Variations on a Theme
Tips for playing blackjack abroad
By Henry Tamburin
It’s exciting to visit an exotic place and win lots of money playing blackjack. However, nothing can be more frustrating when you return home and the U.S. customs agent asks, “Sir, where did you get all that money from?”
Blackjack is blackjack, right? Not necessarily, especially if you plan to play abroad. Below are some tips to give you a heads-up on what to expect so you’ll be prepared.
Number of Decks
You’ll find mostly six-deck games in the U.S. with also some single- and double-deck games. Casinos abroad deal mostly six-deck games with single- and double-deck games rare. In addition, you will often find single-deck games in American casinos that pay only 6-5 for a blackjack and also blackjack variants like Superfun 21 and Spanish 21. In casinos abroad, you are more likely to find traditional blackjack games that pay 3-2 for an untied blackjack, with no side bets and few blackjack variants (except the popular Pontoon).
Dealer’s Down Card
In the U.S., the dealer takes her down card before players act on their hands. In casinos abroad, the dealer will not take her down card until after all players have acted on their hand. (This is known as the No-Hole-Card Rule).
Impact of the European No-Hole-Card Rule (ENHC)
In most European casinos that have the ENHC rule, when a player doubles down or pair splits and loses to a dealer blackjack, the player loses the initial wager and the secondary wager(s) made in doubling and pair splitting. (By contrast, in virtually all U.S. casinos the dealer peeks at her down card and if she has blackjack, you don’t get a chance to double or split and you lose only your initial wager.) The ENHC rule increases the house edge by about 0.11 percent and it requires the following changes to the basic playing strategy compared to an American game (assume six decks, dealer hits soft 17, doubling after pair splitting is allowed and no surrender):
- Hit hard 11 vs. dealer 10 (instead of doubling)
- Hit Ace-Ace vs. dealer Ace (instead of splitting)
- Hit 8-8 vs. dealer 10 and Ace (instead of splitting)
The common form of surrender in American casinos is known as late surrender where you can surrender your hand and lose half your wager only after the dealer has checked for a blackjack and doesn’t have it. Some casinos in Europe and Asia allow early surrender where you can surrender your hand before the dealer checks for a blackjack. Early surrender is a much more favorable rule for players than late surrender. (According to Arnold Snyder, author of The Big Book of Blackjack, in a multi-deck game early surrender gains you 0.63 percent (s17 game) or 0.72 percent (h17 game). If you can surrender only against a 10 upcard, the gain is 0.24 percent. By comparison, late surrender gains you only 0.07 percent (s17) or 0.09 percent (h17)).
The basic playing strategy for early surrender in a multi-deck game (s17) is as follows:
- Against a dealer ace, surrender hard 5 to 7 (including 3-3) and 12 to 17 (including 6-6, 7-7, and 8-8)
- Against a dealer 10, surrender hard 14-16 (including 7-7 and 8-8)
- Against a dealer 9, surrender hard 10-6 and 9-7 (but not 8-8)
Besides lowering the house edge, surrender (late, and more so, early) also has the benefit that it will stabilize your bankroll (meaning surrender will flatten the fluctuations in your bankroll compared to a game where surrender is not offered and you have to play all your hands to completion).
In most American casinos, you are offered the insurance wager (i.e., betting the dealer has a blackjack) only when the dealer shows an ace upcard. (In some casinos, you are also allowed to make the insurance wager against a dealer 10 upcard.) In some casinos abroad (especially in England), you can only make the insurance bet when you have a blackjack (which is the same as taking even money, meaning you will be paid even money if you take it, regardless if the dealer subsequently has a blackjack).
Card counting is less tolerated in American casinos. There are often better games for card counters abroad than in American casinos, and in general, bigger bet spreads are more tolerated.
It’s exciting to visit an exotic place and win lots of money playing blackjack. However, nothing can be more frustrating when you return home and the U.S. customs agent asks, “Sir, where did you get all that money from?” To save you from that embarrassing situation (and a potentially stressful one if they confiscate your money, which they can and sometimes do), I’ll give you some tips next month about declaring your blackjack winnings.
Tamburin Tip of the Month
Suppose you are dealt the following two hands in succession. How would you play them?
A-4 vs. 3
A-6 vs. 4
Remembering the correct playing strategy for soft hands from A-2 through A-7 against a dealer’s 3 or 4 upcard often frustrates players; however, you’ll make the correct play for 11 out of the 12 possible soft hands (from A-2 through A-7) if you use the Rule of 9 developed by Fred Renzey (Blackjack Bluebook II). Simply add the dealer’s upcard to your “kicker” (the card next to your ace). If they total 9 or more, double down; if it’s less than 9, hit. Therefore, in the first hand above you should hit (3 + 4 < 9), and the second, double down 4 + 6 > 9). Note: The one exception for the Rule of 9 (and that you will have to remember) is to double A-4 against a 4, even though 4 + 4 < 9. Just remember to use the Rule of 9 only against a dealer’s 3 or 4 upcard when you have a two-card soft hand from 13 through 18.
Henry Tamburin is the editor of Blackjack Insider Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com), the lead instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack Course (www.goldentouchblackjack.com), and host of smartgaming.com. For a free three-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter, go to www.bjinsider.com/freetrial. To receive his free Casino Gambling Catalog, call 1-888-353-3234 or visit www.smartgaming.com.