Live Dealer Blackjack
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A Simple Guide to Finding the Best Blackjack Table
Learning to play blackjack is pretty simple, at least up to the point of counting cards. There is a mathematically best play for every situation given the rules of the current table, and at worst all you have to do is memorize those moves. Most tables allow for strategy cards to be used while playing, so you don’t even have to bother with memorization.
Finding a favorable table is actually the tricky part. Casinos mix and match all sorts of rule sets in an attempt to create games that sound appealing to less-informed players, but still, give them a healthy house edge. To make things even more challenging, they often hide the terms in obscure places, like a tiny sign on the felt or a small digital screen only visible from one side of the table.
So how do you find a favorable table? It’s a matter of understanding the common rule variations and the cumulative effect they have on your expected return over time.
How Live Dealer Blackjack Table Rules Work
In the old days, the game of blackjack was very straightforward at live casinos. Tables had an almost uniform set of rules and paid out 3:2 for a live dealer blackjack. By today’s standards, this was considered a very favorable game for the player, but casinos still made good money on it due to player ignorance.
Then came mathematical analysis, strategy cards and card counting. The stock live dealer blackjack game could now be reliably beaten by a player who took the time to learn all the tricks. Live casinos had to respond to preserve their edge, and the ultimate solution was to change the payout amounts and table rules in various ways.
The reasons that blackjack table rules can be so different between casinos are basically a matter of psychology and marketing. The casinos have a list of rule tweaks to choose from that give them a very small long-term advantage. Each one comes up with their own combinations in an attempt to strike a balance between attracting smarter gamblers yet preserving enough of an edge to make the game profitable.
Each of these rule changes either adds or subtracts a certain percentage from the expected theoretical return to the player over time. Most are fractional, but some are more significant than others.
Dealer Wins a Push or Can Exceed 21 Safely: The Most Significant Rule Change
Traditionally, a player wins automatically with live dealer blackjack online regardless of what the dealer has, and finishing with the same value as the dealer results in a push that returns your bet. A game where the dealer automatically wins in the case of a push can give the house up to an edge of 10% if the dealer wins pushes on any and all hand values.
A somewhat obscure variant of the game is “Push 22”, where the dealer is awarded a push if their final value is 22, regardless of what the player is holding. This rule change gives the house an advantage of almost 7%.
It should be noted that games featuring these rules are not necessarily awful. Though these are huge swings in favor of the house, they are also usually incorporated to balance out some equally unusual advantages for the player, with the overall house edge coming out closer to 2% in the best cases. They’re still almost always more unfavorable than standard blackjack, but certainly much better for the player than keno or a slot machine.
Payouts for Live Dealer Blackjack: The Second Most Significant Rule Change
The bonus paid for hitting a blackjack is the next most significant contributor to the house edge and the usual means of balancing out a game that otherwise has terms that are friendly to the player. This is the only other factor that can swing the edge by a full percentage point or more on its own.
Standard or when you play live dealer blackjack online pays 3:2. When this is changed to 6:5, the house gains an advantage over time of almost 1.5%. When there is no bonus paid for blackjack (1:1), the house gains an edge of over 2%.
Hit or Stand on Soft 17
The next biggest advantage for the house is when the dealer is required to hit on a “soft 17”, or a hand with a value of 17 that contains an ace. Hitting on soft 17 swings almost a quarter of a percentage point advantage to the house.
Limitations on Doubling For Live Dealer Blackjack
Restrictions on being able to double favor the house to the tune of around 0.15%. Not being able to double after splitting is only slightly less bad than not being allowed to double on 10 or 11, but it’s worse than being restricted to doubling on 9-11.
No Dealer Hole Card
At standard blackjack tables, both the player and dealer get two cards, and one of the dealer’s cards (the hole card) is hidden from the player. The dealer “peeks” at their hole card at the outset to determine if they have a blackjack, and if they do (and if the player does not) they announce it immediately and win the hand outright.
A variant that is seen widely throughout Europe has the dealer only draw one initial card. This allows the player to potentially wager more money than they normally would (by splitting or doubling) before a blackjack is revealed. Because of this, the “no hole card” rule gives the house a little over a tenth of a percentage point in expected return over time.
Limitations on Splitting Playing Live Dealer Blackjack
Being restricted to only two hands when splitting is much more unfavorable than being restricted to three hands. Splitting to only two hands gives the house a 0.10% advantage while splitting to three hands at most is a relatively trivial 0.1% advantage for the house.
Advantages for the Black Jack Player
Casinos rarely offer blatantly bad games that load up on nothing but terms that are favorable to them. Instead, they mix up some of the above rules with others that actually give a small advantage to the player. You can rest assured the overall balance will still be in favor of the house, but the following rules can help to offset what would otherwise be a very poor game.
The number of decks used is the player’s biggest advantage – the fewer, the better. This is primarily of interest to card counters, who have an easier job as the number of decks goes down. However, a player who is not counting and just playing perfect basic strategy also enjoys an improvement in their expected return with fewer decks (as the odds of drawing a blackjack improve). This ranges from almost half a percentage point in single-deck games to a 0.02% advantage in a six-deck game.
Early surrender is another option that helps the player out significantly. The player gets the option to surrender when the dealer is showing an ace or card with a value of 10 before the dealer “peeks” for live dealer blackjack. The surrender only costs them half their wager. This ups the player’s expected return over time by about a quarter of a percentage point. Late surrender, which allows the player to surrender after the dealer has verified they don’t have live dealer blackjack, also helps but to a much lesser degree.
Unlimited doubling ups the player’s odds by just shy of a quarter of a percent, and being allowed to split aces gives them a 0.19% improvement in their odds. Re-splitting aces adds an additional 0.08%.
The last significant player-friendly rule is an automatic win if six cards are drawn without busting. This rule helps the player out with a 0.16% improvement in their expected return.
What to Look For When Playing Live Dealer Blackjack?
Those are a lot of percentage point variations to keep in mind. You could keep a cheat sheet handy, but finding a favorable table is actually much simpler.
You can be certain no casino (online or offline) is going to offer a game where the player gets a 100% or better theoretical return. The best games they offer range from 98% to 99% somewhere.
The following qualities are absolutely necessary to be sure you’re playing one of the most favorable games:
- Blackjack pays 3:2 or 2:1
- Single deck
- The dealer does not win pushes or push with 22
- The dealer must stand on soft 17
- The player can double on any card value
If these rules are in place, it is almost certain the house edge is somewhere under 1%, and potentially as low as 0.2%. This is best you will do for odds at any casino, though of course, these numbers rely on playing each hand with perfect strategy. Playing with poor strategy can give the casino as much as a 10% advantage over you.