Getting Something for Nothing: Free Hits in Tournament Blackjack
Here’s a little addition to your blackjack tournament toolbox that can give you an extra edge in many final hand situations. You may have heard experienced tournament players talking about a tournament situation where a player had a “free hit”. In this article, we’ll see what is meant by that phrase, and see how you can learn to recognize the situations where it applies.
Tournament experts sometimes seems to have a language all their own, using phrases such as “taking the high”, “taking the low”, “playing for the swing”, or “free hit”. Since all of these phrases describe circumstances important to our topic, let’s look at these one by one.
Taking the High: This means you’ve made a large enough bet so that if all players win their bets, you’ll be in the lead. This is easy to do when you’re in the lead, but may also be an option when you bet behind the leaders at your table.
Taking the Low: This means you’ve left enough unbet chips in front of you so you’ll be in the lead if the dealer beats the entire table. By making a small bet, you hope the dealer has a strong hand, and wipes out your opponent’s larger bets.
Playing for the Swing: This describes playing your hand in such a way that you increase the likelihood that you will win this bet while your opponent loses his or her bet. This means you’ll be hitting to a higher total than your opponent, and hoping the dealer ends up in between your hands.
Free Hit: A free hit is a situation where busting your hand is no worse than standing with your current total. Therefore, you can safely take another card, with no cost if the card causes you to bust.
Hopefully, some examples will make each of these concepts clear. In our examples, imagine a final table featuring only two remaining players, A and B. Player A is on the button in the example, meaning he must bet and act before Player B. The tournament allows betting limits of $5 to $500, and surrender is not available.
Example 1: Player A leads, by a little.
Let’s say player A has $1300, and player B has $1150. Player A has two good choices for his bet. If he chooses to bet at least $430, he is “taking the high”, since no matter what Player B bets he has the bet covered if they both win. Betting $355 actually takes the high as well, but causes problems if Player B has a good double-down hand.
If Player A chooses instead to bet $145 or less, he has “taken the low”, by holding back more unbet chips than Player B’s bankroll. If Player B doesn’t get paid, Player A wins the round.
If Player B is an experienced tournament player, Player A’s chances are best when he takes the low here, but we’re not currently debating the merits of these two approaches. Instead, we’re just illustrating the choices.
Let’s assume Player A bet $430 in this case, perhaps because he thought Player B might make a max-bet behind him. However, let’s assume that Player B was more astute than that, and took the low with a bet of $275. Actually, bet amounts anywhere between $155 and $275 for Player B have very similar utility, but the easiest way to quickly make a very good bet is just to hold a chip more unbet than Player A. Player A has $870 held back. Player B holds back $875 and bets the rest. That’s $275. Now Player A has the high, and Player B has the low.
Player A is dealt a hand of 18 and stands, vs a dealer 6. Player B has a hard 17. Here’s where things get interesting. If Player B stands, he wins if the dealer makes 19, 20, or 21. Any other result means a win by Player A. However, this is a textbook example of a free hit opportunity for Player B. Player B’s hand at this point is almost meaningless. He has a hard total of 17, and doubling down has a much lower chance of success than standing. Note however, that Player B has bet $275, and he trails by only $150. If the dealer draws out to push Player A’s 18, then a single-bet win by B eclipses A’s total. B in this case should hit to a total of at least 19. If he busts, he’s no worse off than he was by standing. If he happens to catch a total of 19, 20 or 21, he now wins if the dealer makes 18 in addition to the already winning totals of 19,20 and 21.
And that’s a “free hit” for sure. Hit the 17, and if you draw an Ace, hit it again. It’s a small extra percentage chance, but it comes at absolutely no cost.
Example 2: Player A leads, by a lot.
Let’s turn up the heat on Player B a bit. Player A has $1800 and Player B has $1100. Player A should bet at least $305 here, to cover a double-down max-bet win by B. In fact, since $405 covers a three-bet all-in win by B, I’d advise that amount. Unfortunately, either of those two bets opens a small window of opportunity for Player B. Still, it’s worth the risk. Besides, it gives us a chance to illustrate playing for a swing.
So, Player A wagers $405. Player B should bet at least $355, and I like a max $500 bet because of the benefits of winning $750 with a blackjack. So, let’s assume B bets $500. Now what?
Player A has both the high and the low. If all bets win, he wins. If all bets lose, he wins. Let’s assume the dealer has a 6 up, and Player A stands with 18. However, this time Player B has a (3,4) for a hard 7. For Player B, standing has a 0% chance of winning, so eliminate it from the list. Doubling is no better. The best card you can draw is the Ace, but that unfortunately only matches A’s total of 18.
It is apparent that Player B must hit, and he should hit to exceed A’s total by at least 2 points. In this case, that means hitting to a total of 20 or 21, or bust trying.
B wins if he draws to 20, and the dealer makes exactly 19.
B wins if he draws to 21, and the dealer makes 19 or 20.
This process of hitting to your opponent’s total plus two points is typical of “playing for the swing.” Just remember, you must give the dealer a total on which to land between you and your opponent. It’s certainly not much to get excited about, but it’s your only shot.
Keeping your eyes open for similar situations can give you that little extra edge that makes the difference.