1st-Base Play: Is it a Mirage?

From my Experience, one of the most important Blackjack Revelations E.C. Davis brought to the table was the concept of 1st-base play. Whether he originated the idea or not (some say others did), is irrelevant. What IS relevant, is the technique itself (along with its seemingly infinite variations). While this technique is indeed powerful, it has it problems, drawbacks and limitations. In this article I want to spend some time examining these details.

Without giving away the details of a proprietary approach, allow me to define 1st-base play as an approach to Blackjack that is played from the first seat(s) at the table. The idea behind this approach is to "read" the cards (using appropriate Clump-track card-reading methods), playing large bets when there is a STRONG expectation that you will receive high cards (specif. 10's and Aces), while conversely, backing off during periods when you expect to receive low cards.

In my Experience, this approach DOES work, when you Table-select correctly. In the absence of proper Table-selection, this method can lose a lot of units, rather quickly. If you have ever sat-in and observed one of our Internet Blackjack Team Practice sessions (for more information go to Boris' Website), you have probably seen some form of 1st-base play being used.

Evaluating First-base's Win-rate

For starters, I should make a few points immediately clear. E.C. Davis in his New Blackjack manual states that the First-base approach achieves a 15% player advantage (while his 3rd-base approach achieves a 4% advantage). He has been resoundly ridiculed for these claims. While I DO feel that Ellis tends to exaggerate many of his claims, it might be possible to wangle the 15% number, depending upon how and what you measure; just as President Clinton was able to (successfully in my mind), wangle that oral sex is not sex[ual intercourse].

For example, if we drop out of the statistics, tables where we lost due to poor Table-selection, the win-rate of this approach will increase dramatically. Next, if we disregard "rent" bets (low-limit flat bets made while waiting for the high cards), the win-rate of this method rises dramatically again. I suspect Ellis arrived at his numbers via something sort of fenangling as I just described.

Finding First-Base Games

The next point that should be emphasized is that the First-base approach (as Davis promotes it) was originally developed based on the state of the Atlantic City (8-Deck) games as they existed during the end of the last decade. While it is true, that Atlantic City games are probably the most clumped of any games you will find in this country, it is important to remember that not ALL A.C. games are clumped ALL of the time.

In my visits to Atlantic City, I usually find one or two tables per day with cards as random as you will see produced by most Blackjack software programs on the market (Except Boris' Blackjack Simulation Software). The rest of the tables exhibit various degrees of card-clumping. The question becomes whether the clumping is exploitable with 1st-base play, or whether it has been shuffled out a little, requiring more aggressive Clump-track play. It is a mistake to assume you can walk up to any 6 or 8 deck shoe game, sit down at (or near) first-base and immediately begin winning with this method. Attempting this game-after-game center-strip in Las Vegas (mid-1992), found me down a not-insignificant number of units. That is when I discovered the importance of Table-selection.

From my Experience, the games which probably BEST qualify as 1st-base exploitable are 8 deck games with a small number of players (2 to 4, including yourself). In most cases, wash cards are usually First-base playable, whether there are 6 OR 8 decks. In 6-deck games, 1st-base opportunities CAN be found. However, careful Table-selection is necessary, lest you inadvertently jump into games that LOOK like 1st-base opportunities, which really are NOT.

In looking back at my unsuccessful 1st-base attempts, I realize I was picking the wrong tables. I was frequenting 6-deck games, at 5 to 7 player tables, significantly AFTER the wash-clumping had probably shuffled out. Unfortunately, the NBJ manual didn't warn me of this. Luckily, I deduced these factors for myself, and my win-rate improved dramatically, after several years of strictly 3rd-base play instead.

Some Problems with 1st-base Play

While 1st-base play has an incredible profit-potential, when the game you are in is not 1st-base compatible, a number of difficulties arise. To begin with, if your clump-reading is poor, or, if the cards are somewhat "dirty" (i.e. contain a significant number of orphans/strays), you will not receive high-cards when you are expecting them. Likewise, if the clumps are too short for the number of players at the table, while you may receive a high-card as your first card, you will then often get stiffed.

Another significant problem at 1st-base is that until you draw a hit-card, you have no hit-card read. If the clump-read has switched to tens or highs in the holecard, you won't know about that fact until you have drawn a break-card. Likewise, if clumping has switched to mid-cards or lows (in the hole), you won't know that until you double-down and receive a low-card, now requiring the dealer to break in order for you to win.

In addition to the above problems, clump-unknowledgeable players at or near 3rd-base, can easily play their hands in such a way as to assist dealers towards making their hands. If you are not getting solid hands at 1st-base you will find yourself losing high-bet after high-bet. It doesn't take many high-bet losses to negate any perceived advantage you may have at 1st-base.

To resolve this problem you have several choices. Table-departure is of course the obvious choice. Another possibility is that although you have a large bet out, you may occasionally have to make assertive hit plays, when you obnose that the players to your left are unable (or unwilling) to hit their hands. However, remember the danger of breaking-ahead.

One way to remedy the above problems is to play a sacrifice hand either before or after your big bet. This allows you to either get a hit-card read (if your sacrifice hand plays before you), or to save your "1st-base" hand (if your sacrifice hand plays afterwards). You COULD play a sacrifice hand on either side of your money. The drawback to doing this is the spread required between the sacrifice hands (combined) and the Money Hand. As the spread decreases, the risk increases. Then again, as the spread increases, so will the potential-heat, should you start winning heavily.

Steaming and 1st-Base Failures

Because we have been hyped so heavily on the POWER of 1st-base play, when it doesn't work, it can deliver quite an emotional letdown. This can easily lead to "steaming", in order to get back the money we feel we should never have lost to begin with. I remember being confronted with this steaming-response in my practice-play sessions last year. It took me some time before I finally worked through the psychological-interference fueling the steaming-response. The effort was well worth it however - I eventually worked out a two-color betting approach for use in border-line games.

The above scenario teaches us that even strong (and strong-willed) players can get caught up in the psychological (and meta-psychological) effects of losing play. While losing is of course part of the game, we need an effective Table-departure approach for games that do not play "by the book". However, before throwing in the towel, precede this departure-approach with an alteration to the flow of the game, such as changing the number of hands played, or moving your 1st-base bets to the betting-circle which seems to be winning most of the hands.

Some Interesting 1st-Base Tricks

If you are betting multiple spots, be on the lookout for one of those spots to either be winning heavily, or at least receiving "textbook" hands (very few stiffs). Be sure that your biggest money is on the circle that is providing the best results. Quite often it varies. However, in many clumped games, a rhythm (or cycle) develops, favoring a particular hand; sometimes called a Hot-Zone. As Clump-trackers we LIVE for those Hot-Zones. Often the difference between the Advanced player and the Professional is the ability to quickly locate and exploit these Hot-Zones.

To fully maximize your 1st-Base efforts, consider hitting a given casino during the "wash" period. As I mentioned earlier, wash cards often produce the BEST 1st-base games, although you risk running into cards that are OVER-clumped. At times like this, it may be wise to add another hand to the table to "stretch" the clumps out a little. After the 2nd or 3rd shoe, be on the lookout for signs that the wash-clumping is shuffling out.

Another trick is to revert to Hit-N-Run style of play, favoring seats to the right-side of the tables. This approach will not work (or at least will not work well) in crowded casinos. And of course, you will not be allowed to jump into games when no mid-shoe entry is allowed.

Once in a while you may encounter a DEALER who enforces no mid-shoe-entry, even though mid-shoe entry is allowed casino-wide. I encountered this situation in a $5 game at the Colorado Belle (in Laughlin). Playing 1st-base, I found myself in a semi-choppy game with half a [6-deck] shoe left to play. I dropped playing for a couple of rounds. Then when I got the 1st-base signals I plopped a Quarter on the betting-circle. The dealer dealt past me, pushing my bet back, informing me that I would have to wait until the next shoe. I was incredulous. In retrospect, he probably saved me a ton of money. On that trip to the river, we were there to casino-scout for Boris and party, not to make a "serious" play. Over dinner I had 6 strong beer shots from their brewpub (great stuff) and was a little "tipsy", to say the least. My losing may have been poor timing thanks to the alcohol. Nevertheless, that was the first time I have ever been backed off because of my Clump-track style of play; and in a chump-change, $5 game, no less.

It should be obvious by now that 1st-base play requires careful Table-selection. A selection criteria to strongly consider is surrender. Surrender, properly used, can occasionally bail you out somewhat, should the selected table turn out to be a "mirage-table". It can also offer relief from the occasional high-bet potential-loss. However, remember that surrender errors cost you 1.5 bets every time.

Now of course, like any other strategy, a stop-loss tailored to your betting style (timid, average, assertive, or aggressive) should ALWAYS be in force. The bottom line is, if your high-bets are not winning, then get the hell out of that game.

I have devised a multi-color 1st-base betting method which will be written up in a future issue of the Boris Advanced Blackjack Journal. If you reread the material in this article, you may well be able to figure this out yourself.

1st-Base Betting: In Summary

I have covered a lot of ground in this article. Let's review the salient points. The 1st-Base method was originally devised for play against the 8-deck shoe games, most specifically, off wash cards, or near-wash cards. Against random cards, weak clumping or full tables, using this method can be VERY costly - therefore, accurate Table-selection is ESSENTIAL! While the wash-clumping is not as severe in today's A.C. games, there are still A.C. casinos using killer washes (ex: Harrahs Marina and Bally's Parkplace, including their Wildwest casino).

1st-base betting can indeed result in a "candy store" situation as John Taormino (a prominent A.C. 1st-base player) used to be fond of saying. Like everything else in the casino, there are normally no free lunches. While 1st-base play can yield a high win-rate (when it works), it can just as easily lose heavily, if your Table-selection is poor or the game disintegrates during your 1st-base exploit.

Just as in the investment world, in the casino world, high payback betting propositions also yield a higher risk. Is it worth the risk? Ultimately, only YOU can know that. Keeping playing records is one way to be sure.

Good luck with your 1st-base exploits. If you should someday see me playing 1st-base, feel free to jump in and bet on my hand (if you come into the game, you could upset the player number and ruin it for BOTH of us). Then again, if you see me playing more near 3rd-base, there is probably a reason why. If you now come into a 1st-base seat, you may benefit from my "3rd-base" style of play; then again, maybe not (again, your game entry may ruin the table-bias).

Hmmmm.... I guess that's why they call this game (overall) Gambling.

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