Blackjack Games Are Not All Created Equal

Today's question came from a reader who wanted me to compare local blackjack games to those in Las Vegas. While I could do this, I'd rather help you help yourself.

Most casino veterans are familiar with the blackjack basic strategy chart which, if followed precisely, can make blackjack one of the best games found in casinos, even for non-card counters.

But what a lot of blackjack players DON'T understand is that rules changes from casino to casino can have a major impact on their expected results.

I list below the percentage changes, based on rules differences, but you don't have to memorize them. Just clip this column and keep it handy when you're comparing blackjack rules in different casinos. Armed with this information, you'll be able to assess any blackjack game in the world. This is more useful than knowing what casino currently offers the best blackjack game, because casinos sometimes change their rules.

The standard against which we'll compare games will be a single deck game, double down allowed on any two cards, dealer stands on 17, and players can re-split pairs (for example, if you split eights and get a third eight, you can split that off too, creating a third hand).

In this game, a player employing basic strategy is playing a virtually even game-no edge to the house at all, which is why if you find a one-deck blackjack game, you'll probably find some of the unfavorable rules I'll be listing in a moment. And there is one other important reason why one-deck blackjack games aren't necessarily as «good» as the raw math might indicate. That reason is too complex to discuss here; it will get a column of its own in the near future.

Rule changes that would make this one-deck game worse are:

  • Dealer wins ties (-9.00%!)
  • Eight decks (-0.64%)
  • Six decks (-0.60%)
  • No doubling on 10 (-0.56%)
  • Four decks (-0.51%)
  • Two decks (-0.35%)

  • Doubling allowed only on 10 or 11 (-0.28%)
  • Dealer hits soft 17 (-0.20%)
  • No soft doubling (-0.14%)
  • No doubling on 9 (-0.14%)
  • Player can't re-split pairs, 4-deck game (-0.10%)
  • Player can't re-split pairs (-0.06%)

Rules differences that IMPROVE the game are:

  • Single joker in deck (+4.2%)
  • Blackjack pays 2:1 instead of 3:2 (+2.25%)
  • Early Surrender (+0.68%)
  • Double down allowed after multiple cards (+0.20%)
  • Double down allowed after splitting pairs, 4-deck game (+0.19%)
  • Double down allowed after splitting pairs (+0.13%)
  • Re-splitting Aces allowed, multi-deck (+0.10%)
  • Late Surrender (+0.08%)

By comparing the rules between casinos with these numbers, you can figure out the best place to play.

For example, suppose Casino A offers a 4-deck game where double down was allowed after split. You start with the negative 0.51% for the four decks, add the positive 0.19% for double down allowed after split, and you find that this game has a negative expectation of 0.32%.

Now suppose Casino B offers a 6-deck game, with double down allowed after split, late surrender, and the re-splitting of Aces. You start with the negative 0.60% for the six decks, add the positive 0.19% for double down allowed after split, the positive 0.08% for Late Surrender, and the positive 0.10% for re-splitting aces, and you find that this game has a negative expectation of 0.23%.

In other words, Casino B's blackjack game is a bit more favorable to the player, and assuming that you liked the ambiance of the two casinos about the same, you'd be smarter to play blackjack at Casino B.

I know this sounds like a lot of math, but it isn't. It's just a one-time process of a little addition and subtraction, to figure out where you want to play. Once you've decided where you want to play, you can leave these numbers behind, go play basic strategy, and enjoy yourself.

Finally, if you haven't taken the time to learn basic strategy, don't bother worrying about the tenths of a percent I'm trying to save you here. If you play blackjack by the hunch method, just go play wherever you like the surroundings, because you'll be handing your money over to the casino very quickly.

Andrew N.S. («Andy») Glazer is a professional poker, backgammon and blackjack player, and an expert in virtually all forms of gambling.