The Differences Between Handheld and Shoe Blackjack Games

Blackjack Logo With a Casino Dealer

If you play blackjack in a casino, it won’t take long for the dealer to explain to you how to communicate with them. I’m more comfortable knowing what to do when I go in than having to get corrected, though. And I’m assuming you’re the same way.

In this post, I look at the differences between handheld and shoe blackjack games. A handheld game is one where the dealer actually holds the deck in her hands when she deals the game. A shoe game is one in which multiple decks are held in a special box called a shoe.

One of the big differences between handheld games and shoe games is the house edge. Since there are always more decks involved in a shoe game, the house edge is usually greater for the shoe games. I’ll cover that, too.

But let’s start with how to communicate with the dealer in the two different versions of real money blackjack.

The Number of Decks Is the Biggest Difference

Blackjack was traditionally dealt from a single deck of cards a long time ago. Casinos started putting more decks into play in an effort to thwart card counters.

Here’s how that works:

When you’re counting cards in blackjack, you’re tracking the ratio of high cards to low cards. The high cards are the aces and 10s, and the proportion of those in the deck determine your probability of getting a blackjack. Since a blackjack pays off at 3 to 2, if you can bet more when you’re likelier to get a blackjack, you can get an edge over the casino.

When you deal two aces out of a single deck of cards, you’ve cut your probability of getting a blackjack in half. You only have four aces, and you must have an ace to get a blackjack.

But deal two aces out of a shoe made up of eight decks, and the probability of getting a blackjack doesn’t change much. After all, with eight decks in play, you have 32 aces to begin with. The difference in proportion when you’re dividing two by 52 and when you’re dividing 30 by 516 is dramatic.

Blackjack 17 on Table

Casinos figured that out, and when they realized they could eliminate most of a card counter’s advantage by dealing from multiple decks, they started offering shoe games.

Of course, the house edge for a game with eight decks also increases the house edge for the game by 0.6%. I could write an entire post explain why, but suffice it to say that increasing the number of decks does the following:

  • It decreases your probability of getting a blackjack.
  • It increases the probability of a dealer tying your blackjack.
  • It decreases the effectiveness of being able to double down.
  • It decreases the probability of the dealer busting when you stand on a stiff hand (12 through 16).

Cards Are Dealt Differently in Handheld Versus Shoe Games

Of course, it goes without saying that the cards are dealt differently in a handheld game versus a shoe game. For one thing, the dealer is holding the cards in her hand in a handheld game. The cards are in a box called a shoe in a shoe game.

But there are other differences, too.

The biggest one is this:

In a handheld blackjack game, your cards are dealt face down. You’re allowed to pick them up and look at them. You MUST keep them above the table at all times, though. Also, when you hit, the additional cards are dealt face up on the table. You don’t touch these additional cards – just the two cards you were dealt at the beginning of the blackjack hand.

In a shoe game, your cards are dealt face up. You are NOT allowed to pick them up during play. Everything you do is done without touching your cards.

That might seem weird to someone who’s played a lot of card games at home or played poker, but that’s the case. They won’t throw you out of the casino for touching your cards in a shoe game unless you keep doing it after being told not to.

I’m sensitive, though – I don’t like being corrected by a casino dealer at all.

The Hand Signal for Hitting Differs in Handheld Blackjack

If you want to hit a hand you’re dealt in a handheld game, you gently scrape the corner of your cards on the felt of the table. Don’t do this clumsily or harshly, though, or the dealer will correct you. You’re not allowed to do anything that might damage or permanently affect the appearance of the cards – for obvious reasons.

When you want to hit in a shoe game, you use your index finger to tap the table. You don’t touch the cards.

Hollywood Casino Blackjack Table

In either case, you can announce what you’re doing by saying, “hit,” but the dealer won’t hit your hand just because you said “hit.” All the action is being recorded by the eye in the sky, and the casino wants proof that you said to hit your hand in case of a dispute.

By forcing you to use hand signals, they insure that you can’t say, “I told the dealer I wanted to stand, not hit.”

The Hand Signal for Standing Also Differs

In a hand dealt game, if you want to stand, you slide your hand under your chips. Do NOT touch your original bet. You don’t have to lift up the chips, and the casino frowns on this. They don’t want you to engage in a type of cheating called “past posting.”

That’s just a phrase for adding to the size of your bet after you already know what cards you have. You can see how that might get you an advantage over the casino, but it’s cheating. You must bet BEFORE you know the outcome.

In a shoe game, to stand you just wave your hand, palm down, over your cards on the table – almost like you’re saying goodbye to them. I guess you are saying goodbye to the chance of getting any more cards or improving your hand.

You can also announce that you’re standing, but it’s the same as with hitting. The dealer won’t act on your game-play unless you use the appropriate hand signals.

Doubling and Splitting Are Handled Differently

To split or double down, you use basically the same hand motions. In a hand-dealt game, you turn your cards face-up in front of your chips, and you place a bet the same size as your original bet next to it.

You also point at the table with both fingers when you want to split.

In a shoe game, you just put the matching bet next to the original bet. You don’t have to do anything with the cards. The dealer will handle that for you.

They really don’t want you handling the cards in a shoe game.

How You Handle a Blackjack (Natural) or a Bust Changes

When you get a blackjack – a two-card total of 21 – or bust in a handheld game, you do the same thing:

You turn your cards face-up on the table. Don’t worry. What just happened will be obvious to the dealer and everyone else at the table. You don’t have to announce it, although, if you’re feeling celebratory, you can announce it.

Gambler Holding Black Chip on a Blackjack Table

In a shoe game, your cards are face-up already, so you really don’t have to do anything at all. If you get a blackjack, unless it’s a push, the dealer will just pay you off immediately. If you bust, the dealer will take your cards and chips.

I don’t like to announce it when I bust. What is there to celebrate about that situation, right?

It’s Hard to Understate the Casino House Edge Difference

Most casinos use multiple rules differences from game to game, especially if they’re dealing some single deck games and some multi-deck games. Usually, they’ll have some rules in place which are less favorable to the player in the single deck games. They do this to mitigate that 0.6% difference in the casino house edge between a game with eight decks and a game with one deck.

With everything else being equal, the difference between the house edge for an eight-deck game and the house edge for a single deck game is 0.6%. The difference between a double deck game and an 8-deck game is significant – 0.3%.

For the most part, I encourage you to stick with single deck games unless they have a lowered payout for a blackjack. It’s not unusual to find single deck blackjack games that only pay off at 6 to 5 instead of 3 to 2.

Being a single deck game doesn’t improve the odds enough to make it worth accepting the 6 to 5 payout. If every gambler in the country boycotted the 6 to 5 games, we’d all be a lot better off.

The Superior Game of Casino Blackjack

Handheld blackjack games – those dealt from one or two decks of cards – are superior in most ways to games dealt from a shoe. Those games usually have eight decks, although you might find some with 4 or 6 decks.

But the way the game is conducted on the table varies slightly from one to the other, and knowing that before you go in is a good thing.