What is the allure of side bets? I’m not sure if there are any blackjack tables that exist without at least one side bet. It is almost hard to remember the days when you sat down to play blackjack and there was only one circle on the table.
There’s the age old question about which came first the chicken or the egg. I wonder the same thing about side bets. Was it casinos that wanted them to increase their profits or the players who wanted them to increase their chances to win big even on relatively low volatility games like blackjack?
For the most part, blackjack is a game not all that dissimilar from flipping a coin. You make a wager. You win even money or you lose. Throw in a few pushes, an occasional double down or split. But, you’ll never win 20- or 25-to-1 on a single hand. It just isn’t possible. A $100 bankroll on a $5 table should last a very long time.
Blackjack has a payback of 99.5 percent when the rules are favorable to the player and blackjack pays 3-to-2. Over the years, the hold has steadily dropped on this version of blackjack as players learned the right strategy. Casinos tried to lower the payback on blackjack to 6-to-5, which certainly increased the hold. Blackjack side bets offer far lower paybacks, ranging from 75 percent (which is the legal limit in Nevada) to the low 90 percent range. This most certainly increases the overall hold of the blackjack table.
From the casino’s perspective, the lower paybacks of the side bets is needed in order to keep hold up. But, there is also another reason why blackjack side bets offer paybacks lower than most other games. Most any game dealt form a shoe is countable to some degree. Because the cards are not 100 percent random as the cards come from deeper into the shoe, the probability of some winning hands can go up, which can greatly increase the paybacks of the side bets.
With paybacks in the mid-80 percent range, it gets very difficult for the side bet to ever get to over 100 percent. It still might get there, but only 1 in 1000 shoes, which makes it difficult for anyone to sit around and wait for the situation to arise.
For example, Galaxy Gaming has its Lucky Ladies. The player wins if he gets a 20. He can win considerably more if he gets a Pair of Queen of Hearts. If half the shoe is gone and no Queen of Hearts has shown up, the probability of a Pair of Queen of Hearts could double, which will significantly increase the payback.Bally Technologies has Royal Match where the top paying hand relies on the player having a suited QK. But if after half the shoe is gone the player realizes 3/4 of the Queens and Kings have been dealt, the probability of hitting these top hands will plunge and the payback will plunge with it.
The player may choose to not bother playing the side bet during these times. Conversely, if half the shoe is gone and very few Queen and/or Kings have shown up, the payback may increase by 5 to 10 percent. When a hand pays 25-to-1, it only takes an increase of 1 percent (absolute, not relative) for the payback to increase by 25 percent, which will turn the side bet on its side and give the player an advantage.
So, with these lower paybacks, what makes the player want to play them? As I said earlier, blackjack is a game of coin tosses. Unless you’re playing some form of progressive system (which only increase volatility, not payback), the likelihood of winning large amounts of money is very slim. But, many of these side bets have significant potential payouts. Royal Match has versions where the top pay is 25 (for a player suited QK) and 1000 (where player and dealer each get a suited QK). Lucky Ladies pays 1000-to-1 if the player has a pair of Queen of Hearts and the dealer has a blackjack. Obviously to pay 1000-to-1, the probability of hitting it is small, but they do exist, which is more than I can say for the base game.
I think there is another reason there are so many side bets for blackjack. None have been able to completely capture the marketplace. Players don’t seem to be overly loyal to any one of them. I think they are attracted more to the payouts than to the specific hands that draw those payouts. I’m not convinced players care if they are hoping for a suited hand, a 20 or a QK. They just want to have a shot at winning bigger payouts.
There is one side bet, which in my opinion, breaks the mold from the rest and as such offers a much higher payback – usually in the high 90 percent. It is called House Money. Unlike all the rest it is a side bet that utilizes strategy and yet leaves blackjack strategy completely untouched. It starts the same way most other side bets work.
If the player is dealt a pair, a straight or a straight flush, he wins. But now, he has a choice to make. He can add his side bet wager and winnings to his base blackjack wager. So, if he is dealt a pair of Kings, he can take the winnings and put it on his base blackjack hand. If the dealer has a 10 or an Ace, he may not want to. But if the dealer has a 7, the player has a good chance at a significant win for the hand.
Players have always been willing to sacrifice payback for an opportunity for a big win. Blackjack side bets have to pay lower than ideal because of the countability they are vulnerable to. So, my best advice is to proceed with caution. For the most part, if you hit a big hand you’ll be happy you played. If you don’t, you may find your bankroll disappears a bit faster than you would like.
Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].