The casino is full of games of luck. The game design and payout ratios have all been carefully crafted and weighted to give the casino an edge whatever happens, and this ensures the casino’s survival.
For example, in roulette you can choose to make bets on less likely outcomes for bigger rewards, and you can try staking strategies to avoid losing your bankroll all in one go, but you can do precisely nothing to influence the result of each spin. This makes it a game of pure luck.
Slots are all programmed to be random as well. Sure, someone will eventually win the jackpot and a high paying spin can occur at any time, but the player has absolutely no way of knowing when this will happen or timing when they play to give them a better chance. Again, all luck.
When it comes to blackjack though, the player can make decisions that have an impact on the outcome of the game. Sticking on a 15 could be a good call if the next card is a 10 and will make the dealer go bust, but if you had chosen to play wild and hit you would have lost the hand.
However, there is no way of knowing for sure what that next card will be, so, is blackjack about skill or is it about luck?
Blackjack: Where Skill and Luck Meet
The truth is that blackjack is a game of both skill and luck.
An inexperienced player making crazy decisions can actually end up coming out ahead if the cards fall in their favour, but they could equally lose their shirts; whereas a skilled player who understands the game inside out and applies proper strategy can whittle away at the house edge until it is almost non-existent.
A skilled player will still need an element of luck though if they want to get ahead in any meaningful way, as even making statistically sound decisions on every hand can lead to losses if the cards go against you.
For example, a hand of 20 will win around 70% of the time, but there is always the chance that the dealer will match it resulting in a push (around 17.5% or the time) or even get 21 or Blackjack (around 12% of the time).
So what are the different elements that make up the skill and luck portions of a game of blackjack?
Blackjack’s enduring popularity is arguably down to the skill element.
Few casino games give the player any degree of control or meaningful decision making, so a game that does is always going to be attractive to players with self-confidence.
So what skill elements are included in a game of blackjack?
- Game choice
- Optimal strategy
- Stake size
- Knowledge of math
There are many blackjack variations, especially online, as well as similar games with slightly different rules. Maybe one version uses 8 decks instead of 6, maybe one allows early surrender and another doesn’t.
Knowing what these rules mean and how they effect your edge over the long term allows you to choose the game that gives you the best chance of winning most often.
Knowledge of optimal strategy is probably the foundation of any serious blackjack player’s game. They will also know when and how to deviate from this of course, but fundamentally, this is where they will begin.
Optimal strategy tells you when to surrender, split, double, stand, or hit in any given scenario, based on the statistical chances of winning. It’s not watertight but it’s what all RTP’s displayed on games online are based on – if you aren’t playing optimally then you are not getting that RTP.
Card counting is harder to do these days, and impossible online, but part of this practice was knowing when to start betting larger amounts. In basic terms, the player would wait for the shoe to favour them by tracking which cards had already been dealt, then bet bigger when they had more chance of winning. Knowing how to handle your bankroll is another skill factor when playing blackjack.
Lastly, a good head for numbers will ensure you can make decisions quickly and confidently based on the cards in front of you, as well as making adjustments along the way. In fact, all of the famous blackjack players mentioned on this site were highly proficient in mathematics, and they all trained hard to understand the game inside out so that they could beat it.
Despite everything mentioned above, all the correct choices a player can make, if the cards are cruel or simply don’t give the player the opportunity to win, then that player is going to lose money.
There is only one real luck element to blackjack and that is the order of the cards in the shoe, because this dictates which cards you will be dealt and which will be dealt to the dealer or other players.
These days this is done by an automatic shuffler in the real world or an RNG online, so it’s purely random and down to chance.
A case in point would be a situation where you had been dealt an awkward hard 16 and the dealer’s up card was a 7. Optimal strategy would tell you – in a standard 6 deck game with the dealer playing to 17 – that the best decision statistically speaking would be to hit, because the dealer has plenty of chance to hit 17 or higher and win the hand.
So you do, and low and behold, you get a 4! What great luck. Instead of going bust – which was a very real possibility – you have a strong hand of 20.
The dealer reveals their hole card to be a 9, giving them 16 when added to the 7, so they must take another card. They draw a 5, giving them 21 and beating your hand.
So despite you playing the hand you were dealt perfectly, and getting a dose of your own good luck along the way, lady luck was kinder to the dealer who is now taking your money.
One other luck factor that could impact your game if you were playing at a bricks and mortar venue, would be the guys or girls sitting next to you.
This is because their decisions will have a direct impact on your hand.
If someone in the seat next to you hits when they should really have stood, then they are taking a card that you would have got if you had hit. This can either be a good or thing or a bad thing depending on the card, but nevertheless, luck is involved here in a big way.
In terms of what kind of players you want at your table though, there’s not really a right or wrong answer. A bad player can end up burning through cards that would have been no good to you so you end up with a winner, while a good player might make all the sensible decisions but end up leaving you with cards that ruin your hand. The same could be true in reverse.
It’s all about the luck of the draw.
If Blackjack is a Skill Game, Why do Casinos Offer it?
It’s a good question, considering casinos don’t like to give away too much of an advantage to players.
The truth is that when blackjack became so popular no one had really figured out how to beat it yet – at least, not publicly.
When card counting caught on and players starting writing books about it, casinos were still playing blackjack with a single deck and playing right the way through the shoe.
As soon as they realised a player who had done their homework could take advantage of this they added more decks into the shoe and changed the rules about how often the deck was shuffled (which ruins the count).
Blackjack was already too popular to be removed from the casino floor by the time people wised up to the fact it was beatable using maths and stats, so casinos kept it alive but tinkered with it to make it harder to beat.
The rules still give the house the edge, even if that edge is small for a player who knows what they are doing.
One example of this is that the player must play their hand first. Even when playing optimally there will be occasions when you go bust before the dealer has even revealed their hand, so even if they would have gone bust too it doesn’t matter, they win and you lose.
Not to mention the fact that most players don’t know what they are doing, so give an awful lot of the edge back to the casino just by playing badly.
In essence then, Blackjack is a game of luck when it comes to the cards you are dealt, but a game of skill in knowing how to play the cards you are dealt.