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Player's Advantage

Whether pope or player, know best time to double down

| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Pope Francis, President Obama and Donald Trump are masters of the double-down, at least according to media reports.

Writing about the visit to America by the leader of more than a billion Catholics, a Reuters blog advised him to “double down on his pastoral emphasis on the love and mercy of God,” while the Huffington Post said the pontiff fulfilled calls to “double down on his call for aggressive action to curb global warming pollution.”

A New York Times headline said Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel doubled down against Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, news stories routinely describe Trump and other presidential candidates from both parties as doubling down on everything from immigration to tax cuts to union bashing to free college for all to increased Social Security spending to media bias.

Over the years, people who make a living by using, and sometimes mangling, our language have twisted a precise term for a specific gambling move into a cliché, wringing out its meaning and nuance.

As someone fond of words and gambling, I resent that. Reserve “double down” for playing blackjack and find a better term to describe politicians jacking up the volume on a pet topic.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “double down” originated in 1949, in “Scarne on Cards,” by John Scarne, a Steubenville, Ohio, native once regarded as America's top gambling author. Scarne's reputation tanked after he attacked Edward O. Thorp's “Beat the Dealer,” which detailed the strategy and card-counting approach that made blackjack a beatable game.

The original, and best, meaning of “double down” is to double your bet at blackjack in return for receiving only one card. It's an option, and it carries a risk, which suggests that you do it only when you have an advantage.

Unfortunately, blackjack players misuse the double down about as often as writers do.

Most blackjack games allow a player to double on any two cards; some casinos limit doubling to two-card totals of nine, 10 or 11. A smart player knows when doubling down is a good idea and when it's not.

Here's the strategy for a six- or eight-deck game in which the dealer stands on Soft 17 (Ace-Six):

Player has 11: Double against any dealer up-card except an Ace; otherwise hit.

Player has 10 (including a hand of 5-5): Double against a dealer up-card of two through nine; otherwise hit.

Player has Nine: Double when dealer's up-card is three through six; otherwise hit.

Player has Soft 13 or 14 (Ace-Two, Ace-Three): Double when dealer's up-card is five or six; otherwise hit.

Player has Soft 15 or 16 (Ace-Four, Ace-Five): Double when dealer's up-card is four, five or six; otherwise hit.

Player has Soft 17 (Ace-Six): Double when dealer's up-card is three through six; otherwise hit.

Player has Soft 18 (Ace-Seven): Double when dealer's up-card is three through six; stand vs. dealer's two, seven or eight; hit vs. dealer's nine, 10 or Ace.

Player has Soft 19 or 20 (Ace-Eight, Ace-Nine): Always stand.

Player has Soft 21 (Ace-10): Do not double; smile and take the 3-to-2 payment for blackjack.

Player has Soft 12 (Ace-Ace): Do not double; instead, put out an extra bet and split your pair.

Many players, mistakenly believing that gambling requires them to take stupid risks, double with hands of six, seven or eight when the dealer shows a weak up-card. That's a recipe for disaster because they're counting on the dealer to bust. Even with a five or six showing, the dealer will bust less than half the time.

Players and pundits alike should remember that doubling down is a calculated move, a good bet only when conditions are right.

Doubling down on a message of love and mercy might very well be a good idea. Doubling down on bigotry or unbridled government spending? Not so much.

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

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