Casinos love uneducated gamblers. They love blackjack players who believe stuff about blackjack that isn’t true. And they especially love the stuff you don’t know about the game.
Most people who’ve done some cursory reading about the game already know that the house edge is usually less than 1%. The casino would like you to believe that this is what the average player sees sitting down at the table the first time. But the truth is that most players make so many strategy mistakes that they lose an average of 4% of every bet they make.
It’s the casinos’ job to separate you from your money as quickly as possible. They offer a great game like blackjack—which offers the promise of a game a player can beat—because the majority of people won’t do the work to beat it. And even the ones who are willing to do the work after often not competent enough to get the edge they think they’re getting.
In this post, I look at some of the information that the casino knows but keeps a secret with an eye toward exposing it to the savvy blackjack player. Knowing some of these secrets will put you ahead of most other players at the blackjack table.
1- There’s a Mathematically Optimal Way to Play Every Single Handy
Only the most naïve beginners think that blackjack is all luck. Most everyone knows that skill in how to play your hands matters a lot.
But not everyone realizes that the correct decision in EVERY situation has already been figured out. And in some situations, the best you can do is minimize your mathematically expected loss.
Most people memorize basic blackjack strategy using a color-coded chart or table of some kind. The possible totals you could have are listed on the left side of the table, while the possible dealer face-up cards are listed across the top. You simply cross-index your hand with the dealer’s up-card to see what the correct move is.
Basic strategy changes based somewhat on which rules are in effect at the table, but for most hands, it’s the same regardless of the rules. You can even buy a basic strategy chart on a piece of plastic the size of a credit card in the hotel gift shop.
The casino would prefer you not know or use basic strategy. In fact, any deviation you make from basic strategy provides them with a mathematical advantage, so they’re all for that. Even though they realistically know that you’re going to know about and use basic strategy, they’re still hoping you’ll deviate based on hunches or just make mistakes.
Most gamblers are willing to oblige the casinos, knowingly or accidentally. That’s why the casino’s take at the blackjack tables is 4% even though the mathematically expected hold is between 0.5% and 1%.
2- You Can’t Get an Edge by Just Playing Optimally
Some people think that if you play every hand correctly, you’ll get an edge over the house. These players don’t usually see the need to memorize basic strategy, either. They just plan on being able to make good quality decisions on their own. These players are some of the casinos’ favorites.
You can get an edge at blackjack, but just playing perfect basic strategy isn’t enough to get you there. Some rules sets might make that possible, but no casinos spread games with those rules anymore.
If you want to get an edge at blackjack, you need another weapon in your arsenal in addition to basic strategy.
3- You CAN Get an Edge by Counting Cards
One of the most common “advantage play” techniques in casino blackjack is card counting. When you count cards, you’re able to change the amount you bet when the deck has cards left in it that favor your probability of winning. You’re also able to make adjustments to basic strategy based on the current deck’s composition. Both of these adjustments in your play can eliminate the house edge and put the math on your side.
Most card counters operate at a similar advantage to the house that the house enjoys over a regular player. This means you have an edge over the casino of between 0.5% and 1%. Some elite card counters using more complicated systems might push that edge up to 2% or so.
That being said, many would-be card counters are so bad at counting that they’re still operating at a disadvantage to the casino. I’m always surprised at how strict some casinos are about “backing off” anyone they suspect of counting. My guess is that more than half of these aspiring card counters aren’t good enough at it to get an edge anyway.
The casino would prefer that you think 3 things, though:
- Card counting is impossible.
- Card counting is illegal.
- Card counting is ineffective.
None of these are true, although circumstances vary so much that they might be true in some situations.
4- Card Counting Is Easier than You Ever Thought Possible
Casinos would love it if no one ever tried to count cards again. They love that most people think that counting cards is extremely hard or next to impossible. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The concepts behind card counting are simple. And while learning to count cards isn’t exactly easy, it’s something that anyone with average intelligence can accomplish with a little work.
If a deck of cards has a higher proportion of 10s and aces in it than normal, your probability of being dealt a blackjack increases. If you increase your bets when this is the case, you tilt the odds in your favor. You have more money in action when those naturals come up, so your winnings increase.
You lower your bets when the deck is relatively poor in 10s and aces. And you don’t have to memorize which cards have been dealt to estimate this ratio. All you do is assign a value to the high cards and another value to the low cards, usually -1 and +1. When you see a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, you add 1 to the count. When you see an ace or a 10, you subtract 1 from the count.
When the count is positive, you raise the size of your bet. The higher the positive count is, the more you bet. When the count is 0 or negative, you bet the minimum amount.
In games dealt from multiple decks, you do need to convert the running count into a true count—you want to account for the diluted effect of each card that’s been dealt. You do this by estimating how many decks are left in the shoe. Then you divide the running count by the number of decks. You base how much you bet on the true count rather than the running count.
Also, keep in mind that the count starts over when the casino shuffles the deck. If the casino uses a continuous shuffling machine, it’s impossible to get an edge by counting cards. Finally, it’s impossible to count cards in online casinos. They use the equivalent of continuous shuffling machines at all of them, even the ones with live dealers and webcams.
5- Card Counting Is Completely Legal in Every Casino in the United States
It’s amazing that this myth even exists, but the casinos would love for you to believe that it’s against the law to count cards.
But think about how patently absurd this is. Isn’t counting cards just a matter of thinking about the game while you’re playing it?
Now that it’s clear that counting cards is legal as long as you’re not using a device to keep up with that count, let’s talk about casino policies related to card counting.
Casinos reserve the right to refuse to let you play their blackjack games if you’re “too skilled.” They also reserve the right to bar you from the casino altogether. The days that the security department at the casino would rough you up in a secret room in the basement ended long ago, though. Most of the casinos in Las Vegas are public companies now.
This doesn’t make card counting illegal. It just means it’s against the casino’s rules to do so. The onus is still on them to catch you counting, although they don’t have to prove anything to ban you from their games or their property.
6- 3/2 Blackjack Is Far Superior to 6/5 Blackjack
Casinos love players who are bad at math, and they’re happy to capitalize on someone’s ignorance. This is why they’ll promote their 6/5 blackjack tables as if they’re something special. Someone who’s unsophisticated mathematically might think that because 6 is so much bigger than 3, the 6/5 game is the better deal.
That’s a dramatic misunderstanding of how a ratio works. Let’s look at the actual numbers using a $100 bet. A 6 to 5 payout on a $100 bet looks like this… You divide the $100 by 5, getting $20. You multiply that $20 by 6, getting $120. So a 6 to 5 payout on a $100 bet is $120.
Take 2 blackjack games with the same rules, both of which have a house edge of 1%. Then change the payout for a blackjack to 6/5 on one of the games, and the house edge for that game goes up to 3%.
What does this mean in terms of your mathematically expected loss? 2% doesn’t sound like much, but it actually triples the amount of money you can expect to lose.
If you’re putting $250 into action per hour, your expected loss per hour at the table with standard rules is only $2.50. At the 6/5 table, the expected loss is $7.50. Not only is 6/5 a worse deal than the standard deal, it’s a FAR worse deal.
7- Insurance Is a Sucker Bet (But Not Always)
The casinos love to promote this bet, but it’s an optional side bet with a huge house edge. In fact, the edge is close to 6% on that bet, so you should never take it…unless…
There’s only one problem:
One of the ways casinos reliably identify card counters is by paying attention to the players who only take insurance some of the time. The information about how to count cards and change your strategies accordingly are mostly public knowledge. Most pit bosses at most casinos can count cards better than you can.
My suggestion is to never take insurance, even if you’re counting cards, unless you can come up with some plausibly superstitious “reason” that only applies some of the time. If you can convince the dealer you believe in hunches, you might be able to get away with taking insurance only when it’s in your interest to do so.
8- You’re Wrong about Your Goal in Blackjack – It Isn’t to Get as Close as You Can to 21 without Going Over
Your goal is to beat the dealer. You can do this by getting closer to 21 than she does. But you can also do this by ensuring that you don’t bust in a situation where the dealer is likely to bust.
Players who think their goal is to get as close as they can to 21 without going over tend to make bad decisions that run counter to basic strategy. In fact, if you stick with perfect basic strategy all the time, it doesn’t even matter if you know what your goal in blackjack is or not.
But I’ve always found that understanding the why behind something like basic strategy helps motivate me to put that strategy into action.
The dealer has no choice in that situation but to hit her hand. And she’s likely to bust. In which case, you’re still in the hand.
On the other hand, if you tried to inch closer to 21 than 15 or 16, you risk busting. And since you go first, that’s the wrong play.
So sometimes the goal is to just stay in the hand and hope that the dealer busts.
9- If You’re Betting Enough, You Can Negotiate Better Rules and Playing Conditions for Yourself
If you’re a new high roller, you might not know that you can negotiate different blackjack rules than the standard ones. But if you can negotiate those extra concessions, you can shave a lot of mathematical edge from the house.
Here’s how that works:
If you have a deal with the casino where they rebate 10% of your losses, and you lose $100,000, they give you back $10,000. You’ve only lost $90,000.
Sometimes the casino will give you extra chips to get the action started, too. Those free chips don’t cost the casino much of anything, because even with the rebates, you’ll eventually lose all your money to the casino.
But as a recreational gambler, one of your goals is to get as much entertainment for your gambling dollar as you can. With rebates and free chips, you get more gambling for your money.
Johnson, by the way, negotiated a 20% rebate on his losses, so he was only risking 80 cents for every dollar he stood to win. Then he negotiated playing rules that cut the house edge to less than 1%. For example, the game used a 6-deck, hand-shuffled pack of cards, and the dealer had to stand on a soft total of 17. Also, Johnson was allowed to split and re-split pairs as well as being allowed to double down after a split.
10- Sometimes Dealers Tip You Off about Their Hands (But Only if You Know What to Look For)
You can learn about what the dealer has in the hole in one of 2 ways:
- The dealer can give nonverbal clues, called tells, which are similar to poker tells.
- The dealer can accidentally expose her hole card. Spotting this is called “hole carding,” an it’s a popular advantage play technique.
For example, if a dealer checks for blackjack before asking you if you want to take insurance, her body language might tell you how likely it is that she actually has that blackjack.
And the benefits of knowing what card the dealer has in the hole are obvious. You know far more about how to play your hand if you know what both cards in the dealer’s hand are.
You can find entire books on both the subjects of hole carding and dealer tells.
Blackjack is a great game for the casino and the player. But the casinos benefit from players being less well-informed than they probably ought to be.
If you’ve read and absorbed the lessons in this post, you’ll know most of the secret information about blackjack that other gamblers are oblivious to.
Armed with that information, you’re better positioned to win at blackjack in the casino than most.