Low-limit blackjack is a tough game for the casino. A blackjack table with two or three reasonably knowledgeable players each betting $5 to $10 per hand may be operating at a net loss for the casino. If the table has shallow cut card placement and a lengthy shuffle procedure then it is a sure loser. To save the day, enter blackjack side bets. A good blackjack side bet can make all the difference, turning net-losers into net-winners. Many players are enticed by the high payouts side bets offer. Others enjoy the thrill of a second chance at winning each hand. Others will play just because everyone else at the table is playing it.

Most side bets have a considerable house edge. Many low-limit blackjack tables earn more off the side bet than the main game. At higher limits, however, side bets may no longer pay off for the casino. With a $25 maximum side bet, the casino may earn less overall by offering the side bet when the table minimum is $100 or more on the main game. The time and motion requirements needed to reconcile side bet wagers eats into the profitability of the main game. For this reason, many casinos restrict side bets to their low-limit tables, leaving the high-limit tables clean. Many high-rollers also prefer this: they are "serious players" and don’t appreciate clutter on the layout.

Then comes the matter of the itinerant table games inventor. Many would-be inventors realize that the quickest road to getting a new game into a casino is to invent and market a blackjack side bet. While casinos rarely try new table games, they are often more agreeable to trying out a new blackjack side bet. A pit with underperforming games may be very interested in a side bet that is guaranteed to bring sunshine and rainbows to their bottom line. The traveling salesman often finds success when he opens a suitcase full of side bets. His chances are even better if he doesn’t volunteer information on potential game protection problems with his side bets.

Card counting blackjack side bets yields very few big-time advantage play opportunities. Most often, an AP finds a playable blackjack side bet at his local casino. Rather than exposing himself by card counting the main game, he is satisfied with the consistent but relatively small profits the side bet yields. While many APs would gladly travel to exploit a blackjack dealer who is exposing a hole-card, a blackjack side bet needs significant added punch before the AP will add it to his travel itinerary.

There are several reasons that blackjack side bets rarely provide big opportunities. With blackjack side bets:

  1. The cut card in a six-deck shoe game is often placed at one deck or more from the end. In a two-deck game, it is rare to find more than 75% of the deck dealt out between shuffles; more typical is 50% to 55% between shuffles. These shallow cut-card placements reduce the effectiveness of card counting of all types.
  2. The wager sizes are rarely more than $25 on side bets in smaller casinos and $100 in larger casinos. Low table limits severely restrict the upper end of what can be won.
  3. Most casino personnel know what blackjack card counting looks like. If they are aware that card counting can occur on their side bets, then the same heuristics apply (e.g., playing the side bets late in the shoe at table max).
  4. Many of the most common blackjack side bets are extremely safe with respect to card counting. Among the least vulnerable are three very popular side bets, Royal Match, 21+3 and Bet the Set.
  5. Blackjack moves very fast and the card counting systems needed to beat blackjack side bets are often complex. It can be very challenging to master a multi-level card counting system at the speed that blackjack moves.

In other words, with shallow cut-card placement, low betting limits and a scarcity of vulnerable wagers, a counter will rarely find it worth his while to target a blackjack side bet. It would take a side bet of extraordinary vulnerability to generate interest from the professional AP community. It should come as little surprise that such side bets exist, or have existed for a few brief shining moments.

There are several things to look for to help identify the biggest opportunities. Watch out for side bets that:

  • Have obviously strong key-cards. For example, any bet that pays based on the player’s first two cards totaling 20 has key cards equal to the ten-valued cards. Wagers based on a specific card (like "Super Sevens") are also easy targets.
  • Are being offered from a shoe when they were meant to be offered from a continuous shuffling machine (CSM). Sometimes the inventor of the game realizes his wager is highly vulnerable and advises the casino to only offer the side bet from a CSM. Not all casinos listen to good advice.
  • Have a combination of bets. Each bet may have relatively low vulnerability, but together the combination of bets may be highly valuable. This gives the possibility of a team approach. Each counter on the team tracks one of the side bets. When any team member plays his wager, the other members of the team also make that wager.
  • Are being offered with a higher than normal table limit. If a side bet has a $500 table limit it is going to be far more attractive than one with a $25 table limit.
  • Are offered on a deeply dealt game. A bet that may be safe on a six-deck shoe with the cut card at 1.5 decks may become highly suspect with deep cut card placement on a two-deck game.

There are two methods of safeguarding blackjack side bets that I do not recommend. These are reducing the cut card placement and reducing the maximum bet. Casinos make money by offering wagers with a house edge. A casino’s focus should be on getting players to wager as much as possible as often as possible. Shuffling reduces the total number of opportunities to make a wager during a given period of time. Table limits restrict the size of the wagers that can be made. Both are money-losers for the casino. Fear-based decision-making often leads to the wrong conclusion.

The best solution to maximize profits is to deal deeply into the shoe, allow large wagers and to have an educated work force. All employees who are responsible for safeguarding blackjack should be aware of key vulnerabilities for their side bets. They should also know the usual heuristics for identifying players who may be card counting a blackjack side bet.

  • Players who make large wagers late in the shoe and otherwise rarely wager on the side bet.
  • Players who make larger wagers on the side bet than on the main game.
  • Players who are back counting the game and jump into the game to place side bets.
  • Players who move between tables to place side bets.
  • Multiple players at a table making the side bet together.
  • Team play on wagers with multiple betting options.

In this blog I analyze a large number of blackjack side bets. The method of presentation is repetitive. For each side bet, you will usually find:

  • An introduction in which I attempt to give some sort of anecdote or other reason the reader should keep reading.
  • A discussion of the rules for the side bet, together with a calculation of its house edge and other statistics.
  • The development and explanation of one or more card counting systems for the side bet.
  • The results of simulations of using these card counting systems for various numbers of decks and cut card placements. These results usually include the “bet frequency,” “average edge” and “units won per 100 hands” for the side bet, though over time I've varied this terminology quite a bit.
  • Game protection advice.
  • Some concluding remarks, which may include an off-color attempt at humor.

If you want a quick reference, this post summarizes all of the blackjack side bets presented, together with giving the “desirability index” for each. You may want to skip ahead and first read the spoiler.

Received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Arizona in 1983. Eliot has been a Professor of both Mathematics and Computer Science. Eliot retired from academia in 2009. Eliot Jacobson