As any of my regular readers will know, I am an advocate of pay table comparisons when it comes to video poker and keno. Manufacturers list all of the information right there on the game, allowing savvy video poker and keno players to easily spot tight and loose games. The forced randomness of virtual card shuffles and keno draws leaves only the pay table as a means of altering the payback percentage, unlike slots where adjustments can be made to anything from reels to symbols to bonus rounds.
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But video poker and video keno don’t cover every non-slot game out there. In fact, there’s one game that’s been around at least since multi-game machines hit the casino floors I have yet to discuss. And there are different payback settings on this game, and an educated player can tell the difference between looser and tighter settings.
The game is video blackjack, and it has a pretty good following for a couple of reasons. Not only does video blackjack typically offer much lower limits than its live counterpart, it is also often less intimidating to the novice player. But just because the limits are lower and there’s nobody to scowl at you when you stand on 16 doesn’t mean you have to put up with tight machines. Much like live tables, not all blackjack machines are created equal, and it’s up to the player to determine which ones offer more favorable odds.
First of all let’s get a few things straight – just like video poker, video blackjack uses a random number generator to “shuffle” a virtual deck (or shoe) of cards. Casinos cannot adjust the random deal of the cards to manipulate the payback. But unlike video poker, there’s no paytable for the casino to adjust. Even so, the casino can still alter the payback of the game.
In fact, the most popular multi-game video blackjack that’s been around for ages has no less than four different payback options from which the casino can choose when setting up the machine. Since the casino can’t change the cards and has no paytable to fiddle with, there’s only one thing left that can affect the house advantage – the rules.
You’ll notice on most blackjack machines when you hit the “help” or “see pays” button, a list of rules comes up instead of a pay table. It’s those rules you need to compare to see if you’re playing a reasonably good version of video blackjack or not, and just like video poker and keno, it’s worth checking out.
The worst of video blackjack machines are still not a bad bet. I don’t know of any version by any manufacturer that pays less than about 93% back to the player, which is better than many slot and keno settings. Even so, the rules on the tightest setting don’t allow insurance, surrender, splits or doubling down. Without any of this, blackjack becomes pretty boring.
The looser versions allow splitting on pairs and doubling on totals of 10 or 11 only, but at least it’s enough to make the game more interesting and push the payback to above 95%. Also fun and unique to the video adaptation of the game, on most machines the player automatically wins with any six-card hand totaling 21 or less. Unfortunately this advantage is offset by player blackjacks typically only paying even-money, but these rules pretty much even each other out.
The loosest machines actually pay three-to-two on blackjack and allow doubling even after a split. But don’t expect to find one with these rules since the 99%-plus payback keeps most casinos from even thinking of offering it. There are also newer versions of video blackjack that offer virtual dealers and room for several people to play at once, much like a traditional table. There’s even one game I’ve seen where a single player can play a whole table’s worth of blackjack hands – seven in all.
No matter which video blackjack game you play, the rules will be listed. While they don’t always mention things that aren’t allowed, they will always tell you how many decks are in use and which common decisions besides hit and stand are available. Read them carefully. If they don’t mention things like surrender and doubling after a split, it’s because you won’t have the option to do so during game play.
Will you be able to determine the exact percentage of a house edge the game carries with this information? Probably not, but you don’t need to. All you need to do is use a little common sense and compare rules among games. Generally speaking, the fewer decks in use and the more non-standard moves you’re able to make, the higher the payback will be.
While single decks that offer no insurance or surrender but allow splits and double downs are among the most common of settings, multiple decks and rule deviations from this standard are on the rise. A few minutes spent checking out the payout information will help you make a more informed decision. Just because video blackjack has this information displayed as rules rather than as a paytable doesn’t make it any less important; it just means you have to read words rather than numbers to figure it out.