Blackjack FAQ – Part 2 of 4
This is Part 2 of 4 in our blackjack FAQ. On this page, you will find a list of questions with the answers provided below. This page focuses on some of the technical aspects of playing blackjack including surrendering, when to double down, insurance, negative variations and more.
Blackjack Questions Answered
Beat the Dealer is THE original book about counting cards, written by Ed Thorp, the godfather of modern card counting. It’s a surprisingly slim and affordable volume. Many of the rules to blackjack have changed since Thorp wrote Beat the Dealer, but that doesn’t mean the book is irrelevant. It still serves as an excellent explanation of how and why card counting works. It’s the foundation on which all other books about card counting are built, so it’s still worth reading.
If you’re a card counter who’s trying to make a living playing blackjack, you should avoid any attention from the casino. In order to earn comps, you have to have your play tracked and rated by the casino. That’s exactly the kind of attention you don’t need. Use your profits from counting to pay for your meals and show tickets.
On the other hand, if you play perfect basic strategy and you’re content losing a little money on a gambling trip, then angling for as many comps as you can get is an excellent idea. Getting comps from your blackjack play is like being a member of the slots club. You should always take advantage of it if you can, because it has a monetary value, which reduces the house edge. Read Max Rubin’s book Comp City for more about how to get the most from casino comps.
The short (and flippant) answer to this question is that you should double down whenever it’s mathematically correct to do so. You were probably hoping for some more specific advice than that, and we can offer that, too.
Always double down when you have a hard total of 11, no matter what the dealer’s upcard is.
Double down when you have a hard total of 10, UNLESS the dealer has an ace or a 10 showing.
Double down when you have a hard total of 9 if the dealer is showing a 2 through 6.
Double down on a soft 13, 14, 15, 16 or 17 if the dealer is showing a 4, 5 or 6.
Double down on a soft 18 if the dealer is showing a 3, 4, 5 or 6.
Surrender is an option offered by the casino where you give up half your bet and get half your bet back, but you don’t have to finish playing your hand.
Early surrender, when a casino offers it, is advantageous to the player. An early surrender is when the player has the option to surrender BEFORE the dealer checks her hole card to see if she has a blackjack. Late surrender, which is more common, is only offered AFTER the dealer checks to see if she has a natural.
In most gambling games, bets don’t pay out at their actual odds. For example, if you flip a coin with a buddy, and he wins the coin if it comes up heads, and you win the coin if it comes up tails, then that’s even odds, and neither of you has an edge.
On the other hand, if you win two coins every time the coin comes up heads, and your friend wins only one coin every time the coin comes up tails, then you’re getting the better end of the deal. Every time you win, you win twice as much as your opponent when he wins, even though each of you is going to win, on average, half the time.
The amount of this edge is usually expressed as a percentage of the wager. In casino games, the house almost always has the edge. That’s how they stay in business. In some games, like blackjack, the player can make intelligent decisions that will put the edge in their favor, in which case, instead of the game having a “house edge,” the game has a “player edge.”
Blackjack played with perfect basic strategy has a house edge of between 0.5% and 1.5%. Players who don’t use perfect basic strategy are usually giving the house an additional edge of between 1.5% and 2.5%.
Card counters hope to get an edge of between 1% and 1.5% over the casino. In the past, a player edge of 2% or higher was possible, but playing conditions have changed enough since then that those situations are rarely, if ever, possible anymore.
“Heat” is what card counters call attention from the casino. If they think you’re counting cards, they’ll start paying attention to you. Once they’re convinced that you’re a threat to their profits, they’ll eventually run you out of the casino, or explain to you that you’re too talented a blackjack player, and that you’re welcome to play any casino game there EXCEPT blackjack. Card counters, for obvious reasons, want to avoid heat from the casino.
A high roller is also called a whale. It’s just a phrase that a casino uses to describe a big bettor. High rollers receive the most attention from the casino in terms of receiving comps and perks from the casino. Whales even have an individual host who encourages their play by offering free travel to and from the casino, limo service, free meals, show tickets and more. Generally speaking, if you have to ask whether or not you’re a high roller, you’re not.
Players should almost never take insurance. Insurance is a way to hedge your bets when the dealer is showing the possibility of a natural blackjack. You can take a 1:1 side bet which gives you payment if the blackjack happens for the dealer. The problem is, the dealer is only going to hit that blackjack about 30% of the time, while the money you wagered on the insurance side bet is going to be wasted nearly 70% of the time. With a 1:1 payout, the blackjack would have to hit 51% of the time or more for insurance to pay.
One scenario fits this criterion in the course of a blackjack game. If you’re a card counter, then the occasional circumstance happens when the chances of hitting a blackjack rise above 50%. In this case, taking insurance makes good sense. Only knowledgeable card counters who know what they’re doing should take insurance. Most of the time, insurance is a sucker bet for gamblers who don’t know what they’re doing. Like most side bets in blackjack, they pay out at far worse odds than the basic game.
No one knows who invented blackjack. The game we play today took shape over multiple generations, with many modifications over the years. The first mention of a game resembling blackjack was by Miguel de Cervantes in the early 1600s, just over 400 years ago. Cervantes was a Spanish writer best known for one of the first novels, Don Quixote, but Cervantes was a prolific writer with many other stories to his credit. The game was described as “ventiuno” (twenty-one), which required a player to build a hand up to 21 without going over. Cervantes described a game with a deck somewhat similar to the Spanish blackjack deck these days (with no 10s). A game called thirty-one was popular in Spain at least a century earlier.
A “negative variation” in blackjack is a change in the rules which lowers the player’s odds. Essentially, a negative variation is a rule which increases the house edge, so it’s to your detriment. It’s good to learn what the positive variations and negative variations are in blackjack. That way, you’ll be able to find the best tables to play at. Examples of negative variations include the ability of the dealer to stand on a soft 17 and the inclusion of multi-deck blackjack instead of a single-deck deal.
The answer is “yes” and “no.” Yes, underage blackjack players can play online for free, but “no,” minors can’t play for real money legally. Many free blackjack games and strategy tools exist online which are used purely for entertainment purposes. If you want to play blackjack online for real money, then the answer is “no.” Few countries around the world would allow minors to play for free. Even if they did, legitimate online casinos would not accept under-18 blackjack gamblers, for fear of legal recrimination. If you find an online site which accepts minor players for cash, be concerned.
Studying a basic strategy chart is the best way a beginner improves. This is going to require the boring process of memorizing the various play scenarios or using flash cards, much like you would learn vocabulary in a foreign language class or multiplication tables in basic math classes. Improving at blackjack can be technical and boring to some, which is why some gamblers avoid blackjack for the easier games like roulette, baccarat and slots. If you take the time to learn the basic strategies, blackjack pays off with better odds, though.
Most online casinos shuffle after every single hand, making card counting useless in internet blackjack. You’ll occasionally hear of online casinos which penetrate into the shoe at a random point, but this is rare. Card counters don’t have much of a presence in online gambling.
Mimicking the dealer is one of those easy-to-remember strategies which sounds like it should keep you competitive, but really loses you a bunch of money. When you mimic the dealer in a standard game of blackjack, you’re likely to be standing on a hard 17 or greater, hitting on a soft 17 and hitting on 16 or less. Since the casino sets this as the guide for dealers, it would seem this is the appropriate strategy for players, too. Let’s stipulate a game of six-deck blackjack where the dealer hits on a soft 17, the player can double after a split, but only on the first two cards. Then assume the player can split up to three hands, can re-split aces, but can’t hit on split aces. Then assume the player loses their original bet only on a BJ, while the blackjack pays at 3:2.
In this case, the house edge is about 0.478%, while the realistic results are probably closer to 0.5%. Then let’s stipulate rules where you mimic the dealer instead. In this case, the house odds stand around 5.48%–almost 5% higher than playing solid basic strategy. Remember, mimicking the dealer means you never double down and you never split, so you lose two of your best ways of seizing the advantage when you have it. Mimicking the dealer passes up a ton of opportunities for players, so learn the basic strategy and use this method. It’s not as easy to remember, but learning basic strategy is worthwhile.
Junkets are organized trips to the casino for larger groups of people and they are perfectly legal. A junket is often subsidized by casinos, who want to attract as many gamblers as they can get. Players receive discounts on flights, hotel rooms and meals for the same reason bulk rates are cheaper in other industries–the casinos assure they get a certain number of customers. The casino makes a profit off these trips because they get a lot of inexperienced gamblers in their establishment who’ll lose a lot of money on average. It should be noted that “blackjack junkets” probably don’t require players to enjoy only twenty-one, since the casino management would much rather have you sitting in front of a slot machine (and its better house edge).
A push is when the dealer and the player tie. If you receive a 3-8-10 for a “21” and the casino receives a 6-5-10 for a “21”, the two of you push. Your bet is returned to you, as if you didn’t play the hand. It should be noted that a natural twenty-one is the best hand in blackjack (and is called a “blackjack”). If you receive a 10-ace and the dealer receives a 6-5-10, you get a natural blackjack and the dealer only has 21. In this case, you’re paid 3:2. If the hands are reversed, the dealer wins.
A running count is a card counting term which refers to your count of cards since the beginning of a new deck or new shoe. When the cards are reshuffled, the count begins anew.
Card counting is not a part of basic strategy. Card counting supplements and enhances basic strategy. Basic strategy has been developed by many different blackjack experts (starting with Edward Thorp) who ran computer simulations to determine the best play in every situation. The way you play the cards remains the same whether you use basic strategy (but don’t count cards) or whether you’re a card counter who uses basic strategy. How card counters get an additional advantage is knowing how much to bet when using basic strategy. The reason card counting gives you an extra advantage is it gives you special insight into the odds of hitting good hands or bad hands, thus giving you insight on when you should bet more (when you have an advantage) and when you should bet less (when the odds are against you).
A flat bet is a wager which remains the same from one hand to the next. If you’re betting $5 on every single hand of blackjack, regardless of circumstances, it’s a flat bet. Splitting pairs, doubling down and card counting are ways to increase your odds by varying bets when you have an advantage. Casinos spot card counters by noticing they wager much more when the card count is to their advantage.
Hitting is asking for another card. You do this by tapping your fingers on the table once or twice. If you’re playing in a game where you hold the cards, you can tap the cards or scrape them gently across the table. “Standing” is the opposite of hitting–you don’t want another card.
A soft hand is one with an ace in it. Since the ace can be a “1” or an “11”, a soft hand is one which cannot bust. If you receive a card which would make the hand bust if the ace was worth 11, then the ace automatically becomes a “1” and you continue on with the hand.