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Assessing Whether Playing Blackjack is All About Skill or Pure Luck

| June 6, 2022 10:34 am PDT
Blackjack table with people playing in background, Blackjack: A Game of Skill or Luck stamped

Even though the answer to the question “Is blackjack skill or luck?” seems obvious, it really isn’t. Think of it this way: Anything you must study to make correct decisions during play is a skill game.

But that would make 52-card pick-up a skill game—wouldn’t it? I mean, you need to understand how to pick the cards up carefully enough not to bend or tear them, and you need to learn not to fall for it the second time your big brother asks you if you want to play.

So, blackjack’s more of a luck game.

I mean, if blackjack were a game of skill, it would have a multitude of rules, numerous opponents to outwit, and choices to make at multiple stages of the hand.

But it’s nothing like that. Blackjack has few rules. It’s a toe-to-toe fight between you and the dealer. It offers laughably few opportunities for you to make decisions. Man, it sure sounds like a luck game to me.

But I could be wrong. Let’s dive deeper into the mystery.

The Luck Argument for Blackjack

Live online blackjack table

When anyone first tries their hand at real money blackjack, it is obviously a pure luck-of-the-draw game. There are only four aces in a 52-card poker deck, so being dealt an ace with one of the 16 cards worth ten points is already pretty rare.

But of course, it does happen—just often enough to be exciting. But unless your dealer is a card mechanic, the deal is as random as the numbers picked in a bingo game.

You have no control of the cards as they are dealt, nor does the dealer. And you have to bet on the outcome before the cards are even dealt. That doesn’t seem fair. It’s practically like buying a lottery ticket.

Okay, maybe that was a little bit of an exaggeration. But still, unpredictable random cards say luck. You cannot predict with any degree of accuracy what your cards will be, and by the time you see them, it is too late—you’ve already placed your bet.

Blackjack is a straightforward game to play—one of the simplest in the casino.

I’m not sure if this is true, but the phrase “beginner’s luck” may have resulted from watching a new blackjack player clean up. While there is certainly some luck that goes into playing blackjack, at least we can rest easy knowing it isn’t rigged.

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The Skill Argument for Blackjack

Card values graphic

The deal is only the first part of the game. You now get a chance to improve your hand (if necessary) with various actions entirely dependent on the cards you’ve already been dealt.

So, let’s start with your first two cards. If they are a natural 21 (an ace and a card with the face value of ten), you have won—unless the dealer also has a natural 21, in which case, the game is a push, meaning nobody wins. Your wager is returned to you, and the next hand is dealt.

Barring a natural 21, after you’ve been dealt your first two cards, you have the option to either stand (play with only the two initial cards you were dealt.

Or you can take one or more hits (get dealt one card at a time, at which point, you may stand or take another hit—until the total of your hand either equals 21 or “busts” by going over 21.

You can also double down—meaning you double your bet, and then you get dealt a single additional card, which may bust you (make your hand more than 21), match the dealer’s hand (resulting in a push—meaning the hand is over and you get your bet back).

If your first two cards are a pair, you have to option to split them, which means to separate the two cards, creating two hands, each of which is dealt its own second card. Of course, you must add a wager to the second hand equal to your initial wager.

The split hands are played as normally, standing or hitting until you decide to stand or the hand goes bust.

You may be dealt a blackjack—a natural 21—two cards, one of which is an ace, and the other is one of the 16 cards in the deck with the value of ten. Unless the dealer is also dealt a natural 21, you have won.

Most casinos pay 3:2 on a natural—150% of your wagered amount, but some only a parsimonious 6:5 (120% of your wager).

Luck or Skill in Blackjack—Which Is Better?

House edge comparison chart

It almost seems like a fool’s errand debating whether it’s better to have luck or skill in blackjack. You have no way of controlling luck. But you do have control over the choices you make during the game. And the more you know, the better your choices will be.

And that, as the poet said, makes all the difference.

The simple truth is that good and bad luck run their course, independent of our wishes, hopes, and prayers. But good or bad, in the long run, luck favors the prepared. Or, in the case of a game like blackjack, the skilled.

Important

Blackjack has one of the lowest house edges of all table games, but casinos continue to deal with it because it is profitable. How so? Because a 0.5% to a bit under 2% edge (depending on the player’s skill) is money in the bank for anyone taking the long view.

And casinos are all about the long view. They know that they can pay off a million-dollar jackpot because they will win it back in the long run.

Once you’ve taken the appropriately long view of the game, you know that there will be good hands and bad hands. All you can do is maximize your wagers by betting hands with a favorable outcome while wagering the least on hands with an expected negative outcome.

Like any other form of poker, blackjack’s odds aren’t great, but they are computable, and each hand you’re dealt has its likelihood of winning. How you play it against what the dealer is showing is what makes you a bad or good blackjack player.

Ways to Take Control and Win at Blackjack

Okay, now that we’ve solved the age-old luck vs. skill argument in blackjack, let’s talk about what really matters: Winning. Skill won’t help you much when the cards are against you—but it will help you keep your losses at a minimum.

And when the cards are going your way, your skill will help you win the pots worth writing home about. Here are some solid tips to help you be luckier—meaning more skillful—blackjack player.

Learn All You Can About Blackjack Strategy

Blackjack hand with dealer's card visible

Sure, master the basics of blackjack strategy—but don’t stop there. There are only so many different combinations of two cards you can get dealt from a 52-card poker deck. And there is at least one very right way and several very wrong ways to play each of them against that single card the dealer is showing.

Lucky for you, this isn’t poker, with 2,598,960 different hands to think about. In the game of blackjack, there are just 34 possible hands. That might seem like an impossibly low number of hands but remember that suits mean nothing in blackjack.

And the order of the two cards dealt with you is also irrelevant. So, with only 34 hands to think about, you can concentrate on learning when each of them is favored to win against the dealer’s hand.

Eventually, you’ll learn the correct way to play each of those 34 hands against the 13 possible up cards the dealer can show. And you’ll learn how to minimize your losses in the bad hands while capitalizing on those hands with the most positive outcomes.

A hand playing against the dealer’s eight of hearts must be played differently against a dealer’s up card of the four of clubs. What blackjack strategy is all about is knowing when to split, double-down, hit, or stand in every situation.

So, learn those combinations well—and then always play them correctly. See how easy that was? Bet you feel luckier already.

Play the Right Games

The house has an edge in every game it offers. In some cases, as with keno, that edge is significant. Some craps bets offer the lowest house edge in gambling. But all blackjack tables, regardless of bet minimums, are not created equal.

Even in the same casino, you may find tables that pay differently on natural 21 (an ace and any single card valued at ten face cards). One table will pay 3:2 (three dollars to every two dollars wagered) for your natural 21, while another will pay 6:5. Even literature majors know that $6 dollars for every $5 wagered are less than $3 for every  $2 wagered.

Oh, and avoid any tables dealing with the game “Blackjack Plus.”

This newer variant of blackjack permits the dealer to push if he hits 22. Regular blackjack gives the house an advantage of between 1% and 2% (one of the smallest house advantages in the gambling world).

Blackjack Plus provides the house with a 5% to more than 6% advantage. If it helps, think of Blackjack Plus as a 52-card pickup—and you’re not the dealer.

The Usefulness of Card-Counting

Two cards closeup

Yeah, I get it. The movies have taught two things about card-counting: It’ll get you buried in a shallow grave out in the desert, and you have to be Dustin Hoffman to do it, anyway.

Well, at least one of those things is false. Both of them, actually.

Sure, casinos frown on card-counting to the point where if they catch you, they may ban you from playing at the casino (both brick & mortar and online casinos are prone to this). But card-counting in blackjack is not illegal.

That may not seem fair, but is it fair for Tyson Fury to challenge Jeff Bezos to a fistfight? As entertaining and ultimately satisfying as that fight would be, it isn’t fair. But knowing enough about the probabilities of what your next card could be is fair game.

So please take a look at the various card-counting strategies below and at least consider practicing one enough to make it useful in a real-life gambling situation.

Play Your Bankroll

Unless you’re at the “bet it all, sleep in the hall” stage of drunkenness, you shouldn’t be sitting down at the $100 minimum blackjack table with a bankroll consisting entirely of one crisp Benjamin with “Happy 18th From Your Favorite Grandma!” written on it.

Sure, higher stakes represent the potential for bigger wins. They also represent a very quick way to lose your bankroll very quickly.

Play within your means. This makes it much easier for you to make dispassionate, intelligent decisions based on what you’ve learned and your skill level.

Choose Bonus and Rewards Carefully

Brick and mortar casinos have rewards programs for frequent gamblers, many of which offer cash-back rewards. Provided all the other particulars are favorable (3:2 natural pays, for example), sign up for whichever rewards program offers the best comps and cashback.

The same is true about online casinos—and your selection is much greater. Sign-up bonuses in the world of online casinos, and many offer bonuses specifically to blackjack players. Remember to read the terms and conditions fully and any rules pertaining specifically to winnings and payouts.

Please Note

Online casinos are sometimes reticent to offer welcome bonuses specifically to blackjack players—mainly because they don’t want the additional expense of enticing players to wager on a game that already features one of the lowest house advantages in existence.

Still, blackjack bonuses do exist online, so select your best online casinos with care. And as mentioned earlier, read the terms and conditions—as well as any rules covering the bonus—carefully.

Mystery Solved. Case Closed. What’s Next?

Pile of chips

Now that you have a good idea of what it takes to make it at the blackjack table, you’re in a good position to develop and sharpen your decision-making skills playing blackjack.

Just remember that you are in this for the long run. This makes any losing streak (or winning streak) insignificant since you know that your solid decision-making skills at the blackjack table will see you through in the long run.

So, what are you waiting for? Find yourself the safe online casino for you, sit down, and make yourself some luck.

J.W. Paine
J.W. Paine

J.W. Paine is one of the most experienced writers at GamblingSites.com. He's written for television and the printed media, and is a published novelist (as Tom Elliott).

Paine loves writing about Las Vegas nearly as much he loves living here. An experienced gambler, he's especially familiar with thoroughbred horseracing, poker, blackjack, and slots.

More Posts by J.W. Contact J.W.

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