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========================================= Thursday, July 19, 2001
Surrender or not
This week it's about playing Blackjack and winning more than losing with a special use of surrender. Arnold Snyder, "the Blackjack bishop" is not a card counter and has been playing Blackjack for many years. He's got a friend who is more serious about the game and plays a system with which he wins more than he loses. Arnold breaks even more or less. His friend really likes games that have surrender allowed. Arnold has always felt it was pretty much a sucker bet, like insurance. If they let you do it, then it's probably because they make more money as a result. They are in the business of making money after all. Right? Can card counters get value from surrender?
For most players, surrender is a sucker play. Basic strategy does dictate some hands should be surrendered, but those hands are few and far between. When Arnold played in games where the option is offered, he has definitely noticed that many people surrender far too often. Some people will surrender virtually any stiff (hard 12-16) versus almost any dealer upcard that might indicate a pat hand (7, 8, 9, ten or ace).
Your comparison of surrender to insurance is really a pretty good comparison. For the non-card-counter, the basic strategy for insurance is extremely simple: do not ever take insurance. Yet many otherwise smart players believe they should insure their blackjacks (even money) or their good hands or when the high cards are "running" or when the dealer is "overdue" for a blackjack, etc. Likewise, many amateurs surrender whenever they feel they keep busting or the shoe is "cold".
The only hands that players who are not card counters should ever surrender are hard 15 and 16, and these totals only rarely. In shoe games, surrender your hard 16 only when faced with a 9, ten and ace. (Don't surrender a pair of 8's). Surrender hard 15 versus ten, but only if it's composed of a 9,6; don't surrender an 8,7. Otherwise, ignore the surrender option. And never surrender a soft 15 or 16 (ace,4, or ace,5).
Remember that you can only surrender if your total of 15 or 16 is made with your first two cards. Casinos will not allow you to surrender once you have taken a hit (wouldn't that be nice!). Also, they will not allow you to surrender a hand that is derived from a pair split.
The basic strategy gain from surrender is negligible, less than one-tenth of one percent, so if you completely ignore the option, it doesn't hurt you much. There are various reasons why the gain from surrender is so small, and these are the same reasons why casinos that offer the option continue to do so: Primarily, the hands that should be surrendered are few and far between, and the differences in value from surrendering most of these hands, as opposed to hitting or standing, are small. Casinos do make money from this rule, as you suspect. Average players, even otherwise smart players, rarely know the basic strategy for surrender.
Surrendering 16 versus 9 and 15 versus ten are both borderline basic strategy decisions. Card counters surrender these hands if the count is plus, but don't surrender them at any minus count. At a neutral count (0), they're close to being a coin toss. Surrender has value to card counters when the count is high, indicating an excess of high cards, because this is when they have their big bets on the table. At "neutral" counts, the value is small, and at low counts, there is no value to surrendering. In fact, card counters save money on surrender at low counts (excessive low cards in the deck) by violating the surrender basic strategy and not surrendering.
Surrender is so dangerous to uninformed players because there is very little value from making the correct surrender plays, but huge losses if you make the incorrect ones. I have seen players surrendering 12's and 13's, soft hands (like ace,5), and even stiffs against dealer low cards, such as 15 versus a deuce. To surrender an occasional bad hand incorrectly will not have much negative effect on your result. but to consistently surrender poor hands, just because the cards are running against you and you keep busting your stiffs, is a sure road to the poor house.
Surrender is one of those weird rules, like insurance; casinos make lots of money from the uninformed players, basic strategy players can't exploit it, but card counters can get a pretty decent value from it. They can surrender more often than non-counters, and they can do it when they have big bets on the table.
One of the problems many smart players have with surrender is that it is rarely available. When they suddenly find themselves in a new casino, or on some riverboat or cruise ship where the option is allowed, they don't recall the proper strategy, even if they once saw it on a chart in some book they have at home. So, they guess.
It's important to remember easy rules for strategies you might occasionally run into, even if you don't have those rules on your regular game. Basic strategy players who want to get the most out of the surrender option can do so by remembering one simple rule: Surrender hard 15 and hard 16 whenever the dealer shows a ten up. Nothing else. It's not perfect, but it will get you most of the small gain available, and you won't make costly mistakes.
all the best,
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