DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
By Henry Tamburin
You stroll through the crowded casino, itching to play blackjack, when you spot two adjacent tables with open seats. The first table has an opening at the first-base position, while the second table has an opening at third base. Where would you sit?
Before I discuss whether one seat is better than another, let me briefly review the terminology for seat positions in blackjack. As you face a blackjack table, the first betting position (or seat) on your far right is known as first base. The dealer will always start each round by dealing the cards one at a time sequentially from her left to her right, so that the player seated at first base will receive the cards first, and also will be the first player to act on his hand (meaning to make a playing decision, such as whether to stand or hit).
On the opposite end of the table is the third-base position, and the player seated there is often referred to as the anchor player. The third-base player is the last table player to receive the initial two cards from the dealer, and he is also the last player to act on his hand before the dealer acts on her hand.
The playing position located in the middle of the table is sometimes referred to as the shortstop position (is this blackjack or baseball we’re playing?). As far as I know, first base, third base, and shortstop are the only designations given to the three respective playing positions on a blackjack table even though most blackjack tables can accommodate up to six (and sometimes seven) players.
So which seat is better? Mathematically, it makes no difference where you sit, if you are a basic strategy player, or a player who does not keep of the cards (card counter). Are you surprised at the answer? I know many players are, because they mistakenly believe that the anchor player can influence whether the table wins or loses by how he plays his hand. Some players even expect the anchor player to “sacrifice” his hand for the betterment of his fellow table players (no, I’m not kidding you on this). Why do players believe this? Probably because they vividly remember the times that an anchor player misplayed his hand and screwed the other table players. It goes something like this.
“I’m sitting there playing blackjack and minding my own business when that anchor fellow decides to hit his 16 with the dealer showing a 6. We tried to convince the dummy to stand, but he wouldn’t listen. Sure enough he draws the dealer’s bust card. And of course the dealer has a picture card in the hole, and draws a 5 for 21 and we all lose. So don’t tell me a screwball playing third base won’t hurt me.”
If you play blackjack, I’m sure the above scenario, or one similar, has happened to you (if it hasn’t yet, trust me, it will). Somehow we always seem to remember the times we lose a big hand because of the clueless player at third base (I call it selective memory).
Let’s suppose that the lack of skill of an anchor player can result in bad things happening to other table players. Now let’s suppose we pool our money and open a casino with lots of blackjack tables. To ensure that we make a ton of money at blackjack, we’re going to pay players to sit at every third-base seat with instructions that they must hit when they are supposed to stand, and stand when they are supposed to hit, to cause all the other players to lose. We’ll be rich!
Of course this is nonsense; otherwise casinos would have implemented “clueless shills” to their benefit a long time ago. The facts are these: the skill of the anchor player, or for that matter any player on the table, has no effect whatsoever on your chances of winning or losing. In fact, you could have five chimpanzees playing next to you on the same table and your chances of winning and losing in the long run won’t change one iota. The reason is because you have no earthly idea what the sequence of the cards is in a shoe, so it could happen that a dumb play by any player could result in you winning the hand, or, just as likely, losing the hand. In the long run, it all evens out.
Nevertheless, blackjack misconceptions such as this one live on, so here’s my advice for players who fret about where to sit. If you are a newbie to the game and need to bring a strategy card along as an aid (hey, there is nothing wrong with that, and its casino legal), I suggest you sit in player spots 3, 4, or 5. Why? If you sit at first base, the dealer will be looking your way for a playing decision rather quickly (remember that the first-base player acts first). This doesn’t give the first-base player much time to look at his hand, then the dealer’s upcard, and then glance at his strategy card to determine how to play the hand. However, if you sit in positions 3, 4, or 5, you will have a little more time to figure out how to play your hand, and when you are not rushed, you are more likely to make the right play, win more, and enjoy the game better.
So why shouldn’t a newbie sit at third base, since the anchor player has the most time to determine his playing strategy because he acts last? As I said earlier, blackjack misconceptions live on, and although the etiquette of players in general has improved over the 35 years I’ve played blackjack (just my observation), there are still some goofballs who get annoyed at anchor players who misplay their hands. This is why I recommend that newbies avoid the anchor position and instead take a seat closer to the middle of the table.
If you are a more experienced blackjack player, any seat is as good as any other seat on the table. However, that’s not the case for a card counter; seat position is important and counters can actually boost their edge slightly if they know where to sit. But that’s a story for another day.