Ever wonder why blackjack is so popular with the masses?

Maybe you’re simply here to find out a bit more about blackjack odds. Well, to kill two birds with one stone, lets discuss that very topic; after all it’s the odds that make blackjack so popular. I know you’re all thinking, you can’t fool me, blackjack is a negative expectation game just like the rest of the casinos offerings. You’re completely right. A negative expectation game is a negative expectation game (and that means that the house edge is against you, which we’ll get into a bit more in a second).

What sets blackjack apart from its compadres though, is the player-controlled variability of that expectation.

This page will provide you with a good general overview of what the odds really are in gambling, how they are described, and what those terms mean. Only at this point is it worth quoting numbers to you that relate directly to blackjack.

In roulette for instance, the odds against you are pretty standard for every bet on the board, at a somewhat nasty 5.26% house edge. This means the house will win 5.26% more of the bets on the table than they lose. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention at the casino you’ll realize it’s more than this. Say you bet on two columns on the same spin at the roulette table, the odds are you’ll win 24-14. So how is it that the casinos don’t go broke? There is another factor that has to be considered, and it’s called the payoff. The house’s advantage stems from the fact that a payoff for a winning bet is a bit below the odds. Read that sentence again, it makes sense, its just not poetry. Basically, if you bet on two columns in roulette for 12 bucks each (24 bucks total) and win, you get paid $12. But on odds of 24 to 14 the casino should pay back 14 dollars, on an even playing field. The casino knows it can profit properly even against the odds if it matches its payouts appropriately. The casino profits by taking $24 when you lose, but only paying $12 when you win.

I know this roulette example seems out of place on a blackjack odds page, but trust me, math is math and things apply all across the board in gambling. If things didn’t make sense after the last paragraph however, don’t stop, because it will become a little clearer quite soon. Perhaps in an effort to confuse the masses, casinos often evaluate house edge in three or four different styles, each of which corresponds to a term you might find more familiar. There is of course the house edge, and also the return percentage, the vigorish (or vig), and the hold. While they all essentially refer to the same thing, understanding the perspective each phrase is spoken from is helpful. Lets talk about each of these and you will see easily how they relate to blackjack odds.

The house edge is what we call a theoretical number, and is never calculated on real world empirical experiences. It is the theoretical fraction of the overall amount bet that the casinos would keep if every set of decisions were to fall exactly into a statistical row. This is where the roulette example may become clear. As per our two-column roulette table example, in 38 spins the house expects to win 14 rounds at $24 profit each for $336 profit in all; at the same time they expect to lose 24 rounds at $12 a pop, totaling $288 dollars of loss. The total bet is 38 multiplied by $24: $912, while the take is $48 (the difference between the $336 profit and $288 loss). The edge is $48 divided by $912, which equals 5.26%. Keeping in mind that I used the qualifier “expected” for the house, and although 38 rounds may not land 24 wins for the casino, 38 million rounds will net a number that is statistically insignificantly different from 24 million. And of course, there are millions of spins, so the house does indeed rake in its 5.26% edge.

Another theoretical number is the ‘return percentage’ or ‘pay out percentage’ (a familiar term to slots fans). Basically the return percentage is just that, the percentage of the money bet that would be returned to the players, again if everything fell into a perfect statistical row. Return percentages are no mystery to slots fans who know it is simply the compliment of the house edge. This just means that a 95% payout rate means 100 minus 95, or a 5% house edge.

The Vig, or Vigorish, is a slightly different concept these days in casino gambling. The Vig is a fee the casinos charge on certain bets. In some instances the casino applies a vig as a bet is being placed, and therefore it is collected regardless of a win or loss, and other instances like in Baccarat, where a Vig is only charged on a win (the winning banker hand in baccarat).

House hold, or hold percentage, is the real world equivalent (non-theoretical) of the house edge. If the house edge were to hold steady and all events were to go to a statistical T, then the hold and the edge would be equivalent. It can often be confusing though, because for games like a slot machine where there is no variation, the hold is actually the real counterpart of the house edge, it’s simply based on tallies rather than probabilities. At the tables, considering blackjack odds for instance, there is a little more variance in play, which affects the amount of the edge the casinos are actually pulling at any one point in time. The hold takes on a slightly different meaning when it comes to the blackjack table. It is the amount of cash the casino actually keeps out of the total dropped on the table. It is a counted real number, not a theoretical one such as the house edge, but it is directly analogous to the house edge. The variance is caused by variables such as how long players continue to bet from original buy-ins and how big their wagers are relative to bankrolls, etc.

So how does this all relate to our blackjack odds? Well it puts you in the know about house edges around the casino, and lets you see quite clearly how and why blackjack has an obvious advantage for the players, a player-controllable variable house edge. At this point you understand that the goal of any gambler is to effectively reduce the house’s hold during their session at the table. The only way to practically go about this is by altering your playing style so that the predictive house edge will be statistically lower (as that, in turn, will decrease the house’s hold). Players who use perfect basic strategy can reduce the blackjack odds so much they are playing very nearly even with the house. It’s easy to find and play a blackjack game with a house edge of 0.5% or less once you know what to look for and how to play it right. If you don’t know basic strategy, and are just playing on impulse, you’re looking at a house edge of anywhere from 2-5%. Many people are of the opinion that being presented with the same old ‘use basic strategy’ quote is being presented with an absence of tips.

The fact of the matter is, basic strategy is just one big long list of perfect tips, which will always be statistically superior to any other decision you could make in the instance described. So instead of taking on the mindset that ‘basic strategy’ is only for basic play and not the ‘advanced strategy’ you are looking for, understand that each ‘tip’ presented by basic strategy has been worked out ahead of time to be the very best possible statistical decision in that case. This will effectively lower the house edge for your hand, and in turn lower the house’s hold over the game. Play with basic strategy and over the long run you will always win more than if you had played without. This is of course over the long run, and although many people do indeed play with basic strategy decisions, much of the time they won’t double-down when basic strategy suggests it, working on the notion that even if they don’t, they still have a good chance of winning the hand. The catch here is, basic strategy can only really affect the house’s hold if you take advantage of double-down situations to help your profit margins. The extended low edge is next to meaningless if you don’t double down at the right times, because it simply won’t translate into a lower hold for the house (ie, a bigger profit for you).