Its simple objective—getting as close to 21 as possible without going over—likely explains why players everywhere are familiar with the game before even setting foot in a casino. Though the game’s impact on casinos has undulated over time, it’s clear that blackjack will remain a casino staple.
What does it take to play blackjack? Not much. A bet—generally casino chips—on the table felt initiates a hand.
Once players have two cards totaling less than 21, they have a few possible options. Being dealt 21 via an ace and a ten-value card (ten, jack, queen, or king) is a blackjack. In this case, players will be paid out a bonus as long as the dealer doesn’t have blackjack.
Hit means asking for another card. Stand means accepting one’s card total (hand value). To double down is to risk more money. This is typically up to or equal to double the initial wager for the chance to get just one more card. The best hands to double down on are ten or eleven because the player can easily make 20 or 21 with one card.
When a player’s first two cards match in value, he or she has the option to split. Splitting requires that the player match the initial wager. Then the cards are separated to create two unique hands. Depending on casino rules, players are able to split to three, or even four, unique hands.
Data from the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) confirms that blackjack is a popular, and therefore profitable, table game in Nevada casinos.
Though other table games have emerged in the 21st century competing for player dollars, the win amount recorded by Nevada casinos from blackjack has recently been about $1.1 billion annually. External factors, such as novelty table games and general economics, certainly impact blackjack revenue. However, data since 2000 shows blackjack has been a consistent profit source.
A sharp increase in revenue from baccarat, a table game popular among Asian super-high rollers, has put blackjack in the number two spot in the annual revenue category since 2009. This was a distinct and defining year for Las Vegas gaming revenue. There was a national recession and the long-awaited opening of City Center. This new venue includes two major casinos, Aria and Cosmopolitan.
Even though Nevada baccarat revenue surpassed blackjack revenue by more than $100 million in 2015, the annual win amount from craps was just a fraction of blackjack’s. Nevada casinos earned about $383 million from craps in 2015, compared to $1.09 billion from blackjack.
Blackjack across the USA
Nearly every casino in the United States that offers table games offers blackjack.
Since this statement does not hold true for craps or roulette, it’s a testament to the game’s popularity and understanding among players and regulators alike.
Florida, for example, is an emerging gaming destination and a thriving gaming jurisdiction. For the time being, a compact between Florida’s Native American tribes and the state government limits the presence of non-poker table games to tribal casinos. That exclusivity makes casino-resort properties like the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood one of the most lucrative in North America. The South Florida casino is home to over 100 table games and dozens of active blackjack tables at peak hours.
On the other coast, California has its own take on the game of 21. In the 1980s, in order to get legislators and regulators to agree on the expansion of table games (mainly poker), card rooms agreed to offer the game but only if they were banked by non-licensees. The California system stems from the acceptance of parimutuel wagering. (California is home to dozens of race tracks like the famous Santa Anita, which opened in 1934.)
California’s regulatory limitations requiring all wagering competitions to be parimutuel forces players to wager against each other. They do not wager directly against the house. State-sponsored card rooms and race tracks make money by taking a structured percentage out of the prize pool. The take is based on the total amount wagered.
To allow blackjack in a parimutuel-only gaming environment, the game in California is “banked” by other players. It can also be banked by a “corporation” that provides the service to the casino full time. A fee collected from each player before every hand goes directly to the casino. It is separate from the wagers (and subsequent wins and losses) on the table. It’s effectively an ante required to be dealt into a round of blackjack.
Charging a fee to play a hand of blackjack is not unique to California. In the State of Oklahoma, tribal casinos collect what is commonly referred to as an “ante” (as opposed to “commission”). This equates to 50 cents from each player before every hand. At Winstar World Resort in Thackerville, OK, located just across the Texas-Oklahoma border, dealers collect blackjack antes 24/7 on one of the biggest casino floors in the country.
Though gaming laws vary from state to state (with the exception of residents of Hawaii), one is never too far away from a live blackjack table. Outside of Nevada and Atlantic City, New Jersey, blackjack players can find favorable gaming conditions in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. Riverboat and tribal casinos in Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have been hotspots for decades.
Not all blackjack is created equal
To many players, blackjack is still blackjack no matter the rules or how it is dealt. Unfortunately, this perception is untrue.
Blackjack is a game where the host determines the conditions. Minor variants are common between casinos and even within the same casino. For players, it’s extremely important to identify how the specific rules and/or paying a commission affect the overall game.
Some conditions are the result of legal regulation. Others are simply a mechanism to adjust the house advantage and therefore hold and win percentages.
Blackjack, the event of getting dealt a two-card 21 pays 3:2 or 1.5-to-1 on a wager. Sadly for players, 6:5 or 1.2-to-1 blackjack is a rapidly increasing occurrence.
One might wrongly assume 6:5 payouts exist only to offer single deck games. Unfortunately, there are properties in downtown Las Vegas which offer 6:5 shoe games—and eight-deck shoe games to boot. Avoid these games.
For the time being, plenty of authentic 3:2 games can be found within a short walk of a blasphemous 6:5 shoe game. On a positive note, the 6:5 trend seems to be concentrated in certain markets, like Las Vegas. Thankfully, it’s not a sweeping trend across the world.
Gameplay and house edge
The game of blackjack gains much of its popularity from the player’s ability to affect the outcome.
Certainly, blackjack is a game of chance, but it’s also very much a game of skill. Depending on the rules offered by the casino in terms of number of decks, hitting on soft 17, re-splitting aces, and the option to surrender (forfeit and only lose half of one’s bet), among other rule variations, common blackjack games today have a house advantage of anywhere from 0.3 to 1.1 percent.
These house advantages assume perfect player decision-making and no dealer errors. In essence, these are “in a vacuum” numbers. Because players make mistakes, the real-world house advantage is commonly much higher than the fraction of a percent.
Even seasoned gamblers make regular errors. A lack of knowledge, but also unfounded superstition, plays a big part in affecting the edge the casino has over the player.
An edge off the top
What has led to rule variations at blackjack tables over time?
There are certainly a number of factors. There is increased player knowledge on correct decision-making. Also changing the game is the availability of published material on card-counting and advantage techniques. (Which we will discuss at length later.)
In the 1940s and 1950s, it was possible to find a blackjack game that offered players an edge off the top. This means the casino offered a game, which if played correctly, gave the player an advantage from the very first hand of a new shuffle. Yes, some casinos offered a game in which they not only did not have a built-in advantage; they actually dealt a game where the house was disadvantaged!
So, what conditions are required for a blackjack game to offer a player advantage simply by knowing a set of rules dictating when the player must hit, stand, split, or double down?
A player has an advantage of a few one-hundredths of a percent off the top with the following conditions:
- Single-deck game (blackjack with 52 cards only) where the dealer stands on soft 17.
- The player has the option to double down after splitting, double down on any two card, split any two matching cards, re-split up to four hands, and only loses his original bet on a dealer blackjack (dealer checks for blackjack before splits and double downs).
- Blackjack pays the full 3:2.
Advantage blackjack play
There are many misconceptions about advantage play in gambling.
The first one to dispel is that advantage play is synonymous with cheating. This is untrue. Advantage play techniques are legal. Even though they can tense player-casino relationships, they will not send a player to jail or cause forfeiture of winnings.
The most common form of advantage play in blackjack is card-counting. This is when a player is simply using his or her memory to keep track of the composition of the remaining cards to be played. Based on the cards that have already been played, a player will know whether the remaining cards are more likely to be favorable or unfavorable.
It is simply a myth that card-counting requires genius or a fantastic memory. Card-counting only requires strategy (chart-type) memorization and fourth-grade math.
Card-counting works because it allows the player to make perfect composition-dependent strategy decisions based on the favorability of the cards to come.
Don’t worry—that’s much less complicated than it sounds. Card-counting helps players decide when and how to tweak their hit, stand, split, or double-down strategies, and also when to bet more. By making slightly sounder strategy decisions and by betting large when the remaining cards are player-favorable and less when the cards are house-favorable, the player can create an advantage.
Online and mobile play
Many gamblers enjoy the excitement of the brick-and-mortar casino environment. But the blackjack experience translates well to the online and mobile environment.
Some online casinos, like the Golden Nugget online casino in New Jersey, offer live blackjack. This is an online experience where a real person deals cards to players and interacts with them. Players can see the cards being dealt and shuffled in real time. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology ensures card totals are displayed and calculated accurately.
Blackjack played one-on-one virtually is also common and translates well for the recreational player. Players can get in many more hands per hour this way, as they are playing by themselves versus a computerized dealer.
Modern, regulated online casinos in New Jersey, for example, employ only the fairest, most diligently tested random number generators (RNGs). This makes game play as fair as possible. Additionally, it ensures both player and casino a competition with integrity.
Mobile platforms are a perfect way to play hands of blackjack. A player can complete a hand in just a few seconds. Additionally, they can start and stop at any time.
Players have the same level of control in mobile blackjack as they would in any other form. Legal, regulated online or mobile blackjack may even be better for both parties because less overhead is required to operate a game. More hands per minute mean the casino can choose to offer a fun and competitive game with a very low house advantage.