Blackjack has earned its place as the most popular casino table game for two main reasons. First, the house edge is typically less than any other table game, making it very cheap for the recreational player. Second, its notoriety as a game that is beatable by card counting and other methods. For these reasons, recreational players dedicate themselves to learning a rough approximation to basic strategy. They read or talk about “the book.” They play as a team and go with the flow. In light of this, I have often wondered why blackjack variants are being invented at all. The rules to these new versions are unfamiliar. Basic strategy is just as tough or tougher. The house edge may be more sensitive to strategy errors. There is no sense of community. Few on the casino side understand their vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, APs enjoy opportunities to count cards that fly completely under the radar.
As long as the game looks and acts like blackjack, it will have vulnerabilities similar to blackjack. If the game has a low house edge and multiple rounds are dealt from a deck (or shoe) between shuffles, then it may be as vulnerable as blackjack. If the game has some special weakness (for example, Aces are much stronger or bonus hands), it may be more vulnerable than blackjack. If, in addition, basic strategy is unknown to staff and the game is not taken seriously as an AP threat, it may be significantly more vulnerable than blackjack.
As you read through the games below, the questions to ask yourself are:
- Does the game have a low house edge?
- Is basic strategy complex? (Only APs will know it).
- Will high cards (T, J, Q, K, A) benefit the player by giving more blackjacks, better cards on double downs, and make the dealer bust more often?
- Will low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) benefit the house by giving fewer blackjacks, worse cards on double downs, and make the dealer bust less often?
- Are there any special cards that make the version vulnerable in a way that is different from ordinary blackjack?
If the answer to 1-thru-4 is yes, then the simple high-low card counting system will probably beat the game. The AP will determine basic strategy, indices for play variations, an appropriate betting ramp for his risk tolerance and bankroll, and then show up ready to play. If the answer to question 5 is also yes, then the AP may target the secondary vulnerability alone, or in conjunction with the main game. The science involved in beating these games is no more advanced today than that developed by Ed Thorp for use against blackjack over 50 years ago. In other words, it's easy pickens. The only thing that keeps these games from being hit harder is that there are so many other opportunities available.
The variants here do not include other large groups of games. Among these are versions using jokers (No Bust 21, California Blackjack), Pontoon, European no hole-card versions, and oddities (Three Card Blackjack).
In understanding the motivation for coming up with a new version of blackjack, the first question is “who will play?” Devotees of standard blackjack will not readily move to a variant. Meanwhile, players unfamiliar with blackjack will be as intimidated by the new game as they were with the original. In the face of these obstacles, blackjack itself is in decline at casinos everywhere.
For all these reasons, blackjack variants are usually modest alterations of the standard rules of the game. The guiding questions focus on trying to make blackjack better, to draw new players, to have a higher hold, and to ultimately gain incremental profit.
The “give something, take something” model of game development is what happens with most blackjack variants. The question that guides the “give something” side is: What do players want? Here are some answers:
- More opportunities to double and split.
- More opportunities to get better starting hands.
- More opportunities to surrender or get out of bad hands.
- Anything free.
- Guaranteed winning hands.
- Bonus hands.
- More (or less) variance.
- Less busting.
On the other side of the equation is “take something.” The developer wants this to be invisible as possible. Here are some of the things developers have taken away:
- Blackjack pays 1-to-1.
- Use Spanish decks (no Tens).
- Certain dealer hands always push.
- Better drawing rules for the dealer.
What follows is a description of some of these blackjack variants. The house edge is for the most common rule-set for the game, dealt from a six-deck shoe. I have indicated with an asterisk those games that I know have been actually targeted by APs using a card counting methodology.
Blackjack Switch *
- Player gets: the opportunity to play two hands and switch second cards of each hand.
- Player gives: blackjack pays 1-to-1; dealer hard total of 22 is a push.
- House edge: 0.58%.
Double Attack Blackjack *
- Player gets: to make a wager after seeing the dealer’s up-card; to surrender or double at any time; insurance pays 5-to-2.
- Player gives: blackjack pays 1-to-1; Spanish decks are used (no Tens).
- House edge: 0.62%.
- Player gets: to make a “double-up” wager on any two-card standing-hand (except blackjack).
- Player gives: dealer total of 16 (hard or soft) is a push; double-up wagers loses on a push.
- House edge: 0.31%.
- Player gets: to double on any number of cards; hit after double; redouble; total of 21 always wins.
- Player gives: dealer continues to draw until either player is beat or dealer busts; blackjack pays 1-to-1.
- House edge: 1.16%.
Free Bet Blackjack
- Player gets: to double on 9, 10 & 11 with any number of cards for free; to split or re-split all pairs (except 4’s and 10’s) for free.
- Player gives: dealer hard total of 22 is a push.
- House edge: 0.63%.
- Player gets: to split any initial 15 or 16 into two hands; to take a replacement draw card on a double down of a hard 10 or 11.
- Player gives: dealer hard total of 22 is a push.
- House edge: 0.55%.
Spanish 21 *
- Player gets: to double at any time on any number of cards; redoubling allowed; surrender after doubling; total of 21 always wins; bonuses for five+ card totals of 21; bonuses for the hands (6-7-8, 7-7-7).
- Player gives: Spanish decks are used (no Tens).
- House edge: 0.42%.
Super Fun 21 *
- Player gets: to double down at any time on any number of cards; to surrender at any time on any number of cards; six-card Charlie pays 1-to-1; five-card total of 21 pays 2-to-1; blackjack always wins; diamond blackjack pays 2-to-1.
- Player gives: non-diamond blackjack pays 1-to-1.
- House edge: 1.25%.
Triple Attack Blackjack *
- Player gets: to make an additional wager after seeing player’s first card; to make an additional wager after seeing dealer’s first card; any 21 wins; six card Charlie; double down on any number of cards; insurance pays 5-to-1 for suited blackjack.
- Player gives: Spanish decks are used (no Tens); dealer hard total of 22 is a push; blackjack pays 1-to-1.
- House edge: 1.17%.
Triple up 21 *
- Player gets: to triple up (instead of double down) on any two initial cards (six-deck version); blackjack always wins.
- Player gives: blackjack pays 1-to-1.
- House edge: 1.02%.