How to pick the ‘best’ Blackjack table (a.k.a. The Cost Benefit of Rule Variations)

I got asked the other day, "How do you know what table to play when playing Blackjack?"  It’s an interesting question that not a lot of folks know:  Which of the many Blackjack tables in the pit should you choose to play at? 

The implication is that not all Blackjack games are created equal and this is certainly true depending on what Blackjack table rules are imposed.  What you essentially want is a table that has as small a theoretical advantage for the casino (or "house edge" as it’s called) as possible.  The impact that these nuances have are more and more relevant to your chip stack the longer you play.

First it should be stated that NONE OF THIS MATTERS if you don’t play perfect Basic Strategy.  No amount of minimized table edge will make you a winner if you don’t play absolutely perfect Basic Strategy.  Rule Number 1:  Memorize a strategy table or buy a strategy card from the gift shop and bring it to the table with you.

Getting back to casino advantage:  Well, it turns out that the answer to selecting the table with the best rules is as simple as doing some observations about the table and doing a little math in your head.  Let’s assume that unless stated otherwise, the baseline casino rules are as follows: (These rules provide zero net advantage to the casino if the player uses basic strategy)

  • Single deck
  • Dealer stands on soft 17
  • Doubling is allowed on any two cards
  • Double not allowed after splits
  • Natural 21 pays 3:2

COMMON RULES VARIATIONS
Here are some common rules that you can either seek out or avoid in order to minimize the casino’s advantage.

  • +0.08% Resplitting A’s
  • +0.19% Double after split
  • +1.86% Naturals pay 2:1 (untied only)
  • +2.29% Naturals pay 2:1 (all)
  • -1.37% Naturals pay 6:5
  • -0.10% Double only on 9, 10, 11
  • -0.20% Double only on 10, 11
  • -0.20% Dealer hits soft 17
  • -0.35% Two decks
  • -0.52% Four decks
  • -0.58% Six decks
  • -0.61% Eight decks

NO LOVE FOR THE PLAYER?
As you can see, there are very few rules available these days that provide a better advantage for the player, but a lot of rules – common ones – that give a stronger advantage to the casino.  For example:

Let’s say you’re playing at a table with doubling after splits, 2 decks and dealers hit soft 17.  The resulting edge for the table would be 0.19%-0.35%-.20%=0.36% assuming otherwise perfect strategy by the player. 

The arbitration between selecting a table with good rules, playing with perfect basic strategy, and using methods like card counting to gain a more significant edge on the house is called "advantage play".  There are very few individuals in this world that truly are "advantage players".  I think it was Blackjack Hall of Famer John Chang (a VERY famous Blackjack player who beat the casinos for millions of dollars in the 90’s along with the MIT Blackjack team) said that there are only a few hundred people in the entire world that truly are advantage players and the rest don’t have the discipline.

GIVING PLAYERS AN EDGE WITH COUPONS
Hey!  Where does one get a game where Naturals pay 2:1?  Well, they don’t really exist.  The only way to get this kind of edge is through casino coupons which are in things like Player’s Club mailers or coupon books like Anthony Curtis’ Las Vegas Advisor Coupon book.  Coupons are vouchers that allow a player to get benefits like 2:1 on blackjacks or give the player "match play" – i.e. the coupon doubles your bet in front of you at no risk to you.  A great discussion of this topic is available as an article on the web site "Beyond Counting", a book by James Grosjean, Game Theory Mathematician, Advantage Player, & Blackjack Hall of Famer.  The article is called "Beyond Coupons". (http://www.beyondcounting.com/pdfs/beyondcouponsbjfo.pdf)

(Incidentally, James Grosjean is a fascinating individual and one of the people in this world I wish I could meet some day.  He writes a column in All-In Magazine – the only paper-based magazine out there for Blackjack players, and his articles are always very interesting to Blackjack players, even if they’re a little less useful than his material on advantage play.

EXPECTED HOUSE EDGE
In general, the house edge can vary wildly depending on the tactics imposed by the player & the rules laid down by the house.  Here’s a swipe at the percentage advantage differences between the edge the house has over players depending on these circumstances and tactics.  To the mathematically precise, please understand that these are broad generalities, however for the purposes of giving people a mental picture of the differences, I think they’re accurate enough to give you a picture of the difference in the ‘odds of winning’ when putting in a little effort, so use these as guidelines:

  • -5.00% to -10.00%:  Typical LV Strip casino edge over the tourist that doesn’t play basic strategy
  • -2.00% to -3.00%:  Typical LV Strip casino edge over the player that plays strict basic strategy
  • -0.20% to -1.00%:  Typical LV strip casino edge over the player that uses basic strategy at a table with reasonable rules (i.e. No 6:5 naturals, doubling down available on any two cards, etc.)
  • +1.00% to +2.50%:  Typical edge player has over the casino using unbalanced card counting techniques (like Knockout or Speed count)
  • +3.00% to +5.00%:  Typical edge player has over the casino using advanced balanced card counting techniques (like traditional Thorp HiLo with indices, two-level counts, all calculating true counts based on shoe depth)

A NOTE ABOUT THE VENETIAN HOTEL & CASINO
Personally, I’m something of a fan of the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.  They get ripped by some online web sites like VegasTripping.com for their purported lack of atmosphere for table play but I don’t think it’s that bad at all.  I’ve always liked their dealers who are far less grouchy than other places like Frontier or Caesars, it’s a quick hop to some fast eats, and the cashier rarely has much of a line. 

Most importantly, they also have two tables in the pit specifically designated as double deck tables with reasonably good rules at about a -0.30% house edge and they have YET to institute any 6:5 tables compared to Mandalay, Hard Rock, Palms, etc. which you really have to respect.  Say what you want about the Venetian’s faux-Italian theme:  The Venetian has all the synthetics of a typical strip casino with the class of the Bellagio.  They’re also fluid with comps which makes it a little more attractive to stay there if you play a lot.

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