Evaluating Surrender

In Blackjack, one of the least understood features of the game is Surrender. More people are confused by Surrender than all the Split and Double-down situations combined. In this article, we will first take a basic look at Surrender, followed by how to correctly take advantage of it; from the point of view of Basic Strategy, Card-counting and Clump-Tracking methods.

Surrender is a rule often unknown to beginning players because it is often not advertised. For example, most casinos between the Las Vegas Strip's "Four-Corners" (at Flamingo road, where we find Bally's, Bellagio and Caesars) to Spring Mountain Road (which then includes Mirage and Treasure Island), these five casinos ALL offer un-advertised Surrender. Across the street, Harrahs and the Flamingo Hilton advertise their Surrender offers.

In the early part of the decade, before its demise, the Dunes (now the Bellagio) had hanging placards advertising their Surrender offer, at their Single-Deck $1 Blackjack tables; in the hopes of luring business, without somehow encouraging the card-counters to clean them out (probably one of the reasons the tables had $200 - $300 limits). Ironically, my last play in that casino found me losing, despite card-counting, Surrender and a juicy 2-player game; with decent penetration no less (they were getting desperate in those days). It was frustrating to be dealt stiff-after-stiff, while the blind lady at 3rd-Base, continued to get "perfect cards". She won a bundle, while I dropped $50 or so - I JUST couldn't make inroads in that game.

Rule #1 about Surrender: ASK! Just because it isn't advertised doesn't mean it isn't offered. I remember a floorperson who authorized my Surrender request (in a non-surrender casino). He had recently switched jobs from a casino who offers it and probably wasn't really paying attention. Weeks later, that casino had Surrender on the "Menu" (only to take it out again months later). When I want to find out if Surrender is offered, on a Surrender-hand, I say something like: "Can I Surrender that?".

Frequently after making my Surrender play at a table, players invariably ask things like: "What did he just do?", or "What's Surrender?". Of course there is the well worn story of the woman who said to her husband, "Gee Charlie, if we Surrender every hand, we can play twice as long!".


How Surrender Works

Essentially, when you elect to Surrender the dealer takes HALF of your bet and removes your cards from the table. Surrender cuts your loss in half, during clearly no-win situations. Used correctly, Surrender allows you to reduce your losses, giving you greater opportunity to eek out a win. Used incorrectly, Surrender can actually COST you 1.5x your bet. How this is so I shall explain later.

Players who ARE aware of Surrender are often surprised to find out that there are two variations on this rule. They are referred to as Early and Late Surrender. Early Surrender is rarely offered in today's games. The Boardwalk Holiday Inn offered it back in the summer of 1996, and were hit hard by a couple of card-counting teams. Considering their tiny bankroll (by comparison to other strips casinos, or even those downtown), it was a brutal lesson. Ironically, I played that game and ended up losing $12 - the problem being that there were TOO MANY hands requiring Surrender.


Surrender History

You Blackjack history buffs will of course remember that it was Atlantic City's Early Surrender offering back in January 1979 (coupled with a mandate that they deal at least 2/3's of the cards) which led to the mass-barrings, followed by a lawsuit by Ken Uston, which, on appeal by the casino to New Jersey's Supreme Court eventually resulted in New Jersey's no-barring law being adopted on Sept. 15, 1982. (As an aside, the casinos are allowed other counter-measures.)

Kenny also formed the C.H.I.P.S. committee (in conjunction with Jerry Patterson and NJ state assemblyman Dennis Riley amongst other prominent people) who spear-headed the effort to have the [Early] Surrender Rule reinstated in Atlantic City after it was abruptly and illegally abolished by the Casino Control Commission in the Spring of 1981.

When the smoke had cleared, C.H.I.P.S. had managed to have Surrender reinstated for 6 days, before casino lawyers pressured Governor Byrne to declare a "State Emergency" (the casinos were claiming that the Surrender rule would put them out of business, thereby impacting the state's economy). That was the end of that.

Go to Jail - Go DIRECTLY to Jail. Do not Pass GO, do NOT Surrender your hand against a dealer Blackjack, do not save 50% of your wager. Currently, Caesars Palace and the Claridge Hotel offer Late Surrender. It is doubtful that Early Surrender will ever smell the salt-air of the boardwalk community ever again. As a side note: the 3 casinos open at the time collectively invested nearly $1 Million to eventually succeed in tweaking the governor to declare the state emergency; the C.H.I.P.S. committee put up around $3,000 to accomplish what they did. I'm sure from the casino's point-of-view, the $1 Million was well spent.

I also consider that C.H.I.P.S. accomplished what they set out to do. When the other side has more money and can therefore get away with "cheating in the game", there is not much you can do. However, C.H.I.P.S. DID demonstrate that Davey CAN take on Goliath; unless of course, the Gawds-that-BE, rig the game.


The Value of Surrender

The only difference between Early and Late Surrender is that the "Early" variation allows you to surrender against a Blackjack, while Late Surrender does not. The difference seems negligible enough, yet results in a 0.60% difference in favor of the player. Aside from 2:1 or 3:1 Blackjack pay-outs (rarely seen), Early Surrender offers the greatest game improvement in favor of the player. For that reason, we see Early Surrender about as often as we do the 2:1 and 3:1 Blackjack pay-outs. In fact, offering Early Surrender in Single-deck games gives the Basic Strategy player a 0.62% edge over the dealer, off-the-top.


How Basic Strategy Handles Surrender

Basic Strategy often represents the basis for people's play, or at LEAST can give us a stable comparison-baseline . We will consider the "Basic" aproach first. Because Basic Strategy is a compromise strategy, there are less than a handful of Surrender plays to be concerned with.

With Basic, 16's comprised of 10-6 or 9-7 against a 9, 10 or Ace are Surrender plays (8-8 is always split) All hard 15's are Surrendered against a Ten, and HIT against a 9 or an Ace. (1)


Card-counting with Surrender

Most books on card-counting either skip Surrender, or they give you "canned" Surrender plays, without offering the Theory behind such plays. The book authors are in effect saying, "trust me - I know what I am telling you". It sounds to me more like a John Patrick "So You Wanna be a Gambler" video (we're BOOBs, remember?).

Because there are so many different counting systems, I can hardly cover them all. Instead, let's look at the Theory which underlies Surrender. You can translate that understanding in terms of whatever card-count method you prefer. While the myriad of counting systems may differ considerably, they DO agree on one thing: Small-value cards, overall, favor the dealer, while 9's 10's and Aces, tend to favor the player. (The numerous assumptions the above points depend on I will not digress into here.)

When we follow the logic of the above points, we can easily deduce the correct card-count application of Surrender. Essentially, Surrender is taken advantage of during high-count situations and against 9, 10 and Ace Upcards. Because of the high count, hitting a stiff under these situations has a greater chance of breaking-ahead [of the dealer]. A hand-break costs you the entire wager, as does standing on a stiff against a dealer pat hand ; whereas, with Surrender, you receive a 50% rebate. That sounds pretty equitable to me.

As I mentioned earlier, I can't give SPECIFIC count advice because there are so many different systems; therefore I can't recommend what the True-Count value should be for executing a particular Surrender decision. However, from reading dozens of books on card-counting, I have deduced that essentially, Surrender and Insurance bets are usually made at approximately the same count value. We can summarily translate that into: If you would normally Insure this hand [based on the count], then you should probably Surrender.

The reason we don't normally Surrender under low[er] count situations has to do with the fact that in low counts, our chances of safely drawing a low card are dramatically increased; making HIT the correct play; and yes, sometimes even against low[er] dealer upcards. This is not all that dissimilar from certain kinds of Clump-track play.


Clump-tracking with Surrender

Because Clump-trackers don't keep Running or True counts, for the most part they do not consider what has gone by; only what is on the table in front of them. While Clump-Track play already seems erratic, the Surrender decisions often catch everyone off-guard; players and pit-crew alike. Then again, I have made some serious Surrender blunders in this area; which I guess assisted me in the casino-comportment department. You will recall that I said an incorrect Surrender can cost you up to 1.5x your wager - more on that later.

Consistently correct Surrender plays are attention-getters; on BOTH sides of the pit. While they can help turn my game around they also advertise that you are not a typical "DOLT" player. As with Insurance, to correctly execute Surrender, a Clump-tracker needs some information on which to base the Surrender Decision: in this case, the cards on the table.

Surrender is NOT a beginning Clump-track play. Leave Surrender OUT of your play implementation until the REST of your hand play is sound. If you are using Boris' Blackjack Software (Advanced Edition or above), Boris' Playing Performance Evaluation Percentage (middle right-side of the Detailed Player Statistics Screen #1) should be Positive, showing up in Green.

On the left side of Screen #1, look at the Hands-Won-Ratio (which should minimally be 52%+) and the Playing Advantage (which should be Positive - Green). While it is probably true that the NBJ formulas are a bit inflated, they still make a useful comparison baseline.

To properly execute a Surrender play a Clump-tracker needs to have an accurate Holecard read. Lacking that, it is probably best to play this hand based on the Hitcard flow (which alone is not usually enough information for a Surrender play), or simply revert to Basic Strategy. The Holecard read is important because we need to determine the likelihood of the dealer being stiff or pat. If the dealer is stiff, we will more than likely choose to stand (in high-ratio rounds). If the dealer is pat, and we predict a breaking hit-card, then Surrender is probably the way to go.

To illustrate the above points, let's revisit a couple of memorable situations I've encountered in recent years of my Clump-track play.


Scenario #1

I was dealt an 8 - 7 against a Dealer's 5, with Mid-cards running. Because the Holecard read as low-to-mid, I knew the dealer would out draw me if I stood. If I hit the hand, I was destined to break (expecting to draw a mid-card). Surrender seemed the best choice. The dealer's hand consisted of: 5 - 4 - 7 - 2 (the next 3 cards were 10's) --- what do YOU think?


Scenario #2

I was dealt a King-6 against a Dealer's 2, with High-cards running. Again, it was clear that by standing, the dealer would out draw me. Even IF the dealer turned up a 10 in the hole, there was not enough guarantee there would be two Tens-in-a-row The dealer's hand consisted of: 2 - 9 -8 (the next 3 cards were 9-9-10) --- what do YOU think?


Scenario #3

Playing head-up, I was dealt a pair of 8's against a Dealer's 2 - this hand being played from the following cards: 8 - 2 - 8 - 9 - 9 - 7 - K. Basic Strategy would have me split 8's against a dealer's 2 (assuming the dealer has a 10 in the hole, and therefore a breakable hand; ignoring the fact that only a 10 can break a 12). Playing aggressively, I split the 8's, when in fact, Surrender was the correct play.

If you construct the above cards into hands, you will see that I ended up with: 8 - 9 and 8 - 7. The dealer of course ended with: 2 - 9 - J. Now you can understand why I consider a dealer 2-UP to be almost as dangerous as a 9 or 10. (If I can pull most 12's out of the fire, the dealer SURELY can as well!)

Informal tracking of my Surrender plays suggests that I invoke Surrender in hands like the above considerably more often than conventional (i.e. by-the-book) Surrenders. It shows-to-go-ya, that experts can often strongly disagree.


The Price of Surrender Errors

You will recall that I loosely linked Insurance and Surrender; at least in so far as the True Count required to effect such a play. However, there is a significant difference between the two. Losing an Insurance bet only costs you ½ your bet. While that is not insignificant, it is better than making a Surrender Error. To understand this, we must first understand what is meant by a Surrender Error.

A Surrender Error occurs under one of two conditions:

To understand the COST of Surrender Errors, let's couch it in terms of actual $$. For this discussion, assume a bet of $100. If I WIN the hand, I am ahead by $100 (+100%). If I LOSE the hand, I am DOWN $100 (-100%). If I CORRECTLY Surrender, I am only down $50 (-50%).

If I make a Surrender Error, I am not ONLY out the $50 I lost due to the Surrender Transaction, I am ALSO out the $100 I WOULD have won, had I stayed in the round. With a Surrender Error on a $100 dollar bet, I am ACTUALLY out $150. Even most PRO-fessional players don't take this factor into consideration. Remember, it is money won, which offsets our losses.

With Boris' Blackjack Software, we can evaluate our Surrender Errors by way of the Player Detailed Statistics Screen #2. If your Surrender success is under 70%, you are probably giving away more units than you realize; enough to turn a marginally winning play-session into a losing one.

I will admit that 70% is a DIFFICULT goal to achieve. I need to be practicing daily before I can return my Surrender Success consistently to the 70%+ level. Show me a player who thinks consistently winning at Blackjack is EASY, and I will show you a LOSER.


Some Parting Thoughts

As you can see, we have covered all the bases regarding Surrender - if not, let me know. Surrender is a simple rule to understand, although it is difficult to master; at least without good practice. Properly used, Surrender can give you that extra edge needed to survive in today's games; especially today's SHOE games. Improperly used, Surrender can quickly become one of a number of reasons for giving up play altogether. Don't let this happen to you.

I would like to end this piece on Surrender by quoting Ken Uston's rewrite of an old classic song, which he titled: "We Surrender Please!" During the battle to have Surrender reinstated, he put together a rally march, which consisted of a ragtime Dixie-style band who accompanied the group as they strolled up the Boardwalk, serenading each casino establishment with the following song.

We Surrender Please (2)

(an ode to the Casinos, from the General Public)

by Ken Uston

We played the game of 21.
You changed the rules - Now it's not fun.
We want the rules the way they were....

We may seem dumb - that's not a fact.
We will not play 'Til our rule's back.
Without us, Blackjack cannot pay....

Little mean things you're doin',
You want to take all our bread.
We hit when we're holding our "16's",
And bust 'til we're holding our heads.


Restore the rules - Give us a break.
We're no big fools - the game's a fake.
Without us, Blackjack cannot pay....

(Tag: We'll give up half our bets to you,
that's the fairest thing to do.

1. This data is based on information from the book Million Dollar Blackjack by Ken Uston.

2. Sung to the tune of "I Surrender Dear".