When blackjack first made its way onto casino floors worldwide, there was not much variation in how the game played at different tables rules-wise. But things have changed greatly over the span of the last sixty years or so. Not only will blackjack mavens come across different playing rules from one gambling venue to another but often will find rule variations at different blackjack tables in the same casino.
The most common rule variation concerns the number of decks in play. Deck number is easily one of the most important things that bear consideration when you choose a blackjack game, the reason being it impacts the advantage the casino holds against players. As a rule of thumb, the more decks are in play at a given blackjack table, the bigger the advantage of the house, which in turn results in smaller returns for the players.
That being said, most blackjack pros avoid single deck games because their rules have been crippled to such an extent so as to render them completely unplayable. But what about double deck blackjack? Is it any good? The following article discusses the good, the bad, and the ugly side of double deck 21 and introduces you to the favorable rules you must look for while on your quest for decent pitch games.
The Basic Rules of Play in Double Deck Blackjack
The first thing you will notice when you approach a double deck blackjack table is that the cards are pitched. In other words, the dealer holds the two packs in their hand and tosses the cards face-down toward each player. In pitch games (also called hand-held or face-down games), each player picks up their two starting cards with one hand only but never takes them off or under the table.
Hand gestures are used to signal the different playing decisions. Some of these include scratching the felt with your two cards to signal a hit and slipping them face-down under your chips to indicate a stand. We have covered all hand signals in both pitch and multiple deck games in our Blackjack Rules article so feel free to go back and check it out.
The premise of the game is the same as that in all other blackjack variations. Your goal is to obtain a total that is as closest to 21 as possible (and higher than the dealer’s) without going over. When dealer and player have the same total, their hands push and the player gets to collect their original bet or let it ride. Once the cards are dealt, you have a choice from the standard playing decisions of hitting, standing, pair splitting, and doubling down.
Double Deck Blackjack Additional TipsWhen the dealer’s upcard is an Ace, players are offered insurance, which, if accepted, will cost them half of their original stake. Surrendering where you forfeit your two-card hand in exchange for half of your bet is generally not an option at double deck tables.
After all players have made their decisions, the dealer completes their hand and settles the payouts before a fresh round starts. The two decks are normally cut toward the middle but different establishments may give different deck penetration. Next, we make a distinction between the favorable and unfavorable proprietary rules for double deck games.
Double Deck Games with Advantageous Rules
The first rule variation we shall examine has to do with the dealer’s fixed standing total. In optimal double deck games, the dealer stands on all totals of 17, soft or hard. Here are several examples of soft 17s where the Ace’s value can be either 1 or 11: A-6, A-2-4, and A-3-3. Soft totals tend to be dealt more frequently in pitch games because the effect of the individual cards’ removal is more pronounced when fewer decks are in play.
The optimal alternative is to choose a pitch game where the dealer stands on soft 17s (S17). This notion may sound counterintuitive because the dealer is then sitting on a completed hand but we should also take into consideration the fact the dealer is always the last one to act at the table.
A dealer hitting soft 17 (H17) has the opportunity to improve their starting total. So in essence, the S17 rule prevents the dealer from potentially outdrawing you by pulling a deuce, a 3 or a 4 on the next hit. This fixed rule alone reduces the house advantage you are combating by around 0.22%.
The ability to double down on any starting two-card total is of equal import for blackjack players. This is important because of the differences in some strategy decisions for double deck games. In pitch games played with two decks, the optimal strategy calls for doubling down on soft totals of 13 through 18 when the dealer exposes weak cards 5 or 6.
The strategy recommends doubling on soft 18 against a dealer 6 as well. Not being able to make the correct strategy moves because of doubling-down restrictions is never good for a blackjack player. The ability to double down on any two cards you want decreases the casino’s advantage by around 0.11%.
The rules pertaining to splitting also bear consideration. The rules of a decent double deck game allow you to split all pairs of numerically equal cards as well as to resplit to up to four individual hands. An exception is generally made for pairs consisting of Aces which can be split but cannot be resplit in most double deck games. However, resplitting Aces (or RSA) is a very valuable option for the player, albeit one that is rarely found in most double deck versions of 21.
Being able to hit split aces is yet another rule that merits the player. This enables you to take the full advantage of splitting your Aces and eliminates the possibility of you getting stuck with poor totals like 12 through 16 where you can win only provided that the dealer breaks their hand.
Such poor hands should be hit when the dealer’s upcard (like 9 or 10, for example) puts them in a good position. However, if the dealer exposes a weak card that increases their chances of busting, you might want to stand on your poor totals instead of hitting your split aces.
Having the option for a late surrender is another beneficial rule but double deck tables that still use it are quite the rarity these days. When surrendering, you are basically forfeiting your starting hand in exchange for half of your stake.
If allowed, double deck players should always surrender totals 15 through 17< (including pairs of 8s) when the dealer shows an Ace. Similarly, the optimal strategy for double deck games requires you to forfeit starting hands that total 16 or 15 when the dealer exposes strong cards 10, Q, J or K. The presence of the late surrender rule also reduces the casino’s advantage, albeit with 0.04% to 0.07% only (provided that all other rules are favorable to the player).
The decisions of doubling down and splitting are sometimes discussed in conjunction because some variants of 21 allow players to execute the doubling decision after splitting pairs. This rule, commonly abbreviated as DAS (Doubling After Splitting), can be quite useful in certain situations and even more so if combined with the option to resplit. One of the most prominent examples of DAS’ usefulness is when the player gets dealt a pair of 3s and splits it against a dealer exposing a 5.
This is a weak card for the dealer, so DAS would enable you to fully benefit from the favorable situation after splitting as you might catch a 6, a 7 or an 8 for a total of 9, 10 or 11 to double on. The presence of DAS effectively reduces the casino’s advantage by around 0.13%.
And finally, we have the peek and hole-card rules which we believe should also be discussed in conjunction because when no hole cards are in play, peeking for naturals is practically impossible. In the majority of double deck games, the dealer peeks. i.e. checks for blackjack, only when their upcard is an Ace. However, some variations require the dealer to peek for naturals both when showing an Ace or a ten-value card, which is all the better for the player.
A decent double deck game utilizes hole cards (the dealer’s face-down cards) so that the dealer peeks for blackjacks before the player gets to act. The rule has a pronounced impact on the player’s doubling down and splitting decisions and reduces the house advantage by around 0.11%. Now, let’s summarize the optimal rules for a favorable double deck game so you can have them all in one place:
- Dealer stands on soft 17 (S17)
- Players can double down on any two-card total
- Players can split all pairs, resplit to four hands, and hit split Aces (the last rule has gone nearly obsolete in double deck games, though)
- Doubling after splitting is allowed (DAS)
- Late surrender (LS) is allowed
- The dealer checks for naturals before the player acts on their hand
- Blackjacks pay 3 to 2
Double Deck Games with Disadvantageous Rules
Since double deck blackjack is easy to count and yields a smaller house advantage in comparison to six or eight deck games, most casinos have tweaked the rules to gain a larger edge over their players. The most common changes concern the dealer’s drawing rules on soft totals of 17.
As we explained previously, a dealer hitting soft 17 works to the detriment of the player because it boosts the likelihood of the dealer improving their total by catching small cards like 2, 3 or 4. This takes away 0.22% from your advantage – it may not seem like much but things add up when you go through 10,000 hands or more.
The restrictions on doubling down have a pronounced negative impact on your long-term profits. In many double deck variants of the game, the player is allowed to double only on starting totals of 9, 10, and 11. This yields a 0.11% advantage for the house and causes you to deviate from the optimal strategy because you are no longer able to double on soft totals 13 through 18 against a dealer showing a 6 or a 5.
Optimal play also calls for doubling on hard totals of 9 against dealer upcards 2 through 6. Needless to say, this play is impossible in double deck games where doubling down is restricted to totals of 10 and 11 only. These restrictions increase the house edge even further, by around 0.22%.
In some double deck variations of 21, players are allowed to split pairs of ten-value cards only if said cards are identical, like Q-Q, K-K, J-J, and 10-10. While basic strategy players are, by and large, encouraged to never split such pat hands because they might end up being stuck with smaller hard totals, such splitting restrictions work to the detriment of advantage players (you might have heard the joke about fools and card counters being the only people to ever split pairs of ten-value cards).
In games with poor rules, resplitting may not be an option. The same goes for hitting Aces after they have been split, which is commonly unavailable in double deck games. The absence of DAS (Doubling After Splitting) is also unfavorable for the player, especially if they can resplit to four hands because more split hands allow for more doubling opportunities, which in turn results in more potential profits for the player. No DAS equals 0.13% in favor of the casino and lots of missed opportunities to profit more from your splits when the dealer is at a disadvantage.
On top of that, some double deck games entirely do away with the surrender option. This is detrimental to players as a whole but even more so in situations when they are stuck with hard totals of 15 and 16 against the dealer’s ten-value card. A total of 16 or 15 is simply not good enough to beat a dealer who exposes stronger cards like 10, J, Q, or K. When surrender is not an option, your only choice is to hit your hard 15 or 16, in which case you risk breaking your hand.
And finally, we have the double deck variants like European Blackjack where no hole cards are in play. Here, the dealer receives only one card first and draws a second one only after everyone else at the table has played out their hands.
This rule may concern the dealer but it has a significant negative impact on your decisions as well. Without a hole card, the dealer cannot check for blackjacks when showing an Ace or a ten-value card. In other words, you are forced to act on your hand before knowing whether or not the dealer has a natural which has a pronouncedly poor effect on your play, and especially on some of your doubling down decisions.
The most obvious play that suffers from the absence of hole cards is doubling on two-card totals of 11 when the dealer shows a ten-value card or an Ace. Here you have no way of knowing whether the dealer has obtained a blackjack or not. If the dealer peeks, they will immediately turn over their hole card when they have a natural sparing you from wasting more money on a double down. Now, let’s revise the poor rules in brief for your convenience:
- The dealer hits soft 17 (H17)
- Players can double down on two-card totals of 9, 10, and 11 (or worse, on 10 and 11 only)
- Players cannot split dissimilar pairs of ten-value cards (like Q-J, 10-J, K-J, and so on)
- Resplitting is not allowed
- Doubling after a split (DAS) is not allowed
- No surrender is available
- The dealer does not peek for naturals when showing an Ace (or a ten-value card)
- Blackjacks pay 6 to 5 or even money
Payouts in Double Deck Blackjack
Here is where we bring up the topic of payouts for discussion. The payouts in double deck blackjack are mostly the same as those in multiple deck games as players’ winning hands return even money and winning insurance side bets offer the usual payout of 2 to 1.
One exception is commonly made in regard to the single most important payout in the game of 21, that for a blackjack. In an attempt to boost their advantage, many casinos (especially across Las Vegas and Atlantic City) pay out 6 to 5 for blackjacks on their double deck tables instead of the standard 3 to 2.
What is the difference and why does it matter? We can best demonstrate it with an example where we shall use bet increments of $10 for the purposes of simplicity. Naturals are easily the most profitable hands for players because they occur relatively once every 21 hands or so (which is a weird, yet a very fitting coincidence for a game that is also called “21”).
A standard game of blackjack which pays 3 to 2 for naturals gives you more value because you collect 1.5 times your initial stake. Thus, if you wager $10 and your starting total is a blackjack, you receive a payout of $15 on top of your initial $10.
With 6-to-5 blackjack, there is a reduction in the payout because you receive only 1.2x times your original bet for naturals. Respectively, you net only $12 on top of your original $10 when you get a blackjack.
The negative impact this rule alone has is greater than the negative effect of all other unfavorable rules combined! By reducing the blackjack payouts to 6 to 5, the house gains as much as 1.40% advantage over its players (even if they play optimally, which is a shame).
A $10 flat bettor who goes through 100 hands per hour will incur hourly expected losses of $14 over the long term. And keep in mind bets at some of the double deck tables start at a minimum of $25, which is to say your hourly losses will be even higher.
You are probably wondering why people continue to flock to the 6-to-5 double deck tables. It all has to do with a marketing ploy on behalf of casino operators who continue to advertise pitch games as the best blackjack variations on the casino floor, especially when compared to multiple deck variants where six or eight packs of cards are in play. What they forget to tell you, though, is that in reality, you are playing a far worse game than any six or eight deck blackjack variant.
Even if all other rules in a double deck game are favorable, they will not be able to offset the horrendous impact of this payout reduction. You should never play 6-to-5 blackjack (double deck or not) even if there are no tables that pay 3 to 2 where you live. You are better off playing craps or single-zero roulette.
And then, there is the even money payout you are offered for your blackjacks in some pitch games when your dealer shows an Ace. This is basically the same thing as accepting insurance, which is something we strongly advise you to refrain from if you are a basic strategy player.
We have already discussed this subject in detail in our Single Deck Blackjack article so we suggest you go and check it out for further elucidation on why accepting even money for your naturals is a bad idea.
Our Final Verdict on Double Deck Games
And now for our final verdict. Is double deck blackjack yay or nay? Double deck games can be a real treasure for blackjack players provided that they offer favorable rules and decent payouts on naturals. Even more so if the players have taken the time to master perfect basic strategy which we also discuss in this guide.
In our observations, many online casinos do offer double deck games where blackjacks return at the standard ratio of 3 to 2. Two examples that come at the top of our minds are Microgaming’s Vegas Downtown Blackjack and Premier High Streak Blackjack (where the virtual dealer abides by the S17 rule, which is great for the player).
The thing is some of the rules have indeed been changed even in the online variations. Our advice for those of you who have no option but to play on H17 double deck tables is to look for games where doubling after a split (DAS) and resplitting aces (RSA) are allowed. The most profitable double deck games are the ones that follow the favorable rules we outlined earlier. Above all, make sure you do not fall for the 6-to-5 ploy. Avoid these tables (double deck or not) like the plague!