Advantage Play in Blackjack


On the whole there are really just two types of games found in any casino; those that rely purely on luck, and those that require a mixture of luck and skill. nevertheless, if you’re sitting in a luxurious casino, whether in Macau, Las Vegas or Monte Carlo, it’s obvious from all the busy staff, gorgeously decorated rooms, and sumptuous surroundings, that the casino always wins. 

Introduction: Advantage Play in Blackjack

If you were to drill down to the nitty-gritty of the casino business, as with all things in life, it all comes down to a matter of mathematics. The casino normally has an “edge” over the customers. Essentially, this is the casino taking a cut or a percentage of every bet placed. But there are some rare situations whereby that process is reversed. In other words, the player can find an advantage over the casino. Welcome to the world of advantage play. 

But before we delve into the many ways a smart gambler can take the upper hand, it’s important that we all understand the principles at play when a gambler sits down at the casino games table. To that end, let’s take a look at how the mathematics works with regard to casino games.This will help you understand advantage play, as much of these player advantages lie in the understanding of probability and its role in the outcome of all casino bets. Let’s make use of several examples in order to illustrate the probability of winning or losing.  

The Coin Toss

Imagine that you’re sat at the casino games table playing a fictitious game that revolves around the toss of a coin. Now you already know that there are only two possible results; heads or tails. Because there’s a 50% chance of either, then it’s safe to assume that you’ll win half the time. Now imagine if the minimum table bet is $2, but if you win, then you’ll receive $1. You can see where this is going. If you toss the coin 100 x, and you’re right with 50, then you’ll win $50. With the other 50 coin tosses, you were wrong, meaning that you lost $100. But the casino will make an overall profit from those 100 x tosses of $50.

Now you can see how the casino wins every time. Of course, no gambler is going to bet on such ridiculous numbers. But these are just to show how the casino betting system works. In reality, the betting would be more like $1.10 to bet against $1.00 winnings. This extra 10 cents will have a name like the “ante.” If you happen to be playing casino games in the state of Oklahoma, then there’s a 50 cent ante on every bet. All casino games will function to some degree in this manner. And keep in mind that when you learn how to play blackjack, it’s about the long haul. Over a long enough period of time, the mathematics will always come down in favour of the casino.

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Advantage Play: Roulette

If you ever examine a roulette wheel, you’ll see that half the slots are black, with the other half being red. And then there are two green slots for the double zero (US wheel). So, if you were to wager on the red, but the all falls into the lack, then the casino takes your bet. But, and here’s the clever part, if the ball drops into either of the green slots, then the casino also wins. You can see that there are a total of 38 slots on the roulette wheel: 18 red, 18 black and 2 green. So, if a customer was to place 38 bets on the roulette wheel, he’d be expected to win 18 and lose 20. The more time passes, the closer the results will come to the probable results. And you have to remember that the casino will see thousands of bets every day, meaning that it’s advantage of the player can result in millions of dollars.

Though blackjack is a slightly more complex game than roulette, it still gives the casino an advantage of around 1% over the player. Essentially this can be translated as the player losing $1 for every $100 bet. Of course, this assumes that the player is using basic strategy. Unfortunately, most players are not, and are more than likely to make some errors and bad decisions as the game proceeds. This will in effect inflate the casino’s advantage to 2% – 5% for each bet. The only means to reverse this, is via advantage play.

Counting Cards

Without a doubt, this is the best known advantage technique. You’ve probably seen it in the movies like Rainman. It’s typically portrayed as being used by idiot savants who also happen to be mathematical geniuses. And though it sounds like a lot of work, counting cards is actually pretty simple. Most people assume that you have to track all the cards being played, and maybe memorise them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, you just need to keep track of the approximate ratio of low to high cards.

So, you may well ask, how do high or low cards affect your odds of winning? Imagine if all the aces and 10 cards and up, were removed from the pack. It would then be impossible for you to make a “natural” or a blackjack. This would ensure that the game was operating in favour of the casino. On the reverse side of the coin, if all the cards were removed from the deck except for the aces and 10’s and above, then you are much more likely to receive a natural, with the odds being in your favour.

Playing for real, you’ll not encounter such situations. But your job is still to estimate the number of high cards vs low ones. As the house edge is already low, you want to be betting more when you have a chance of making a natural. Conversely, you should wager less when the deck is less favourable to you. To keep track of the value of the cards, you’ll need to keep a running count. 

In order to do this, you need to assign a value to the low cards, and another value to the high cards. So, all high cards and aces will have a value of -1. All low cards (from 2 till 6) will have a value of +1. You’ll see that when the count is positive, that means there are a higher ratio of high value cards vs low value ones. When the count is either a zero or a negative, then that ratio is reversed. In practical terms this means that the player should raise their bets when the count is positive and lower them when the count is negative.

Depending on the house rules, by utilising this method, a player can have an advantage of between 0.5% to 2% over the casino. With time, it’s possible to make some winnings, though table betting limits will stop any player breaking the bank. There are many other methods for the counting of cards, but the principle is always the same. But it’s not all roses and sunshine.

The Negatives of Counting Cards

The first thing we should point out is that all casinos absolutely detest card counters. Though on a technical level, you’re not cheating. After all it’s not as if you’re using a mechanical aid. But the casino is private property, and they get to decide who can come in and play. If you start to count cards, it will be noticed pretty much instantly, as the patterns are always the same. Both the dealer and the pit boss will confirm your actions, and you’ll be backed-off and asked to leave the premises, without your winnings. There’s also a good chance that you’ll get a life-time ban. Some players say that the way to mitigate this is to only play for very short periods of time, before moving on to the next casino. As a given, you shouldn’t play at the same casino every day. 

But there’s very little possibility of card counting today. Virtually all casinos employ a card shuffling machine as well as using multiple decks for each round. Trying to keep count when eight decks are being played makes the life of a card counter very difficult indeed. Maybe there are some smaller casinos who still make use of the single deck to play casino blackjack. But then again, they would also quickly spot your playing patterns and have you kicked out. 

You can’t count cards when playing online. Essentially you’re playing against a computer program, and there are no real cards, only virtual ones.

Advantage Play: Cheating

It may sound unsporting, but hey, we’re looking for any advantage we can find over the casino. The first thing we should state before you go down this path is that cheating is a crime in many places. In the home of gambling, Nevada, cheating is a felony, meaning prison time. But, if you insist on continuing, then let’s see where we can cheat in the game of blackjack.

One method is called “past posting.” You simply, with a magician’s sleight of hand, place extra chips on top of those in the initial wager, when you receive a blackjack. Your chances of being caught out are around 100%, so, though it sounds great in theory, we don’t recommend you try this.

Another popular method is to mark the cards with your fingernail. This is much more difficult for the casino to spot. Obviously, if you can already know what certain cards are, even when they are face down, you’ll gain a significant advantage over the house. But keep in mind you’ll be playing with multiple packs, so it may take some time for your marked cards to reappear throughout the game. To be truthful, these secret blackjack winning tips are pretty sleazy.

Edge Sorting

Though we already mentioned marking the cards, which is totally illegal, if the cards get marked during normal play, and you are able to spot the differences and remember the values associated with them, then that’s all perfectly legal. Essentially you’re taking note of any irregularities the cards might have developed during game play. The general idea is the same as card counting in that you want to try and organise a group of cards with, say 10’s and aces present. Edge sorting isn’t just limited to blackjack, but can be used with baccarat and Caribbean stud.

              Image: kartenspiel-könig-spiel-spielkarten | © Peggy_Marco | Licence: Pixabay

Advantage Play: Shuffle Tracking

Now we’re moving into the bonkers area, where players might suggest these practices can work, but the reality is they are more myth than practical methods to overcome the casino. Shuffle tracking comes from the idea that the cards are never really shuffled that well and certain groups of cards will remain together. They even call these groups a name, “zones.” The general idea is to start a game with a clump of high value cards. 

Hole Carding

This revolves around the layer being able to see the dealer’s down card. In the game of blackjack this is known as the “hole card.” Obviously, if you already know the dealer’s hole card, then you’re going to be at an advantage. For this you want to find either a brand new dealer or a dealer who’s finishing a long shift. The first one may be sloppy. And the second, if he/she is very tired, can easily become careless when dealing. A lot will depend on where you’re sitting, with first base being best, as you’ll be seated right next to the dealer. The advantage of counting cards is around 1%. But if you can spot hole cards, that number shoots up to over 13%. 

Rebates And Comps

These are the rewards and incentives that all casinos offer to encourage new players to play and existing players to play more often. The normal process is to first let the casino know that you exist by signing up to the players club. From this point on, your every spend will be monitored and tracked by the casino. They are looking at what games you choose, how you play and how much you spend. Everything is logged. 

The  casino will use a points system depending on the amounts that you wager. If, for example, you’re playing on the slots and putting in $3 per spin and hitting 600 spins per hour, then they can see that your spend is $1,800 per hour. Likewise, if you’re playing casino table games, the casino will log all your action. If you happen to be playing blackjack, at the rate of $50 per hand, and you average 50 hands an hour, then your comp rate will be based on your total spend of $2,500 per hour. 

Rather cynically, the casino will then offer you apparently free comps. These can be drinks, extra chips, meals or even hotel rooms for the night. Remember that they actually are paid for by you, out of your losses. But here’s the real rub, if you combine certain playing comps with a playing strategy that lowers the house edge, then you can play at even or slightly ahead of the casino’s house edge. It all starts with finding a casino that is offering a special promotion of double points for your casino action. The idea here is to turn this minuscule amount to something that’s a tangible factor.

Let’s have a look at an example. A casino is offering you 0.3% of your action in the form of comps. But on a Tuesday, they bump this up to 0.6% between the hours of 12 and 4 pm. Now let’s imagine that this same casino has a pretty generous blackjack rule where the house edge is just 0.5%, providing that you’re using perfect strategy with your game play. Well, if you take your 6% comp and your 5% house edge, you’ll actually be playing with a 1% edge over the casino. This type of advantage play is known as “comp hustling” and is a perfectly valid method of getting something over the casino. in fact it’s one of the best proven blackjack strategies that work.

Conclusion: Advantage Play in Blackjack

The term advantage play refers to any technique, legal or otherwise, that allows you to turn the house edge to your advantage. Yes, that even includes good old fashioned cheating. Having said that, most gamblers would not consider cheating as belonging to this activity. Though counting cards is probably the most well known of these methods, it’s really of little use today. We suggest that you learn the perfect blackjack strategies and get as much playing experience as you can.