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Assessing Charles Barkley’s blackjack decision – 16 against a dealer 10


5 May 2017

If asked to sum up Charles Barkley in a few words, these are among the more likely responses – NBA hall of famer, controversial basketball pundit or outspoken but honest basketball character.

Fairly well known too is Barkley’s desire to gamble. In a 2014 television interview, he was frank when saying that he had won $1m four or five times in a single day, while losing $1m inside 24 hours on 10 to 15 occasions.

The casino game of choice for Barkley is blackjack, where he has also not been shy to offer snippets of advice in the past. However, not all of it follows more widespread wisdom.

The Hand

One such piece of guidance relates to what he would do if dealt a hand of 16 against a dealer’s face card of a 10.

Barkley was unmoved twice in that he would be standing and not hitting, with his reasoning being that he would rather give the dealer the opportunity to bust their hand, instead of the high likelihood of busting himself and guaranteeing a losing hand.

Adopting this approach simply avoids losing, ahead of attempting to actually win the hand.

Assuming Barkley was playing solo against the dealer using a single deck, 29 of the 49 unknown cards would cause him to bust, which equates to a 59% chance of his hand exceeding a total of 21.

Therefore, only 41% of the cards would improve his hand and not even all of these guarantee a winning hand. For example, he could receive a three to give 19 and then watch a dealer flip another picture card to total 20.

However, rather than whether Barkley, the dealer, both or neither busts, most essential is the impact the decision to stand will have on financial profits and losses.

Calculations suggest that while a player will win 2.7% less when hitting in this position, they will also lose 3.1% less.

It is clearly a very close call whether to stand or hit and it’s the worst position a blackjack player can be in following the deal. In such a bad spot, minimising losses has to take precedent.


In many games of blackjack, a player’s decision in this problematic position isn’t solely limited to hitting or standing. There is a third option.

Players are given the chance to surrender their hand, which effectively means they concede that they have lost before attempting to improve their position. By doing so, they only forfeit half of their initial stake, receiving the other half back to their chip stack.

Surrendering is advised regardless of whether blackjack is being played with one, two, four or eight decks.

What’s also worth pointing out is how the make up of the cards to give the total of 16 may influence a player’s next move.

Soft 16

If a player’s 16 consists of a 10 and a six or a nine and a seven, then all of the above attitudes continue to ring true.

But there are also two other methods in which a player can be dealt 16 – what is known as a soft 16 consisting of an ace and a five or as a pair of eights.

With the soft 16, a player is obviously at no risk of busting a total of 21 because the value of the ace could be used as a one. Therefore, it is always sensible to hit for another card and then reassess.

A low-value card would improve the hand, while anything else would leave a player in a similar position to which they started – needing the dealer to bust if they are to finish the hand a winner.

The 88 conundrum

On first inspection, splitting two eights against a dealer’s 10 looks an unwise idea. After all, why would a player want to double their initial stake on the table knowing the likelihood that they have two hands inferior to that of the dealer?

However, the reason this is considered the correct play is that the numbers say that a player can expect to win 38% of the time when showing an eight against a 10. This drops to 23% when hitting with 16 against a 10 and 23% when standing with 16.

So, if 100 hands were played, a player can expect to win 38 and lose 62 by splitting, which is a net loss of 24 hands. Betting £10 a hand, this equates to a loss of £240. We then double it because of the split and a player will lose £480 in this situation.

If hitting or standing, the net loss is 54 hands (77-23). At £10 a hand, this is £540 lost.

By surrendering, a player loses half of their stake in all 100 hands, which is £500. These numbers show why splitting makes the most sense.

The worst starting hand for a blackjack player is 16 against a 10 and you will lose more often than you win on average. But standing like Barkley is not the most efficient way to reduce your losses.