How Does the Casino Have the Advantage in Blackjack?

Casino blackjack dealer

Casino blackjack dealer

You have heard it said often enough, “The house always wins”.  And while most experienced gamblers feel better about playing blackjack than they do about playing slots or keno-style games, they still concede that the house has an “edge” even in blackjack.  How is it that casinos have this edge?  Is there no way to beat the casino at its own game?

First, let’s remember that a “house edge” is mathematically nothing more than a commission based on percentage of wagers placed in the game.  In most casino games you are gambling against the house (the casino), and in order to give you a reasonable (if not entirely fair) chance at making money the casino has to offer games that you can sometimes win.  There is nothing to prevent you from staking $100 on a bet, winning $500, and walking away.  If you could do that every time you, though, you would be able to support yourself on your gambling proceeds until the casino runs out of money.

Casinos Are Just Brokering Cash Flow Among Many Players

But what is really happening in most casino games is that the house is brokering a redistribution of wealth.  You may not be playing against other gamblers in most of these games but the majority of the money really does stay with the gamblers.  So for every 100 players who lay down $1000 in bets on slot games, for example, the house only keeps about 3-8% of those wagers (this varies by game, casino, and jurisdiction).  That means the casino makes about $4000 on every $100,000 that gamblers wager.  The remaining $96,000 “leaves” with the players, even though some players leave broke.

This constant inflow and outflow of money is opaque to the average player because people are constantly coming and going at casinos, whether they are land-based or online.  That means that “new money” comes in the door every day to replace the “old money” that goes out the door.  So the casino makes a profit just by attracting players.

The house edge in blackjack games is usually figured in the 1.2% to 2% range depending on the rules that the casinos lay down.  But there is more to it than that.  Casinos know that there are many different levels of experience among players and they count on the less experienced players to make mistakes.

In fact, casinos set up blackjack games to encourage players to make mistakes while preventing their own dealers from making the most common mistakes.  The dealers are also trained to play according to a very narrow set of rules so it’s easier for them to learn how to play the games fairly without making many mistakes.  Let’s take a look at how the casinos stack the probabilities in their favor (legally).

The Dealer Plays by a Different Set of Rules

When you look at how the dealer plays the game, you should see that he never doubles down, never splits, and never plays his cards first.

These three restrictions alone give the casino a statistical edge against you.  For example, players are given the privilege of asking for more cards before the dealer.  So each player has an opportunity to bust out.  The dealer could win with just a 2 and a 3 card on the table because all the players hit too many times and bust.  This happens more often than most people realize.

In a game where the dealer never has to draw a card, your skills as a card player trying to manage the probabilities don’t look very impressive.  Fortunately, the dealer doesn’t win by default against all players very often.

Dealers have to stand on 17.  Everyone knows that.  They may have to take a hit on a soft 17 on some tables as well.  Nonetheless, dealer rules in blackjack are very conservative by intent.  The house is taking as few risks as possible with its money.

You don’t have to stand on 17.  You could draw an ace, a 2, a 3, or even a 4 and still come out ahead or at least match the dealer’s hand.

The Dealer Always Has the Advantage of Going Last

Some people think, “But what if I play by the same rules as the dealer?”  There are two problems with this strategy.

First, you only get ahead if you take more risks than the house.  The more you risk in blackjack the more you can win.  For example, if you double down (double your bet and take only one more card) you may win twice as much as you would if you only played the same bet every time.

The casino has to match every wager on the table.  That’s a high risk right there, but the dealer can never increase the casino’s risk.  The decision to raise the stakes always lies with the player.

But because the dealer does not have to decide whether to draw another card until after all the players have made their choices, players tend to eliminate themselves from the game with above-average risky play.  In other words, the more players sitting at a table, the more likely that over half those players will bust, sacrificing their wagers to the casino.

And in the long run the casino pays players out of each other’s losses, keeping a small percentage of the money for itself.

Hence, it makes sense that the dealer be the last person at the table to draw cards.  The only time the dealer reveals his hand first is if he has a blackjack.  Then he wins against all players who don’t have an equal hand, and those players that do have twenty one points only “push” (they keep their bets).

Hence, even when the probabilities seem to be even the odds (how much the casino pays when you win) limit the casino’s losses.

Your Only Advantage in Blackjack Is Your Self-Discipline

It has been said that casinos don’t like people who count cards.  Truth be told, successful card counting requires a lot of play because it depends on the players keeping a slightly better edge of the wagers than players who don’t count cards.

Hence, casinos don’t mind that much if you try to count cards because most people don’t play the game long enough for card counting to pay off.  Professional card counting teams have to mount long hours and complicated schedules where they keep the tables hot; casinos have learned to look out for such teams and don’t need to worry about individual players very much.

Nonetheless, one of the classic giveaways that a player is counting cards is that he’ll increase his bets when the cards in the shoe begin to dwindle and he’ll decrease his bets just after a new shuffle or a new shoe is introduced.  Card counting depends on the rise and fall of the probabilities.

If you play a more disciplined game than the casino you can walk away a winner, even though that won’t happen every time.  You just need to win often enough or enough money to cover your losses and leave you with something extra.  The best blackjack players never keep a game going.  They quit while they are ahead, usually by taking money off the table so that when they finally lose whatever they left on the table they are still ahead.

Your money lasts longer when you play smaller bets.  This is true of all gambling games.  Casinos may incentivize aggressive betting by offering better odds on higher bets.  They may also set a minimum bet requirement on a table.  The more you stake on any individual hand or spin of the reels in a casino game, the greater the payoff for the casino in the long run.

Except in games that take the amount of the wager into consideration, your chances of winning are just as good when you make small wagers as when you make high wagers.  But you lose your money faster when you make high wagers.