Casino Time

John Grochowski Interview

Europaplay – John Grochowski Interview Questions

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of half a dozen books on casino gambling and is a premier gambling guru on pretty much every type of casino game out there, including slots, video poker, roulette, baccarat, craps, and, of course, blackjack. For upwards of 20 years he has published a weekly column on gambling that is syndicated to newspapers around the United States. He’s also a contributor to many gaming industry publications including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots, and Casino Player. You can also tune in to hear him give his “Casino Answer Man” tips on the radio  via podcast (or on 890AM, Tuesday–Friday evenings in the Chicago area).

John kindly agreed to be interviewed for Europaplay’s Ultimate Blackjack Guide and share his unparalleled expertise and experience in the game with our online casino players.

Thanks John for speaking with us today here at Europaplay. You’ve been a casino gaming specialist and expert for a couple decades now after having previously started out your career as a sports journalist. What drew you to casino gambling in the first place?

I played a lot of poker with guys I met in college, so that’s probably where the roots are. Later on, my wife and I did a lot of travel in our first couple of years together. One day she was scanning the newspaper travel section, and noticed an inexpensive air and hotel package to Las Vegas. We had a good time, playing slots and video poker together, and I dabbled in blackjack. I came away from the tables with an understanding that there was a lot I didn’t know about the game and strategy. I made up my mind I was going to learn before we went back.

As you’re based in the United States, we suppose that pretty much all of your experience playing has been in land-based casinos and on cruise ships. Have you ever played blackjack online for real money?  If not, would you like to?

I have never played for money online, though I have played in free game through Facebook apps and the like. The legal situation is evolving in the United States, but the state I live in, Illinois, is nowhere near legalization of online gambling. If legalization came to my jurisdiction, then yes, I would sample online wagering.

Compared to other casino games, how easy would you say it is to master the game of blackjack and become an expert player?

I play all games to stay current, with the purpose of writing about them. However, when I’m there to play for myself and not with an article in mind, I split my time almost evenly between blackjack and video poker --- two games with strong skill elements.

I prefer games where my decisions make a difference, and I particularly like games where it’s possible to get an edge on the house. There is nothing I can do that will change the outcome at roulette, or on slot machines. In blackjack, my decisions affect the outcome, and the combination of my hit/stand/split/double decisions along with my betting patterns affects the mathematical edge.

It’s not difficult to master blackjack to the point of learning basic strategy. There are plenty of books on the subject, and it’s easy to find basic strategy charts and tutorials online. I learned by dealing myself hand after hand, and comparing my decisions to a basic strategy chart. Today, tutorial software allow you to accomplish the same thing a lot faster, with warnings on the screen when you misplay a hand.

Counting cards and actually getting an edge on the game is a different matter. It takes a lot of practice and discipline. Once you’ve learned by practicing on a computer, you still have to take it to another level by staying focused and disciplined amid all the distractions in a casino. You also have to be sufficiently bankrolled. If you’re aiming to wager one unit in the worst counts and eight units in the best, and you find a $10 minimum bet, then you’d better be sufficiently bankrolled to withstand losses on $80 wagers. Losing streaks happen, even if you’re counting cards.

I don’t think the combination of knowledge, practice, discipline and bankroll is at all common.

You’ve written half a dozen books about gambling, no volume has specifically been dedicated to blackjack. Do you see yourself penning a blackjack book at some point in the future? If so, how would it be different from the blackjack literature that’s already out there and available for players to learn from?

A blackjack book is not in my plans at this time. I’m hard at work on a second video poker book. So much has been written about blackjack, that I’m sure I’d mostly be relaying the work of others in any new book. There can be value in taking fairly complex material and reinterpreting in an interesting, easy to understand way. But for right now, my focus is elsewhere.

Your biggest win came not from playing casino games, but actually on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” back in 2000, where you took home a tidy $125,000! Assuming you’re placing standard bets of $5–$20 at a time, how long do you estimate it would take an expert blackjack player like you to win that kind of money at casino blackjack tables?

Card counters are looking at edges of about 1 percent, maybe 1.5 percent, and to get there, you need a little bigger spread than $5-$20. But let’s assume I have a 1 percent edge, that accounting for large wagers and small wagers leaves me with an average of about $15 a hand, and I’m playing at a full table moving at about 60 hands per hour. That means I risk an average of $900 an hour, with an average hourly profit of $9. To reach $125,000, that’s about 13,889 hours of play.

Clearly, low-limit card counters aren’t in it to make a living. They’re at the tables for the thrill of beating the casinos at its own game. To make serious money at blackjack requires a MUCH bigger bankroll.

Most recreational gamblers don’t have the time or patience to study the game of blackjack well enough to become experts. What would be the top 3 tips you could give players like these such that they will get the best bang for their buck and not get fleeced out of their bankrolls within minutes of sitting down to play?

First, check the rules of the game. One rule that’s been on the rise in recent years is having blackjacks pay 6:5 instead of the traditional 3:2. That pads the house edge by 1.4 percent, and that’s more than the entire house edge against basic strategy players in normal games. If blackjacks don’t pay 3:2, I’m not playing. [Ed. Note: The majority of Blackjack games at Europaplay pay 3:2 on dealt blackjacks.]

Second, have command of your own bankroll and goals. Don’t bet more than you can afford.

Finally, use basic strategy. If you’re playing in a brick-and-mortar casino, it’s well worth your time to commit the plays to memory. If you’re playing online, you can have a basic strategy chart right in front of you so you can check it while you play. One place you can find the charts is Michael Shackelford’s site. He’s broken it down into charts for single-deck games, two decks, and four or more decks  [Ed. Note: All Blackjack games at Europaplay use 6 decks except for Blackjack Pro, which uses a single deck], and with different charts for each of those permutations dependent on whether the dealer hits or stands on soft 17.

Online blackjack uses a random number generator to shuffle the cards. This essentially makes card counting impossible as a strategy. How would you recommend that skilled online blackjack players compensate and what should they be focusing on instead?

If you can’t count cards, you can’t get an edge on the game. The best you can do is to learn basic strategy. With basic strategy, you can reduce the house edge to about half a percent, adding or subtracting a few tenths of a percent depending on house rules. An average player who doesn’t use basic strategy and tries to play by instinct and intuition faces a house edge ranging between about 1.5 and 2.5 percent. And a player who tries to mimic the dealer, always standing on 17 or higher and hitting 16 or lower, faces a house edge of about 5 percent. It’s worth your time to get onboard with basic strategy.

To end off, there are plenty of casino game players who prefer to stick to the slots and other games that require little to no strategy in order to play. What’s the best part about the game of blackjack that you’d say they’re missing out on – and thus why they should try the game?

For me, the chance to use my skill is a major part of the attraction of blackjack. I understand those who don’t want to be bothered with that and prefer the entertainment of the slots. But understand that blackjack almost always has a much lower house edge than do the slots, your money usually will keep you in the game longer and you have a better shot to win in blackjack. I enjoy the social aspects of blackjack in brick-and-mortar casinos, too, with the chance to talk with the dealer and other players [Ed. Note: You can interact with friendly, attractive dealers while playing Europaplay’s Live Dealer Games]. There’s a bit of a learning curve to blackjack, but I like the rewards.

Thanks again so much for your time John, and we of course wish you best of luck (and skill!) next time you hit the blackjack tables!


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