In blackjack volatility breeds side bets success

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Over the years, there have been numerous successful side bets to blackjack.

Many people have wondered why blackjack players would bother with a side bet. A good blackjack player can play the game at 99.5%, so why would they want to play a side bet that might pay anywhere from 75%-90%. That would seem to defeat the purpose of playing a game with such a narrow house edge.

I think the success of blackjack side bets lie in the volatility of them. Blackjack is essentially a game of coin tosses. You win one, you lose one. You win two, you lose three, you win two more.

It is hard to make a real killing (or get killed) on anyone hand unless you have one of those cases where you split 8’s, draw another 8 and then a bunch of 2’s and 3’s for Double Down situation. The average wager at a blackjack table is a mere 1.15 (roughly) units.

The side bet on the other hand will frequently afford the player the opportunity to win big on a single hand. The more frequent payoffs might pay 4 to 1 or even 10 to 1. The more rare winning hands might pay 100-to-1 or 1,000-to-1. A $5 wager can quickly (so to speak) become $500 or $5,000.

The tradeoff for this opportunity is generally the lower paybacks associated with no strategy side bets. The casinos can’t offer 97-98% paybacks for games with no strategy because they can’t rely on human error to help drive the casino edge.

A couple of months ago, Roger Snow, chief product officer at Shuffle Master, brought a game idea to me to analyze. As is frequently the case when we work together, the game went through multiple iterations before we arrived at the final product.

After we ran the numbers, I think Roger liked it but didn’t love it. I, on the other hand, told him we had just come up with a nearly perfect side bet for blackjack. It was given the name House Money for reasons that will soon become clear.

As far as I know, it is the first and only blackjack side bet that has strategy, yet somehow does not affect base blackjack strategy at all. As a result, if a player chooses not to play the side bet, he gives up nothing to the house by sitting at a table that offers it. Also, the casinos are able to offer a side bet with a payback in the 95%-plus range because there is the possibility of human error in the strategy.

With all this, the concept of the side bet is quite simple. The player makes a wager before being dealt his blackjack hand. The dealer deals the cards as per normal blackjack rules. If the player is dealt a Pair, a Straight or a Straight Flush, he wins. As always, there may be multiple pay tables over time, but for now, the chart below is the most common one for a 2, 6 or 8-deck game:

Those payouts may not look all that spectacular. In all honesty, they are not. If the game ended right here, the payback would only be about 75% and this would just be another “nothing special” blackjack side bet. But, the game does not end here. The player now has two options:

• Take his winnings and play out his blackjack hand per usual.

• Add any/all of his winnings to his base blackjack wager and then play out his hand per usual.

There are no restrictions on these rules. If the player is dealt a suited A-K, he will be paid 9-to-1 for his side bet and then can add the entire 10 units to his base blackjack wager, which has zero chance of losing. And yes, the casino will pay 3-to-2 for this additional wagered amount if the dealer does not also have a Blackjack.

If the player is dealt a Pair of Jacks, he will be paid 3-to-1 for the side bet. If the dealer has a 6 up, he can add all four units to the blackjack wager. If the dealer has a 10 up, he can choose to do so too, but here’s where the strategy part comes in. Is this the right move? In reality, it is the correct move. I should add that if the dealer has Blackjack, the player never risks his winnings from the side bet.

The real fun begins when the player is dealt a 5-6 (or 5-6 suited) and wins even money (or 4-to-1) and has to decide whether to risk his winnings on his base blackjack wager. If the player chooses to do so, it becomes a part of his wager in every sense of the word. If he decides to double down, he must match the entire wager. The same applies if he is dealt a Pair and chooses to split.

Imagine starting with a $5 wager on both the base wager and the side bet and being dealt a Pair of 8’s. The dealer pays you 3-to-1 on your side bet and you now have to decide if you want to add the $20 to your base blackjack wager, making it a total of $25.

Assuming you do and you go ahead and follow standard strategy, you will now split those 8’s and you’ll have to put up an additional $25 of your own. Now, you are dealt another 8 and you put up another $25. Then you’re dealt a 3 and you double down and play another $25. You started as a $5 player and now you have $100 down on the table on essentially one hand!

For the record, you would only let your side bet winnings ride if the dealer has a 2 through 7 as an up card. However, whether capping a bet or taking the winnings, you still follow basic blackjack strategy and split those 8’s. You double down on all 11’s.

So far, House Money has been very well received by the casinos it has been demonstrated in. It is expected to go live in the next couple of weeks in Reno at the Siena Hotel. It should go live in other casinos shortly thereafter as regulatory approvals are granted.

In a few weeks, after the game has gone live, I’ll review the complete strategy.

 

 

 

 

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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