Blackjack offers some of the best odds in the casino. Everyone knows that already. But what does it mean to say that one casino games offers better odds than another casino game? This page goes into some detail about how to measure the odds of a casino game. Then it continues with an examination of the specifics related to the game of blackjack.
Probability is the branch of math that covers how likely it is to achieve a certain result. Any possible result can be measured as a number between 0 and 1, with a 0 meaning that it will never happen and a 1 meaning that it will always happen. It’s probably easier to think of this number as a percentage, so something with a 0% chance of happening will never happen, while something that will always happen has a probability of 100%.
If you add the probability of something happening with the probability of something not happening, you will always get a total of 100%. So it’s always possible to calculate that number backwards. For example, if you know that there is an 80% chance of something not happening, you also know that there is a 20% chance of it happening, and vice versa.
Probabilities are sometimes explained as odds. This is just a way of expressing a probability as the number of possibilities of it failing versus the number of possibilities of it succeeding. For example, if you want to express the odds of getting an ace with the next card you draw out of a fresh deck of playing cards, then you know that the odds are 12 to 1. (For every ace in the deck, there are 12 cards that are NOT aces.)
Casinos make their money by paying out wagers at odds that are less than their odds of happening. For example, on a single number bet in roulette, the odds of winning are 37 to 1. (There are 38 different numbers, and you only bet on 1 of them in this example.) But that bet only pays out at 35 to 1.
In a mathematically perfect set of spins, you’d win once and lose 37 times. If you’re betting $1 per spin, then you’ve lost $37, but you’ve won $35 the one time you got a winning spin. The casino gets the other $2, and that’s how they stay in business.
All casino games, including blackjack, work on this seemingly-simple principle. In fact, it’s relatively easy to determine a percentage of each bet that you make that the casino can expect to receive over time. This percentage is called the house edge.
In the roulette example above, the house edge is 5.26%. That’s the amount of each bet that will be lost over an infinite number of trials. Of course, in the short term, anything can (and often will) happen, but as you get closer to an infinite number of trials, the closer the results become to the mathematical expectation.
The house edge can be as high as 25% on slot machines in Nevada, or as low as 0.5% on blackjack in the same state. But achieving that 0.5% number requires a certain amount of skill and strategy. Players who just use “common sense” or who “play their hunches” face a house edge of closer to 2-4%.
The key to maintaining the lowest possible house edge on blackjack is to use basic strategy every time you play. By doing so, you maximize your expectation and minimize the casino’s expectation. Basic strategy is the mathematically perfect play in every possible blackjack situation.
This might seem like an unearthly number of scenarios to memorize, but it’s actually easier than you think. The dealer’s upcard is limited to 10 possibilities. Your hand is limited to 20 different totals. Since many hands will be played with the same strategy as many others, memorizing basic strategy is far easier than you’d think.
Many websites and almost all blackjack books offer basic strategy charts which can help visual learners memorize the correct strategy. The conditions and house rules can affect a handful of strategy decisions, but even then, it’s a tiny percentage of the potential situations you might face. Learning one basic strategy is better than learning no basic strategy at all. In other words, don’t get hung up on making the occasional error because of local playing conditions.
The other key to getting the best odds in blackjack is to make intelligent choices about which blackjack games you’ll play. The biggest variation that you need to watch out for is the payout on a natural 21. At most casinos, a natural 21 pays out at 3 to 2 odds, but you’ll often find games that pay out at 6 to 5 odds instead.
The difference in that single rules variation is tremendous. In fact, it gives the casino an additional edge of 1.39%. In most blackjack games, this doubles or even triples the house’s edge. The easiest way to avoid that additional “tax” on your game is to just say no to any blackjack game that doesn’t pay out at least 3 to 2 for a natural.
Other variations in the rules can actually improve the player’s odds. For example, a single deck blackjack game versus a game with two decks or more gives 0.48% back to the player. That’s not nearly as significant as the 1.39%, so don’t fall for the trap of playing a single deck game with a 6 to 5 payout on a natural blackjack.
Most other rules variations have smaller effects on the house edge, but they can add up quickly when combined. For example, if the dealer hits on soft 17 (instead of standing), the house gains 0.22%. But if the player is also limited to only being able to double down on 10 or 11, the house gains another 0.18%, for a total gain to the house of 0.4%.
Entire books have been written about counting cards and how it affects the player’s odds in the game of blackjack, but for the purposes of this page, I just want to explain how card counters get an edge over the casino. Suppose you found a way to get another 1-2% edge on the casino by raising your bets when you have better odds and lowering your bets when you have worse odds?
For example, if you had a deck with nothing but aces and tens in it, your chances of getting a natural (and the corresponding 3 to 2 payout) would be much greater, wouldn’t it? So it would make sense to bet more in that situation.
On the other hand, if all the aces in the deck have already been dealt, it’s impossible to get a natural, which means you should lower your bet.
It turns out that each card that’s dealt out of a blackjack show affects the odds by a certain amount. By tracking the ratio of high cards versus low cards that have already been dealt, a card counter can raise or lower her bets in order to take advantage of favorable situations.
By doing so, the counter can actually gain an edge over the casino. This is mostly the result of putting more money into action when the odds are good, but some card counters also make strategy adjustments based on their count, too.
This page provides an introduction to blackjack odds. Many other pages on this site go into more details about the rules variations that increase or decrease the odds in the players and the casinos’ favor. The most important things to remember are that you should always play using basic strategy, in order to minimize the house’s edge, and also to avoid playing 6:5 blackjack games.