It’s not a secret that blackjack is the most popular table game in the casino. You can easily see multiple reasons for the game’s popularity. For one thing, it’s easy to understand and learn how to play. For another, it offers the best odds in the casino.
But the casino knows a lot more about blackjack than you do.
And they’re not necessarily interested in sharing everything they know with you.
I’ve been playing blackjack games in casinos around the country (Oklahoma, Las Vegas, and Kansas City) for a couple of decades. I’ve also read several books on the subject. I know how to count cards, too.
And here are some of the secrets about blackjack that the casino doesn’t want you to know.
1- Not All Blackjack Games Are Created Equally
It’s obvious that some blackjack games are different than others because they have different names. For example, it’s obvious that Spanish 21 is a different kettle of fish.
But sometimes just plain old blackjack can have different rules from table to table.
And those differences in rules can have a big effect on your bottom line.
Here’s an example:
At some tables, the dealer is required to hit a total of soft 17. At other tables, the dealer stands on any 17 (hard or soft).
That seems like a small change, but it has a surprising effect on your bottom line.
It adds 0.21% to the house edge if the dealer hits a soft 17.
The house edge in blackjack hovers around 0.5% if you play with perfect basic strategy. (More about that later.)
But that goes up and down based on the rules variations.
The higher the house edge, the more money you can expect to lose over time.
Other changes in the rules from table to table that can affect the house edge include:
- The number of decks in use (the fewer the better)
- Payouts of 3 to 2 are way better than 6 to 5 payouts on blackjack
- Being able to double down on any total instead of just on totals of 10 or 11
Most blackjack players aren’t educated enough to know what difference these changes make. Your job is to become educated enough to choose only the best games.
2- New-Fangled Blackjack Games Offer Worse Odds (Usually)
You’ll find plenty of interesting blackjack games with rules twists and fancy names. These games usually have one big variation in the rules that’s great for the player.
But they always make up for that rule and then some by changing other rules.
Here’s an example:
In Double Exposure Blackjack, the dealer plays with both cards face-up instead of just one. It’s easy to see why having more information can inform your decisions.
But in Double Exposure Blackjack, the dealer wins all ties. That’s a major change from the usual “push” rule. Another rule change — blackjack only pays off at even money instead of at 3 to 2.
Generally, any time a blackjack game has a fancy name — like Super Fun 21, Blackjack Switch, etc.—you’re probably better off just sticking with generic blackjack.
Spanish 21, though, is an exception to this rule. It’s a dramatically different game, but if you can play it with correct basic strategy, it offers a house edge as low as or lower than traditional blackjack games.
3- Basic Strategy Isn’t Enough to Get You an Edge
I mentioned earlier that the house edge in blackjack is 0.5% if you play with basic strategy. That actually varies from between 0.25% and 1.25%, depending on the rules at the casino.
But if you don’t know basic strategy or rely on hunches, the house edge is considerably higher. Someone who’s completely new to blackjack might face a house edge of 4% or 5%.
The casinos would love it, though, if you thought that playing with perfect basic strategy gave you a mathematical edge over the casino. If you’ve seen Vegas Vacation, you probably remember a scene where Clark is explaining to someone at the table that a skilled blackjack player can get an edge over the casino if they play correctly.
The implication is that if you make the right decisions on every hand, you’ll have an edge over the casino.
Sorry, that’s just not how it works.
If you want to get an edge over the casino, you need to combine your knowledge and implementation of perfect basic strategy with some kind of advantage technique — like counting cards.
4- Counting Cards Is Easier Than You Think
Casinos hate card counters. That’s because this is one gambling technique that’s not only easy, but effective. If you can count cards, you can flip that house edge of 0.5% to 1% to a player edge of 0.5% and 1%.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s the difference between a player losing $XX per hour on average and winning $XX per hour.
Here’s how those averages are calculated:
You multiply your average bet by the number of hands you’re playing per hour. That gives you the total amount of money you’re putting into action per hour.
You multiply your hourly action by the house edge (or the player edge) to determine how much you expect to win or lose per hour.
If you assume that you’re betting $10 per hand over 70 hands per hour, you’re averaging $700/hour in action.
If the house has an edge of 0.5%, your expected loss per hour is $3.50.
But if you’re counting cards and have an edge over the house, your expected win per hour is $3.50.
Of course, you can’t make a living on $3.50/hour, but the casino hates to lose money.
And most blackjack players are playing for higher stakes than that, too.
What the casino doesn’t want you to know is how easy it is to learn how to count cards. You don’t even need above average intelligence to pull it off. Anyone with average mathematical skills can learn how.
That’s because you don’t have to memorize the cards that have already been played or know which cards are left in the deck.
You just need a rough idea of the ratio of high cards to low cards left in the deck.
You do that by assigning a +1 value to all the low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, or 6). Every time one of those is dealt, the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck improves.
You also assign a -1 value to all the high cards (10s and aces). Every time on those is dealt, the ratio of high cards to low cards worsens.
Why does this matter?
Because a natural (or a blackjack) pays off at 3 to 2 instead of even money. With more aces and 10s in the deck, you have better odds of getting a natural. You increase the size of your bets when the count is positive. You decrease the size of your bets when the count is negative.
You can improve your odds further by changing your playing strategy according to the count, too.
But that’s not strictly necessary. If you just raise and lower your bets at the right times, you can get an edge over the house.
5- The Dealers Don’t Always Give Good Strategy Advice
In fact, they usually don’t.
I have a friend who used to deal blackjack at a casino in Oklahoma. She was as ill-informed about blackjack as anyone I’ve ever met.
Sure, she knew the intricacies of the gameplay and the rules.
But when it came to strategy, she believed a lot of weird things.
For example, she thought that one player could screw up everyone’s chances at the table by making a bad decision. (That’s not the case — as long as you make the right decision with your hand, the other players’ decisions have no mathematical effect on your edge.)
She didn’t even know what basic strategy was, in fact.
Sure, blackjack dealers mean well.
But that doesn’t mean they’re well-informed.
The same applies to the other players at the table. You can safely ignore their advice.
And you probably don’t need to be offering advice to the other players, either.
Find a good book about blackjack, maybe something by Stanford Wong, and learn the game. Then ignore the dealers’ and other players’ advice.
6- Your Luck Isn’t Really “Bound to Turn Around” Soon
The casinos train blackjack dealers to be optimistic about your chances. If you’re on a losing streak, you’ll often hear a blackjack dealer tell you, “Your luck is probably going to turn around soon.”
That’s an example of a classic gambling math fallacy. In fact, it’s even called “The Gambler’s Fallacy.”
The premise is that the results of previous wins or losses affect the probability of winning or losing your next bet. For example, if you’ve lost ten hands in a row, the dealer might honestly think that it’s almost impossible for you to lose on the next hand. After all, a losing streak can’t go on forever.
The reality, though, is that every bet on a game of chance is independent of the bets that have been made previously. The odds of winning or losing don’t change because you’ve lost or won several times in a row.
But blackjack dealers encourage you to continue playing. The longer you play, the more the casino wins, period. That’s how the house edge and the math behind all casino games (including blackjack) work.
7- Those Drinks Aren’t Really Free
Most casinos in major gambling destinations offer free drinks to people who are gambling.
But those drinks aren’t really free.
For one thing, you need to tip the cocktail waitress at least a dollar (preferably $2) every time she brings you a drink.
More importantly, the more you drink, the less likely you are to make good decisions.
Drunk blackjack players make basic strategy mistakes. They also mismanage their bankrolls. If you’re trying to count cards, you’re certain to make costly errors if you have even a handful of drinks. (Yes, counting cards is easier than the casino lets on, but it’s not THAT easy.)
If you’re a serious blackjack player, you might have a drink or two, but that’s it. Otherwise, you’ll pay for those drinks in extra losses.
8- The Casino Is NOT on Your Side
Everyone working at the casino is incredibly friendly, and they all seem to be rooting for you to win.
But none of them really want you to win.
The casino is designed to separate you from your money. All the games there are designed with that single goal in mind, too.
If you gamble enough, you’ll get a host assigned to you. This person will act like your best friend. He’ll take care of event tickets for you, arrange special perks for you that other players don’t get, and he’ll cheer you on when you’re winning.
But he also understands that as long as you continue to gamble at his property, you’ll eventually lose your money.
And forget about being a high rolling card counter and getting lots of perks on top of your edge over the casino. They’re wise to your tricks.
In fact, if you want to count cards, your best bet is to fly as low under the radar as possible. You don’t want any attention from any of the casino staff.
9- Even if You Have an Edge, You Can Go Broke if Your Bankroll Isn’t Big Enough
The thing about the house edge and the player edge is that it’s a long-term mathematical expectation. You don’t really expect to lose 0.5% or win 0.5% of your total action per hour. That’s an average that you expect to achieve over hundreds of hours of play.
In the short run, anything can happen — especially losing streaks.
Your goal when playing a game like blackjack — if you’re gambling with an advantage — is to avoid going broke until the long run kicks in and you start averaging profits.
If you sit down with $1,000 at a $100 minimum bet blackjack table, it’s almost certain that you’ll go broke before running into your long-term expectation. You’re probably a lot better off at the $10 tables with a $1,000 bankroll.
Casinos love wannabe advantage gamblers with small bankrolls.
10- That Ante Has a Bigger Effect on Your Odds Than You Think
In Oklahoma (and some other locations) blackjack has started being offered but with an ante. In Oklahoma, it’s $.50 per hand.
This means that you’re betting $5.50 per hand, but your winnings are paid off as if you only bet $5.00 per hand.
That’s 10% right off the top.
No amount of card counting and advantage play can overcome the edge the casino gets by charging that $.50 ante.
I think you’d almost be better off playing the slot machines at such a casino.
Not really, though. The rate of play on slot machines ensures that you’re going to lose a lot of money on average per hour. Even if the house edge for a lousy ante-added blackjack game is way higher than at a normal casino, the 60 or 70 hands per hour you’re playing on average limits the amount of money you’re putting into action.
Most slots players make between 600 and 900 spins per hour. Even if you’re only betting a dollar or two per spin, that adds up fast.
Blackjack is the most popular table game in the casino, and for good reason. It’s easy to play, easy to learn, and the odds are great.
But it’s not a sure ticket to gambling wealth. The casino knows a lot about the game that most players haven’t bothered to learn.
Having read this blog post, you’re several steps ahead of most gamblers already.