How to Choose the Best Blackjack Games in the Best Casinos
You’ve probably heard this a million times already:
Blackjack offers the best odds in the casino.
Blackjack has the lowest house edge of any game in the casino.
What you don’t hear as often is the importance of choosing the right blackjack game. As it turns out, blackjack isn’t just a single game—it’s multiple games that share similarities.
In that respect, you can compare blackjack to video poker or poker. You have a broad type of game (blackjack, poker, or video poker) that’s actually comprised of multiple games with different rules.
In video poker, the differences from one game to another have more to do with how much the various hands pay out. Also, sometimes various video poker games have wild cards.
In poker, the differences from one game to another are often more extensive. Some games allow you to discard and draw replacement cards, while other games have community cards, and all games can be played with varying numbers of cards.
Single deck blackjack has such dramatically different odds from 8-deck blackjack that they ought to be considered different games. In fact, you don’t even play the game the same way—in a single deck game, you get to hold the cards in your hand, but in a multi-deck game, you’re not even allowed to touch the cards.
This post looks at the differences from one blackjack game to another and how important those differences are (or aren’t). This way, you can choose the best blackjack game for you.
Keep in mind that different casinos offer different games from one table to another, but they almost all offer different rules from one casino to another. Finding the right game conditions can be the difference between a losing casino vacation and a winning casino vacation.
The House Edge in Blackjack
The reason blackjack remains popular is threefold:
- Blackjack has a reputation for being a game that an intelligent player can beat.
- Blackjack is a game where your decisions actually affect the odds you’re facing.
- Blackjack has the lowest house edge of any game in most casinos.
Blackjack’s reputation for being beatable might be overstated. I remember watching Vegas Vacation and giggling when Clark Griswold announced that blackjack is the only game in the casino where the player can get an edge if he plays smart.
The implication was that you could get an edge over the casino at blackjack just by playing your hands with the correct strategy.
It’s true that there’s a correct basic strategy in blackjack, but memorizing this strategy and playing strictly according to it won’t give you an edge over the casino. To actually get the mathematical upper hand against the casino requires more than just playing every hand correctly. It usually requires counting cards, although some players use other advantage play techniques to get an edge.
And of course, your decisions affect the mathematical expectation. It’s obvious why a player who hits a total of 19 or 20 is going to lose more money to the casino than others. The probability of busting such a hand (getting a total of 22 or higher is an automatic loss) becomes huge, regardless of what cards the dealer is holding.
I’ve written in other gambling posts about the concept of “agency” as it applies to gambling. This is the idea that the decisions you make actually matter to your outcome. You have no agency to speak of when playing a game like roulette or a slot machine. Those games are entirely random, and the house edge doesn’t change based on your decisions.
Finally, the house edge in blackjack is something that merits serious discussion. The best way to measure one blackjack game or variation against another is by its house edge.
It’s the mathematically expected amount you’ll lose on every bet you make in the long run—on average.
In other words, if a game has a house edge of 1%, you’d expect to lose an average of $1 for every $100 bet you make on that game.
It’s important to understand that the house edge doesn’t make a game less random. It’s a function of the probabilities of winning or losing compared with the amounts you’ll win or lose. In the short run, the house edge almost doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to see short term results that mirror the house edge.
If you’re playing blackjack and betting $100 on a hand, you’re either going to lose $100, win $100, or win $150. None of those results look like a $1 loss.
That $1 loss is a theoretical average you should see over time if you play enough hands to get to the “long run.”
Most casino games have a simple gimmick affecting the game which gives them an edge. For example, in roulette, all the bets would be break even propositions in the long run if the 0 and the 00 weren’t on the wheel. Half the numbers are black, but you lose if any red OR any green number comes up. (The 0 and the 00 are both green.)
In blackjack, the gimmick that gives the casino its mathematical edge is the order in which the players and the dealer play. Since a player loses instantly when she goes bust, the house gets its edge by playing its hand last. If you bust, and the dealer also busts, it’s not a push. You already lost your bet before the dealer ever played her hand.
But other variations in game conditions affect the house edge, too. That’s what the rest of this post covers—which game conditions you should look for. It also explains how important each game variation is by comparing that change in condition to its effect on the house edge. The more a rules change adds to the house’s edge, the worst that rule is for the player.
The house edge is a percentage of each bet that the casino expects you to lose on average over the long run. As a general rule, the lower the house edge is, the better the game is for the player. If we say that the house edge for a game is 1%, that’s better than a game where the house edge is 2%.
The Payout for a Blackjack
The standard rule in a blackjack game is that if you get a blackjack, you get paid off at 3 to 2 odds. If you bet $100 and get a blackjack, you win $150 instead of $100.
You can only get a blackjack with an ace and a 10—no other combination of cards will work. (By “10,” I mean any card worth 10 points, which includes the jack, queen, and king.)
In some games, though, a blackjack pays off at 6 to 5 odds instead of 3 to 2 odds. Some casinos even post about this payout as if it were some kind of bonus, and some players fall for it. The line of thinking is that 6 is bigger than 3, so a 6 to 5 payout is obviously better than a 3 to 2 payout.
Don’t fall for that. The payout is a ratio, and a $100 bet that hits a blackjack at a 6 to 5 table only results in a win of $120, not $150.
Some casino blackjack games have lots of favorable rules for the player, but they only pay even money when you get a blackjack. This is true of most video blackjack games, for example. That’s even worse for the player, and the casino doesn’t even have a way to spin it to make it sound like it’s good for the player.
What does such a rules change do to the house edge?
The effect is massive. A 6 to 5 blackjack game adds 1.4% to the house edge for the game. A game that only offers even money adds 2.3% to the house edge.
Let’s think about what that does to your expected loss per hour for such a game.
We’ll assume you’re betting $100 per hand, and you’re averaging 50 hands per hour. You’re putting $5000 per hour into action.
Let’s say you’ve found a good game where the house edge is 0.5%. With $5000 in action per hour, your expected loss per hour is only $25. That’s not bad when you’re betting that kind of money.
Take that same game and make one change to it—the payoff for a blackjack is now 6 to 5 instead of 3 to 2. The house edge goes up to 1.7%.
Now you’re losing $85 per hour instead of $25 per hour.
And at a 3rd game, blackjack pays even money, so the house edge of 2.8% results in an hourly loss of $140.
That’s a huge difference in expected hourly loss based on a single rules change.
In fact, the payoff for the blackjack is the first and most important thing you should look for when choosing a blackjack game. Just say no to any blackjack game where you get 6 to 5 or even money for a blackjack. Almost no combination of favorable rules will make up for the massive percentage change in the house edge that such a change causes.
Also, keep this in mind—if you can find a game that pays more for a blackjack, 2 to 1, for example, you’d have a hard time not making money from that game. Unless there’s a massive number of rules changes to compensate, a game which offers 2 to 1 for a natural probably has a positive expectation for the player.
Single Deck Games versus Multiple Deck Games
If you’ve done some reading about card counting, you probably already know that it’s easier to get an edge over the house if you’re counting cards against a single deck. In fact, the entire reason casinos started dealing blackjack from multiple decks was to prevent card counters from getting an edge.
That’s a major difference. Every deck of cards that the casino adds to the game makes the house edge a little bit higher, though.
You shouldn’t play a single deck game if it has a 6 to 5 payout for blackjack, because the difference from the lower payout is more than enough to compensate for the lower number of decks.
But if you’re choosing between a single deck game and an 8-deck game, and both games pay off the same for a blackjack, always go with the single deck game. Even if you’re not counting cards, the odds are better for you in the single deck game.
Why does the number of decks change the house edge?
The answer, again, has to do with the natural.
Suppose you’re dealt an ace as your first card. What’s the probability that you’ll get a blackjack in a single deck game?
We’ll assume that it’s a fresh deck, so there are 16 cards left in the deck which will complete your blackjack. There are 4 of each of the following cards in the deck:
There are 51 cards unseen, so the probability of getting a blackjack becomes 16/51, or 31.4%.
Now let’s assume you’re playing in an 8-deck game, and you get an ace as your first card. What’s the probability of getting a blackjack?
You have 128 cards worth 10 in the deck, but you also have 415 cards left in the deck. 128/415 is the same as 30.8%.
That’s a difference of 1.6% in your probability of getting a blackjack in that situation. Anything that reduces your probability of getting a blackjack increases the house edge, just like anything that increases your probability of getting a blackjack reduces the house edge.
This, in fact, is why card counting works. When you have more 10s and aces left in the deck, you bet more because you have a higher probability of getting a 3 to 2 payout.
Does the Dealer Hit on a Soft 17 or Not?
Everyone who knows anything about blackjack knows that the dealer always stands on a 17 or higher and always hits on a 16 or lower.
But that’s not entirely true at every casino.
A soft 17 is a hand where there’s an ace and a 6—or any other combination of an ace and other cards that gives you a total of 17.
But since that ace can be counted as 11 OR as 1, it’s impossible to bust a hand with a total of soft 17.
And indeed, in some casinos, instead of the dealer standing on soft 17, the dealer takes a hit. The downside is minimal here for taking a hit, so it improves the house edge by 0.2% when the casino has this rule in place.
If you’re looking at a hierarchy for the 3 rules conditions we’ve discussed so far, you’re looking at these 3 factors in order:
- Payoffs for a blackjack
- Number of decks
- Does the dealer hit a soft 17
Rules for Splitting and Doubling Down
You can always split pairs, but what you’re able to do after that changes based on the game you’re playing. This is usually one of the less obvious rules. After all, if the blackjack payout is different, it’s posted there at the table on a placard. The number of decks is obvious, too—you just look at the game and you can usually tell.
And if the dealer hits a soft 17, it’s posted there, too.
But the splitting and doubling down rules are less obvious. They’re still important, though, for reasons which are obvious to old hands and less obvious to newer players.
For one thing, once you’ve split a pair, are you allowed to split again if you get another pair?
If you get AA and split them, and you get another A dealt on top of one of those aces, can you split again?
It’s obviously to your advantage to be able to re-split aces.
At most casinos, you’re not allowed to double down or re-split aces after splitting. In fact, at most casinos, a 21 after splitting only counts as 21—it doesn’t count as a blackjack. At some casinos, you can’t even hit the hand again after splitting aces.
The more generous the casino is with these rules, the better. Being able to re-split aces or being able to count a 21 after splitting as a blackjack is worth about 0.2%.
The Availability of Side Bets, Progressive Jackpots, and What-Have You
Side bets in blackjack should always be treated as something separate from the rest of the game. The most obvious example of a side bet is the insurance bet, which everyone already knows is a sucker bet. Don’t ever place an insurance bet.
Since these are separate bets, they should be analyzed separately, because they have a different house edge than just the regular game by itself does.
Here’s an example of a common blackjack side bet and its house edge:
There’s a popular bet now called “21+3.” It’s based on your 1st 2 cards and the dealer’s face-up card. Those 3 cards are treated as a 3-card poker hand with payoffs as follows.
- Suited trips are worth 100 to 1.
- A straight flush is worth 40 to 1.
- 3 of a kind is worth 30 to 1.
- A straight is worth 10 to 1.
- A flush is worth 5 to 1.
The house edge for this bet is over 6%, making it far worse bet than just playing blackjack without the side bet.
It’s harder to say with a progressive jackpot, though, because if the jackpot gets large enough, the house edge disappears altogether. In fact, with a large enough jackpot, that side bet becomes a positive expectation bet.
The problem with a progressive side bet in blackjack is the same problem with any other progressive bet. You won’t win it often enough for the positive expectation to matter.
Other Rules Which Favor the Player
You can find plenty of quirky rules which also favor the blackjack player, but most of them are rare. My favorite of these unusual rules is the casino which offers a bonus payout for hands totaling 21 that have a certain number of cards in them, or hands with a certain number of cards in them that don’t bust.
In some casinos, if you get a 5-card hand that doesn’t bust, it’s an automatic winner AND it pays off at 2 to 1. That’s worth 0.25% in expectation for you.
You can sometimes find casinos that offer a 2 to 1 payoff if you have a suited blackjack. In other words, if the ace and the jack are both of spades, you’d get 2 to 1 instead of 3 to 2. That’s worth 0.6% in expectation, but it’s an unusual rule.
Finding the best blackjack games isn’t that hard. You want to find a game with a 3 to 2 payout dealt from a single deck where the dealer has to stand on a soft 17. As far as the other rules go, the more flexibility the casino offers you in terms of how you play your hand, the better the odds are. For example, if you’re able to re-split pairs after splitting, that’s going to make the house edge lower.