The casino game where skill matters

Like most people, you might think that casino games are all down to luck – there is no strategy or skill to employ, just random placing of bets or spinning reels. Yet there is one extremely well-known game played in brick and mortar and online casinos where skill really does come in – blackjack.

But before we reveal why this is so, we need to clear up an important housekeeping matter. Even though you can use strategy and skill in blackjack, you are not expected to be a winner in the long term.

A casino, real or online, needs to make a profit to survive and provide us with entertainment. To ensure they make money, every game has a house edge. So yes, all games are skewed in the house’s (or casino’s) favour. It’s rare for a casino to close down.

Some games have a bigger house edge than others – for example, American roulette, the one with single and double zero segments, has a house edge of 5.25%. That means for every £100 you bet, you are expected to lose £5.25 – this is presuming you played 24/7 for years. Of course, you get short term swings, meaning you can still profit on any particular gaming session.

But roulette is one of those casino luck games – you cannot influence the results. You simply place a bet somewhere on the table and hope the white ball lands in the relevant pocket of the spinning reel.

In blackjack, however, everything changes. For example, the expected house edge for random play is around 2%. But if you employ just a bit of sensible strategy and skill, you can bring that down to just 0.5%.

A house edge that low is as close to break-even as you’re going to get in a casino. If you want to play for hours in a real Las Vegas casino like the Bellagio, get free drinks, and have fun, then this is probably the game for you. In other games, you might burn through your cash faster, unless you get lucky.

What Skill is there in Blackjack?

Although you will find many books out there with complicated-looking strategies and equations, all you need to accept in blackjack is that it is a game of probability. Once you recognise that the next card to be dealt is most likely to be a ten, you’re well ahead of most other players.

With tens, jacks, queens and kings all being valued at ten, there are 16 cards in every 52-card deck that will be that total. Now, you can assume a 16/52 probability – even less if you have seen other tens dealt from the current blackjack shoe. Card counting is frowned upon, not illegal, but you are not expected to be a mathematical wizard.

Why does knowing this help? There are two key scenarios to look at, and both centre around the dealer’s upcard. If you play online, this is easier to follow when you play with a live dealer because you get to think about your strategy while other players make their own decisions.

You must assume the dealer’s unknown downcard is a ten (the most likely card), so adding this to the visible upcard gives their likely total. Now you have a handle on the dealer’s total, you can play your hand more appropriately – and profitably.

Dealer has a poor upcard

If the dealer shows something like a 4, you assume their total is 14, and they must draw another card – likely going bust. In this case, you can stand on any two cards of your own over 11 – even 12 or 13. Why draw another card and risk busting over 21 when that’s the most likely scenario for the dealer?

Dealer shows a good upcard

On the flip side, if the dealer shows a strong upcard like a nine or a 10, you must assume that their total is 19 or 20. In this case, you must be more bold with your hand, taking another card if necessary to try and edge closer to 21. There may be no point in standing on 16 or 17.

Other blackjack skills to adopt

Using the dealer upcard strategy will stand you out at the table as a skilful player. Just observe others who take unnecessary risks when the dealer has a poor upcard, and see what happens.

Another skill you can adopt as part of a basic blackjack strategy is using the double-down option when you see the dealer is weak and you have a wide selection of hands totalling 11 or under. This way, you draw one more card and have the advantage of a double wager on the table.

Secondly, split wisely only when the dealer’s upcard is weak. And never split tens – why would you risk doubling your bet when you most likely have the winning hand already?