Doubling for Less, a Powerful Tournament Strategy

In casino blackjack, the rules for doubling and splitting have one key difference. While both of these rules allow a player to increase his wager after the initial cards are dealt, splitting specifically requires the player to match the original bet amount with an equal wager on the second hand, while doubling down has no such restriction. The casino will gladly allow you to "double for less", by adding an amount less than the original bet in return for drawing only one additional card. That's not surprising, since doubling for less is never the correct strategy for a player at a regular game. If it is advantageous to double, it's best to get as much money on the table as possible. Remember, you're also giving up the ability to draw more than one card to your hand.

When used properly, doubling for less is a powerful technique for getting an extra edge over your opponents.

While doubling for less is always a mistake in a live game, tournament play is different. In fact, when used properly, doubling for less is a powerful technique for getting an extra edge over your opponents. In this article, we'll look at two examples when it's appropriate.

In the article on position, I discussed the importance of position in tournament play, and noted that players to your left are a bigger threat than players to your right. The reason is simple. On most hands, the players to your left get to see your bet and playing decisions before they make their own decisions. As a result, having a second opportunity to change the amount of your wager can be valuable. That means doubling and splitting are more useful than in regular table play.

Example 1: Stealing a shot at the lead

Let's imagine that you are trailing a player to your left by $50, and you are nearing the end of the round. If you can't afford to wait until the button passes you to make a move for the lead, doubling or splitting can be your best shot. Let's say you bet $100, and your opponent matches that bet behind you. The cards are dealt and you have a hard 12, he has a hard 18, and the dealer shows a 4 upcard. Here's a situation where basic strategy says you should stand. However, it's also a great opportunity to steal the lead from your opponent. By doubling your 12, you can take the lead if successful. However, since this is generally a poor play, you should double for as little as possible to accomplish your goal. In this case, doubling for $55 or $60 is appropriate.

While this can be a strong play, there are several factors you should consider before pulling the trigger on the double. How many hands are left? How many hands will he be betting behind you? What is the maximum bet, and what are the bankrolls? Perhaps the most critical factor is how damaging a losing swing would be to your chances. If you bust the 12, and the dealer busts behind you, you are now $305 behind. If the max bet is $300, that's a terrible handicap, and unless the round is nearly over, you should perhaps skip this opportunity and hope for a better shot later. On the other hand, if the max bet is $1000, and you both have plenty of chips, then a $305 deficit is no big deal, and this is probably a great time to take a shot.

Note that the same factors apply to your opponent after you double. If you succeed in drawing a good card to your hand, he may consider doubling his hard 18 behind you. While it's almost a sure loser, if a negative swing is not a big deal it might be the right play for him.

Example 2: Forcing your opponent to make a choice

Here's a powerful technique that I've never seen mentioned in print before. Though it's far from unknown among tournament pros, I've seen very few players use it, although the situation comes up pretty frequently.

Back at the table, you're still trailing Lefty by $50, but now it's the last hand. You've bet $250, and Lefty matches it. You have an 11, Lefty has a pair of face cards, and the dealer shows an 8. You have a basic strategy double-down, and it is quite apparent that you should double if you want to have any reasonable chance of winning the round. In the last example, we had a poor double-down and wanted to minimize the cost by doubling for less.

This time, with a solid basic strategy double, most players would choose to double for the full amount. That would be a huge mistake! Consider what happens if you draw a poor card on your double. If your double ends up stiff, with a total of less than 17, Lefty can now lock you out of any chance to win. He can split the face cards, stand on any stiff, and you have zero chance of winning the round. It's over!

To eliminate this possibility, you should double for less. If you double for anything between $55 and $195, you've created a difficult choice for your opponent. He can no longer lock you out with a split. If he splits, and the dealer beats both of you, you now advance instead of him. Since he can't split for less, you force him to choose between "first high" and "first low". He must decide whether he wants to cover you winning or the dealer winning, since he cannot do both. All this, just because you doubled for less than the full amount.

This tactic works wonders, no matter what the dealer upcard, and almost no matter what you draw on your double-down. Doubling for less is almost always preferable to doubling for the full amount any time your opponent has a pair that they would prefer to split rather than double.

This is a powerful play, and it arises often enough that it deserves a name. Since I've never seen it mentioned by other authors, I'll go out on a limb and christen it "Ken's Quandary", with the quandary being your opponent's, after you double down. Few plays will provoke a stronger grimace from across the table.

Best of luck out there, -Ken-


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