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============================================== Thursday, March 1, 2001
Variations on a Theme of Blackjack
People often hear different names for Blackjack, i.e. 21, Spanish 21, Double Exposure Blackjack, Double Sevens, Experto, etc. I was often asked if they were the same game with different names or are they different games with similar rules.
I would say, they're all variations of Blackjack with some differences in the rules. In this newsletter, I would like to clarify those differences and provide tips for each variation. One common tip for each of those variations is that you can use the same basic strategy, that will narrow the house edge to less than 0.5 percent. Click here to get hold of the basic strategy. However, be aware that there will be certain adjustments to this basic strategy depending on the variation.
The most widespread of the variations on a blackjack theme is also one of the most enticing. Spanish 21 players can double down on any number of cards, instead of only on the first two as in regular blackjack. Not only that but if you draw a bad card on a double down, you can back off using the "double down rescue" feature and surrender only the original bet instead of losing the second bet as well. On other hands, late surrender allows you to give up half of your original bet instead of playing out a hand that you will most likely lose.
In Spanish 21, all player blackjacks are paid at 3-to-2 regardless of the dealer's hand. After player blackjacks are paid, the dealer checks his hand. If he has a blackjack, he clears off all other bets. But if the hand continues, all other player 21's win, even if the dealer also pulls a 21.
Then there are the bonuses. The biggest comes if you have three 7's of the same suit and the dealer's upcard is a 7 of any suit. That's worth a $1,000 bonus to the player with the 7's and $50 to all other players at the table. Some casinos even make that bonus $1,000 per $5 wagered, up to a maximum bonus of $5,000. There's also a 3-to-2 payoff on five-card 21's; 2-to-1 on six-card 21's; 3-to-1 on a 21 consisting of seven or more cards; 3-to-2 on 6-7-8 or 7-7-7 of mixed suits; 2-to-1 on 6-7-8 or 7-7-7 of the same suit; and 3-to-1 on 6-7-8 or 7-7-7 of spades.
Sounds great, right? You're probably wondering where to sign up for all that good stuff. But, of course, there's a tradeoff. A big one. Spanish 21 is played with six "Spanish" decks, meaning that the four 10-spots are removed, leaving 48 cards in each deck. Jacks, Queens and Kings remain, but with four fewer 10-value cards per deck, there are fewer blackjacks to be had. This also makes it that much more difficult to catch a high card in double-down situations.
The bottom line is that Spanish 21 has a house edge of 0,82 percent with basic strategy. That's only a few tenths of a percent worse than a normal six-deck blackjack game, and better than most table games, but the basic strategy we're talking about here is not the same one you'd play at a regular blackjack table. Using that method would nearly double the house edge, to 1.5 percent. To get the most out of Spanish 21, you need to use a special version of basic strategy.
Some of the biggest adjustments come in double-down situations. In regular blackjack, if you start with a hard 9, you should double down when the dealer's upcard is 3, 4, 5 or 6. In Spanish 21, the dearth of 10-value cards swings the odds toward just hitting 9 against a 3, 4 or 5. You double down on a two-card 9 only when the dealer shows a 6.
Similarly, when you have a hard 10, you should double down only against 2 through 7. In regular blackjack, you'd also double against 8 and 9. And with 11, you double only against 2 through 8 in Spanish 21 (not against 9 or 10, as you would at a regular blackjack table).
That just scratches the surface. Spanish 21 strategy calls for you to double down less often, split pairs less often and hit seemingly stiff hands more often. Any basic strategy player who hasn't studied special adjustments for Spanish 21 is better off staying with regular blackjack.
Double Exposure Blackjack
Although not as widely available as Spanish 21, Double Exposure turns up in many casinos. It was born at Bob Stupak's Vegas World, which once stood on the site of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. Now you can find Double Exposure at the Tropicana and the Claridge in Atlantic City, Grand Casino in Tunica, Mississippi and several places (including the Stratosphere) in Nevada. The game can be found frequently enough that a good percentage of players will see it and perhaps even be tempted by it at one time or another.
It is tempting. The hook is that all the cards are dealt face-up. That includes the dealer's cards, so there's no guesswork involved. If the dealer's first card is a 6, you don't have to wonder if his downcard is a 10, increasing the likelihood of a bust, or a 5, putting the dealer on his way to a possible 2 1. You know which one it is before you play out your hand because there is no downcard.
There are two major downsides to Double Exposure. First, blackjacks pay only even money instead of 3-to-2. Second, the dealer wins ties. If you have a 20 and the dealer shows 20, you'd better hit or you'll lose the hand.
What is the house edge? That depends on the house rules. The Lady Luck in Las Vegas for a time had a game with a 0.34 percent house edge, equivalent to a good six-deck game. Other casinos have run Double Exposure blackjack games with house edges near 2 percent.
The keys are whether the player is permitted to double down on any first two cards, whether doubling down is permitted after splitting pairs and whether resplitting pairs is permitted. Look for a game with as many of those options as you can get, because when the dealer shows the hands most likely to bust, you've got to get your money on the table to make up for those other situations where the house gives itself an edge. For example, you would never double down on 6 in a regular blackjack game, but in Double Exposure, if you see a dealer's 16, you see a hand that will be busted 62 percent of the time. You'd better double down!
One common rule that casinos use to try to bump up the house edge in Double Exposure is to only let players double down on two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11. If you see that rule, fold your money, put it in your pocket and walk swiftly in the other direction.
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And now back to Blackjack variations:
Another old Vegas World game, Experto has recently been revived, this time by the Poker Palace in North Las Vegas. It's intriguing because a single deck of cards is used, and every card in the deck is dealt out. No cards are buried, and there's no stopping to reshuffle midway through the deck.
The house claims an extra edge here by paying only even money instead of 3-to-2 on blackjacks. That's a 2.3 percent gain for the house, roughly five times the total house edge against a basic-strategy player in standard blackjack games.
There are no basic strategy adjustments that can make this up. The only customers who should ever be playing Experto are expert card counters who can take advantage of seeing every card in the deck.
Even at tables where the basic game is played the old-fashioned way, casinos will sometimes throw in a side bet to add extra excitement. The good thing about side bets is that they usually don't change the basic nature of the game. You're still playing regular blackjack - you just have a little something extra going. The bad thing is that the house edge is usually much higher than on blackjack. Most of the time, you'd be better off spending the money you'd spend on the side bet on the blackjack bet instead. But if you're hungry for added actions, here's a menu of blackjack side orders.
This one looks like the current leader among side bets. You place a $1 bet along with your regular bet, and if you're dealt a blackjack, you get to push a button to start a slot machine-like random-number generator. A lighted display flashes and then shows you how much you've won - anywhere from $5 to $1,000. An alternative version called Wheel Madness uses an electronic wheel, something like the Wheel of Fortune slot machines, to reveal the bonus amount.
For this to be a break-even proposition, the average bonus would have to be about $21, because players are dealt blackjacks approximately once every 21 hands. Players aren't privy to enough data to calculate the average bonus, but it doesn't appear to be nearly that high.
There are two different versions of this side bet. In one, if your first two cards are any denomination in the same suit, you get paid 2.5-to-1; if they are a King and Queen of the same suit - a royal match - the payoff is 25-to-1. In the second version, easy matches pay 3-to-1, but royal matches pay only 10-to- 1.
The house edge depends on the number of decks in play. In a single-deck game, the house edge on the first version is a staggering 11 percent, while it's only about 3.8 percent on the second version. With six decks, the house edge drops to 6.7 percent of the first version, and the player has about a 1 percent edge on the second. Needless to say, the first version is the more common, and the second version is almost never seen in multiple-deck games. Unfortunately, the second version in multi-deck games is the only situation in which Royal Match is as good as a basic blackjack bet.
Here you have a situation where a side bet can change the way you play the basic game. If your first card is a 7, you collect 3-to-1 on your side bet. If the first two cards are unsuited 7's, you're paid 50-to-1, and if they're of the same suit you get 100-to-1. If the first three cards are unsuited 7's, you're paid 500-to-1, and for three 7's of the same suit the payout jumps up to 5,000-to-1.
The awards on three 7's mean you might change the way you play a hand that starts with two 7's. Let's say you're dealt two unsuited 7's and the dealer shows a 6. Should you split the pair, as basic strategy says you should? Not unless your blackjack bet is in the stratosphere compared to your side bet. You should hit instead, and hope for a third 7 that will boost the 50-to-1 payoff on two 7's to the 500-to-1 for three unsuited 7's. The odds, by the way, are about 14-to-1 against you in a six-deck game, but you lower the profit expectations on the basic hand in order to take a chance on getting the bigger bonus payoff.
The real question here is, should you make the bet in the first place? Nope. The house edge is approximately 12.5 percent. When in doubt, stick with the standard game.
Side bets in blackjack are designed to do two things: bring extra players to the tables and boost the house take.
Horseshoe Blackjack, designed for two or more decks, stirs interest by offering the possibility of a 1,000-to-1 payout. With a maximum wager of $100 on the side bet, that means a $100,000 jackpot. The big hit comes when a player is dealt two Queens of hearts in the same hand when the dealer gets a blackjack. Talk about your long shots!
The side bet pays you anytime you're dealt 20 in the first two cards; two Queens of hearts without a dealer blackjack pay 125-to-1; a 20 consisting of two cards of the same denomination pays 19-to-1; a 20 with two cards of the same suit pays 9-to-1; and any 20 pays 4-to-1.
With so many face cards in the deck, this may sound like a good deal, but the basic blackjack game is a far better one. The house edge on the Horseshoe Blackjack side bet varies slightly according to the number of decks in play, but hovers around 24 percent.
Those were the variations on the theme of Blackjack. In addition to the basic strategy, you can also apply a betting system, that lets you vary the amount of your bets, as for even money betting areas, since blackjack pays 1 to 1 for most bets. One very good system for even money bets is Superior Roulette. Its technics can be easily applied for Blackjack as well.
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Until next week,
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