With the possible exception of roulette, where you can play by knowing nothing more than the difference between red and black or an odd number from an even number, blackjack is the easiest game to learn in the casino. It is even easier to figure out than many modern video slot machines. Not only can a novice sit down and be comfortable at a blackjack table within a few minutes but the house will maintain only a modest edge over even the worst players. Easy to play and hard to lose are two darn good attributes for a casino game.
The trouble is, finding a pure game of blackjack, dealt from a single deck is nigh impossible in today’s casinos. There is a better chance online but there too blackjack tables are often larded down with rule variations. Most of these deviations benefit the house but there are rule variations that are a boon to players as well since a wider variety of fun and profitable blackjack games will bring more players into the casinos. It is up to the player, however, to wade through the many choices and find the best games available.
Let’s look at some of the most common rule variations:
Number of Decks. Blackjack dealt with 52 cards gives the player the best punch against the house; a single deck is also the easiest for card counters to read. For those reasons casinos do not often put out a single deck table. Instead, hands are dealt from two, three, four, six or eight decks. Each time an additional deck is added to the shoe the house advantage increases.
Rules for Dealer Playing a “Soft 17.” Traditionally, a dealer in blackjack has been forced to stand on all 17s. That rule went the way of wooden chips after gambling was legalized in New Jersey in the 1970s. In Atlantic City dealers were required to hit on “soft 17s,” formed with an ace and a six. This gives the dealer a free card to improve the hand with no risk of busting – a big advantage for the house. When other casinos saw Atlantic City implement this rule with impunity it became more widespread.
Reduced Blackjack Payouts. The standard payout for a player blackjack has long been 3:2. But more and more payouts of 6:5 are being seen written on casino felt. Unless there are some significant concessions to the player in other rule variations these tables should be avoided if possible.
Surrender. Another Atlantic City rule innovation, surrender gives the player the chance to drop out of the hand after receiving the two-card deal. Where surrender is offered it is most often “Late Surrender,” where a player is still vulnerable to an automatic loss to a dealer blackjack. Some casinos offer “Early Surrender” that enables a player to fold a hand before blackjack is checked. When the player opts for surrender, half of the original wager is forfeited. Blackjack basic strategy dictates that there only four situations where taking surrender is advantageous to the player and even then only provides a fractional advantage against the house so the average player can succeed just fine at the blackjack table by ignoring this rule all the time.
Insurance. Insurance is a rule added to give the player an opportunity to protect against a game-ending dealer blackjack with the upcard is an ace. The chances of the dealer having a blackjack are about 31% but the house only pays 2-1 rather than the 3-1 odds the probabilities say is fair. For this reason this is not a rule innovation favorable to players.
Doubling. Many casinos allow doubling – the tactic of doubling one’s bet on the draw of a single card to complete a hand – only on a player total of nine, ten or eleven. Houses can be found, however, that permit doubling on any two cards, a rule that helps the player. Players may even find houses that permit tripling down. With double down rescue players are permitted to surrender after drawing their third card.
Splitting. Some rules regarding the splitting of hands with identical card values are more liberal than others. In the traditional game, cards may be split only once and the newly formed hands can not be doubled. Player-friendly rules include as many splits as possible and doubles allowed on the new hands. Some houses offer surrender after poor luck on a split.
No-hole Card. Casinos do not post liberal splitting and doubling rules without taking something back from the players. One of those rules is the No-Hole Card deal that is popular in European casinos. In these games the dealer does not deliver himself or herself a second card until after all the players make their decisions against the upcard. Only then is the second card dealt and if it creates a blackjack all the extra player bets on splits and doubles are lost.
Five, Six or Seven-Card Charlie. At some houses a player can win automatically by drawing five, six or seven cards without exceeding 21, regardless of the dealer hand.
Busted 22 is a Push. In some houses, mainly in New Zealand, the players do not automatically win if the dealer busts with a 22. It counts as a push instead – a big help to the dealer. At other casinos sometimes the player will get a push instead of a loss if the player’s bust is closer to 21 than the dealer’s bust.
Busted 22s are a long way from the core rules of the game known as “twenty-one.” There is a lot of give and take going on between the house and the player when these rule variations are encountered. It is up to the player to weigh the fun factor against the changes in house edge when making a decision on what table to sit in at.