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Blackjack with different rules31 March 2016
Even the variations have variations, and a reader e-mailed to ask about Free Bet Blackjack. I’d written about Free Bet, devised by Geoff Hall, when it appeared at the Global Gaming Expo in 2012.
The reader found the game recently with rules that were a little different than the standard version. Usually, Free Bet has the dealer hit soft 17 and surrender is not offered. In the variation the reader found, the dealer stands on all 17s and late surrender is offered.
Both are helpful rules to the player, but the reader wanted to know how much that affected the house edge.
We need to start by breaking down the game, seeing what’s in it for the player and what the house takes back in exchange.
In its most common version, Free Bet is a six-deck blackjack game in which the dealer hits soft 17, blackjacks pay 3-2, you may double down on any first two cards, you may double down after splitting pairs and you may resplit pairs, including aces, up to three times for a total of four hands.
The only unusual rule there is resplitting aces, and that’s a good option for players to have.
The real departures from the norm come on double downs and pair-splitting situations. You get free double downs on hard totals of 9, 10 or 11. If you win on a free double, you get paid on the original bet and an equal amount for the double down, but if you lose, the dealer takes only your original bet.
You also get free splits on any pairs except 10-values. After splits, as you play out each hand, you may free double or free split again. So if you split 8-8, and one hand is dealt a 3 to give you an 11, you may double for free. If one hand is dealt another 8 so you again are paired up, you may split for free.
That’s all so good for the player there has to be a catch, right?
Of course there is. What’s in it for the house is that dealer hands of 22 are pushes. No matter how good your hand, even if you have 21, if the dealer busts with a total of exactly 22, the hand is a push.
With an adapted basic strategy, that adds up to a game with a 1.04% house edge – a little higher than standard six-deck games with blackjacks paying 3-2, but lower than most other casino games.
What if you find a the variation my reader spotted, where the dealer stands on all 17s and late surrender is offered?
At wizardofodds.com, Michael Shackleford has a breakdown of Free Bet that includes the effect of rules variations. When the dealer stands on all 17s, the player gains 0.31%. And when late surrender is offered, the player gains another 0.21%.
So with all rules standard except for these two variations, Free Bet has a house edge of about 0.52% against a basic strategy player, making it very competitive with mainstream six-deck games.
On the Wizard of Odds site, Shackleford raises an interesting point. Contrary to most blackjack games, Free Bet is better for the player when more decks are used. A single-deck Free Bet game would have a house edge 0.14% higher than a six-deck game. That’s one variation to beware.
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Best of John Grochowski