Blackjack Odds

Published: 08/04/2012

Although Blackjack is considered by most players to be an “even money” game, paying out 1-to-1 on most wagers, the odds of success are certainly not 50:50. They are almost always tilted in the House’s favour, largely because of the way the rules are structured and because the dealer’s hand is always played last.

No matter how slight this “house edge” may seem, it’s where all of the table’s profits come from. It also explains why most Blackjack players lose over the long term. The only recourse is to somehow cut down the House advantage through skillful hand play or by card counting.

To understand exactly how effective the House edge is, imagine a novice player who follows the House Rules for the dealer when playing his/her own hand. The player can never double or split. Insurance and surrender would also be out of the question. Regardless of whatever up card the dealer has, the player must draw cards until reaching seventeen or higher, exactly as the dealer must do.

A casual observer might conclude that, since they play their cards exactly the same way, the dealer and player should win about the same number of times during a long time at the table. Actually, it might even seem that the player should have the advantage, because a natural blackjack pays 3-to-2 for the player, while the dealer receives just 1-to-1 for the same hand.

But delve a little deeper. Whenever the two of them go bust, exceeding twenty-one pints, the dealer always wins. That’s because the player is eliminated and loses his/her bet before the dealer goes bust. This has a huge impact on the odds. Following the House Rules, the dealer and player will each go bust about once every 3.57 hands, which translates into 28% of all deals. Calculations then show that two should both bust on the same hand about 0.28 x 0.28 = 7.84% of all deals.

A natural blackjack, by contrast, comes up far less frequently—only in 4.8% of all deals. And not all of those are winners, because some of them end up in a push. Despite being paid 3-to-2 on non-push blackjacks, the higher payout has a negligible effect on the overall odds. The House advantage falls to 5.9%, which translates into a net loss for the player once in every 17 hands if the dealer’s rules for drawing cards are followed exactly.

New players soon discover that playing by the dealer’s rules is a losing proposition, while playing according to Basic Blackjack Strategy can help cut down the House edge. The strategy explains when to hit, stand, double and split, according to the situation. More importantly, going by the basics actually decreases the number busts a play will get, from 28% to just 17%. That alone reduces the House advantage to 0.17 x 0.28 = 4.76%.

Basic Blackjack Strategy also teaches how take advantage of insurance and surrender opportunities. Add in the extra winnings from successful doubling down and splitting pairs and the House edge drops all the way to 1%. In other words, only one out of every 100 hands will be lost, not one every 17 or 21. Learning and playing according to Basic Blackjack Strategy is absolutely the first step toward winning consistently.

Another factor that influences Blackjack odds is the way the House Rules are structured. Many versions of the game exist, and tables can be quite different, from how many decks are used and whether or not the dealer hits on soft 17 to when doubling down and splitting are allowed, and so on. The number of possible rule combinations has been estimated at close to 7,000, and every one of them adjusts the odds.

Take, for example, a standard single-deck game, with the dealer standing on soft 17, shuffling after every hand and allowing doubling down after a split or on any two first cards. In this case, optimum hand play should deliver an overall advantage of 0.15% to the player.

On the other hand, casinos are well aware of the odds, which might explain why so few still offer that particular version of the game. To compensate, they lower the payout for a natural blackjack from 3-to-2 to 6-to-5. That single small adjustment results in a House edge of 1.24%, eliminating the player’s advantage entirely.

Even tables that pay 3-to-2 for blackjack manipulate the rules in their favour. Instead on one deck, they combine multiple decks in a shoe, or else they place restrictions on splitting, resplitting and doubling down. Many eliminate the surrender option. Every one of these rule changes adds a little to the House edge. As a case in point, having the dealer hit on soft 17 instead of standing boosts the House margin by 0.19%.

Players can counter these rules by using different playing strategies that help move the odds back in the player’s favour. However, the best way to gain some advantage is through the knowledgeable selection of tables, playing only at the ones that offer advantageous rules. It is equally important to know which Blackjack games to avoid. In general, the lower the House edge, the better the chances of winning.

Published on: 08/04/2012

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