Blackjack, the most popular casino table game, presents casino operators with something of a puzzle. In addition to its popularity, it also has a low house edge (half a percent or so) when using a basic strategy that's not all that difficult to learn.
They don't design games with house edges that narrow anymore. The house edges at newer games mirror the 2 to 2.5 percent edges faced by a Blackjack player who hasn't taken the time to learn basic strategy.
What the casinos would really like is a way to increase their edge at Blackjack. One of these ways is to add side bets to ongoing blackjack games - bets on whether the player or dealer with have a Blackjack, how many 7’s the player will draw, whether the player's first two cards will be of the same suit, and so on. Such side bets almost invariably have a much higher house edge than the basic game. They also have a short shelf life as players discover they're losing their money faster than they do without the side bet.
Side bets include:
21 + 3: Invented by Derek Webb, the Englishman who devised Three Card Poker, 21 + 3 has become popular in the South and has started to make waves in Las Vegas as well. The 21 stands for Blackjack, and the + 3 is for a three-card poker hand consisting of the player's first two cards and the dealer's face-up card. If those three cards yield a flush, straight, three of a kind or straight flush, the player is paid 9-1 on the side bet. The house edge is 3.2 percent, making 21 + 3 one of the better side bets, although still not as good as sticking to regular Blackjack.
21 Madness: This is probably the most widely available side bet in Blackjack for the time being. The player makes a $1 wager in addition to the regular Blackjack bet. Then, if the player is dealt a two-card 21, he or she gets to push a button to start a lighted display, which stops to reveal a bonus payoff that ranges from $5 to $1,000. Blackjacks occur about once per 21 hands, so this would be a break-even bet if the average payoff was $21. Observations made by a team in Australia suggest the average is $16, which would leave a house edge of 23.8 percent. That's not necessarily the case here, as the average payoff could be higher or lower. Still, this looks like one side bet to leave alone.
Royal Match: Here's one that has come and gone in the Chicago market. It still shows up in other jurisdictions. The side bet pays off if the player's first two cards are of the same suit, with a larger payoff for King-Queen of the same suit - a "Royal Match." The most common version pays 2.5-1 on most matches, and 25-1 on a royal match. Suited hands are more common with more decks in play, so the house edge at Royal Match actually decreases as the number of decks increase. The house edge in this version, when it was played with six decks at Harrah's Joliet, was 6.7 percent. In a single-deck game, the house edge would have been 10.9 percent.
There's a higher-paying version of Royal Match, which cuts the return on suited King-Queen to 10-1, but raises other matches to 3-1. On that one, the house edge is 3.8 percent on a single-deck game, but the player actually gets a 1.1 percent edge on a six-deck game. That doesn't accomplish the casino goal of padding the house edge, so that's one side bet you'll probably never see. Progressive Blackjack: Mikohn Gaming, which distributes Caribbean Stud, Caribbean Draw and other table games with progressive jackpots, developed this side bet that pays off according to the number of Aces in the player's hand. It involves a $1 bet in addition to a regular Blackjack wager. The player is paid $3 if the hand includes one Ace, $15 for two Aces of different suits, $50 for two suited Aces, $200 for three unsuited Aces, $1,000 for three suited Aces, $2,000 for four unsuited Aces and the progressive jackpot, which starts at $25,000 for four red or four black Aces. At the beginning jackpot of $25,000, the house edge is a lofty 53 percent. Ouch.
When you find yourself at a table offering one of the side bets listed here, remember that the basic strategy for side bets at Blackjack is almost always not to make them.