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Rule variations and their consequences for the house edge

The rules of casino blackjack are generally determined by law or regulation, which establishes certain rule variations allowed at the discretion of the casino. The rules of a particular game are generally posted on or near the table, failing which there is an expectation that casino staff will provide them on request. Over 100 variations of blackjack have been documented.

As with all casino games, blackjack incorporates a "house edge", a statistical advantage for the casino that is built into the game. The advantage of the dealer's position in blackjack in relation to the player comes from the fact that if the player busts, the player loses, regardless of whether the dealer busts subsequently. Nonetheless, blackjack players using basic strategy will lose less than 1% of their total wagered amount with strictly average luck; this is very favorable to the player compared to other casino games. The loss rate of players who deviate from basic strategy due to ignorance is generally expected to be greater.

Dealer hits soft 17

Each game has a rule about whether the dealer must hit or stand on soft 17, which is generally printed on the table surface. The variation where the dealer must hit soft 17 is abbreviated "H17" in blackjack literature, with "S17" used for the stand-on-soft-17 variation. Substituting an "H17" rule with an "S17" rule in a game benefits the player, decreasing the house edge by about 0.2%.

The number of decks

All things being equal, using fewer decks decreases the house edge. This mainly reflects an increased likelihood of player blackjack, and if the players draws a ten on their first card, the subsequent probability of drawing an ace is higher with fewer decks. It also reflects a decreased likelihood of blackjack-blackjack push in a game with fewer decks.

Casinos generally compensate by tightening other rules in games with fewer decks, in order to preserve the house edge or discourage play altogether. When offering single deck blackjack games, casinos are more likely to disallow doubling on soft hands or after splitting, to restrict resplitting, require higher minimum bets, and to pay the player less than 3:2 for a winning blackjack.

The following table illustrates the mathematical effect on the house edge of the number of decks, by considering games with various deck counts under the following ruleset: double after split allowed, resplit to four hands allowed, no hitting split aces, no surrender, double on any two cards, original bets only lost on dealer blackjack, dealer hits soft 17, and cut-card used. The increase in house edge per unit increase in the number of decks is most dramatic when comparing the single deck game to the two-deck game, and becomes progressively smaller as more decks are added.

Number of Decks House Advantage
Single deck 0.17%
Double deck 0.46%
Four decks 0.60%
Six decks 0.64%
Eight decks 0.65%

Late/early surrender

Surrender, for those games that allow it, is usually not permitted against a dealer blackjack; if the dealer's first card is an ace or ten, the hole card is checked to make sure there is no blackjack before surrender is offered. This rule protocol is consequently known as "late" surrender. The alternative, "early" surrender, gives player the option to surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack, or in a no-hole-card game. Early surrender is much more favorable to the player than late surrender. Most medium-strength hands should be surrendered against a dealer Ace if the hole card has not been checked.

For late surrender, however, while it is tempting opt for surrender on any hand which will probably lose, the correct strategy is to only surrender on the very worst hands, because having even a one in four chance of winning the full bet is better than losing half the bet and pushing the other half, as entailed by surrendering.

Resplitting

If the cards of a post-split hand have the same value, most games allow the player to split again, or "resplit". The player places a further wager and the dealer separates the new pair dealing a further card to each as before. Some games allow unlimited resplitting, while others may limit it to a certain number of hands, such as four hands (for example, "resplit to 4").

Hit/resplit split aces

After splitting aces, the common rule is that only one card will be dealt to each ace; the player cannot split, double, or take another hit on either hand. Rule variants include allowing resplitting aces or allowing the player to hit split aces. Games allowing aces to be resplit are not uncommon, but those allowing the player to hit split aces are extremely rare. Allowing the player to hit hands resulting from split aces reduces the house edge by about 0.13%; allowing resplitting of aces reduces house edge by about 0.03%. Note that a ten-value card dealt on a split ace (or vice versa) is a "soft 21" and not a "natural".

No double after split

After a split, most games allow doubling down on the new two-card hands. Disallowing doubling after a split increases the house edge by about 0.12%.

Double on 9/10/11 or 10/11 only

Under the "Reno rule", double down is only permitted on hard totals of 9, 10, or 11 (under a similar European rule, only 10 or 11). Basic strategy would otherwise call for some doubling down with hard 9 and soft 13–18, and advanced players can identify situations where doubling on soft 19–20 and hard 8,7 and even 6 is advantageous. The Reno rule prevents the player from taking advantage of double down in these situations and thereby increases the player's expected loss. The Reno rule increases the house edge by around one in 1000, and its European version by around two in 1000.

No hole card and OBO

In most non-U.S. casinos, a 'no hole card' game is played, meaning that the dealer does not draw nor consult his or her second card until after all players have finished making decisions. With no hole card, it is almost never correct basic strategy to double or split against a dealer ten or ace, since a dealer blackjack will result in the loss of the split and double bets; the only exception is with a pair of A's against a dealer 10, where it is still correct to split. In all other cases, a stand, hit or surrender is called for. For instance, holding 11 against a dealer 10, the correct strategy is to double in a hole card game (where the player knows the dealer's second card is not an ace), but to hit in a no hole card game. The no hole card rule adds approximately 0.11% to the house edge.

The "original bets only" rule variation appearing in certain no hole card games states that if the player's hand loses to a dealer blackjack, only the mandatory initial bet ("original") is forfeited, and all optional bets, meaning doubles and splits, are pushed. "Original bets only" is also known by the acronym OBO; it has the same effect on basic strategy and house edge as reverting to a hole card game.

Altered payout for a winning blackjack

In many casinos, a blackjack pays only 6:5 or even 1:1 instead of the usual 3:2. This is usually at tables with the lowest table minimums and single-deck games. Among common rule variations in the U.S., these altered payouts for blackjack are the most damaging to the player, causing the greatest increase in house edge. Since blackjack occurs in approximately 4.8% of hands, the 1:1 game increases the house edge by 2.3%, while the 6:5 game adds 1.4% to the house edge. Video blackjack machines generally pay 1:1 payout for a blackjack. The 6:5 rule is most commonly employed on table blackjack at single deck games, where they help the house to compensate for low house edge intrinsic in using one deck only.

Dealer wins ties

The rule that bets on tied hands are lost rather than pushed is catastrophic to the player. Though rarely used in standard blackjack, it is sometimes seen in "blackjack-like" games such as in some charity casinos.

Variants of the game

Blackjack is a member of a large family of traditional card games played recreationally all around the world. Most of these games have not been adapted for casino play. Furthermore, the casino game development industry is very active in producing blackjack variants, most of which are ultimately not adopted for widespread use in casinos. The following are the prominent twenty-one themed comparing card games which have been adapted or invented for use in casinos and have become established in the gambling industry.

 

 

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Spanish 21

provides players with many liberal blackjack rules, such as doubling down any number of cards (with the option to rescue, or surrender only one wager to the house), payout bonuses for five or more card 21s, 6–7–8 21s, 7–7–7 21s, late surrender, and player blackjacks always winning and player 21s always winning, at the cost of having no 10 cards in the deck (though there are jacks, queens, and kings). An unlicensed version of Spanish 21 played without a hole card is found in Australian casinos under the name "Pontoon" (presumably borrowed from the British recreational blackjack-like game "Pontoon" which has substantially different rules).

21st-Century Blackjack

(also known as "Vegas Style" Blackjack) is found in California card rooms. In this form of the game, a player bust does not always result in an automatic loss; depending on the casino, the player can still push if the dealer busts as well, although the dealer typically has to bust with a higher total.

Double Exposure Blackjack

deals the first two cards of the dealer hand face up. Blackjacks pay even money, and players lose on ties.

Double Attack Blackjack

has very liberal blackjack rules and the option of increasing one's wager after seeing the dealer's up card. This game is dealt from a Spanish shoe, and blackjacks only pay even money.

Blackjack Switch

is played over two hands whose second cards the player is allowed to interchange. For example, if the player is dealt 10–6 and 5–10, then the player can switch two cards to make hands of 10–10 and 6–5. Natural blackjacks are paid 1:1 instead of the standard 3:2, and a dealer 22 is a push.

Multiple Action Blackjack

involves a player placing between 2 or 3 bets on a single hand. The dealer then gets a hand for each bet the player places on a hand. This essentially doubles the number of hands a single dealer can play per hour. Splitting and doubling are still allowed, but often limited due to limited space on the felt for additional chips. Strategy for this game is the same as strategy for conventional blackjack regardless of how many places are bet.

Super Fun 21

allows a player to split a hand up to four times. If the player has six cards totaling 20, he automatically wins. Wins are paid 1:1.

Examples of the many local traditional and recreational blackjack-like games include French/German Blackjack, called Vingt-et-un (French: Twenty-one) or "Siebzehn und Vier" (German: Seventeen and Four). The French/German game does not allow splitting. An ace can only count as eleven, but two aces count as a blackjack. It is mostly played in private circles and barracks. A British variation is called "Pontoon", the name being probably a corruption of "Vingt-et-un".