My affair with the game of Blackjack.
Back in 2008, my youngest daughter, who was thirteen at the time, talked me into taking her to see a newly released movie at the pictures entitled "21". The movie was based on a fictional account of how, under the supervision of a maths professor (played by Kevin Spacey), a group of whizz-kids attending MIT in the States took the casinos in Las Vegas for $000,000s over a couple of years. The book the movie was based on, "Bringing down the House" by Ben Mezrich, was a highly fictionalised account of what actually happened and although the basis of the story was true the majority of the book was more the result of creative licence. For those interested, the factual accounts of the escapade have now been well documented and no doubt these can be sourced from the web via a consultation with Mr Google.
Having seen the movie, I was intrigued by the concept of turning the house-edge of the game against the casinos that offered it. I decided to find out more and even have a go myself - the numbers aspect was a challenge, and if others could manage it I was sure that I could too. After reading a couple of books about the game, of optimum play and the underlying principles of card counting, and having started out with learning to keep "the count" I was hooked.
It didn't take me too long to find communities and forums of advantage players on the web, the majority of whom were based in the States, to discuss the finer points and maths with, and within a short time I had constructed my first spreadsheet to analyse the numbers and variables and was practising hard with memorising basic strategy, index plays and counting down a deck. Within a few weeks of starting this I stepped onto a casino gaming floor for the first time in my life. I was forty-six years old.
My first outing to play blackjack was to a grot Gala Casino outlet in Northampton (now closed) one Saturday night. After finally managing to get a seat at one of the two BJ tables that were open, the dealer dealt to a full table and fifteen cards hit the felt in just a few seconds. Hmmm . . . think I need more practice with this? Rather than trying and failing, I stuck with playing basic and didn't do too bad for a first outing, losing around seven units in around an hour and a quarter. Six weeks, and many hours of practice later, I visited again one afternoon. I made a pile of novice errors, not betting to my advantage more often than not, and eventually I left behind twenty four units from two and a half hours at the felt. It was four months, and again after much practice and memorising of basic and index plays, before I played again. When I did the error rate was much reduced and I managed to win back most of what I'd lost on my two previous visits. It's certainly a great feeling when you push out a big bet on a positive count, the cards fall in line with the probabilities and you get paid out many times what you've been betting up to that point.
Around a year after starting out with my blackjack endeavours, I arranged to meet up with some other like-minded people in London. Two were Londoners, I travelled the hundred miles to the Capital and two travelled down from Scotland - two were students, one was a trainee accountant with one of the big four although I can't remember what the other guy did for a living. I won enough at the felt that weekend to cover the costs of travel to the Smoke and back, pay for my hotel room, dinner for myself and a mate in Soho somewhere on Saturday night and still have some change left over. During that weekend, when three of the group were at a table with other players, and the count sky-rocketed whilst they were playing with £25 units, it's the only time I've seen a floor-supervisor break into a sweat; this happened at a five quid min table where £200-£400 was sitting in six out of the seven boxes - clearly not something he was used to. There was a query when the first player who was dealt a ten card (which busted his hand) denied calling for it, and the supervisor got very agitated when the next player (whose hand it also busted) initially refused it and suggested it should be burnt as a mis-deal and that he should be dealt another card instead. Perhaps the dealer shouldn't have tried to be cute and deal the table at breakneck speed?
I continued to play occasionally at low stakes and for the challenge up until 2013, when the Rank Group bought up nineteen of the twenty-three outlets of the Gala casino chain and rebranded them as Grosvenor Casinos. Before the name above the door of the one I use to visit had changed, and any other re-branding work had been done, the continuous shuffle machines appeared on the blackjack tables. Almost overnight a country-wide source of shoe-dealt, exploitable, games disappeared into the ether, and the number that were left significantly reduced.
Nowdays, the number of shoe-dealt Blackjack games in the UK can be counted on the fingers of two hands, and these are with the up-market independent houses-of-chance in London's West End. For low-stakes players like myself, the opportunities to turn the house-edge back on the house are, to all intents and purposes, history. If you want to continue to pursue this particular past-time, or source of supplementary income, then you'll need to be prepared to travel abroad - either to the States or Eastern Europe. Personally I can't be bothered for the relatively modest amounts I use to push across the felt. For me it's something I've done and I now focus on other things.
Below I've reproduced the Blackjack pages I wrote in 2012 when I created this web site. Nothing's changed. If you're interested in an overview of why Blackjack is the only beatable game on the casino floor over the longer term, then please read on . . .
Blackjack - an overview
Another 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, 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 to be dealt are 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 360. For each of these, there is a mathematically optimum 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 £2 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 £2/hand x 7 players equates to an hourly amount going across the felt of £980. Applying the HE of 0.55% to this, the amount the house would expect to derive from this table would be £5.39 (£980 x 0.55%) - less than 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 !
A brief introduction and links to further information.
Recommended reading for serious BJ players.
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.