Blackjack.

What's it all about?

Well... it's a simple game with a low house edge if played optimally - just 0.55% (yes, that's right, less than one percent) for the six deck game offered by the majority of UK casinos.

You play against the house, and the aim is to draw cards to your two card original hand to get closer to a score of 21 than the dealer. If you draw cards and go over 21 you lose. If you get closer to 21 than the dealer you win. If you have a score of less than 21 and the dealer busts, you win. But unlike playing Bacarrat or Roulette, you have to make playing decisions after you've laid out your initial bet, and making the wrong ones can mean you play at a much greater disadvantage than you could do - it's generally reckoned that most uninformed players play at a 2%-ish or more disadvantage.

Blackjack is different to other games. Why so? Well, for several reasons . . .

The house and the players are governed by different rules.

Players and the house are not governed by the same playing rules - players can split two of the same cards into two hands for an additional equal bet (sometimes a good move, sometimes not), double their bet on a hand for a single additional card (a good move where there's a high expectation of a win) and have the option to stand on any hand - the dealer, however, is obliged to keep drawing cards until the house hand totals at least seventeen. In addition, players are also paid 3:2 on blackjacks ("naturals" - a ten or picture card and an ace on the initial two card hand). All of these player options add up to a significant advantage that the house does not have.

The one advantage that the house has over the players, however, - that more than wipes out the player advantages - is that the dealer always plays last; so if you bust and the dealer busts as well you still lose. This one aspect, the dealer playing last, would give the house an advantage over the player of around 7% if it wasn't for the player options detailed above. The net of the two lots of opposing advantages works out in the house's favour to around half a percent, or thereabouts - if players make the optimal playing decisions for each hand they play.

The cards that can be dealt may be governed by past hands played.

Unlike just about every other game of chance, in Blackjack past results can affect future ones where the cards are dealt out from a shoe. I won't make any references to hand dealt games as, although Blackjack games can be offered using less than four decks (requiring a shoe to hold the cards), I'm not aware of a single casino in the UK that offers single or double deck Blackjack games.

In shoe games, as the cards are played out they're removed from the game and placed in the "discard" tray - so they can't be dealt out again until a shuffle up. Looking at a simple example, as a result of this practice if all 24 aces in a six deck game had been dealt out, there'd be no possibility whatsoever of the player or dealer being dealt a blackjack, so any chances of being paid off at 3:2 would be lost (on average, a player will be dealt a blackjack once every 22 hands - 1/22 - or to put it another way the probabiity of being dealt one is 4.55%). A fairly big player advantage will have been diluted away for the remainder of that shoe.

With the introduction of continuous shuffle machines (CSMs) to many UK casinos, cards that have been played out are immediately returned to the shuffler and so, in theory, they could be dealt out again the hand afterwards - although in practice, because of the way that CSMs function, I think this is highly unlikely.

It's possible to play Blackjack with an advantage over the house?

Indeed it is. Taking advantage of the fact that in shoe games, cards are removed from the game as they're played out, it's possible to use techniques to track which cards have been played, and which are still in the shoe and remain to be played, and to use this information to make optimal playing and betting decisions. This is the basis of card counting which was highlighted in the movie "21", released in 2008. Those players who master the techniques necessary to do this are able to play at an advantage over the house of up to 2%+.

Basic Strategy - optimal play by trusting the maths.

Although Blackjack can be played with up to eight decks of cards, the number of possible player/dealer hand value combinations that can be dealt is only 468 (unlike Texas hold'em poker for example, where there are 1,326 possible hole card combination that can be dealt). For each of these, there is a mathematicallyoptimum play that can be made, which is required in order to reduce the HE to the minimum possible. This is known as Basic Strategy and is the cornerstone of Blackjack play.

When playing Blackjack, there are up to four playing options that can be followed: draw another card (hit), stand, double down (double your original bet for a single additional card) and split two of the same cards into two hands. Basic strategy plays have been calculated to be the mathematically optimum play for each possible hand combination, and are derived from the probability of winning/losing for each of the three or four play options, together with the payoff on a win.

Some combinations of hands dealt will favour the player, such as 5,6v6 where the likelihood of a player win is so high that the correct action is to double down on your original bet. Some hands, such as 16v10 have a negative win expectation on all three options and the probability is that it will lose, although by drawing a third card on your 16 you're actually making the play with the lowest probability of losing the hand.

The basic strategy alters for games using different numbers of decks of cards and rulesets, ie single deck, double deck and multi-deck (4,6,8 decks) games, European "no hole card" (ENHC) games, house hits soft 17 (H17) rule etc etc. I've only included the basic strategy table for the most common multi-deck ENHC ruleset offered by UK casinos.

Despite being aware of basic strategy, many players will continue to follow "hunches" and their own "gut feelings" when playing blackjack for reasons known only to themselves. Basic strategy is proven maths, and all that happens when a player deviates from it is they increase the advantage for the house. It's an interesting thought that if all BJ players followed strict basic strategy, casinos would probably reduce the number of tables on their gaming floors, or withdraw them altogether, as it just wouldn't be profitable to keep them

Currently it's possible to play BJ in the UK (outside of the Capital) for £3 a hand. Take an example of a full table with seven players all sticking to Basic Strategy, playing the table minimum and the dealer dealing 70 hands an hour. 70 hands x £3/hand x 7 players equates to an hourly amount going across the felt of £1,470. Applying the HE of 0.55% to this, the amount the house would expect to derive from this table would be £8.08 (£1,470 x 0.55%) - a smidgeon above the National Minimum Wage they have to pay the dealer. Most of the casinos' profits from their Blackjack tables result from players betting in excess of the minimum available and deviating from basic strategy.

Another example; you're playing BJ for two hours at a fiver a hand on a table being dealt 70 hands per hour, not applying basic strategy and thereby giving up an additional 1.20% advantage to the house. Applying basic strategy you would expect to lose £3.85. Flying by the seat of your pants, the expectation on the -1.75% HE equates to £12.25, three times as much. Multiply this by the vast majority of BJ players and you can see why BJ is still a profitable game for the casinos, more than forty years after basic strategy tables were first collated and published.

More stuff for Blackjack players.

Basic Strategy table (ENHC game)
        Print it out, carry it with you, learn it !

Card counting
        A brief introduction and links to further information.

Blackjack booklist
        Recommended reading for those who want to find out more.

A final word?

I'm not really sure there needs to be one? From my musings above it should be clear that Blackjack should be the game of choice for the savvy gambler who's looking to reduce their exposure to losses - whether played in a bricks and mortar casino (using a shoe or continuous shuffle machine) or online. Yup, there's a bit more effort needed than for some other games - that simply require players to place their chips on the felt and keep their fingers crossed - but personally I think this adds to the experience. The fact that players can turn the tables on the casinos offering the games and play at an advantage, for me, adds to the attraction.

Good cards.