Playing First Base at the Blackjack Table

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Blackjack has borrowed from the game of baseball in naming the seat that comes first in the dealing rotation “first base.” Just like the defensive position immediately to the left of the baseball pitcher as he faces a batter, blackjack’s first base player assumes a critically important position at the table. It is a role that can be extremely difficult to play well.

The Benefits of First Base

Just like in any other game, there are certain advantages to being the first to go in blackjack. The first base player is receives the initial two cards from the deck or shoe. He/she is the first to take decisions about how cards should be played, from hitting or standing to splitting a pair, doubling down, taking insurance or surrendering. The first base player’s choices will affect those of everyone else at the table.

First base can be seen as the table’s leadership position. Other players take their cues from the first base player’s example. However, the player who is first to go cannot spend any time thinking about how his/her actions might influence others. Blackjack is not a team sport. Players must make their own choices and act in response to the cards they are dealt, the dealer’s up card and the cards known to remain in the deck.

From a card counter’s point of view, first base is the only seat at the Blackjack table where wagering can be based upon the deck’s “true count.” Players at all of the other seats will see intervening cards dealt between the instant the wager is made and the arrival of the first card in their respective hands. For example, a player in the fifth seat may know the deck is rich in tens when betting, but four of those tens could easily come up before a single card is dealt to seat five.

The right to go first, before others can take cards or decisions that change the composition of the deck, explains why so many players are willing to wait for first base to become available before joining a game. This position can also be somewhat “under the radar.” Players are thinking about their own hands so they may not pay close attention to decisions taken in front of them. It is really the opposite of being seated at the other end of the table, “third base,” which attracts everyone’s attention as the last hand to go.

The Disadvantages of First Base

Offsetting all of the good reasons to sit at first base are a number of disadvantages. The first base player must take decisions with less information to go on than all of the other players at the table, because fewer cards are on display. This is especially noteworthy when playing at a single- or double-deck blackjack table where the cards are dealt face down, but somewhat less problematic at tables where the cards are dealt from a shoe face up.

In a study that included interviews with professional card counters, it was found that first base is actually at a major disadvantage under certain circumstances. One of those is when the deck is rich in tens and the dealer shows a small card, such as a 3~6. If the player catches a pair of tens, advanced card-counting strategy may indicate that the tens should be split, especially if the point count is +3 or higher. Then, by the time the dealer turns over the hole card, the count could easily become negative, thus leaving first base stuck with two poor hands against a weak one that has a strong probability of being made.

What’s more, players seated to the left of first base may split or double down, thus removing many of the cards that contributed to the first base player’s original count. The House edge against the first base player can be up to 0.16% higher than it is against the player in position two. In fact, it is sometimes as much as 0.41% higher than for third base, the last position to play.

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