Blackjack Surrender

In the 1970s Atlantic City became the first jurisdiction outside the state of Nevada to legalize casino gambling. The operators did not want to just mimic the casinos in Las Vegas, but sought to offer new gaming experiences. One of the first targets for a makeover was the 500-year old game of twenty-one.

The first thing that changed in the blackjack pits on the Atlantic Ocean boardwalk had to do with a dealer Ace-6, the soft 17. In Nevada, dealers were always required to stand on the soft 17, the worst result for a dealer hand that did not bust. In Atlantic City, dealers were required to hit the soft 17, taking a card that could improve the dealer’s hand against the players with no chance of busting. This was a decided advantage for the house.

Next came the blackjack community’s first look at Surrender. After a player receives the first two cards there is the option to surrender – quit the hand and lose one-half the original bet rather than play the hand out from a possibly doomed position and lose the entire bet. A decision to surrender is either vocalized or delivered by a hand signal of swiping an index finger across the felt from right to life, just as one does with a smartphone. The cards are mucked and half the chips collected by the dealer.

That version of surrender is known as Late Surrender and is the standard on offer. At a very few houses Early Surrender is an option which is the chance to retreat from the hand before the dealer with a ten-value card or an ace checks for a blackjack that will negate the chance to give up later.

Surrender is a particularly nefarious blackjack rule variation because it appears to be an advantage for the player but in actual play it is another boon to the casino. Let’s look beneath the numbers.

To justify the loss of half of the stake without playing the hand a player should only surrender on hands where the chances of beating the dealer are less than 25%. According to blackjack basic strategy in games with multiple decks there are only four situations where the player’s odds of winning are less than one in four:

* 16 when the dealer shows a nine, ten or ace
* 15 when the dealer shows a 10

And this does not include a 16 with two eights (they should be split) or a soft 15 or 16 that includes an ace. Soft hands should always be played and never surrendered.

But average players dealt 12, 13 or 14 against a dealer 10 look at their “stiff” hand, bemoan the fates and take that 50% surrender deal far more often than they should, giving away money to the house. Yes, those poor positions will still get the player hammered seven out of ten times but in the long run the correct play is to hit the hand.

Ironically the players that DO benefit from the surrender rule are card counters. If a dealer shows a ten or ace the shoe is likely to be in a favorable mode for high cards. Since the counter would know this the bets are likely to be higher in these situations and taking the 50% deal will save the counter more than the results of the hand would fetch based on percentages. Thanks to this rule, Atlantic City became the place to go for big stakes blackjack players – while the house was making its money off the average players.

In practice, in a blackjack pit the times that surrender is a correct play are so infrequent that the actual gain a player obtains by playing the rule perfectly is only a few tenths of a percentage point, literally two cents on $100 worth of bets. The best thing for a solid player using basic strategy to do with the surrender option is ignore it. Surrender is not found everywhere – and that is just as well from the player standpoint.