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I’ve spent most of the past few weeks discussing table games. As it has gotten much more difficult to find video poker with paybacks over 100 percent, table games have been slowly creeping up in payback.

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Mostly, many of the games have strategies that are fairly complex. Casinos don’t mind giving the few players willing to really learn the strategy a chance to play a 99.5 percent game – albeit with a larger average wager. The casino still nets a hefty profit in the long run.

Of course, there is usually an exception to every rule and the gambler doesn’t have to look very far to find one. It is the casino original – blackjack.

Blackjack has one of the highest paybacks of any game in the casino. While it will depend somewhat on the specific rules in place and the size of the shoe, generally speaking, you can achieve a payback of about 99.4 to 99.5 percent. In casinos where the rules are more liberal, you can cut the house edge in half from this point.

It also has one of the lowest average wager sizes.

On average you wager about 1.13 units. So, a $5 table is really about $5.65. For many of the newer games, a $5 table really requires about $20 at risk per hand. But they have to get you somewhere – the strategy for blackjack is a relatively complex one.

For those of us who have been playing for decades, we’ve pretty much memorized it already. Much of the strategy is a fair amount of common sense.

The good news is casinos don’t really mind if a player brings a strategy card as long as the game isn’t slowed up too much. In the case of blackjack, the strategy card consists of a grid.

Across the top is one of the possible dealer upcards. Down the left side are all the possible player hands. It’s usually broken down to ‘hard hands’ (without an ace counting as 11), ‘soft hands’ (with an ace counting as an 11) and ‘pairs.’

A player simply finds the hand and moves to the right until getting to the column matching the dealer’s upcard, following what it says to do.

I don’t have enough space in this column to cover the full rules of blackjack. There are dozens (maybe hundreds?) of books that cover the game in full detail. I’ve never bothered to write a book (or booklet) on standard blackjack partly because there are already so many and there isn’t really a lot to add.

Blackjack was the first game I ever analyzed. I was 14 and still in high school. I wrote the program on the school computer and got a rather strange look from my teacher when asking if I could borrow one of the terminals (this was a bit before the personal computer).

Fortunately he agreed. After pouring over tons of output from the analysis – my father and I decided that we had discovered the work done by all the people before us was essentially correct and little we could add.

The point behind today’s column is that from a mathematical and financial perspective, blackjack is definitely a game worth playing. A relatively small bankroll should last a long time. There’s a decent shot to win in a 3-4 hour session if you learn how to play. The strategy is less complex than it first looks and the game is very easy to learn.

There must be some downsides, however, if the casinos keep looking for new games. In blackjack, it’s that many find the game slow and boring. All payouts (except a blackjack itself) are even money. No one hand is going to make you a big winner.

Blackjack is the bumper car ride of casino games, definitely not the 70 MPH roller coaster. From the casino’s perspective, the hold on blackjack has dropped considerably in the past couple of decades.

Rumor has it that in some of the local casinos, it is below 10 percent. This compares to 20 percent and up for most table games, meaning more and more gamblers have learned how to play blackjack properly. There’s no doubt that you can be one of these players.

Learning the strategy for blackjack is no different than for video poker. Find yourself a good book or piece of software and practice, practice, practice. Once you’ve got the strategy down, then head to the casino with real dollars.

The good news about blackjack is that there are not thousands of variations to learn. While there are some slight variations in strategy based on shoe size and a few minor rule changes from one casino to the next, these are not difficult to learn.

Simply limit your choices, which can simplify the strategy.

When I speak of minor rule changes that a casino may have, I refer to not allowing the player to double down on certain hands or splitting a hand twice instead of three times…etc.

There are two very popular variants of blackjack in the marketplace – Switch and Spanish 21. Do not attempt to use regular blackjack strategies while playing these games. There are sufficient rule changes in both of these games to require completely new strategies.

I will be writing about these variants in the upcoming weeks.


About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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