As a game, blackjack has actually changed very little over the years. The ultimate goal of the game is still to make a hand that comes closer to 21 than the dealer’s hand without going over and busting. Sure, there have been variations of the game introduced through the years, and some of them have become very popular. This is especially true in online blackjack where you will find an endless variety of blackjack variations to choose from.
Nevertheless, casinos do from time to time alter the core rules of the game. What is the purpose behind this and who do these rule changes serve? To be a successful blackjack player, either online or at a live casino, requires that you stay abreast of rule changes and what they mean.
Who benefits from changing blackjack rules?
The first thing you need to remember where blackjack rule changes are concerned is that they are never initiated in the player’s best interests. If a casino feels the need to change the rules of blackjack it is because they aren’t winning as much as they would like. A rules change is never, ever in the player’s favor.
When blackjack began it was essentially played with one deck of 52 cards, just the way it is played in the online casino today, and the player options were very limited. You could hit, you could stand, and that was about it. Typically, the dealer kept dealing until almost all the cards in the deck were used up.
That worked great until someone somewhere figured out that if you learned a way to remember how many cards of each kind were left in the deck, you could really improve your chances to win. Presto! Card counting was born, and it forever changed the way both casinos and players approached blackjack.
Almost every rule change that has been enacted in blackjack has been an effort to counter the card counters, if you will. You see, blackjack is only useful to the casino if it is profitable. The house must maintain an edge or there is no point in having the game. Blackjack, even in its most basic form, has always offered the house one of the lowest edges of all modern table games, so it is especially crucial for the casino to protect that edge at all costs.
Hitting the soft 17—the casinos strike back
For a long time the casinos were at a loss about what to do with card counters. Their original strategy was to catch them in the act (or even just accuse them of counting when they won big), take them to a windowless room, and beat them senseless. This happened often in the old days of Las Vegas. As stories began to circulate about the casinos’ methods of dealing with a card counter and the mob presence that was so evident in Las Vegas began to be pushed into the shadows in favor of gaming corporations with a better reputation, the casinos realized that heavy-handed tactics were no longer viable. They had to invent a better way.
By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s things were starting to heat up in Atlantic City. Card counters flocked to this new gambling mecca eager to take the new casinos to the cleaners. It worked, too, for a little while until famous blackjack player Ken Uston clobbered the New Jersey casinos for untold profits. Some estimate that Uston made several million dollars. This left the gaming commission in a pickle. They were getting beaten. Even worse, they were getting embarrassed. Unwilling to take the approach of the Las Vegas heavies, Atlantic City instituted the now-famous soft 17 rule. What this rule did was require the dealer to hit a soft 17. Previously, the dealer was required to stand on all totals of 17. The idea behind the rule change was to give the dealer a free card when they had A-6. It is impossible to bust a soft hand, and many times the dealer would draw a 2, 3, or 4 to improve their hand considerably.
This rule change was effective for a little while until the card counters began to develop new approaches to basic strategy when this situation occurred. Today, most knowledgeable card counters believe that the soft 17 rule actually lowers the house edge instead of increasing it.
You’re beat, so just quit
Another popular blackjack rule change instituted by the casino was the introduction of surrender as a player option. In surrender, a player may forfeit half of their original bet when they believe they have a poor chance of beating the dealer. Surrender can only be done before the player receives additional cards. You are most likely to see a player use it when they have 15 or 16 and the dealer has a 10 showing.
The idea here was to basically collect half of a player’s bet for nothing! The casino is willing to buy you out of a hand, just like the banker does on the popular show Deal or No Deal, except you aren’t getting anything. You’re still losing half of your bet and the casino doesn’t even have to work for it!
Once again, the casino failed to realize that smart players would be able to amend basic strategy and actually turn the surrender option into an advantage. When used properly, surrender can actually work to the player’s favor.
Blackjack is an evolving game
As long as there are casinos and as long as there are card counter, the game of blackjack will continue to evolve. The casinos will keep trying rule changes that they believe maintain the house edge, and smart blackjack players will keep figuring out ways to adjust and keep their profits high.