Most people who have been reading about casino gambling for any length of time already know that blackjack is one of the only opportunities you have to get a mathematical edge over the casino.
Not everyone understand exactly why this is, though, so the purpose of this post is to explain why you can beat blackjack – even though most casino games are unbeatable.
Understand that All Casino Games Have a House Edge
Casinos stay in business because they offer games to the gambling public where they have a mathematical advantage. Every casino game has this advantage, and, in the parlance of our times, this advantage is called “the house edge.”
How does the house edge work?
It’s just the difference between the odds of winning and the payout odds for the bet.
The easiest example to understand is in roulette.
If you place a single-number bet in roulette, your odds of winning are 37 to 1. You have 37 ways to lose that bet and only one way to win that bet.
When you do win, the payout on that bet is 35 to 1. The payout is lower than the odds of winning, so that difference – the difference between 37 to 1 and 35 to 1 is the house edge.
When you convert that to a percentage, it’s 5.26%, which is the average amount of each bet the casino expects to win from you in the long run.
With all casino games, the casino has a single subtle rule that creates this edge. In roulette, that rule is the one that puts a green 0 and a green 00 on the roulette wheel.
In real money blackjack, the house gets its edge by making you play your hand before the dealer finishes her hand.
It’s that simple. If you bust before the dealer plays her hand, you lose your bet immediately. The dealer is as likely to bust as you are, by the way.
But if the dealer busts, too, it’s not a tie.
You lost that bet when you busted, regardless of what happens later in the hand.
You can still beat blackjack, though.
Blackjack Isn’t Really a Game of Independent Events
When you play roulette, the odds are the same every time you place a bet. No matter what, the same 38 numbers are on the wheel, and you have the same 1/38 probability of a ball landing on a specific number.
But let’s consider a hypothetical:
What if the number got eliminated from the roulette wheel after it had been hit?NNN
Do you see how this would change every probability in the game?
Here’s an example:
Suppose you bet on the number 5, and it hits. You win your bet, which is cool, but that ball stays in that spot for now – which changes the probability of hitting a 5 on the next spin. What was a 1/38 probability has changed to a 0 probability.
But all the other probabilities have changed, too – now you only have 37 numbers on the roulette wheel, so the probability of winning a single number bet now has changed from 1/38 to 1/37.
Now suppose five numbers in a row have hit, and they’ve all been filled in.
Now you have a 1/33 probability of winning a single number bet.
If that bet continues to pay off at 35 to 1, you have a clear mathematical advantage over the casino.
Of course, that’s never going to happen, because the casino doesn’t eliminate numbers from the wheel as you play. That’s why I said to think about this hypothetically.
But guess what happens when you play blackjack?
In most blackjack games, the casino doesn’t shuffle the deck after every hand. Any cards that have been dealt are eliminated from the deck, which changes the probability of getting certain outcomes.
That’s a big part of why blackjack is a beatable game.
Taking Advantage of a Gambling Game that Has a Memory
The house advantage in blackjack is notoriously low to begin with if you know how to play correctly. And playing correctly is as easy as memorizing a basic strategy table. I’ve written about basic strategy in multiple previous posts, but to make my point here, you need to understand this:
The house edge for a blackjack game when played with basic strategy is usually only 0.5% or so.
That’s dramatically different from the 5.26% advantage that the casino has when you play roulette.
And you saw how easy it was to turn the casino’s advantage to a player’s advantage in a roulette game just by removing some numbers from the wheel after they hit.
Now, think about the implications in a blackjack game.
Most blackjack wins pay off at even money, but when you get a natural, you get 3 to 2 on your bet.
And, of course, the only way to get a blackjack is with a 10 and an ace.
If you’re playing in a single-deck game where all the aces have already been dealt, your probability of getting a blackjack have dropped to 0. It’s impossible to get a blackjack without aces in the deck.
And every 10 that gets dealt also decreases your probability of getting a natural.
But the good news is this – every time a lower value card gets dealt, your probability of getting a blackjack increases.
Since the cards have been randomized, sometimes the deck will have proportionally more high cards (aces and 10s). Other times, it will have the proportion of high cards to low cards you’d expect. Still other times, the deck will have a higher proportion of low cards to high cards.
If you could raise the size of your bets when you’re likelier to get a natural and lower the size of your bets when you’re less likely to get a blackjack, you could get a mathematical edge over the casino.
And that’s why blackjack is beatable.
I’ll explain the how of it soon, but first, let’s talk about how big an edge you can get and what that means for your wallet.
How Much Money Can a Card Counter Realistically Make in the Long Run?
The best estimates I’ve seen for the kind of edge you can get by counting cards in blackjack is about 1% over the house.
What does this mean in dollars and cents?
Let’s assume you’re able to get in 75 hands per hour and average $10 per bet. That’s $750/hour in action, and if you win 1% of that in the long run, you’re looking at earning $7.50 per hour for your efforts.
If you’re a low stakes card counter, you could probably make more money by getting a job at a fast food restaurant.
But there’s a solution:
Increase your average bet size. If you’re averaging $100 per hand, your hourly “wage” increases to $75 per hour.
That’s more like it.
Just keep this in mind – to avoid going broke, you need a big enough bankroll that you won’t be hurt during your inevitable losing streaks. If you have $500 and are betting $100 per hand, you won’t last long as a card counter.
On the other hand, if you have a bankroll of $100,000, you’re unlikely to go broke betting $100 per hand. It could happen, but the probability drops dramatically. In fact, if you’re comfortable with a higher risk of going broke, you can get by with a bankroll of $40,000 or $50,000.
Isn’t Counting Cards Illegal, Though?
Counting cards is entirely legal. You’re just thinking about the game you’re playing. They can’t outlaw that.
Casinos can restrict you from playing blackjack, though, and they can even trespass you from their property altogether.
How to Learn Card Counting
Learning to count cards is easier than you think. Basically, you’re going to assign a value (usually +1 or -1) to the low cards and the high cards. Your running count then estimates the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck.
The most important thing about learning how to count cards is to practice at home until you’re so proficient at it that you can do it effortlessly. You must be able to count cards without moving your lips or even looking like you’re concentrating at all.
You don’t want the casinos to know what you’re up to.
Are you up for the challenge of learning how to beat blackjack?
Frankly, most people aren’t.
I know how to count cards, and I’ve won some money doing so.
But it’s not a regular activity for me.
Don’t feel like that just because the game can be beaten you must be the one to beat it. It’s all right to be a recreational blackjack player who loses less money than the average player.
What’s not all right with me – and I don’t think it should be okay with you, either – is to ignore basic strategy while you play. I don’t see any reason to give the casino more of a mathematical edge than they already have.