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At blackjack tables, discretion is the better part of surrender

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 8:55 p.m.

The blackjack player at third base didn't look like someone who backs down easily.

His eyes, barely visible beneath a ball cap, gave off a “don't-mess-with-me” vibe. His stocky build, stubby fingers and muscular hands hinted at years of hard work.

My image of him switched when he was dealt a two-card 16 and the dealer's up-card was a seven. Without any apparent thought, Third Base gave up. He surrendered. He forfeited half his bet instead of playing out the hand.

Surrender, available in all Pennsylvania casinos, is a handy tool for players who know when to use it. Unfortunately, many people ignore it or use it far too often, like a screwdriver that gets mangled when it doubles as a chisel and pry bar.

One indication that surrender can be a valuable player option is that few casinos outside Pennsylvania offer it routinely — and those that do seldom advertise it. Players usually have to ask whether it's available.

In surrendering, a player gives up half his original bet instead of hitting or standing.

The hand signal, given for the benefit of the surveillance cameras, is to draw an imaginary line with your index finger behind your bet. It's a good idea to announce “I surrender” so a fast dealer doesn't misinterpret your hand movement as a hit sign.

The dealer then takes your chips from the betting circle, counts them and returns half.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board says all casinos in the state must offer surrender after the dealer has checked her hand for a blackjack. This is known as “late surrender;” the “early” version, which allowed players to surrender before the dealer checked for blackjack, is seldom offered any more.

Surrender is available only on your first two cards.

Basic strategy calls for surrender in just four situations: when the player is dealt a 16 and the dealer shows a nine, face card or Ace, and when the player has 15 against a dealer's face card.

Players who find themselves getting dealt one “stiff” — a two-card hand of 12 to 16 — after another might decide, like the man at third base, to surrender more often. They might think it's better to give up half a bet rather than risk losing the whole thing.

That reasoning is wrong. It overlooks how many times you win because of hitting.

In the four cases involving a 15 or 16 against a powerful dealer's card, you'll lose less money in the long run by surrendering than by hitting or standing. If you overuse surrender, your bankroll will get as beat up as the screwdriver used as a chisel.

Let's look at the hand that bedevils blackjack players the most: You hold a Nine-Seven or 10-Six and the dealer shows a face card.

Blackjack author and expert Henry Tamburin, operator of www.bjinsider.com, explains that standing on your 16 will result in losing a little more than 77 percent of your hands, while hitting will result in losing a little less than 77 percent.

Let's look at the results for 100 hands of that scenario, assuming $10 bet on each. Whether you hit or stand, you lose 77 times, or a total $770; you win the other 23 times, getting $230. That gives you a net loss of $540.

If you surrender those hands, you lose $5 each time for a net loss of $500.

However, you play the hand, you're going to lose in the long run. The question is: how much?

Notice that you don't surrender with a pair of eights. The best play is to split them, even against a face card or Ace. In the long run, you'll come out better.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

Gambling in the election

The re-election of President Obama got the headlines Wednesday, but voters in several locales decided gambling issues, as well. Among the results, as reported by the Associated Press:

• Maryland voters approved expanding gambling to include table games. The games could begin early next year at the state's three existing casinos and at two expected to be built later. The measure passed in Prince George's County, opening the way for a casino to be built near the nation's capital.

• Rhode Island voters approved expansion of the Twin River slot parlor in Lincoln into a casino, but local opposition stopped a similar plan at Newport Grand.

• Oregon voters rejected development of the state's first nontribal casino.

• In Kentucky, four state legislators who had backed at least a referendum on expanding gambling were defeated. Three other pro-gambling legislators did not seek re-election.

Casinos remodeling

Areas of Rivers and Meadows casinos are getting new looks.

The entrance to the poker room at Rivers on the North Shore moved this week to the area near Ciao restaurant, the opposite side of its original location. The room has been enclosed in glass to reduce noise from the main floor. An area next to the poker room is being renovated into the new location for high-limit slots.

Meadows in North Strabane plans a $2.5 million upgrade of its high-limit slot area, Adios Lounge and Clubhouse, and replacement of carpeting throughout the casino. Access to the Adios will be through the high-limit slots area. Additions will include butler service, a hot-food station, bar service and personal-valet services, to name a few. The Clubhouse project will include a new bar. The carpet replacement work is to start Dec. 3, with a break from Dec. 21 to Jan. 2. The job is to be completed by Feb. 1.

Money trail

Slot players lost $44.3 million in Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ended Nov. 4, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's down from $47.1 in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge Resort Casino opened. Much of the state was still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

The statewide slot-payout rate since the fiscal year started in July is 89.94 percent; for each $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.94. Rates in Western Pennsylvania casinos:

Rivers: 89.98 percent

Meadows: 89.81 percent

Presque Isle in Erie: 89.94 percent

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