Blackjack Beyond the Basics: Key Concepts Serious Players Should Know

By John Cunningham.

On the surface, blackjack might seem like a surprisingly simple game with basic rules and straightforward strategies. All a person has to do is understand when to hit and when to stand, right? Wrong. Anyone who’s familiar with the game and has a few years of experience playing under their belt knows that there’s a lot more to blackjack than meets the eye.

Blackjack Table

Beyond memorizing cheat sheets or strategy charts to understand which moves to make depending on the dealer’s cards, serious players should also take as much time as possible to seek out and master more advanced concepts. Stepping up to the high roller tables and actually beating the odds isn’t for the faint of heart. This handy guide aims to illuminate some of the key concepts beyond the basics serious players will need to find success and improve their individual odds.

Card counting

The ability to anticipate the moves of the dealer and other players around a blackjack table is undoubtedly a useful skill. If a player can learn this notoriously difficult technique and avoid getting thrown out of a casino for doing it well, they have the chance to significantly up their personal odds of winning big. 

Many novice players believe it’s the most sure-fire way to dominate at the blackjack table. Perhaps this is why card counting has inspired Hollywood to produce movies based on the actions of the MIT Blackjack Team and encouraged the sales of books aimed at teaching enthusiasts how it’s done.

While the skill is still valuable today for less direct reasons, casinos have developed a range of special shuffling techniques to level the odds. They might use continuous shuffling machines, automatic shuffling machines or a combination of the two to make counting less effective.

It’s also now common for casinos to use multiple decks, sometimes up to 6 or 8 at a time, to stop counters in their tracks. Online casinos don’t like counters either. They commonly use digital number generators to pick out cards completely at random, rendering card counting useless. The bottom line? While counting can help players learn strategies and improve their mental math abilities, it’s becoming far less effective as time goes on.

Rule variations

Depending on where a person plays blackjack, the rules might vary to some degree. Across the globe, casinos have been known to tweak rules to subtly improve the house edge. Here are some of the most impactful variations serious players should be aware of:

  • Dealer’s Play on Soft 17: As experienced players will know, a soft 17 in blackjack can be counted as a 1 or 11. Sometimes, a dealer will be required to either hit or stand if their hand totals a soft 17. If they’re forced by the rule variation to hit, they have a better chance of winning the round. When a dealer must stand, this rule often benefits the player.
  • Doubling Down and Splitting Pairs: Only a handful of casinos will allow a player to double their bet after receiving more than two cards. It’s valuable to understand where limitations are placed in order to adjust a personal strategy.
  • Number of Decks: Many casinos will use at least more than one deck to discourage counting. If a person wants to hone their counting skills, even though they aren’t technically allowed, it’s better to find games that make use of fewer decks.

Payout variations

One of the most important rule variations serious blackjack players should look out for involves the payout for a natural blackjack. Traditionally, casinos reward a natural blackjack with a 3:2 payout, which means a player would win $3 for every $2 wagered. This payout incentivizes players and creates a more balanced game.

However, in recent years, some casinos have introduced a controversial variation: the 6:5 payout for a natural blackjack. With this payout rule change, players win significantly less while upping the casino’s house edge by roughly 1.9%.

This seemingly small change translates to a significant disadvantage for players over the long term, with reports from the Nevada Gaming Commission showing blackjack players lost more money than they have in nearly two decades. Opponents of the 6:5 payout argue the rule is a deceptive way for casinos to line their already full pockets.

If a player actually wants a fair payout return, they should seek out casinos following the traditional 3:2 payout structure. Here are some tips for finding favorable blackjack payouts:

  • Research Casino Rules Online: Many casinos will, as a rule, share their blackjack rules and payouts somewhere online.
  • Ask the Dealer: Before sitting down to play in person or online, ask the dealer to clarify the payout structure for a natural blackjack.
  • Look for Signage: For the sake of convenience, casinos might display their blackjack rule variations. This signage will typically include whether or not the payout is 3:2 or 6:5.

Developing a blackjack “sense”

When leaving the casual tables behind to join the high rollers, strategy is only one part of the experience. Alongside cultivating a well-rounded understanding of the game, players must also develop a keen eye for reading other players in order to anticipate their next moves.1)EDITOR NOTE: Unless you are in a blackjack tournament, other player actions should not affect the way you bet or play your hand.  For example, if you anticipate a bad player in front of you will stand on his 14 versus dealer 10, it should not change the way you play your hand in any way.

Finally, serious players should remember that there’s a certain etiquette to follow at high-stakes tables. To make sure games flow smoothly while avoiding any misunderstandings, it’s wise to know how to behave properly.

IMAGE CREDIT: istockphoto.com

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Footnotes

Footnotes
1EDITOR NOTE: Unless you are in a blackjack tournament, other player actions should not affect the way you bet or play your hand.  For example, if you anticipate a bad player in front of you will stand on his 14 versus dealer 10, it should not change the way you play your hand in any way.

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