Question: What is Free Bet Blackjack, and is it worth playing?

Free Bet Blackjack is a blackjack variation where you play initial hands like normal, except that if you split a pair or double-down on a 9, 10, or 11, you can do it for free. What this means is that instead of doubling your bet when you split or double, you simply leave your initial bet; if you win, though, you get paid as if you had increased your bet. So if you bet $5 initially and you double down on an 11, you still only risk your initial $5 bet, but if you win the house gives you $20 instead of $10.

Most of the other standard blackjack rules are the same: six-deck shoe, dealer hits soft 17s, blackjacks pay 3:2, you can re-split and double after you split, and get one card only when splitting aces.

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However, there is one important rule difference: any time the dealer gets 22 she doesn't bust, instead the hand turns into a push. But even with that rule, the game still gives the house less than a 1% edge, making it one of the better blackjack games out there. This slight rule difference also means that you should double any 9, 10, or 11; even 5s should always be doubled instead of split.

Question: Not too long ago I was in a casino in Reno and I saw something, well, unbelievable. My blackjack dealer, a young guy about 25 years old, would sometimes call out a card at random, and then the next card he pulled from the shoe would be that exact card! He did it three or four times; he would nonchalantly say “jack of hearts” and boom! There was the jack of hearts. How is this possible? Was he just the luckiest guy ever, or can dealers actually keep track of which cards are certain places in the deck?

Sadly to report, you were not a witness to any sort of special psychic powers, nor were you sitting at the table of a dirty dealer who was somehow stacking the deck his own way. What happened was simply the combination of a bored young dealer and the habit of gamblers to remember good experiences while forgetting the bad.

Young dealers often take a few years to learn how to keep themselves interested and conversational while dealing blackjack, so it's quite common for new ones to invent ways to stay awake while dealing. So, to make a boring job slightly more interesting, the dealer likely started to randomly call out a card every hand or so. Most of the times he got it wrong and you forgot about it, but when he occasionally got it right, it stuck out as something incredible.

Remember that casinos need their shoes to be shuffled completely randomly; a dealer who does a trick shuffle is going to get caught and fired in no time. And since there are more than 8 x 1067 different ways to shuffle one deck of cards (which is more than all the stars in the universe) the chance that a dealer could correctly guess every card in a six-deck shoe is literally impossible.