Not all blackjack games are the same. Even blackjack games that are just called “blackjack” often have rules variations. And these changes to the rules affect the math behind the game.
Examples of blackjack games, rules changes, and variations to the house edge.
Here’s an example:
You might be playing blackjack at a casino where the dealer stands on any 17 or higher. You switch casinos (or tables) and at the new table, the dealer stands on any 17 or higher EXCEPT for a soft 17, which he hits.
What does that do to your odds of winning?
We measure the math behind these games via the house edge. That’s the average amount of each bet that the casino expects to win in the long run.
For example, if I tell you that a blackjack game has a 1% house edge, you can expect to lose $1 for every $100 you bet–over the long run, 1000s of hands. (In the short run, anything can happen.)
For the most part, if a game has a lower house edge, you’re more likely to walk away from the game a winner.
A small difference in the house edge can make a big difference in your expected hourly loss.
If the dealer hits a soft 17, this increases the house edge by 0.2%. That doesn’t sound like much, but let’s look at what it does to the amount of money you can mathematically expect to lose per hour:
You’re playing $100 per hand, and you’re getting 70 hands per hour. In your current game, the casino has a 0.5% edge. You’re putting $7000 into action every hour, so your expected loss is $35/hour.
If you increase the house edge to 0.7% by having the dealer hit a soft 17, your expected loss goes up to $49/hour.
That 0.2% difference results in $14/hour in extra losses for you.
I’ve listed the blackjack games and variations below with an eye for how interesting the rules variations are and how good the games are for the player:
1- Blackjack Switch
This might be my favorite of all possible blackjack games. It’s a classic cheating move to palm a card from one hand and switch it with a card from another hand. It requires deft sleight of hand, and most players who try it get caught and corrected right away.
But in Blackjack Switch, swapping cards from one hand to the other is part of the game. The casino has made other changes to the game to maintain their edge over the player.
But if you learn correct basic strategy for Blackjack Switch, you’ll still be facing one of the lowest house edge games in the casino.
The big rules change that makes up for your being able to switch cards from one hand to the other is that a dealer 22 is no longer considered a bust. In Blackjack Switch, a dealer 22 is considered a push if your hand didn’t bust. Also, if you have a blackjack and the dealer has a total of 22, your blackjack pays off at even money instead of 3 to 2.
The house edge for the most common version of this game is 0.58% if you know both the correct strategy for switching and the correct basic strategy for the game. Since a dealer 22 is a push, your strategy for playing your hands changes from normal basic strategy.
If you don’t make these adjustments, you should add 1% or 2% (or more) to this estimate of the house edge.
2- Spanish 21
Spanish 21 has so many rules variations compared to regular old blackjack that it’s easy to consider it a separate game with only passing similarity to blackjack. But it’s still a game where the magic number is 21. The house edge is excellent if you know the correct basic strategy for Spanish 21, too.
The first big difference between Spanish 21 and regular blackjack is the composition of the deck. Spanish 21 uses a so-called “Spanish” deck of cards. That’s a 48 card deck–a regular 52 card deck with the 10s removed. (The jack, queen, and king are still in the deck.)
If you’ve paid attention to some of the posts I’ve written about card counting in blackjack on this blog, you’ll realize immediately that removing the 10s from the deck adds to the house edge. Spanish 21 makes up for this with a number of favorable rules for the player:
For one thing, you always win if you get 21, regardless of what the dealer has. You don’t have to worry about pushing against a dealer 21.
Also, if you and the dealer both have a blackjack, you win. In normal blackjack games, that would be considered a push, too.
You also have the most flexible rules possible when it comes to splitting and doubling. You can split and re-split any pairs. You can double on any hand, too, before or after splitting.
Regular blackjack games have limits to the number of times you can split cards. Some of them don’t allow doubling down after a split. And some casinos don’t allow you to double down on many totals. Spanish 21 is flexible on all these counts.
The rules for surrendering in Spanish 21 are also flexible. Late surrender is allowed. You can even surrender after doubling down. This is called “double down rescue”.
Spanish 21 also features bonus payouts for various hands:
- A 5-card total of 21 pays off at 3 to 2, just like if it were a blackjack.
- A 6-card total of 21 pays off at 2 to 1, which is even better than a standard payoff on a blackjack.
- A 7-card total of 21 pays off at 3 to 1. So does any bigger hand that totals 21.
- A 678 or a 777 pays off at 3 to 2 just like if it were a blackjack, unless…
- …that 678 or 777 is all of the same suit. In that case, it pays off at 2 to 1, unless…
- …that 678 or 777 is made up of spades. In that case, it pays off at 3 to 1.
Those are all fun bonus payouts, but the big fun comes with the big bonus payouts. Here’s how you get one of those:
If you get a suited 777 while the dealer has a 7 as her up-card, and you get a bonus payout of $1000. If you bet $25 or more, that bonus is increased to $5000.
Even if you’re playing at a table where another player gets one of these bonus payouts, you get a bonus, too. It’s called an “envy bonus”, and it’s worth $50 just for being at the table when the other player hits the hand.
Spanish 21 has its own basic strategy which is different from basic strategy for normal blackjack.
The house edge is between 0.4% and 0.72%, depending on the rules in effect. Some of this depends on whether the dealer stands or hits a soft 17.
That also doesn’t take into account the big bonus if you’re betting $25 per hand or more. That lowers the house edge by 0.03%. It’s a great payout, but it happens so rarely that you might never see it.
3- Single Deck Blackjack
This isn’t so much a different blackjack game as it is the original, unadulterated version of the game. When card counting became a thing, the casinos felt the need to get the house edge back up for the game. One way to do this is to increase the number of cards in the deck.
The additional cards in the deck dilute the effect of having a single card dealt. Here’s why:
If you’re playing in a game using 8 decks, and the dealer has dealt out 4 aces already, the probability of getting an ace drops from 32 out of 516 to 28 out of 512. That’s a difference, but it’s not huge.
On the other hand, if you’re playing in a game using a single deck, if the dealer has dealt out 4 aces, the probability of getting an ace drops to 0.
Why is this a big deal?
Because if you’re not able to get an ace, your probability of getting a blackjack also drops to 0. It’s impossible to get a “natural” or blackjack unless there are aces and 10s left in the deck.
Card counters track the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck so they can raise their bets when the deck is relatively rich in high cards. They bet more in those instances. When the aces and 10s are gone from the deck, they lower their bets.
Card counters who play in games with multiple decks see a dilution effect. Instead of an ace being dealt having an effect of +1, it has more of an effect of +1/8.
You should learn how to count cards. It’s fun and easier than you think. Then you should find a single deck blackjack game and see how long you can get away with it without getting caught.
Even if you’re not interested in learning how to count cards, single deck blackjack games offer better odds for the player than games with lots of decks.
4- Double Exposure
Double Exposure is a fun variation of blackjack with a simple rules change that players love. Instead of the dealer getting a card face down and another card face up, both the dealer’s cards are dealt face up.
This obviously gives a big advantage to the player.
But as with any of these variations, any mathematical edge the casino gives back to the player is compensated for with other rules changes.
One of these rules changes is that the dealer wins on all ties, unless you have a natural.
Worse yet, if you get a blackjack (a natural), you only get even money, not 3 to 2, as in other blackjack games.
The house edge for Double Exposure varies from 0.6% to 1.5%, depending on the other rules variations in place at the casino. Examples of these variations include whether the dealer hits a soft 17, which totals you can double down on, and how many decks are in use.
And of course, the house edge numbers I quoted assume you’re using perfect basic strategy, which is obviously different in this game. After all, the dealer doesn’t have a hole card. You have to know what to do regardless of the dealer’s hand.
5- Online Blackjack
Every variation of blackjack that I’ve mentioned so far is available in an online version. Usually online casinos offer the best possible combinations of rules and the lowest house edge. They do this to remain competitive with land-based casinos.
Land-based casinos attract customers via their gambling games, sure. But they also have restaurants and shows to offer potential customers to get them in the door. These come with overhead, but they’re the traditional ways of marketing.
Online casinos can’t feed you. They can’t give you show tickets. They have to attract you by offering a good gamble with good odds. Also, they have little overhead, so they can afford to offer you better odds.
When you play video blackjack in a casino, the game’s random number generator creates results that emulate the same odds as you’d have if you were facing a real deck of cards. The problem with video blackjack is that a natural (or a blackjack) only pays even money.
Most online blackjack games are similar to video blackjack games, but they pay out as if they were regular blackjack games.
And of course, the big innovation in blackjack on the web right now is the live dealer casino. Instead of playing a video game version of blackjack, you get to play with live dealers via webcam. They use automatic shufflers, so you can’t get an edge by counting cards.
But online blackjack is fun you can enjoy from your own home. And you can win (and lose) real money playing it.
6- Double Attack Blackjack
Double Attack Blackjack is regular blackjack with one major addition to the rules. You’re allowed to place a bonus bet (the double attack) on whether the dealer will bust with exactly 3 cards.
That doesn’t sound so exciting, but what if I told you that you got to see the dealer’s up-card before deciding?
Sounds more interesting now, doesn’t it?
If you’ve studied basic strategy much, you probably already know that a dealer with a 5 or 6 as his up-card is more likely to bust than a dealer with a 10 as his up-card.
Now you can put that nugget of information to even greater use.
The payoff for winning this bet varies based on the dealer’s 3rd card:
- 3 to 1 if it’s a 10
- 6 to 1 if it’s a 9
- 8 to 1 if it’s an 8
- 10 to 1 if it’s a 7
- 15 to 1 if it’s a 6
You also get bonus payouts if the dealer has an 8 in his hand and gets another 8 of the same color or suit. If it’s the same color, the bonus payout is 50 to 1. If it’s the same suit, the bonus payout is 200 to 1.
Double Attack Blackjack is popular in Atlantic City. The house edge, if you play according to perfect basic strategy for the game, is only 0.6%.
My dear old mother taught me how to play blackjack when I was just a wee lad. She’s gone now, but I’m sure she’d be amazed at the variety of blackjack games we have available these days.
Seriously, try getting out of your comfort zone and experiment with some of these other blackjack games.