Casinos use promotions to attract new and returning customers. These promotions have varying levels of value, depending on their nature. Some of them are really good deals with no risk to the player at all. Others have a certain amount of value, but that value might be offset by the amount of time it takes to claim that promotion.
Blackjack promotions come in various forms. I’ll try to cover the most common of them in this post, along with some tips for finding a lot of value when you can. The great thing about promotional offers is that they’re available at big and small casinos alike.
Online casinos have their own promotions, but they’re usually pretty cheap when it comes to blackjack players. That’s because they tend to offer extremely generous promotions, at least on the front end, but they make the back end (like meeting the requirements) so stingy that the promotions might as well be completely worthless. I’ll cover online blackjack promotions in this post, too.
Cash Back and Rebates in Blackjack Casinos
Just by being a member of the slots club or the players club at the casino, you’re eligible for a certain amount of cash back and rebates. These often come in the form of free food, lodging, or travel, rather than as cash. The casinos use your players club card to track how much action you’re bringing them. They then use a small percentage of that to decide how much you get in casino comps. This amount usually runs around 0.2% of your total action.
This means if you go into a casino and play 100 hands of blackjack for $100 each, you’ve put $10,000 into action. 0.2% of that $10,000 is $200 in rebates. If you’re a basic strategy player, and if the rules are good, your expected loss might be just 0.5%, or $500. $200 in rebates brings you close to even.
But not quite. If you’re counting cards, this amount of rebate just adds to your expected win. But if you’re counting cards, you don’t want the casino to track who you are or how much action you’re bringing. That just makes it easier to catch you and bar you from the casino. And you don’t need that. If you’re gambling a lot of money, you might be able to negotiate special cashback rebates. Don Johnson is an example of this kind of rebate in action. He beat the casinos for $15 million over 4 months.
Here’s one of the ways he did it: First, Johnson was wagering $100,000/hand. Casinos will make special exceptions for any gambler bringing that kind of action. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t bring that kind of action, though. Just be honest with the casino about how much you can play, and see what they’ll offer. Don’t be afraid to make counter-offers. It’s not unheard of for casinos to offer high rollers “discounts.” This is a rebate on the amount you lose during a trip. For example, if you negotiate a 10% discount and lose $100,000, the casino gives you back $10,000. Your net loss is “only” $90,000.
Most discount programs are based on your lifetime wins and losses over the casino. They also usually come with a cap. For example, you might get a 10% discount on lifetime losses of $500,000. To get the $50,000, though, you must show a net loss of $500,000. With several winning sessions or trips early, you must lose all the money from those wins before the discounts start kicking in.
But Don Johnson asked if he could get a discount on a trip-to-trip basis. This meant that if he had a winning session one month, and a losing session the next month, he’d still get his discount on that losing session—regardless of how much he’d won on his previous visits.
And since he was negotiating with Atlantic City casinos, which were having a slow year, he was able to negotiate deals he might not have been able to get from other casinos in more prosperous times. The final deal he negotiated with the Tropicana in Atlantic City was a 20% discount on up to $500,000 in losses. But he also negotiated enough favorable rules that with perfect basic strategy, the blackjack game only had a house edge of 0.25%. What did this mean?
Basically, he was risking 80 cents to win a dollar on a close to break-even game. An edge of 0.25% is about as close as a casino game will ever get to offering a break-even game. Don Johnson is now one of the best-known gamblers in the world.
You probably can’t negotiate such a great deal, because you almost certainly don’t bring that kind of action to the casino. But check with your casino host to see what kind of deal you CAN negotiate. You might be surprised at what the casinos are willing to do for you. You’ll never know until you ask.
Keep in mind, too, that with a 50/50 shot like the one Don Johnson took, the casino’s just as likely to walk away a winner as the player. Johnson got lucky. But his risk was minimal because of what he’d negotiated, both in terms of blackjack rules and in terms of his discounted loss (rebates).
Free Chips to Use at the Blackjack Table
One common strategy for savvy frugal Vegas gamblers is to look for coupons that are good for free match-play opportunities. These are usually low-dollar promotions, like getting an extra $2 or $5 when you buy in the first time.But these free chips are also risk free. And sometimes you can find better deals than others. It’s not impossible to get a deal worth $500 in free chips if you look for it.
You’ll sometimes find casinos offering a 10% bonus to your buy-in, but with the condition that you must gamble all the chips at least once before cashing out. This is a lot like many casino bonus offers, but the wagering requirements are much better than they would be at an online casino.
Any chance you get to play blackjack with money like this is well worth taking, especially if you’ve mastered basic strategy—which you should have done by now anyway.
Weird Side Bets that Might or Might Not Be a Good Deal
Most side bets in blackjack, including insurance, are sucker bets with a huge house edge. You’ll occasionally find a good deal among the sea of bad deals, but only every so often. You should become good enough at analyzing such things that you can discern between a good side bet deal and a bad one.
But if you’re not, Google or Bing some gambling experts who specialize in blackjack math and ask them. If no one has written about a specific side bet yet, you can always try looking in a Vegas or blackjack forum. Here’s an example side bet that’s a sucker bet compared to standard blackjack:
It’s a bad bet regardless of whether you choose the over or the under, but the under is significantly worse. The house edge for the over is 6.5%, while the under has a house edge of 10%. Just say no to the over/under 13 bet at the blackjack table.
New side bets roll out every year. You can learn about some of the latest ones by subscribing to Henry Tamburin’s Blackjack Insider newsletter.
Bonus Payouts for Certain Hands
The best bonus payouts you can hope for are increases in how much you get paid for a natural. This normally pays off at 3 to 2, but you can sometimes find a casino that will pay off 2 to 1 on that hand. If and when you can find such a promotion, jump on it.
You might have trouble finding a seat, though. Card counters love this promotion. Even if you’re not counting—even if you’re just using basic strategy—you’ll see an edge of 2% over the casino with this bonus payout. Be careful to not confuse 6 to 5 as a bonus payout, though—even though casinos sometimes bill it as such. They’re just taking advantage of players who are less sophisticated when it comes to math.
Because the payout starts with a 6 instead of a 3, it sounds like it might be better than 3 to 2. The ratio, though, is bad for the player. A 6 to 5 payout on a $100 bet is $120, instead of the standard $150 you’d get with a 3 to 2 payout.
Rules Changes and Their Effect on Expected Value
I read about some unusual rules that Kevin Blackwood encountered in his book Play Blackjack like the Pros. One of those rules was a casino which paid out a $25 bonus any time you got a hand made up of 3 7s. That’s an almost useless change, and you don’t gain much from it.
He also mentions a casino which offered the opportunity to split any total of 16. This doesn’t just mean a pair of 8s. If you had a 10 and a 6 or a 9 and a 7, you could split. Most people wouldn’t know how to calculate what that does to your edge. Apparently Stanford Wong calculated that this minor change added 1.2% to your edge over the casino.
Any time you can find an unusual rule at a casino, it’s going to affect the house edge in one direction or another. Often unusual rules that seem favorable to the player are more than compensated for by rules which favor the casino. A rule would need to be amazing to make it worthwhile in a 6/5 game, for example.
Online Blackjack Promotions
Signup bonuses at online casinos seem too good to be true. Most of the time, for blackjack players, they ARE. Here’s why: You find a casino that offers you a 100% matching bonus of up to $3000. You deposit $3000, so you have $6000 to play with. You play $6000 worth of blackjack hands, and you’re good at basic strategy, so you only lose $60. You have $5940 left, which is a profit of $2940. Sounds great, right?
And some casinos aren’t even that generous. They won’t allow ANY play at the blackjack table to count toward their wagering requirements. They’ll restrict your play to just the slot machines. Good luck with that promotion. The house edge on the slots might be 6%, 15%, or 25%–who knows? It’s impossible to calculate with the information the casino gives you.
Where to Find Out about Various Casino Promotions
I already mentioned Henry Tamburin’s Blackjack Insider newsletter. I also recommend Las Vegas Advisor, from Anthony Curtis. A membership there comes with ongoing updates as well as member-exclusive discounts.
Blackjack is a great game with a low house edge, and you would think that various promotions would make it into an even better deal for the player. In some cases, this is true. But the management at most casinos know how to calculate the expected value of a promotion. They don’t generally put together promotions that lead to players profiting.
That being said, some of these blackjack promotions are a great deal. Your job is to be able to tell one from the other. If you can’t do that via your own analysis—and don’t feel bad if that’s the case—you should rely on someone to help you figure it out.
Plenty of blackjack experts are willing to hold forth on various gambling forums. Try to find forums that are specific to blackjack and/or to the destination where you’re planning to play. Keep in mind that not everyone who posts in a forum is an expert, but some of them are. Look for names you recognize.
If nothing else, don’t worry about the promotions and just play basic strategy. Blackjack still offers the best odds in the house for a player who knows what he’s doing.