Blackjack Strategy: Winning and Losing with Insurance

Over the weekend a question related to blackjack strategy and insurance came in. I was asked if it was possible to work insurance into one’s blackjack strategy and win with it.

I had to sigh. Here we go again with insurance and blackjack strategy.

Insurance should not have any place in a player’s blackjack strategy.

Insurance is not the protective play that the casinos would like for players to believe it is. Insurance is only a side bet on whether the dealer has a card worth 10 as a hole card. In other words, a side bet on whether the dealer has a natural blackjack or not. Players only win their insurance wagers when the dealer does have blackjack.

So first you are rooting for the house to win if you want to collect on that insurance bet. And there is something just wrong about rooting for the house to win.

Second, if you do win your insurance wager, you are not anymore ahead. Sure you might think you are because you have won the side bet. Whoopie! You won the side bet! But since the dealer has won with a natural blackjack, you have lost the round.

In money-speak: yes, you won $10 from your insurance wager, but you lost your original $10 wager. Pat yourself on the back and order a drink from the nice waitress to celebrate.

In a round winning an insurance side bet causes you to break even. You are no further ahead money-wise. And since you gave money to the house you did not have to you actually hurt your own blackjack odds.

Side bets hurt your blackjack odds because they put you in a position to lose more money faster. Imagine if you lost both the insurance side bet and lost the round—you would then be out more money than if you had only lost the round.

And, yes, it is possible to lose both the insurance bet and the round. Say the dealer actually has a 9 for a hole card, giving him a soft 20 that he stands on; and you only have a 19. You lost your insurance bet and the round.

The reason insurance should not be factored into your blackjack strategy is because it hurts your odds by putting you in a position to lose more money. Opportunities to make money increase your odds, and opportunities to lose money decrease your odds. So. No insurance in your blackjack strategy.

Blackjack Odds: Stiff Hand Frequency

Stiff hands are the most awful hands to get in a game of blackjack. In terms of your blackjack moral, you immediately feel bummed out because you know that stiff hands are the toughest hands to play out. And in terms of blackjack odds, well, they are just hard on your blackjack odds.

In blackjack, stiff hands are any two card hard hand with a total of 12 through 16. But for today’s discussion we are going to include a two card hard 17 as well.

The reason is because hard 17s are not quite as great as players think they are. Sure it is a high total and you immediately stand, but you are standing not because you know you have a good shot at winning, but because you know that you are more likely to bust if you hit. In a way you could consider a hard 17 the secret, lesser known stiff hand.

Anyway your blackjack odds for being dealt a two card stiff hand—including a hard 17—is about 43% of the time. In other words, about forty three hands out of one hundred will be stiff hands—so a little less than half of your hand put you in a position to lose.

But also consider this: in your blackjack odds of winning are 48% and tying the dealer are 9%, which leaves your odds of losing at 43%. Interesting coincidence.

Now I am not saying that you will lose every single stiff hand you are dealt—the above comparison was just an interesting note. The only way to win with a stiff hand is for the dealer to bust.

Because of the high blackjack odds that you will be dealt a stiff hand that you are most likely going to lose, it is not surprising that the majority of your money losses will result from these stiff hands. How much? Try 85% of your money losses coming from a hard 12 through 17.

Since you know your blackjack odds for stiff hands are on the high side and that most of your money losses go to them, the best thing that you can do is play out those hands in the best way possible. And that means using basic strategy.

Blackjack Strategy: Things Not to Do

No one is a perfect blackjack player. Well, professional players might come close, but still, no one is perfect.

In blackjack there are strategy plays that have good intentions that end poorly, but the point is that you played the correct play based on basic strategy—the dealer just wound up with a better hand. But then there are full on blackjack strategy mistakes. In fact, forget calling them blackjack strategy mistakes. Some of the plays people make are just flat out mistakes.

Take this one woman I saw on a casino cruise. We were playing at a full table and she was dealt a pair of Aces. Does she split the pair like basic strategy says to? No. Instead she hits, winding up with a three card soft 15, which she stands on.

The dealer then hits twice and ends with a hard 17. Three of us at the table won, two gentlemen busted (that is the tough thing about being dealt a stiff hand) and the other two players lost. Yes, one of those who lost was the woman with the soft 15.

Two mistakes this woman made: 1. She did not split her Aces, and 2. She stood on a soft 15.

First off you should always, always split a pair of Aces. Basic strategy will also tell you to always split a pair of Aces. It starts you off with a strong 11 to build on, and often you will be able to build two pretty strong hands.

Not splitting is guaranteed to give you a soft hand that gives you more potential to lose to the dealer with than to build anything significant.

But if you are inexperienced enough to not split your pair of Aces and you do find yourself with a soft hand, make up for not splitting by following basic strategy. This means that you will most likely be hitting again.

As for that woman’s soft 15, there is no reason not to hit a soft 15. One Ace has already been reduced to 1; there is nothing to stop the other Ace from being reduced if necessary. And that is why there is no reason not to hit a three card soft 15.

Blackjack strategy is there to help you. It can hit the house’s edge and increase the money pull in from blackjack by increasing your opportunities of winning. This is why I always tell novice players to stick to basic strategy…and always split a pair of Aces!

Blackjack Odds on Busting: Who and How Often

Busting comes with one of two feelings in blackjack. Either you are quite pleased because the dealer busted, or you are none too pleased because you busted.

Your blackjack odds for busting is about once out of every six hands. That equates to around 16% of the time. And that is if you are a basic strategy blackjack player. If you do not play according to basic strategy, then shame on you and you will be busting more often. So go find a chart.

As for the dealer, the blackjack odds on him busting is twice out of every seven hands, which is around 28% of the time. But do not jump for joy just yet. Just because the dealer has busted does not mean that the house has lost.

This is where part of the house’s built in blackjack edge comes from. If the dealer busts it does not automatically mean that you win.

The dealer is the last to play out his hand for a reason, and it is not just to make it harder for players to figure out how to play out their hands because only the up card is visible. The reason the dealer plays last is because any player who busts before the dealer’s turn is out of the round.

By out I mean that should the dealer bust also, the player still loses. Players who bust first are already out of the game at that point and it means that there is definitely less money the house will have to shell out should the dealer bust. Let me show you.

Let’s say that you are playing at a full table, meaning seven players. Each of you is wagering $10. For this example I am going to say that no one at this table has been dealt a natural blackjack. This means that, without any natural blackjacks, the house stands to pay out $70 should all players win.

But four players bust during their turns. This is all before the dealer has played his hand out. So right before the dealer’s turn, the potential amount that the house has to pay out has been cut from $70 down to $30 should the dealer lose. And if he does lose the house does not have to pay any money to the four players who busted.

So even though your blackjack odds put you at a smaller chance of busting than the dealer, it does not mean that the house is at a disadvantage. That 16% in blackjack odds that has you busting are time when the house does not have to pay you.

Blackjack Odds: Being Dealt a Natural

The crowning event when playing blackjack is being dealt that natural blackjack—those two cards, a 10 and an Ace. Nothing can beat you. At worst you have to push with the dealer. But that is better than losing. So what are your blackjack odds of being dealt a natural?

You are going to laugh at the answer. Players’ blackjack odds of being dealt a natural are once in every twenty one hands. Ironic, yes?

This does not mean that every twenty first hand is going to be a natural blackjack. It just means those are your average odds.

But I am going to take this blackjack odds knowledge a step further, and I am going to use it to further impress why 6-5 games should be avoided.

Okay, you are playing blackjack at 100 hands per hour. You are at the casino playing for two hours, which means that you are playing 200 hands. Based on the blackjack odds of being dealt a natural, you will have been dealt ten blackjacks. In theory at least, but just go with me.

Now comes the money and the math. Also known to me as the beauty and the beast, respectively.

Just focusing on those ten natural blackjacks we are going to compare what you would get paid in a 3-2 game to what you get in a 6-5 game.

In a 3-2 game, wagering $10, you would receive $15 for your natural blackjack. For those ten that your blackjack odds say in theory that you should have, you would receive $150 in total. Now if you were playing in a 6-5 game you would only receive $120 for those ten naturals.

In short you are handing over $30 to the casino for enjoying what was probably a single deck game.

That is how your blackjack odds of being dealt a natural factor in to your payout. Consider those blackjack odds a part of your blackjack strategy in so much as it will help to further dissuade you from playing in a 6-5 game.

What you need to consider is which do you want more? The single deck game or the $30? Me, I will take that $30, thank you.

Blackjack Strategy: Basic Strategy and Losses

Casinos and online casinos love to perpetuate the idea that blackjack is the one casino game in which the house can be beat. They will even admit that you need a blackjack strategy to beat the house. And they are more than willing to perpetuate the myth that blackjack strategy is the key to beating the house.

And they would be lying to you.

It is true that basic strategy is a major tool against the house in blackjack, but it will not beat the house on its own. Playing according to basic strategy can lower the house edge to 0.5%. But players must play it perfectly, otherwise that 0.5% is not achievable.

Even if you are playing perfect basic strategy there will be times that you lose a round. This is because you only have a 48% chance of winning (ignoring pushes) in blackjack, even if you are using basic strategy. Think about it—if you have lower the house edge to 0.5%, the house still has the edge.

But casinos and online casinos will happily allow and encourage players that they cannot lose with basic strategy. Some brick and mortar casinos will even give players a basic strategy chart for free.

What they are hoping to see are players who believe that they will win every hand with basic strategy who then lose a few rounds and toss the chart away. Once they taught the chart away they are playing without strategy, and that means more money for the casino.

It is possible to lose rounds of blackjack. It is possible to lose them in a row. In fact there is a 14% that you will lose three hands in a row. It is just how it is. And casinos are hoping to bank on that percentage and what players toss their basic strategy charts away.

The best thing that you can do for your blackjack strategy is to understand that you will not win every single hand. Even card counters who are skilled enough to gain an edge over the house will still lose some hands. Stick with basic strategy and hang on through the hands you lose.

Blackjack Odds: Face Up Games

Blackjack games, in general, come in two varieties. Forget house rules and blackjack variations for the moment. I am talking about run of the mill, general casino blackjack.

When you walk into a brick and mortar casino and amble your way over to the blackjack tables you will see two types of games right off the bat. In some games the players will be holding their cards and at other tables the players are not even touching their cards, let alone holding them.

What is the deal with this?

When only or two decks are being used the players will be allowed to hold the cards—but they can only use one hand. One hand with cards and the other nowhere near the hand holding the cards. These are known as face down blackjack games, and their rate of play is slower than face up games.

Face up games are blackjack games in which four or more decks are being used, and the cards are dealt from a show. In a face up game the players are not allowed to touch the cards at all. Think of it as hands-free blackjack.

The reason for this is that the dealer can quickly give the hand totals without the players taking time to do the math on their own. This also prevents players from marking cards or even switching them. It is all in your best interest is how the casinos present face up games.

However, blackjack dealers are quick with the cards, and the rate of play is sped up when playing in a face up game. This means that you are playing more rounds per hour, which means that you have an increased chance of losing more per hour.

Unfortunately the majority of blackjack games are played with four or more decks. And since there is nothing you can do about the odds you get from the increased rate of play at a face up table, the best you can do is look for a blackjack table with the most players. After all the more players there are, the more you the rate of play drops. And that means that your blackjack odds can go back up a little.