Quick, can you tell me what are the five worst playing rules for blackjack? If you don’t know them then the next time you play blackjack you might just be bucking higher than normal odds. So let’s review these bummers to be sure you never play in a game that has them.
Blackjacks pay Even Money
This one stinks. Normally the casino pays 3 to 2 when a player gets a blackjack hand (and the dealer doesn’t also have blackjack). Getting paid 1 to 1 may not seem like a big deal but it is because the casino’s edge goes up by 2.3% (ouch).
Normally blackjack games that offer an even money payoff also have several other player favorable rules as a come on. A good example is SuperFun 21, which is offered in many casinos in Las Vegas. The game uses only a single deck of cards with liberal rules such as surrendering anytime including after hitting, doubling, or splitting. But the liberal rules do not come close to negating the 2.3% edge the house enjoys when it pays even money on blackjack hands. The bottom line is be very cautious when a casino only offers even money on a blackjack.
Blackjack pays 6 to 5
Oh come on, no casino would pay 6 to 5 for a blackjack hand you say? Well guess what? Walk up and down the strip in Las Vegas and you’ll find this game all over the place. The come on is that it’s advertised as a single deck game, which usually implies a good game for the player. But getting paid 6 to 5 on a blackjack is a much worse deal than getting paid the normal 3 to 2. How much less? For every $10 you bet and get a blackjack you’ll get paid $3 less. This increases the house edge by 1.2%.
What’s ironic is that these same casinos that offer this 6 to 5 abomination game also offer plenty of multiple deck games with a much lower house edge (partly because blackjacks are paid at the standard 3 to 2). Yet the last time I visited Las Vegas I observed all the 6 to 5 single deck tables packed with players while the multiple deck tables where much less crowded. I finally asked one player who had quit playing the 6 to 5 single deck payoff game why he choose to play it rather than the better multiple deck game. His response was that he thought 6 to 5 was a better payoff than 3 to 2. So much for the math skills of the average blackjack player (which is probably why the casinos in Las Vegas are blazingly getting away with offering this game to clueless tourists).
Doubling Down only on 11 or 10 or just 11
Often you’ll see this rule in single deck games where a player is restricted to doubling on a two card 10 and 11 (or just 11). This means you can’t double down on 9 or any soft hand (that’s not good). The house edge goes up by about 0.7% when you can only double on 11 and by 0.25% when you are restricted to just doubling on only 10 and 11.
Using 8 decks of Cards
Compared to a single deck game, the casino’s edge increases by 0.61% when 8 decks of cards are used. You would need several liberal rules to offset the 0.61% edge to make the game playable. At the minimum make sure the dealer stands on soft 17 and doubling after pair splitting is offered (ideally also late surrender).
Dealer Hits Soft 17
Many casinos (especially on the Las Vegas strip) have changed the dealer rule regarding soft 17. It used to be pretty standard that dealers must stand on all 17 hands (which includes a soft 17 hand). Nowadays, however, more casinos are changing to hit soft 17. That’s not a good change for the player because the casino edge increases by 0.20%. Given a choice you are better off playing where the rules require that dealers must stand on soft 17.
Probably the worse blackjack rule that I ever saw was dealer winning all ties. Yes, I know that’s the way you play it with your buddies when you get together for a friendly game of blackjack and poker. But in a casino, you should never play any blackjack game where the dealer wins ties. The standard casino rule is when your hand totals 21 or less and the dealer ends up with the same total, it’s a tie or push and you don’t lose or win your bet (but remember that a dealer blackjack hand beats a player’s three or more cards 21 hand). By winning tied hands the casino edge zooms by about 9%.
There are two things to keep in mind when you play blackjack. First, there has never been a game with exotic rules that has a lower house edge than the standard game. So before you decide to try a SuperFun 21 or other ‘new’; game you better check the rules.
Secondly, you should always try to pick your games carefully so that the overall mix of rules leads to a casino edge that’s as low as possible for the game you are playing (this of course assumes you know the basic playing strategy – if not, learn it!).
Dan Pronovost showed the effect of each rule on the house edge in his excellent article, Picking the Right Game, that appeared in issue #35 of the Blackjack Insider Newsletter (www.casino.com/newsletter/blackjack/archive/). This article is a good starting point to be sure you understand the impact a rule has on the house edge.
Often casinos will introduce new rules or games in their blackjack pits. An example is the new game Blackjack Switch, which recently had a trial run in Atlantic City and will soon be launched in casinos there and in Las Vegas (it’s also offered on the Internet). In this game you must play two hands and you are allowed to switch the two top cards. That very favorable player rule is offset by this new rule – when the dealer has 22, all player hands of 21 or less push (instead of win). So is the favorable switch rule offset by the very unfavorable push 22 rule? The answer is I don’t know at the moment but I’ve got several blackjack mathematicians working on this as we speak to determine the overall impact on the player (we hope to have it all unraveled in the next issue of the Blackjack Insider Newsletter).
That’s it for now. Stay positive and make sure you know the rules before you play.
By Henry Tamburin