Blackjack - A game of luck or skill?

A great debate rages around whether casino blackjack is a game of luck or skill. Some insist that it comes down to luck as the cards are randomly dealt while others maintain that skilful strategic blackjack play will lower the house edge and give you the best possible results regardless of the hands you are dealt.

The argument gets so intense on some player forums that just reading the justifications for each side are enough to make your head hurt. And the answer? It's really both luck and skill that influence the outcome of each hand.

Luck, in the cards you are dealt, and skill in knowing how to play whatever cards you're dealt in order to maximise your profits or minimize the expected loss inherent in the hand. Ultimately that is what it comes down to, no matter what each side of the debate may say. If you play with no inkling of blackjack strategy at all, then it will be a game of luck, but if you take the time to learn the moves for each hand and situation, then you'll move into the realm of skilful play and with that of course, comes profit.

When playing the game of blackjack, being dealt a decent number of blackjack hands is critical to success not only are these hands wins, but when you're playing a game that pays 3:2 like you should always do, these payouts lower the house edge significantly. If we look at the statistics, in standard 8 deck blackjack games, the player will achieve blackjack once in every 22 hands, or around 4.5% of the time. The same applies to dealers, however blackjack players earn an additional 50% of their bet while the dealers only claim what is wagered. So if you multiply the added 50% of your wager by the frequency of hitting blackjack, the 2.25% result is the decrease in what would otherwise be the house advantage.

If you happen to be lucky enough to be dealt blackjack more often than once in every 22 hands, the payouts can multiply rapidly and the house edge can quickly tilt in your favour. Of course the opposite is also true and you may achieve fewer than 4.5% which can quickly eat into your bankroll.

When it comes to blackjack hands two issues are raised - firstly whether to play games with lower than 3:2 payouts because they offer other features, and secondly whether to use the insurance option when the dealer is showing an ace. Doing this returns the advantage to the house but you're guaranteed even money which is sometimes more appealing to players, even though not opting for insurance is statistically not in your favour with nine ways to earn 3:2 payouts versus four to push and none to lose.

Another important factor in skilful blackjack play is the basic strategy pertaining to doubling. You will generally have the opportunity to double once in every 10 hands or 9.6% of the time. You will need to win a fair share of these doubled hands due to the amount of money at risk on these bets, and that doesn't always happen which can be disastrous. Yet, statistically the odds are in your favour and players usually enjoy the edge on doubles.

Split pairs are another play in which skill should be exercised to induce and advantage. Splits occur one in approximately 39 hands or 2.6% of the time. When playing according to sound blackjack strategy, 67.5% hold a positive expectation, with the remaining 32.5% breaking even or losing more money than they make you.

Of course, it may seem odd to split pairs if they are projected to lose almost a third of the time, but the average loss in these instances is lowered by the split than any other alternative plays offer. So while the casino's edge is not voided, it is lowered.

In total, doubles and splits occur once in every 8 hands or 12.2% of the time during a game. Blackjack, both contested and uncontested hands account for 4.7% of the hands, which means that blackjack strategy dictates standing on one in every 2.5 hands or 40% of the game and hitting ever 2.4 hands, or 42.2%.

While it may be easier to stand with a hand value of 20 when facing a weak dealer upcard, not all plays are this comforting and you have to adhere to strategy, standing with 16 against a dealer's 3, knowing full well you're likely to lose rather than win. It's all about playing the numbers.

Some hits are weak - if you're holding 16 against the dealer's 7 you may hit and win, but it's not that likely and the numbers are against you on this one. Sometimes strong hits are just as conflicted. Hitting on a nine when facing a seven has a solid 17% positive expectation but that's hardly a sure win.

Sometimes luck will be on your side, and sometimes it won't but strategy will always win out in the end - the statistics exist to prove it. Still it comes down to each individual's level of skill in applying it.