is the correct play, and explains when to deviate from these strategies based on the count.

His discussion of these totals include both the "hard" and the "soft" versions of each total. For example, a total of 12 can be a hard total when dealt as a 10 and 2, but is a soft total with 2 aces. The strategy is often different for a soft hand because of the flexibility in totaling the cards that the aces offer (since they can count as a 1 or as an 11.)

This article doesn't have room to summarize Sklansky's suggestions for each hand, but we do have room to summarize his own summaries.

He follows this with a summary of basic blackjack strategy in a nutshell, which we've summarized below:

Hard Hands

  • Always hit an 11 or lower.
  • Always stand on 17 or higher.
  • Hit 12-16 if the dealer has a 7 through ace.
  • Hit a total of 12 versus dealer 2 or 3.
  • Stand on 12-16 if the dealer has 2 through 6, with the exception of the 12 versus 2 or 3.
  • Always double down on a total of 11.
  • Double down a total of 10 if the dealer has 2 through 9.
  • Double down a total of 9 if the dealer has 2 through 6.

Soft Hands

  • Always hit a 17 or lower.
  • Always stand on a 19 or higher.
  • Hit a soft 18 versus a dealer 9, 10, or ace.
  • If doubling down on soft 18 is allowed, you should double down versus 3 through 6. Stand versus a dealer 2, 7, or 8.
  • If you're not allowed to double down on a soft 18, stand versus a dealer 2 through 8.
  • Double down on a soft 13 versus a dealer 4, 5, or 6, otherwise just hit.

Pairs

  • Always split aces and 8's.
  • Never split 4's, 5s, or 10's.
  • Always split 9's unless the dealer has 7, 10, or ace.
  • Split 2's, 3's, 6's, and 7's against a dealer's 4 through 7. (Add 3's if you can double after splitting.) One exception - don't split 6's against a 7.
Sklansky Talks Blackjack

This is then followed by a summary of the changes to basic blackjack strategy based on the true count:

The Deck is Slightly Positive

  • Stand on 16 versus a dealer 10.
  • Stand on 12 versus a dealer 3.
  • Double down on 8 versus a dealer 6.
  • Double down on soft 19 versus a 5 or 6.

The Deck is Moderately Positive

  • Take insurance.
  • Stand on 16 versus a dealer ace if you can't surrender
  • Stand on 15 versus a dealer 10 if you can't surrender.
  • Stand on 12 versus a dealer 2.
  • Double down on a 10 versus a dealer10 or an ace.
  • Double down a 9 versus a dealer 7.
  • Double down on an 8 versus a dealer 5.
  • Double down on a soft 19 versus a dealer 4.
  • Split 9's versus a dealer 7 or ace.

The Deck is Highly Positive

  • Stand on 16 versus a dealer 9 if you can't surrender.
  • Stand on 15 versus a dealer ace if you can't surrender.
  • Double down an 8 versus a dealer 4.
  • Double down a soft 19 versus a dealer 4.
  • Double down a soft 20 versus a dealer 5 or 6.
  • Split 9's versus a dealer 7.
  • Split 10's versus a 5 or 6.

The Deck is Slightly Negative

  • Hit any 12.
  • Hit 13 versus a dealer 2 or 3.
  • Don't double down an 11 versus a dealer ace.
  • Don't double down a 10 versus a dealer 9.
  • Don't double down a 9 versus a dealer 2, 3, or 4.
  • Don't double down a soft 13 or 14 no matter what.
  • Don't split aces versus a dealer 8. This rule only applies in a game where the dealer hits a soft 17.

The Deck is Moderately Negative

  • Hit 13 versus a dealer 4 or 5.
  • Hit 14 versus a dealer 2.
  • Don't double down an 11 versus a dealer 9 or 10.
  • Don't double down a 10 versus a dealer 8.
  • Don't double down a 9 no matter what.
  • Don't split aces versus a dealer ace.
  • Don't split 9's versus a dealer 2, 3, or 4.

The Deck is Highly Negative

  • Hit a 13 no matter what.
  • Hit a 14 versus a dealer 3 or 4.
  • Hit a 15 versus a dealer 2.
  • Don't double down at all.
  • Don't split 9's at all.

The basic strategy in a nutshell section is helpful and useful, although the deviations based on the count section are slightly less useful. There seem to be too many rules to the deviations to remember them all. But since Sklansky teaches each total separately in the book (something we don't have room to summarize here), we're convinced that a dedicated player can learn to get the 1% edge Sklansky promises. We also have no reason to believe that any of Sklansky's math or advice here is inaccurate in any way.

In The Casino

Sklansky starts by offering a list of things you must do in order to make money playing blackjack. (This is in addition to learning basic strategy, how to count, and when to deviate from basic strategy.)

  • Find a good game.
  • Disguise that you're an expert.
  • Stay within your bankroll.
  • Play your best on every single hand.

Good Games

The factors that make up whether or not a blackjack game good or not include:

  • Number of decks. Fewer decks are better, but usually have more heat.
  • The house rules. You prefer that the dealer stand on soft 17, and that you be allowed to double down on any 2 cards and after splitting. Surrender is another preference.
  • The degree of penetration. More is better.
  • The number of hands per hour. More is better. Fewer players versus the dealer results in more hands per hour.
  • The tolerance for bet spreads. More tolerance is better. (This is the 1st time Sklansky mentions raising bets, but he doesn't go into much detail other than to say that you want to bet more when the count is favorable.)
  • Heat on big bets. Less is better.

Betting Strategy

Sklansky finally discusses betting strategy in this section. He points out that in most games, you'll only be playing with an advantage against the house 10% of the time. Since 90% of the  time you'll be at a disadvantage, you'll have to bet 10 times as much when you do have an advantage to make up for the rest of the time. He also recommends not immediately increasing your bet from 1 unit to 10 units; his suggestion is to double your bet sizes and work up to the higher bets. (So you'd bet 2 units, then 4 units, then 8 units, etc.)

In a decent single deck game, the betting range really only needs to be 1 to 4 units, versus the recommendations above for shoe dealt games.

Quitting a Negative Shoe

One particularly good piece of advice in this section was to quit a shoe game when the deck becomes reasonably negative, because it probably won't turn around very quickly to a positive deck. You're better off moving to a fresh game.

Dealing with Casino Heat

Most blackjack card counting books devote extensive sections to this subject. Sklansky's section is brief but valuable. His advice is to not overplay the casino, which means limiting your playing sessions to 45 minutes to an hour at a time, and also not playing many days in a row during the same shift.

He also recommends giving a casino a 2 month break after playing for 3 or 4 days in a row. He is not a fan of the "act drunk or boorish" strategy that is recommended in many other books; his approach is more of a "keep your head down and be sensible approach".

He also recommends cooperating if you get barred from a casino. He even suggests cashing out your chips on another day. Since a casino has already made their decision, arguing with them accomplishes nothing. He recommends not trying that casino again for at least 6 months after getting run off for counting.

Sklansky also explains blackjack card counting teams, but very briefly, and also casino comps. We would have liked to have seen more information and opinions from Sklansky regarding team play.

The Appendices

The appendices are full of basic information like how to actually play blackjack at a casino blackjack table without looking like a fool. Sklansky also provides a detailed list of suggested followup reading. The appendices are succinct and valuable additions to the book.

Overall Conclusion

Sklansky provides an excellent method of learning basic strategy, but his card counting explanations were a little briefer and less detailed than we've read in other books. The presentation of betting spreads and strategies should have been earlier in the book, in our opinion, and more information about how to actually range your bets would have also been welcome. (He doesn't even mention the Kelly Criterion, for example.)

One particularly welcome feature of Sklansky Talks Blackjack that would be helpful in other. gambling books was a detailed index. Two Plus Two books generally do a good job of providing an index, but this is the exception in the world of books about blackjack and gambling, not the rule.

 

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