Explaining House Edge in Blackjack

House edge is often misinterpreted when it comes to casino games, including blackjack. More often than not players assume that house edge in blackjack has all to do with their chances of winning or losing a round, when really it does not.

House edge in blackjack has nothing to do with your odds of winning or losing a round. Or even how you will fair in terms of winning or losing for a playing streak. It has to do with money. And when it comes down to gambling when is it ever about anything other than money.

The house edge of a game is about the amount of a wager you can expect the house to keep. The house edge in some casino games is fixed. However it is not fixed in blackjack. Players can use strategy in blackjack to lower the house edge.

Now stop and think about that for a moment. Let’s go with the average house edge for blackjack: 5%. That means that you can expect the house to keep 5% of your wager. But using strategy can impact the house edge. Going along with our example so far, you can use basic strategy and over time lower the house edge to 0.5%. That means the house will only be keeping half a percent of your wager as opposed to 5% of your wager.

House edge is about money. Strategy in blackjack such as basic strategy is designed to increase how much you win and decrease the amount you lose. Through minimizing losses and increasing how much you win the house edge is impacted and ideally lowered. But remember that house edge is about money, not odds of winning or losing a hand.

What is Basic Strategy?

The term basic strategy is tossed around all over sites with blackjack advice. It comes up when experienced blackjack players are imparting advice to novice players. And it is always recommended as the place to start with blackjack strategy.

But what the heck is basic strategy anyway?

Basic strategy is the simplest form of blackjack strategy available. Its most common appearance is a chart. Across the top is every single dealer up card, and down the left side are all the two card starting hands that a player could be dealt. Where the line of a dealer’s up card meets the line of a player’s hand is a play, either hit, stand, double down, split or in some cases surrender.

The play where the two lines meet is the best statistical play for the dealer up card/player hand combination. It is not a guaranteed win, but it is the best possible play for the player to make in that instance.

Over time playing perfect basic strategy can lower the house edge to 0.5%. And by perfect basic strategy I mean playing every single hand according to that chart, no deviations. This can sometimes be hard since players do not always want to put down the money to double down or split. But in the long run it pays to do so.

Basic Strategy is also perfectly legal to use in casinos and online casinos. Some brick and mortar casinos will even give players basic strategy charts—but they do so in hopes that the player will believe that they are supposed to win every time, become frustrated and stop using the card, resulting in erratic play which in turn results in more money for the casino.

The best that a player can do is to use the chart knowing they are not going to win every single hand, but that basic strategy will help their odds in the long run. The purpose of basic strategy is to increase money making opportunities, and the better the money is, the better the odds are. Stick with basic strategy.

Blackjack: A Game of Skill

For the most part casino games are regarded as games of chance. In the case of games like roulette and slots and keno this is true. Thos are games in which players have no ability or control to impact the outcome of a round of any of those games. But blackjack is different.

Like how it is being debated in several courtrooms that poker is a game of skill, the same could be the said about blackjack.

Blackjack is a game of skill.

And by game of skill I mean that players can use different plays and strategy to have an impact on the outcome of a round. To start with players are not simply dealt cards and that be the end of the matter. Players can choose to stand or hit or double down or split pairs. They can even choose to surrender in some cases. There are different routes players can take in blackjack to get to the end, and it takes knowledge of the game and its odds to make a wise decision on how to play out a round.

Then there is blackjack strategy. Players can take the time to learn how to use strategies based on statistics and odds to help improve their own odds. For example players can use basic strategy which is based on the statistics of player hands versus the dealer’s up card. There is also card counting, which is a mathematical means of tracking the flow of the cards to determine if the remaining unplayed cards are rich in high cards which favor the player.

Blackjack players can use basic strategy and/or card counting to raise their own odds and lower the house edge. Basic strategy alone can lower the house edge to 0.5%. Card counting can bring the odds even over time in blackjack and even tilt them in favor of the player.

It is because players can learn to use strategy and can choose how to play out their hands that make blackjack a game of skill. The more practice they have in using their strategies, the more their skills—and blackjack odds—increase.

Being Dealt Two Aces in Blackjack

There is some debate among novice blackjack players about what happens when you are dealt two Aces. Some say split and some say stand for a hand total of 12. But if you were at the blackjack table, what would you do if you were dealt a pair of Aces?

There are two things for a blackjack player to do when being dealt two Aces straight off in a round: split and then smile because you know the house would rather you not have two Aces.

But back to the splitting part. Yes, the best statistical play is to split and start two hands with 11 apiece rather than working with only one hand that is essentially going to be played out as a hard 12. True you could hit a 12 made up of two Aces, but the odds on splitting are better than playing out two Aces in one hand.

The thing with splitting a pair of Aces is that you have two hands to work with on the blackjack table, and already having one card worth 11 is a good start to building not one, but two strong hands. Of all of the pairs that a blackjack player could split, Aces are the best to have.

There is one more thing with a splitting a pair of dealt Aces that novice blackjack players wonder about: if the pair of Aces is split and a card valued at 10 is dealt to both Aces, do you have two blackjacks or only two hands each worth 21?

As much as I would love to tell you that you are receiving two 3-2 payouts, a blackjack is only considered to be one if the very first two cards dealt add up to 21. Receiving a two hand totals worth 21 on a pair of split Aces does not count as a natural blackjack, either of them.

So now we all have an understanding to split a pair of Aces when dealt one, and that two hands of 21 from a split pair of Aces does not mean two 3-2 payouts will happen.

Money on Splitting vs. Standing with a Pair of 10s

When being dealt a pair of 10s in blackjack there are really only two options for plays: splitting or standing. You cannot hit, not with a hand total of 20. The rule of thumb with a pair of 10s in a game of blackjack is to stand—no splitting! This is because a pat 20 is a strong hand.

But you will find that some blackjack players would rather split a pair of 10s when faced with a dealer 5 or 6. They are the two cards with the highest probability of ending in a bust for the dealer. The thought process is that if the dealer is more likely to bust with those two up cards, why not split the pair of 10s and try to make the most off of the round.

Odds on winning when splitting a pair of 10s against a 5 or 6 is not too shabby: 63% and 64% respectively. Best case scenario, meaning splitting against a 6, you stand to win $56. And that is $56 total; each hand would have a profit of $28, and together that is $56. All in all, the odds and profit are not too shabby.

But I think you might change your mind when you look at the odds and potential profit for standing on a pair of 10s against a dealer’s 5 or 6.

The odds of winning against a dealer’s 5 or 6 when standing on a pair of 10s is 84% and 85%, respectively of course. Already the money bells in your head should be beginning to go off. Again, looking at the best case scenario of facing a dealer’s 6, 85% is a better odd than 64%. That also means that the potential profit is higher too.

Now I know the money bells are going off.

So if you stand to win 85% of the time by standing on a pair of 10s in blackjack, that means you stand to lose only 15% of the time. Subtract 15 from 85 and you get 70, and $70 is the profit per $100 if you stand on a pair of 10s in blackjack against a dealer’s 6; profit on standing against a dealer’s 5 with a pair of 10s is $68 per $100. Still not bad. And certainly more profitable.

And profit is the point behind strategy in blackjack. Strategy is there to improve your odds at winning in blackjack, and winning means more opportunities to make a profit. Knowing the difference in odds between plays helps. In this case, you know that standing on a pair of 10s against a 5 or 6 will give you around $14 more per $100.

You Busting vs. the Dealer Busting

I am not sure how many blackjack players out there think about this, but have you ever thought about what happens when you bust as opposed to when the dealer busts? If you have not, you just did. I am willing to bet on it.

A blackjack player busting has a different effect than when the dealer busts. And that difference is one of the contributing factors of how the house gets its edge in blackjack over your blackjack odds.

When a blackjack player busts, that is it, you are done. You have lost and you are out of the round and out the money you wagered on the round.

But when a dealer busts he is not losing a wager because he never had to make a wager. But even more of a kick in the pants to your blackjack odds is that if you bust and then the dealer busts, you still lose. This is a result of the fact that the dealer plays last. Imagine that he played first for a moment; say he busted—at that point everyone would win.

But because blackjack players play first there is the chance that a player will bust him or herself, thusly removing themselves from possibly benefiting if the dealer busts. The more players that are removed from the possibility of benefiting from the dealer losing, the more money the house makes. Hence, why players play first in blackjack. It has nothing to do with the house being polite and saying, “No, you play first.”

Unfortunately there is nothing for a player to do in terms of blackjack strategy to overcome this one. This is just how blackjack works. The only thing a blackjack player can do to overcome an odds-hitter like this is to bone up on the rest of their blackjack strategy and hit the house in other areas.

Some players who play in brick and mortar casinos teach themselves to count cards. Basic strategy is always a popular means of hitting the house’s edge over time because it gives the best statistical play for every hand, and will lower the house edge over time to 0.5%.

Some Blackjack Things Never Change

And what would be something about blackjack that does not ever change? Ever. One more ever just in case you missed it. And by never ever change I mean it is the same for blackjack in brick and mortar casinos, in online blackjack and in the mobile blackjack that is one the rise.

One such thing is insurance. Yes, insurance is the same. Not only does the rule not change, but a blackjack player’s strategy for insurance does not change no matter what format he or she is playing the game with.

Insurance is a bad bet all around mostly because it is a side bet on whether or not the dealer has a 10 for a hole card. The house makes you feel like you are making a big mistake when you do not take insurance, but the mistake lies in taking insurance. This is because there are less cards that have a value of 10 than there are cards with other values. This means that the odds of the card not being worth 10 are higher.

And speaking of side bets, they are another thing about blackjack that does not change no matter how you play it. Other than insurance, side bets are found in blackjack variations whose sole purpose is to take your money and drag your odds down.

Take Perfect Pairs for instance. Before the cards are dealt, players wager on whether or not their first to cards will be a pair or not. The problem with this is that there is no strategy that can help a player here. Being dealt a pair at the start is sheer luck and that is all.

Blackjack is a game of strategy, of skill. This is one casino game in which a player can shift the odds that are against them and lessen them. But playing in a blackjack variation with a side bet is the fastest way to turn the odds against you. And this holds true no matter where you are playing blackjack, be it in a casino, online or on your mobile device.

Understanding Card Counting

Card counting can be a very useful skill when playing blackjack. But it is a skill that requires time, practice and patience to learn to the point of effectiveness. A good many novice players do not have the correct perception of what card counting is and what it does.

So we will start there, with what card counting is. Card counting is a skill in which the player mentally tracks the flow of cards. This is not an exact count; the purpose of card counting is to give players an idea of when there are more high cards left in the unplayed deck. This is discovered when the count a player is keeping has reached the point that more low cards have been played than high cards.

Once a player has the knowledge that more low cards have been played, leaving a greater number, and therefore likelihood, of high card being dealt, the player can begin raising their bets. Bets are raised at this point because there is a greater chance of being dealt a strong hand if not an outright natural blackjack. When the remaining deck is rich in high cards, there is a greater chance of the player winning, which is why bets are increased at this point.

To sum it up, counting cards in blackjack can give players a long-term advantage over the house by knowing when they are more likely to win, and raising their wagers accordingly.

Now. What card counting is not.

Card counting is not a short cut that will allow players to beat the house. Yes, it will allow players to tilt the odds in their favor, but it is not an instantaneous happening. It is not a flashy skill to be thrown around the casino.

To be successful with card counting in blackjack, time and patience must be applied while learning the counting system of your choice. Players who utilize card counting when playing blackjack also have to understand that they are not going to win every single hand, but that they will win more over the long run.

The Never Bust Blackjack Strategy

This one is for the blackjack players amongst us who are wary of playing stiff hands. Stiff hands in blackjack are a hard 12, hard 13, hard 14, hard 15 and hard 16. These are some of the hardest hands to play in blackjack—underdog hands some call them, mostly because the player is at the disadvantage.

The disadvantage comes from the fact that these are hands in which hitting is more likely to cause a bust, and standing is nearly the same as conceding your wager to the dealer. So I can see how a good many blackjack players would groan at being dealt one.

A so-called blackjack strategy was started once upon a time that is generally referred to as the never bust strategy. According to this blackjack strategy, players do not hit a hard 12 or anything above it. Despite the fact that basic strategy will have players hitting any stiff hand from hard 12 to hard 16 if the dealer is showing a 7 or higher. And, yes, according to this so-called never bust strategy players are not going to bust.

But it comes at the cost of the hands that would have been won if the player had hit the hands facing a dealer’s 7 or higher. And that is definitely conceding your wagers to the dealer. If you were dealt a hard 12 against a dealer’s 7, basic strategy would advise you to hit. And in hitting you run the possibility of being dealt a 2 through 9—all which would not bust you. A 2 would give you a hard 14 and you would hit again, and a 9 would give you a 21, which is likely to beat the dealer.

The cards that would bust you—10, J, Q and K—are outnumbered by the number cards that would not bust you. So it is silly to stand, which is what the so-called blackjack strategy of never bust has you doing.

In not hitting when it statistically advantageous, players lose opportunities to take money from the house. And lost opportunities means the player’s blackjack odds go down and the house’s goes up. Normally a blackjack game played with basic strategy would result in a house edge of around 0.5%. Using the so-called never bust blackjack strategy is a game in which the house has a 3.91% edge. Which would you rather have, 0.5% or 3.91%? Stick with basic strategy.

Determining Your Play in a Blackjack Tournament

When playing blackjack at a normal table or even when playing blackjack online, it is best to follow basic strategy. But this strategy is based on what the dealer has. And this does not always work when playing in a blackjack tournament.

Let’s say that in a normal game of blackjack you were dealt a 12. Since this is not tournament play you do not need to be concerned with what the other players at your table are doing with their hands. If they win and you lose it has no impact on you as a player. You would lose your chips and that would be the end of the round. Move on to the next and hope for better cards.

But in a tournament, while you should consider basic strategy, you sometimes need to make adjustments to how you are playing it, especially if you are the leader and the chaser–the next closest player–is not too far behind you. Sometimes to keep your lead you need to play how the chaser plays so that the same outcome is likely. Meaning if he wins, you win, and this will allow you to hang on to your lead even if he wins. We call this blackjack tournament strategy.

We will take that same hand, a hard 12, and put that back in your hand. Only this time you are in the lead at a blackjack tournament. The chaser is only $100 behind you. As the leaser you are going to be betting last so pay attention to how the chaser bets and plays. He bets $450. This means that you beat $450 since you lead is not a huge lead. He is dealt not a hard 12, but another hard hand, we will say a hard 16. And the dealer has a 7 showing.

With that 3 showing the chaser is going to stand, which is according to basic strategy. According to basic strategy you should hit your hard 12 against a dealer 3. If you were to hit though you will most definitely not generate the same play and potential outcome, which is the whole point to this bit of blackjack tournament strategy.

You want to make the same play as the chaser. So in this instance you would stand because he stood. This way if the dealer busts you both will win and you did not put your hand in jeopardy of hitting and busting.

There will be times in tournament play that you have to make decisions based on what the other players make. Just like in the above case, this sometimes means adapting your strategy when in a blackjack tournament. You do want to hang on to your lead do you not?