Las Vegas Blackjack 101 ( Part 1) – Introduction
In the first part of our Blackjack series, learn how to differentiate between blackjack variants and find the table with the most favorable player odds.
In this initial series entry intended for blackjack beginners, we’ll outline some Las Vegas blackjack game basics including the vast variation in offered game types, rule sets, and player favorability levels. Blackjack is one of a limited few casino games in which acquired skill levels and associated play decisions can have a direct effect on house edge and the monetary outcome of play. Video poker, poker, and sports betting are among the few games of skill in Vegas casinos, but blackjack is still considered the game with the best overall player-favorable odds.
During this series, we intend to highlight an arty juggling act we’ll refer to as value-conscious blackjack play. The elements that affect overall monetary expectation or outcome such as basic strategy use, specific game selection, house edge, playing conditions, bankroll management, and comp accrual are all important considerations for overall blackjack play value. Even expert basic strategy players still play with a negative expectation ( mathematically expect to lose) when playing blackjack at Las Vegas casinos. The goal here will be to emphasize factors that will help minimize losses while still enjoying blackjack play at those casinos.
Why Play Blackjack ?
We’ve already referred to blackjack as a game of skill in which player decisions can have a positive effect on outcomes. With use of time-tested basic strategy playing decisions and selecting more player-favorable games, blackjack players can easily reduce house edge to 0.5% in Las Vegas casinos. On average and over the ‘long haul’ of gaming wagers in Las Vegas, that 0.5% blackjack house edge is at least 2x better than craps pass line bets, 10x better than roulette, 12x better than the average slot machine, and 50x better than keno bets. Off-the-top, skilled blackjack players encounter lower house advantages compared to almost all other Vegas casino games. Acquiring the skills to attain those blackjack low house edge conditions requires effort and practice. Blackjack players can exert some control over game outcomes as compared to most games where outcomes are determined strictly by random chance.
Another key reason to play blackjack is accrual of complimentary gifts from the casinos. Because blackjack is a game of skill, player decisions can influence outcomes. Playing traditional 3:2 payoff games with player-favorable rule sets provides Vegas gamblers with good opportunities to acquire comps (free or reduced rate rooms, meals, shows, and beyond) because of the inherently lower house edge for skilled players. The comp game is an entirely different learned skill set for Vegas gamblers, but blackjack provides one of the best game options to obtain comps. Comp accrual can represent the difference between winning and losing sessions at blackjack play when comp values are considered. Comp values do not reduce house edges, but can displace their effects by adding to overall monetary or dollar value outcome.
Gamblers interested in becoming serious players or pros can eventually learn advantage play methods (eg card counting) which can actually result in players obtaining an advantage over the house for at least a portion of playing time. Card counting and other advantage play methods are not illegal per se, but are discouraged by casino staff and personnel. Vegas casinos spend millions of dollars in attempts to identify advantage players and preventing them from playing blackjack. One of the most important blackjack advantage play skill sets is disguising its use. This series will not consider all the factors associated with blackjack advantage play.
Vegas Blackjack Game Variation :
A recent review of insider, off-the-top blackjack house edges revealed a range of .19 to 2.02% at Las Vegas casinos. Though that range in house edge may appear numerically small and insignificant, it is just the opposite. That range in blackjack house edge figures reveals big differences in games, rule sets, and conditions for blackjack play in Las Vegas.
The Las Vegas casinos love average blackjack players. The average Vegas blackjack player either doesn’t know or care about basic strategy, isn’t aware of how specific games (eg number of decks in play), or specific game rules (eg dealer hits vs stands on soft 17) affect house edge or the advantage the house maintains over players. Average players also don’t realize how bad a decision it is to play a 6:5 payoff game ( vs traditional 3:2 payoff for player blackjacks); those players might as well toss cash off the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel on the Strip. Those factors all influence house edge and the level of advantage the house maintains over players over the ‘long run’ of gambling events and wagers.
The long run involves thousands of players and thousands of wagers but eventually distills down to a mathematical figure that keeps the casinos in business. Players have the opportunity to learn skills and game selection techniques that reduce the edge the house holds over them as blackjack players. In the long run, those decisions are smarter and eventually more wallet-friendly than the average players will ever experience.
A key factor in game selection is electing to play games with player-favorable rule sets. Generally speaking, any blackjack rule that increases player options has a positive effect and any rule that limits those options costs money. The following rules / game conditions all add to player expectation (EV) or reduce house edge. Some of these rules / conditions are posted on individual tables and some aren’t. Players should either ask dealers about rules in force before buying in or have that knowledge before sitting down to play.
Player-Favorable Rules & Conditions :
- D2 – Double down allowed on any first two cards : adds 0.23% to EV; most Vegas games offer this rule
- S17 – Dealer stands on soft 17 : adds 0.2% to EV; very few of these games left in Las Vegas, particularly games with low table minimums
- DAS or DS – Double down allowed after pair splits : adds 0.14% to EV ; most Vegas games offer this rule
- LS – Late surrender, allowing player to surrender specific hands against certain dealer up cards AFTER dealer checks hole cards for blackjack : adds 0.08 to EV; there are still a few of these games left in Vegas, even at lower table minimums
- RSA – Re-splitting of aces after initial 2-ace split : players who receive additional aces after splitting an original pair of aces are allowed to re-split, usually up to 4 total hands; adds 0.07% to EV; several houses offer this game rule in Vegas
- Traditional 3:2 player blackjack payoffs : Vegas is amok with games offering lousy 6:5 payoffs for player blackjacks these days, including nearly all of the offered single deck games. Refuse to play these games, as this single rule cripples EV by 1.4%. One of the single biggest errors average Vegas blackjack players make is electing to play any game with less than 3:2 payoff for player naturals.
- Fewer decks in play : A fewer number of decks in play always lowers the house edge at Vegas blackjack games. Currently, most Vegas blackjack games are single, double, six, or eight -deck games. Playing a single-deck game adds a huge 0.50% to expectation, but finding a single deck game in Vegas with 3:2 payoffs these days is nearly impossible (there is one we ‘re aware of). The EV tradeoff in the single-deck game 6:5 payoff scenario is prohibitive. Playing a double-deck game vs a 6-deck game adds about 0.20% to EV. There is a general tendency for better overall cumulative rule sets at specific multi – deck (6 or 8 decks) games currently in Las Vegas ; a key factor that players must consider is the effects of all the EV tradeoffs ( and other factors) when making decisions on which games to play. The latter is part of that value-conscious blackjack play juggling act we referred to earlier.
- Coupons : Coupon use can enhance player EV and typical types are match plays (usually $5, $10, or $25 denominations ; generally worth 50% of face value for basic strategy players) or free ace coupons. Sources for these are players club funbooks received after signup (usually off-Strip properties) or from buyable coupon book sources such as those from the Las Vegas Advisor or the American Casino Guide .
- Casino promotional rules / games : Rarely, some Vegas casinos (usually off-Strip) offer short-term rule changes and games that reduce house edge over blackjack players. These might include 2:1 payoffs for player blackjacks, 2:1 payoffs for suited blackjacks, or bonus payouts for specific card combinations for player 21 totals (7-7-7 or 6-7-8, for example). Sources for these promotions include individual casino newsletters, local Vegas newspapers (Las Vegas Review Journal), and the Vegas Values Report from the American Casino Guide group. These assorted promotional bonus payouts are acceptable provided they do not require a side bet to be valid ; side bets on most blackjack games and options reduce player EV and cost player’s money.
- Select tables that offer comfortable table minimum bets for individual gambling budgets. This factor obviously doesn’t increase player expectation or reduce house edge, but is typically an important consideration for novice Vegas blackjack players.
(photo credit: cliff1066)