In a previous article we talked about gambling superstitions/rules of thumb/conventional wisdom that is actually good advice. More specifically, we talked about the old adage that you should ‘always split aces and eights’. Today we’ll do a variation on the same theme with another blackjack ‘conventional wisdom’ that also happens to be a smart way to play.
NEVER TAKE INSURANCE AT THE BLACKJACK TABLE
If you’ve spent anytime playing blackjack at a land based or online casino you know what ‘insurance’ is. It’s essentially a side bet that comes into play when a dealer has an ace as his upcard. Typically, the dealer will make a big deal of asking ‘insurance?’ The insurance bet can be made for up to 1/2 of your original bet. If you want to bet insurance you place down a chip and wait for the dealer to play his hand. If he has a 10 under the ace (and thus a ‘natural’ blackjack) your insurance bet is paid at 2 to 1. If he doesn’t have a 10 hole card he collects the insurance bet and the hand proceeds.
The premise is that you can ‘insure’ a good hand against the risk of a blackjack. Say you’re holding a pair of 10’s and have a 20. That would typically be a pretty strong hand but if the dealer shows an ace you’ll be sweating it out. So should you buy ‘insurance’? to at least break even if the dealer does have a blackjack?
Nope. It’s a sucker bet. Never buy insurance. The only possible exception is for extremely talented card counters who are confident that the deck is ’10 rich’. If you fit that description, you already understand the probabilities behind the play. For everyone else just don’t do it. Buy insurance that is.
Typically, blackjack has some of the most favorable ‘house edges’ available on any casino game. The specific rules of the table you’re at including number of decks, late surrender, splitting and double rules, etc. change the exact hold percentage but you can often find tables with a theoretical hold of around–and in some cases less than–1.5%. A few other games for comparison–single zero roulette has a house edge of 2.70%, double zero roulette has a house edge of 5.26% and Red Dog has a house edge of 2.80%. Although the precise house edge varies with number of decks, etc. the general house edge on an ‘insurance’ bet is right around 7.4%!
So why do players even think of taking insurance? It’s a psychological thing. They feel vindicated when the dealer *does* have a hole card and their insurance bet pays out. They rationalize that they ‘saved a bet’ when they’re still playing into the same 7.4% house edge. They just got lucky. They’ll shrug off the occasions when the insurance bet loses.
The same advice goes for taking ‘even money’ when you have a blackjack with a dealer showing an Ace upcard. It’s easy to think that you might as well ‘get something’ out of the blackjack and take the even money. What you’ve essentially done is make an insurance bet without even knowing it–and playing in to the same 7.4% house edge.
The correct play for 99.9% of players: don’t take insurance. If you have a blackjack and the dealer is showing an Ace upcard don’t take an even money payout. Sweat it out and let him play out the hand. There are 16 ten value cards per deck (12 face cards, 4 tens) and in the longterm you’ll be better off just riding it out and hoping for the best. You’ll win some and you’ll lose some but you’ll still be dealing with a favorable house edge and not the brutal 7.4%.