A few weeks ago, I was called upon to speak with a park district group before they took a bus trip to a nearby casino. Most of them had played slots before and some had played other games, but I was asked to give a few basics for those who wanted to branch out.
An older gentleman named Adam said he had tried blackjack a couple of times, just for low limits. “I’ve been careful with money all my life,” he said. “I’m not going to start throwing it around now.”
Adam hadn’t started learning basic strategy yet, but he had started thinking about the game.
“What I want to know is why the house wins,” he said. “It seems like players have all the advantages. The dealer has to hit and stand according to certain rules, while I can make decisions. I can split pairs and double down, and the dealer can’t. I get paid extra on blackjacks, but I don’t have to give more than my bet when I lose.
“Are they counting on players to make really bad decisions? Otherwise, it seems like the game should favor players.”
To blackjack veterans, the answer probably seems obvious, but I frequently deal with new players whether in person or via email, and the learning curve has to start somewhere. I told Adam that the house has the single biggest advantage in the game, an edge so large that rules favorable to players have to be added in order to make blackjack playable.
That is, players can go bust and lose before the dealer plays his hand.
If you played the same strategy as the dealer, you would bust about 28 percent of the time and so would the dealer. You and the dealer would both bust about 8 percent of the time — 28 percent of 28 percent.
When either you or the dealer made a standing hand of 17 or better, you would win 46 percent of decisions and the dealer also would win 46 percent. But on the 8 percent of hands both you and the dealer busted, you’d lose.
Overall, the dealer would win 54 percent of hands and you’d win 46 percent, an 8 percent house edge that would be much too high to overcome. Hardly anyone would play.
However, as Adam noted, you don’t have to make the same plays as the dealer. If you have 15 and the dealer has 6, you can stand and let the dealer take the chance on busting. With basic strategy, you can narrow the gap so that you win about 48 percent of decisions to the dealer’s 52.
On some hands where you have an edge, you can double down. You have the option of splitting pairs. Both options help to reduce the house edge. So does the extra payoff you get on blackjacks. You’re dealt a two-card 21 about once every 21 hands, and a 3-2 payoff on those hands helps narrow the house edge.
A combination of all that means a player who learns basic strategy can narrow the house edge to less than 1 percent — about 0.62 percent in a six-deck game in which the dealer hits soft 17, pays 3-2 on blackjacks, you can double down on any first two cards, and split Aces only once but other pairs up to three hands.
That’s a long trip below 8 percent, but all those wrinkles are necessary. That players can bust first may be the only edge the house has, but it’s a powerful one.