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Cat and mouse

Dear Mark,
Is card counting illegal? Frank R.

Frank, is using your brain illegal? No.

Unfortunately, when it comes to card counting, the casino would prefer you check your brain at the front door. So though not illegal, what the casino can and will do is bar the counter from playing and back you off the game. If you're going to play this cat and mouse game to gain a one percent plus advantage, expect a pit bull (boss) to come and pleasantly say, "Frank, we appreciate your patronage but we're going to ask you to stop playing blackjack here. Feel free to play any of the other table games we offer." (Yeah, like games that have a house advantage higher than the interest rate you pay on your Visa card.)

Fortunately, Frank, not all casinos bar counters. Atlantic City, by law, cannot run you off. Instead, they impose tougher blackjack rules, multi-deck games and limit deck penetration to keep the skilled counter at bay.

Though many in the industry believe the casino has every right to back off proficient players, I personally feel the minuscule amounts lost to card counters are trivial compared to the money made from the uninformed masses of poor players-not to mention bad counters.

Dear Mark,
Before going to Las Vegas my sister filled out a dummy keno ticket and asked me to play it 20 times. On it she had the number 55 circled by itself and the numbers 10 and 20 circled together. Each ticket cost $3. What exactly was I playing? Joe C.


It's called a combination ticket, meaning different proposition bets on one keno ticket. The singular number circled, 55, was her "king number," which was to be played in combination with the other two numbers, plus played alone. She was playing a one spot (55), a two spot (10 and 20), and one three spot (10, 20 and 55).

Dear Mark,
Basic strategy in blackjack dictates that I hit a soft 18 (A-7) against a 9, 10 count card or an ace. I feel a soft 18 is powerful enough and will take my occasional licks against the dealer who turns over a better hand. What would you recommend I do with a soft 18? Alison B.

HIT IT.

If, Alison, in my mythical casino, which I'll call "22 Always WINS," I gave you the opportunity to automatically be dealt an 18 on each and every hand of blackjack, would you sit down and play? Not so fast my friend. For every one million hands of 18 my certified friendly dealers deal you, you will lose 280 more hands than you would win. Small spuds yes, but it tells you that 18's a losing hand over the long haul. This is why basic strategy cards advise hitting a soft 18 in certain situations.

Dear Mark,
Most dealers, friends and even you advise against taking insurance in blackjack. How about when I have a 20 and I'm playing on a single deck game? I hate losing when I have such a strong hand. Stuart M.

Question to you, Stuart: Who is holding at least two of the cards the dealer needs to make their blackjack? YOU. Insuring a hand composed of two 10 cards on a single deck game gives the house a 14.3% edge, making this one of the worst bets in the casino.

Dear Mark,
Why is it so important to hit to a 17 when the dealer shows a 7 through ace? I tend to stay on my 15s and 16s and avoid busting. Is this a correct strategy? Beth B.

The dealer's chances of having a 17 or more when he shows a 7, 8, 9, 10 or ace are between 74% and 83%. Correct basic strategy dictates that you always hit your 15 or 16.

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