A shuffle through the Gaming mailbag:

Q. Can you explain the theory of hitting 12 in blackjack when the dealer has a 2 or 3? I see it on the basic strategy charts, so it must be the right play, but it just feels wrong. It seems like every time I hit 12, I get a 10 and bust.

A. You'll get a 10 to bust an average of four hands per 13 trials, because there are 13 card denominations and four of them are 10-values.

On five of 13 hands — when you draw a 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 — you'll improve to a standing hand of 17 or better. And on the other four hands, when you draw an Ace, 2, 3 or 4, your draw leaves you in the same position as if you'd stood on 12. That is, your resulting 13, 14, 15 or 16 needs a dealer bust for you to win.

Dealer bust rates are low enough that it's worth the risk of busting in an attempt to improve to 17 or better.

Here are average losses per dollar wagered in a a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17:

**If the dealer has 2 up, average losses with 10-2 are 28.9 cents when standing and 25.2 cents when hitting. With 9-3, it's 28.6 standing and 25.6 hitting; with 8-4, 28.5 and 25.5; and with 7-5, 28.2 and 25.4. With 6-6, split instead.

**If the dealer has 2 up, average losses with 10-2 are 24.9 cents when standing and 23.2 cents when hitting. With 9-3, it's 24.8 standing and 23.7 hitting; with 8-4, 24.2 and 23.3; and with 7-5, 24.1 and 23.2. With 6-6, split instead.

In every case, average losses are slightly lower if you hit than if you stand. It's a closer call when the dealer has 3 up because the dealer busts a little more often than with 2.

Neither 12 vs. 2 nor 12 vs. 3 is a good start for the player. You are at a disadvantage in those hands. But you can trim that disadvantage a bit by hitting.

Q. I should be used to it by now, but video slot paybacks that are way less than my bet still drive me crazy. When I bet 40 cents and get a payback of 5 cents or 10 cents, what good is that?

A. If you bet on one payline at a time, then a winner would pay several times your bet, just as it does on one-line three-reel slots. You'd get paybacks a lot less often since you wouldn't have the other paylines working, and many current slots don't allow for one-line play.

It would be nigh impossible to work the math so that a one-line winner could cover your entire 40-line wager while still keeping hit frequencies high enough to satisfy players and the house edge in line to produce a profit for the casinos.

The small pays do serve a purpose. Collecting several of them keeps you in action and gives you extra spins to pursue bigger wins or bonus events. Without all the small pays, a \$20 bill would disappear a lot faster in the tough times on a penny slot. I daresay most players have had sessions in which they've had a nice bonus round after they'd have been out of the game without the small pays.

But at the end of a \$20 bill, if you haven't had any bigger wins or bonuses, you're not going to say, "At least I got something back on 30 percent of my spins." You're going to remember the session as a total loss.