19 Facts about Blackjack that Will Surprise Your Friends
Published on December 08, 2016
Blackjack is one of the most popular games in the casino. In fact, in the United States, it’s the most popular table game in any gambling hall.
But how much do you really know about blackjack?
If it’s not as much as you’d hope, you’ll enjoy these 19 facts about blackjack that will surprise your friends.
Gamblers who refuse to gamble unless the odds are in their favor are called “advantage gamblers”. But not all gambling games are possible to play with an edge. In fact, most casino games have a house edge that can’t be overcome.
Blackjack is one of the only exceptions. (Video poker is the other notable exception in the world of casino games, but gamblers can also bet on sports, poker, and horses and get an edge.)
The most famous advantage gambling technique in blackjack is counting cards, but that’s not the only way to get an edge. And even if you’re not counting cards, you can play a close to break-even game if the rules options are generous to the player.
The first thing you’d need to figure out is how much money you need to live. Let’s assume you have a modest lifestyle and only need $48,000 a year to live. That means you need to win $4000 a month (average) playing blackjack.
Let’s also assume you’re a pretty good advantage player with an edge of 1% over the casino.
This means you need to make 100 X $4000, or $400,000 in wagers each month in order to cover your living expenses.
Let’s assume you play for $100 per hand. That means you need to make 4000 bets per month to earn that much money.
We’ll assume that you average 80 hands per hour (a typical number). You’ll see more hands per hour when there are no other players at the table with you, but you’ll also see fewer hands per hour when there are other players at the table.
It will take you 50 hours of play per month to get 4000 bets down.
That’s 12.5 hours per week, which makes this a pretty fair part time job.
But you also need a large enough bankroll to withstand short term standard deviations, too. Just because you have a 1% edge doesn’t mean you’ll end every session with a win in that amount. You’ll have losing sessions and winning sessions.
Your bankroll must be large enough to handle those swings in fortune.
Assuming that you’re playing in a game with few decks, reasonable rules, and the standard 3 to 2 payoff for blackjack, the house edge is less than 1%. I’ve seen games with a house edge of less than 0.3%, but between 0.5% and 1% is more common.
The house edge is the average amount you’re expected to lose per bet on average. This number obviously only shows up in the long run. When you bet a unit in blackjack, you either lose 1 unit or win 1 unit. (You might win 1.5 units if you’re dealt a blackjack.)
The only way that it would average out to 1% or so per hand is if you look at a large number of hands.
Video poker is the other notable example of this. Some people might think this is too much pressure. I have a daughter who suffers from anxiety disorder. She loves slot machines, but making the wrong decision at a table game scares her.
There are all kinds of players in a casino, but I think most of them would enjoy the mental stimulation that blackjack and video poker provide.
But I also understand that such things aren’t for everyone.
Card counting has been around for a while, but it didn’t become a systematic, proven system until Ed Thorp published Beat the Dealer in 1962. Prior to that, savvy card players had their own systems for estimating when they had an advantage, but those systems were largely intuitive. Thorp was a mathematician and was able to mathematically prove that card counting works.
Since 1962, dozens (if not hundreds) of books have been written explaining how to count cards. Casinos became so concerned about losing their edge against gamblers that they hired private detective agencies (the Griffin Agency is the most famous example) to thwart advantage players’ attempts. They also started changing the rules to make the games harder.
If you know anything about casinos, you realize that they don’t take countermeasures against something that isn’t proven to work. You don’t see casinos barring craps players. That’s one of the reasons I don’t put much stock into the claims about dice control.
But they sure do work hard at thwarting blackjack players, at least some of the time.
Many people don’t understand the concept behind counting cards. It’s actually simple, and you don’t have to memorize the deck or which cards have already been played. The premise behind the technique is that a deck with lots of high cards in it favors the player, and a deck with lots of low cards in it favors the casino.
So, it stands to reason that if there are a relatively high number of aces and tens in the deck compared to lower cards, you should raise your bet. After all, a blackjack pays off at 3 to 2. Not only are you more likely to win, but you’re also more likely to get a hand with a bonus payout.
All a card counting system does is give you a system which helps you estimate the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck. These systems usually assign a point value to particular cards (often +1 or -1). That running count is an estimate of how much you should bet.
Every time a low card is dealt, you add 1 to the count. Every time an ace or a ten is dealt, you subtract 1. If the count is positive, it might make sense to take insurance. It also makes sense to raise the size of your bet.
If the count is 0 or negative, you shouldn’t take insurance, and you should place the minimum bet possible.
Most intelligent people can learn to count cards with a day or two of practice.
You also count cards in Atlantic City, and the reason is the same:
For card counting to work, the cards that are dealt have to be gone from the deck. If they’re just shuffled back into the deck before the next hand is played, the count starts over again at 0.
In that situation, you’re unable to estimate any kind of advantage or disadvantage against the casino. You’re essentially playing with a fresh deck every hand.
They do this in Atlantic City because the state made it illegal to ban card counters. Since they can’t ban counters, they do the next best thing—they make it impossible for counters to ply their trade.
Online casinos use a random number generator to come up with their results. This computer program duplicates the odds of a 52-card deck. But it starts with a freshly shuffled deck every hand.
The same holds true for live dealer casinos. They use an automatic shuffling machine just like the casinos in Atlantic City use.
So yeah, it’s easy to learn how to count cards. But it’s a useless skill for the online casino player.
Online casino bonuses are a great deal. They enable you to play with the house’s money—literally. Here’s how they work:
Most online casino bonuses are matching bonuses that match a certain percentage of your deposit.
In that case, you’d have a bankroll of $1000 to play with.
Casinos require you to place a certain number of wagers before allowing you to cash out. The reasons for this should be obvious. It wouldn’t make sense for a casino to give you $500 and immediately let you cash it out after placing a single $100 bet on black at the roulette table.
But even then, smart players can get an edge. Suppose the casino requires you to play through your bonus plus deposit 15 times. (That would be a generous casino, by the way—most casinos have higher wagering requirements than that.)
You’d have to place 15 X $1000, or $15,000, in wagers before cashing out.
Let’s say you’re playing blackjack with perfect basic strategy, and this casino’s version of the game has a house edge of 0.5%. This means you expect to lose $75 with that kind of action.
Of course, expected losses only come into play in the long run, so your goal would be to make as many small wagers as possible. You want to get as close to the long-term expectation as you can.
But if you deposit $500, get a $500 bonus, and lose $75, you wind up with a net profit of $425.
For a long time, smart casino gamblers would do just that. They even have a nickname in the industry—bonus abusers.
Most casinos on the Internet have installed a simple countermeasure. They don’t allow wagers on blackjack to count toward your wagering requirements. Even the casinos that do allow only count those wagers at a discounted rate, usually 5%. So instead of having to place $15,000 in wagers at the blackjack table, you’d have to place $300,000 in wagers. That’s an expected loss of $1500, which is more than the $1000 bankroll you started with.
You can certainly show a profit after claiming a casino bonus.
The earliest mention of blackjack is in Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, which dates to the late 16th/early 17th century. Decks of cards weren’t exactly like the ones we have now, but they were close enough that the goal of the game was still to wind up with a total of 21 without going over.
Compare that with slot machines, which have only been around for a little over a century, or video poker, which has only been around for the last 40 or 50 years. Even craps, which is based on dice, is relatively new—at least in its current form.
The object is to beat the dealer. Thinking that the object is to get as close as you can to 21 without going over can lead to strategy mistakes.
If you think that your goal is to get closer to 21, you might think it makes sense to take a hit here. After all, any 8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, or ace is going to get you close to 21. That’s a lot of cards.
But the dealer has such a high chance of going bust in this situation that the correct play mathematically is to stand on your hard total of 13.
It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that’s worth making.
Your goal in blackjack is to beat the dealer, period. Sometimes it’s easier to beat the dealer by making sure you don’t go best when the dealer has a reasonably high chance of doing so.
In recent years, casinos have started dealing a new version of blackjack that only pays 6 to 5 for a blackjack. The standard is to pay 3 to 2. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it has a devastating effect on your chances of winning.
If you bet $100 in a standard blackjack game, you’ll win $150 if you’re dealt a natural. But in a 6:5 game, you’ll only win $120 instead.
It adds 1.4% to the house edge for the casino.
That doesn’t sound like much. What’s 1.4%, after all?
But let’s look at what that does over time.
You have a choice between a game with a 0.5% edge and the same game with a 6:5 payout for blackjack. The second game has a house edge of 1.9%.
The way you measure this is to look at your hourly expected loss. That’s just the product of your wager size, the number of wagers you make per hour, and the house edge.
Let’s say you’re a low roller who’s only playing for $10 per hand. And you’re getting 80 hands per hour. You’re putting $800 into action each hour.
Your expected loss in the 0.5% game is only $4/hour. That’s cheap entertainment. With free drinks and comp points, you’re getting close to breaking even with the casino.
But your expected loss in the 1.9% game is almost $16/hour. That’s a little more painful. You can’t really compensate for that extra $12/hour with free drinks and comp buffets—not easily, anyway.
Craps is hugely popular, too. Roulette also has its fans. But since the popularization of card counting and the obvious benefits that playing with basic strategy offers, blackjack has overtaken all the other table games in the casino.
Whether or not it will remain the most popular game in American casinos is anyone’s guess. Casinos and game designers are constantly trying to come up with the next big thing. The last couple of decades have seen new casino card games take hold—some of these include Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker, and Pai Gow Poker.
But none of them have yet gotten the kind of dedicated following that blackjack has.
This is probably because the house edge for blackjack is so much lower than these other games. The strategy for blackjack is also relatively simple when compared to a game like Pai Gow Poker.
The popularity of slot machines dwarfs that of blackjack, still.
Isn’t it odd that video poker is one of the best games in the casino, while video blackjack is one of the worst?
Video poker is my recommended alternative to slot machines. Not only does video poker provide you with some decision making (which is mentally stimulating), but it also offers some of the best odds in the casino. If you stick with the game with the best pay tables, video poker offers comparable odds to blackjack, with the added bonus of occasional large jackpots.
The reason video blackjack offers such lousy odds is because it invariably only offers an even money payout for blackjack.
Remember how I said you should never play in a 6:5 blackjack game?
What’s even more baffling about this is that video blackjack would offer the casino more winnings per hour than table-based blackjack even if it followed the same rules. That’s because you’ll get in twice as many hands per hour (at least) on a video blackjack game. So, the expected hourly return for the casino is already better because of the additional money you’ll have in action per hour.
It gives the casino an additional 2.3%.
Double the action per hour and multiply the house edge by a factor of 6. That means you’ll lose, on average, 12 times as much money per hour playing video blackjack than you would playing at a table with a dealer.
Online casinos offer what is essentially a video blackjack game, but they don’t have the cheesy even money payouts. You’re better off staying home and playing online. (And some casinos offer live dealer games, too.)
Insurance is the classic example of a side bet in blackjack. It’s just a bet that the dealer has a blackjack, and it’s only available when the dealer has an ace showing. The house edge on this bet is almost 7%.
And that’s just one example.
Other side bets at blackjack are common, but all of them have the same effect on your losses—they increase them. Of course, we’re dealing with averages over time, so in the short run, you might show a profit when placing these side bets.
But the odds are against you.
The casinos would love it if you believed that it’s against the law to count cards, but think about how absurd that would be. After all, counting cards is literally just thinking about the game you’re playing. How could it possibly be legal to add and subtract numbers mentally while playing a card game?
Even if it were illegal, which it never would be, because as insane as our government can be, it’s not going to pass THAT stupid a law, it would be almost impossible to prove in a court of law.
That being said, casinos reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. That particularly applies to card counters.
In fact, in venues where you really can get an edge counting cards (like Las Vegas and Reno), the casinos are happy to ask players to stop playing blackjack. They’ll advise such a player that they’re welcome to enjoy the other games in the casino, though. In severe instances, they’ll also tell a player he’s no longer welcome, but that’s less common.
Some casinos and casino managers are now taking a more enlightened view of card counters, too. The truth is that most people who think they’re good at counting cards are so bad at it that the casino still has an edge. After all, counting cards requires skill, discipline, and concentration. These aren’t common among gamblers.
Legal precedent in Atlantic City prevents the casinos from running you off for counting cards. As a result, all the casinos in the city only deal 8 deck games, and they use automatic shuffling machines to deal from a fresh deck every hand. This eliminates the possibility of getting an edge by counting cards.
Atlantic City’s economy is so bad that you almost don’t blame them for this rule.
It’s a common myth that if the player before you were to make a mistake, it changes the odds or your strategy. That is not the case.
You’re playing against the dealer. As long as you’re making the right basic strategy decisions on every hand, what the other players at the table do has no effect on your expected outcome.
One of the ways card counters get an edge is by adjusting their strategy decisions based on the count. Basic strategy assumes a normal distribution of cards, but blackjack is a composition-dependent game. If there are more aces and tens in the deck, it’s correct to take insurance, for example.
But that’s not even a basic strategy decision. Deciding whether or not to hit a 16 versus a dealer 10 varies based on the count. There are other situations where the count matters to your strategy, and the best card counters know all the exceptions and follow them consistently. They milk every tenth of a percentage out of the game that they can.
A few years ago, tournament blackjack and elimination blackjack became a thing. The Game Show Network (GSN) tried to capitalize on the public’s fascination with gambling and poker by putting together a game show called the World Series of Blackjack.
It was a cool show, and if you’re a blackjack fan, you probably got a kick out of seeing some of the more notorious figures in the game get their ten minutes of fame. But it couldn’t have been too popular, because the shows are no longer airing. As far as I know, there are no more televised blackjack games to watch.
Even though I described all the terrible things casinos are going to do if you’re caught counting cards, it’s not really that bad. I’ve been caught counting cards before, and no one even mentioned it. In fact, the only reason I know that they knew is because they started shuffling the deck on every hand.
Policies and their implementation vary from property to property, but if you’re worried about a Vegas casino taking you into the basement and beating you up, relax. That’s just a scene from the movie 21.
In fact, the Griffin Agency, which consulted with nearly every Las Vegas casino to identify cheaters and card counters for years, went out of business. How concerned could the casinos be with card counters if the leading company in that space can no longer make money thwarting counters?
Blackjack is a fascinating game with a long history—a history which has grown even more interesting over the last 50 or 60 years. If your friends don’t know much about the game, you’re now armed with enough surprising facts that you can keep them talking with you for hours about it.
Even better, you know enough about the game of 21 now that you’ll probably be a better player. You’ll find plenty of additional pages about the intricacies of the game in the blackjack section of this site.
You might also enjoy reading The 10 Commandments of Blackjack.