Average you can expect to lose while playing blackjack

My elder son has finished up his year in college and came home the other day. As we do our best to keep him entertained while in Vegas, we went to the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana the other night.
Invariably, when comedians are in Las Vegas, they will tell jokes about the dry heat and about losing money while gambling. I think I’ve been very honest about the odds of long-term winning while gambling. With the rare exception of some tough to find video poker games and/or the ability to count in blackjack, you’re simply not going to win in the long term. But, this doesn’t mean you have to “lose your shirt” either.
A few weeks ago I showed how when playing blackjack for an hour, a $5 player should expect to lose only a little over $1/hour. This, of course, assumes playing properly. If you are too timid to double down on soft hands, or don’t like splitting 2’s looking into a 7, then, well, all bets are off as to what your payback will really be.
The comedian was hopefully joking when he talked about struggling to add up his cards while playing blackjack. If you’re really struggling with this, maybe you should try Casino War or Three Card Poker.
In that same column where I talked about the average you can expect to lose while playing blackjack, I also mentioned the average you can expect to lose while playing full-pay Jacks or Better video poker. As the two games have similar paybacks, the only real difference is the average amount you wager in an hour of each game.
Much to many players’ surprise, a max-coin quarter video poker player actually wagers more in an hour than a $5 blackjack competitor. That said, however, the game of video poker is far more volatile, and while the average loss rate may only be a couple of bucks an hour (depending on speed of play), actual results will wind up all over the place.
Blackjack is a much less volatile game and we will find our actual results will really tend to be very close to the theoretical amount. To help illustrate this point, I ran 100,000 multi-hour sessions of blackjack, each consisting of 100 hands. I then tabulated the amount won or lost, rounding to the nearest dollar.
First of all, the player had a winning session nearly 46% of the time. He lost 49% of the time, with the remainder being breaking even. Around 32% of the time the player will wind up within $20 of his starting point, with only a slight slant toward the losing side. He will wind up within $40 of his original bankroll more than 55% of the time and lose $100 or more only 5%.
To be clear, this is not the same as saying if he starts with $100, he will go “bust” only 5% of the time. The simulation I ran does not take into account a player who may have at some point been down more than $100 and then come back to lose less than $100. This will not be a huge number, but it will add to the total.
I’m not downplaying the impact of losing $100. This is not a small amount and could be considered a high cost for 2-plus hours of entertainment. At the same time, we are only talking about a 1 in 20 chance, while the player has a 4.4% chance of winning $100 or more. That’s why it is called gambling.
The overall point is the notion that every time you gamble you’re going to lose your shirt is simply not accurate. If we assume paying up to $25 is a fair price for the 2-3 hours of entertainment value, then we find the player will meet this goal 62% of the time. In fact, of this 62%, he will actually wind up winning money nearly 75% of the time.
Again, this all assumes playing properly. This tends to be what trips up players far more often than the basic nature of the game. Blackjack has a payback of about 99.5% when played properly. Played improperly, the payback could drop dramatically.
If you drop it to 98%, which is still a respectable payback for most table games, this may not seem like a lot, bit it means the casino advantage increases fourfold. If I were to simulate such a strategy, we would find the numbers are not so generous to the player, and the likelihood of losing one’s shirt will go up considerably.
Thus, while the nature of the game is still one where the player will lose in the long run, the player can greatly control (within reason), just how much will be lost by learning to play using the right strategy.
I’d like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to my elder son who is turning 21 this week. A very happy birthday to you! Welcome to the age of majority.

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