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Player's Advantage: 'Progression' betting strategy won't increase profits

| Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Sony Pictures
In the film “21,” M.I.T. student Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess, center) joins the blackjack team and takes Vegas for millions.

Before I leave for a casino vacation, a buddy usually slips me $20 for a special blackjack bet. His instructions are specific:

• Bet it all on one hand.

• If that wins, bet the original $20 and the winnings on a second hand.

• If the second hand wins, bet everything on a third hand.

• If that wins, cash out and bring home the money.

If he wins three hands in a row, as he has once or twice, he'll enjoy a profit of at least $140 (minus a tip for sterling play, of course). If he doesn't, as he did during my trip last month to Tunica County, Miss., he's out $20, which he considers a reasonable cost for the potential payout on a bet made only a couple of times a year.

Maybe he should have invested this summer's bet with another friend, who relayed a fun story about a recent visit to a casino restaurant. On his way to the car, he remembered having a $20 gift card in his wallet. He says he cashed it in, played at a $5 blackjack table for about five minutes without losing and walked away with $50 cash.

Most blackjack players know the thrill of a winning streak, when all the cards come out right — at least for them — and the chips stack up. Naturals come like clockwork, double-downs always hit and the dealer busts on cue.

One reason those streaks are so enjoyable is that they don't happen often. After all, players lose more hands than they win.

According to wizardof odds.com, an encyclopedia of gambling strategy and statistics, a blackjack player who follows basic strategy wins 42.4 percent of hands, loses 49.1 percent and ties the rest. With ties excluded, the player wins 46.36 percent of hands.

Although the dealer wins more than half the time, players get paid 3-to-2 for blackjacks and get extra on double-downs. That helps make up for losing more often.

The probability of a player winning three hands in a row is about one in 10, according to the Wizard's calculations. The probability of winning six in a row is about one in 100.

Many players raise their bets after a winning hand, hoping they are at the beginning of a one-in-a-hundred or even one-in-a-thousand longshot. While that approach is fun when it works, it usually doesn't.

No betting system can overcome the house edge. Not counting ties, over time, a basic-strategy player will win about 46 and lose about 54 of every 100 hands played, regardless of the size of the bet.

Raising your bet after each win — called “positive progression” betting — will result in occasional sessions with monster profits, but it won't improve your results overall. By definition, progression bettors are virtually guaranteed to lose their biggest wager. Often, a progression bettor finds himself with an unusually large bet and a hand that calls for putting out even more to double-down or split. Some will make an incorrect play because of the fear of putting even more money at risk; some will make the correct play and see all their profits vanish in the flash of the wrong card.

Blackjack experts say progression betting will not affect the long-term outcome for a basic-strategy player, but the swings for a progression bettor will be wilder than for a player who bets roughly the same amount all the time. In the long run, the house will win about 0.5 percent of the money a basic-strategy player bets. The more you bet overall, the more the house wins.

The best time to raise your bet is when you have a better-than-usual chance of winning the next hand. That's determined not by whether you just won but by the cards remaining to be dealt. When the rest of the deck is rich in faces and Aces — which you can know only by tracking the cards as they come out — your chances of winning increase. That's when you should raise your bet.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media and a longtime recreational gambler who has been known to raise his bets after winning. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

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