Third Base

Although baseball and Blackjack have little in common, one bit of terminology has been borrowed from the outdoor sport for the indoor game is “third base.” In both cases it refers to a player’s position. In baseball, it is the defensive position that comes last in the counterclockwise rotation around the pitcher before home plate. In Blackjack, it is the last position around the table clockwise to receive cards and make decisions before the dealer has his/her turn.

Those who know baseball well say that the third baseman has to have the quickest reactions and strongest throwing arm of any player on the field. He sometimes has to throw his entire body at a ball to keep it from escaping the infield.

In Blackjack, too, whoever sits at third base is expected by others at the table to be a strong player, able to make tough choices—perhaps even willing to sacrifice a hand and “take one for the team,” if necessary. But of course, Blackjack is not a team sport, and playing third base has nothing to do with helping others. It’s all about winning for one’s self.

Third Base Advantages

Going last in any game has certain inherent benefits. The third base player gets to see every thing that has gone before his/her turn and knows exactly what decisions others have made as well as their results. This can be a huge advantage to a card counter, someone who plays a hand according to what cards remain in the deck.

Particularly when cards are dealt face down, only the third baseman has the opportunity to see the other player’s cards before taking a turn at drawing, standing, doubling down, or splitting. The importance of this advantage has been measured by some experts as equivalent to reducing the house edge by as much as 0.41%. That’s equivalent to eliminating the house margin altogether.

Another study indicates that the difference in terms of advantage lost between sitting at third base and being the sixth position immediately to its right is about 0.05%, and that another .05% per seat is lost as a player moves toward the first position, also known as “first base.”

Of course, this is less true of Blackjack games where cards are dealt to the players face up. Everyone gets to see the majority of the cards prior to their turn. But even in this case, the third base is still the only player to see everyone’s cards before making decisions—still a distinct benefit.

Third Base Drawbacks

The reason every Blackjack player doesn’t scramble to sit at third base whenever is open has less to do with playing or the desire to win than it does with human nature. One professional calls third base the “hot corner.” That’s because whoever sits there is the last to act before the dealer takes a turn, so his/her every move is scrutinized by the rest of the players. It can feel like being under a microscope.

If the third base player varies from basic strategy or “what the book says,” it may annoy other players. This is especially true when situations occur that require the third base player to hit a weak hand, catching a 10 or a face card that “would have busted the dealer” if not drawn.

Everyone loves to second-guess. Criticism rains down on the third base player when the dealer wins, and praise is forthcoming when dealer busts “due to the third baseman’s fine play.” Of course, the dealer has to play according to house Rules, so there is no connection to the third base seats actions or inaction. But don’t try to tell that to a table full of irate or jubilant players.

So although there is a very real upside to playing at third base, it requires a cool head and a steady hand to sit there, getting blamed for losses or expected to play every hand perfectly for the whole table and not just for one’s self.