Blackjack is one of the most loved casino games largely for being simple and, at the same time, skill and strategy-oriented. Throughout its history, it has changed and evolved in many different parts of the world and nowadays, only a small percentage of casinos offer the traditional blackjack rules that were long ago established on the Las Vegas Strip.
The majority of land-based and online casinos have introduced subtle changes to the standard rules and these deviations are not necessarily unfavorable to the players. On the contrary, some of these novelties increase the player’s advantage and were actually added to attract new patrons or to make the game of 21 more interesting. Before we continue to explain the most common deviations from the traditional Vegas game, we should clarify the standard rules of American blackjack.
Traditional Las Vegas Strip Rules
The most conventional game of blackjack, also known as American 21 or Vegas Rules, is played with 8 decks of cards. The dealer is required to draw on all totals of up to 16 and to stand on all totals of 17 or higher. Players are allowed to Double Down on any hand and Split any pair.
Doubling and hitting on split hands are also permitted with one exception and it applies to split Aces. Under standard Vegas Rules, only one card is drawn to split Aces and the player’s turn automatically ends. Usually, players can resplit up to 3 times (to a total of 4 hands) but cannot surrender. The payouts are 3:2 for blackjack and 2:1 for Insurance.
These rules are considered to be very liberal and result in an extremely low house edge of around 0.44%, which is also reflected in a theoretical Return-to-Player of 99.56%. The house edge, represented as a percentage, is the advantage of the casino that is guaranteed by the specific rules and payouts in practically every type of casino game. In this case, the house edge shows that, on average, players are expected to lose less than half a percent of their total bet if they play the game perfectly, with no mistakes.
Even the slightest deviation from the traditional rules would influence the house edge of the game. In fact, the effect on the house advantage could be seen very clearly and has been calculated for every rule change.
Rules that Favor Players and Reduce the House Edge
As it was already mentioned, some changes to the standard rules can reduce the house edge and practically, to increase the player’s expected return. With thousands of rule combinations, however, we should not necessarily take consider them individually since most blackjack variations include both favorable and unfavorable rules. Still, it is important to distinguish between good and bad blackjack games, which is why we have listed some of the rules that are the most advantageous to the player.
Single and Double-Deck Games
Typically, blackjack variations that use one or two decks of cards offer a lower house edge. If we keep all standard rules as explained above but replace the 8-deck shoe with a single deck of 52 cards, we will have a game with a negative house advantage. With only this rule changed, the RTP would be roughly 100.18% (house edge of -0.18%) but usually, casinos would alter other rules to avoid games with a positive expected value. As a result, most single-deck blackjack variations, which are frankly quite rare, offer a house edge of at least 0.17%.
Some games are played with two decks and when paired with the liberal Vegas Rules, they would have a house edge of 0.18%. For the same reasons mentioned above, such games usually have a house advantage of around 0.46%. This example clearly shows the importance of rule variations in blackjack – while a double-deck game still favors the casino, the single-deck rule changes the odds in favor of the player.
Dealer Stands on Soft 17
Since dealers cannot make any decisions throughout the game but follow the house rules, they must always Hit on hands totaling 16 or less. When their cards total 17, however, they are required to Stand, i.e. to stop drawing cards. This is the standard rule but nowadays, it has become almost obsolete and can be found mostly in online casinos. Instead, many variations now require the dealer to draw a card when he has a soft 17 such as Ace-6.
If the dealer Stands on such a hand, however, this favors the player – the dealer will not have a chance to get a stronger hand such as 20 or 21. The Stand on Soft 17 rule changes the house edge by around 0.22%.
Surrender is an interesting rule that is usually not offered in the traditional version of blackjack played on the Vegas Strip. In games that allow it, players can “surrender” half of their bet if the dealer’s face-up card is an Ace or any 10-value card. Usually, the dealer first checks the hole card for blackjack and then, the player is given the option to Surrender, giving up half of the bet for the right to not play out the current round.
This is known as Late Surrender, whereas Early Surrender may also be offered by some games. In them, this option is available before the dealer peeks for blackjack or in European-style, no-hole card games. The Early Surrender variation of the rule is more favorable to the players but it is found only in a limited number of games.
Splitting is available when the first two cards dealt to the player are of the same value. However, plenty of variations of this rule exist and the most favorable one allows unlimited resplitting. While most of the games permit one or up to three splits per round, certain blackjack versions allow players to resplit pairs as many times as they wish. Of course, getting more than 3 or more pairs within the same round is extremely unlikely (it is possible nonetheless), which is why the effect of this rule change is not very significant.
Hitting on Split Aces
Most casinos tend to be very conservative with player’s split Aces and the reason is very simple – splitting a pair of Aces gives players plenty of opportunities to win. According to the standard rules, only 1 card is dealt to split Aces, which means that players cannot Hit, Double or resplit the two new hands. After the two hands get a second card, they automatically Stand.
Certain variations of blackjack, however, allow players to draw additional cards to split Aces or to Double Down if they believe they have a good chance of winning against the dealer. Furthermore, some versions of the game permit resplitting of Aces, although such a rule is very rare and applies to a relatively unlikely scenario. The resplitting Aces rule reduces the house edge by a mere 0.03% but the effect of allowing Hitting on split Aces is much more significant and cuts the built-in advantage of the casino by 0.13%.
Doubling on Any Number of Cards
Usually, players can Double Down only on the first two cards they receive. But some online games and certain casinos allow Doubling on any number of cards, which is estimated to reduce the house edge by around 0.23%. Still, this rule variation is rare and typically goes hand in hand with a few rules that favor the house and not the player.
For instance, the player’s initial cards are 2-3 and he decides to Hit, receiving a 6 for a total of 11. Doubling here is the recommended move and only a small percentage of the blackjack variations would allow it. Also, players should look for games where they can Double Down after splitting. This rule contributes to a 0.13% reduction of the house edge.
According to the so-called Charlie rule, players automatically win against any dealer’s hand if they manage to collect a certain number of cards without busting. Originally, the rule applied to an automatic win when having 5 cards but later, casinos started removing it from games altogether. Nowadays, many online blackjack games and land-based casinos allow players to win with 8, 9 or 10 cards.
Some variations of blackjack come with a Six-Card Charlie, in which a hand of Ace-2-4-2-5-4 (total value of 18), for instance, would automatically win. This rule reduces the house edge by 0.16%, while the Five-Card Charlie has a much more profound effect, decreasing the advantage of the casino by 1.46%. The Seven-Card Charlie would cut it by 0.01%. When relying on the Charlie rule to make some profit, however, players should know that it works well only when 6 or 8 decks of cards are used.
Blackjack Rules Unfavorable to Players
The vast majority of blackjack variations are negative expected value games, which means that even with the perfect strategy, players can expect to lose some of their wagers over time unless they base their tactics on card counting. Even the most liberal games of 21 include at least one or two unfavorable rules so that they can maintain a house edge of between 0% and 1%. Below, players can find some of the most commonly found blackjack rules that increase the house edge.
Most variations of blackjack are played with 6 or 8 standard decks of cards. The more decks in use, the higher the house edge. This is why players are always advised to look for games where the cards are dealt from single or double-deck shoes. Blackjack variations with 8 decks are the least preferred games and reducing the number of decks also reduces the advantage of the house by the following percentages – 6 decks by 0.02%, 5 decks by 0.03%, 4 decks by 0.06%, 2 decks by 0.19%, and single deck by 0.48%.
Dealer Hits Soft 17
This rule could be seen on most blackjack tables around the round – unlike the standard game where the dealer must Stand on all 17s, many blackjack variations today require the dealer to Hit on soft 17. As we have already explained above, this variation of the rule favors the house and not the player. Since it is widely accepted by many casinos, however, patrons often have no choice but to play on such Hit Soft 17 games. Compared to the standard Vegas Rules, the house edge here increases with another 0.22%.
The Reno Rule, named after the popular gambling town in Nevada, restricts Doubling only on hard totals of 9, 10, or 11. Many European-style blackjack variations also feature this rule. It prevents players from taking advantage of various potentially profitable situations, so it effectively increases the mathematical advantage of the casino.
If the Double Down option is available on hard hands of 10 or 11, the house edge increases with further 0.18%, while if it is allowed on hard 9, 10 and 11, players should add 0.09% to the house edge.
Blackjack Short Pays
The worst rule variation that can be found in land-based casinos right now is the reduced payout for a blackjack. Traditionally, the game pays 1.5 times the wager when players get a natural blackjack. This is expressed on the table as a 3:2 payout but an increasing number of casinos are now paying less – 6:5 for instance, which means you are paid only $12 on your $10 bet.
Some variations of the game offer a 7:5 payout for blackjack, which increases the house edge by 0.45%. The short-paying 6:5 blackjack increases it even more – by 1.39%, and the worst payout is 1:1. With such a rule variation, the house edge increases by 2.27%. Usually, such games come with some attractive aspects such as the use of a single deck of cards.
Only 1 Split Allowed
Players should avoid games that allow only one split per round as this variation of the standard rules increases the advantage of the casino by 0.10%. This may sound insignificant but combined with other unfavorable rules, it could be devastating for the player’s bankroll.
No Hole Card
There are many variations of blackjack that are played without a hole card. In them, the dealer draws a single card in the beginning and he waits until players end their turns to draw a second card. Therefore, the dealer cannot peek for blackjack and there is no Late Surrender. The European-style blackjack is a no hole card game and only this particular aspect results in a 0.11% higher house edge.
In the standard American variety of blackjack, the dealer checks the hole card for blackjack and if he has one, he wins the round. In such games, players only lose their original bets rather than any other additional wagers for splitting or doubling down. This is why hole cards are preferred by experienced players.
The Effect of Rules in Blackjack Variations
Almost every change to the traditional rules of blackjack results in a different expected return. More importantly, such changes also alter the optimal strategy for the particular game, which is why players should always try to formulate a tactic, based on the specific set of rules they play. The importance and effect of rule changes can be easily noticed when we compare the different variations of blackjack. Note that there more than a hundred versions of blackjack offered by online and brick-and-mortar casinos, while the combinations of different rules and payouts exceed 6,000.
Most gambling sites, as well as the majority of casinos across Europe, would offer a version of blackjack that significantly differs from the Vegas Rules. It may be played with 4, 6, or 8 decks of cards and the dealer typically stands on all 17s. Up to three splits are allowed and players can Double after a split. In addition, players can Double only on hard hands totaling 9, 10, or 11.
As we can see, the rules in this type of game are less liberal and with 6 decks, the house edge will be 0.62%. This is a no hole card game, which is probably one of the worst rules in this variation – players lose all bets (the original, mandatory wager plus all additional bets placed for splitting or doubling) against a dealer blackjack. This reflects in the strategy for this variation and players are advised to not Split or Double against a dealer’s Ace or 10-value card. When having a pair of Aces against a dealer 10, however, players should still Split.
Atlantic City Blackjack
This variation of blackjack is very similar to the traditional game – it uses 8 decks of cards and the American dealing style so it is clearly a hole card game. The dealer stands on all 17s. Players are allowed to Double Down on any two cards and Split pairs up to three times per round. Doubling on split hands is also allowed but all standard restrictions for split Aces apply.
The most interesting rules here are that players are allowed to Split unlike 10-value cards and to opt for a Late Surrender. With Late Surrender, players can give up half their bet after the dealer checks for blackjack and sees he does not have one. Still, the dealer’s upcard could be strong enough for the player to decide to Surrender. The house edge remains quite low at around 0.35%, which is why this particular variation is quite popular among blackjack players.
Blackjack Strategies to Avoid
Many casino patrons, especially those who are new to the world of blackjack, seem to be following some strange tactics such as playing the dealer way or structuring their bets around some famous progressive system. Such strategies are not useful in any way and should be avoided at all times since they could be very damaging to the player’s overall performance at the blackjack table. Patrons should steer clear of any systems promoted as “tricks” or “guaranteed success”. In reality, there is no guarantee that you will always win in blackjack even if you are a good card counter.
Play Blackjack the Dealer Way
Some players believe that the best way to beat the casino and somehow eliminate its advantage over them is to play blackjack the way the dealer does. They would always draw to 16 and stand on all 17s and ignore actions such as splitting, doubling or surrendering since the dealer is not allowed to opt for these.
However, there are many situations, where players have a higher chance of winning if they Split their pair, for example. By sticking to the restricted dealer moves, they simply cannot take advantage of the good hands they receive and any favorable rules they play under. It is not the house rules for the dealer’s actions that give him an advantage but the fact that the dealer acts last. Such a tactic actually increases the house edge significantly – from 4% to almost 5.50% if the player Stands even on soft totals of 17.
Never Risk Busting
When they are still new to blackjack, many players prefer to “play safe” by always standing on hard totals of 12 or more. While this may seem like the logical solution, it is one of the worst “strategies” one could employ. If you never draw cards to a hand that may bust you are not taking the full advantage of the options you have in this game. Moreover, this style of “safe” playing results in a house edge of at least 3.91% under the most favorable rules.
Another method that is ineffective at best and often, extremely risky is employing a progressive betting system. Such systems are quite popular among some gamblers who argue that they can increase their odds by adjusting the bet size based on the outcome of the previous round. Systems such as the Martingale, the Paroli or the D’Alembert simply increase and decrease the size of the wager rather than giving actual advice on how to act when being dealt a certain hand.
The idea of the Martingale, for example, is to recoup any previous losses by doubling the bet following a lost round. Of course, these systems cannot change the odds and have been proved multiple times to be ineffective in helping players beat the dealer. Probably the only purpose they have is helping patrons control their spending. This could be only true, however, with systems that are much more conservative and safer than the Martingale.