It’s a common argument in the world of gambling – which is the ‘better’ game, poker or blackjack? At the risk of copping out a bit, the answer largely depends on what you’re looking for – are you hoping for drama or cold, hard cash? Which do you value more – the chance of a massive payday or closely calculable odds with a smaller pay out? Do you prefer a game you can win at with cold, predictable logic, or do you prefer the excitement of a tense psychological battle? Let’s dive in to each game and see.
Doyle Brunson, in his classic text on card play, Super System, discusses the difference between blackjack and poker: “You can beat a blackjack game by knowing what to do in every situation… and doing it. That’s tactics. But in poker you face an identical situation twice against the same opponent, handle it two different ways, and be right both times. That’s strategy,” he says.
There’s a key difference in play that leads to this important distinction – in poker you’re playing against other players, whereas in blackjack you’re only playing against the house.
In poker, if you want to win (and who on Earth doesn’t?) you can deploy all sorts of strategies and approaches, starting with whether to opt for an exploitative poker play style or a GTO poker (Game Theory Optimal) style. In Blackjack the winning strategy is clear – learn to count cards, as the hit film 21 displayed.
As Colin Jones, one of the card counting pros behind Blackjack Apprenticeship and star of Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians notes, “Beating poker is primarily dependent on your ability to extract more money out of your competition than they will extract from you. It does not matter how good of a poker player you are if the other players at the table are better than you. Conversely, you don’t have to be all that great at poker if you consistently find poorer players to give you action. When you are playing blackjack, you are solely playing against the house.”
The fact that you’re not facing the variability of other players in Blackjack means that once you have a certain level of competency, you can up the amount you’re gambling with and still get broadly predictable results.
Jones goes on to add that, “You can absolutely scale your poker play, but it’s not as linear, nor is risk as measurable. As I pointed out above, you must always be aware of the skill level of the field in poker. To be honest, I’m perfectly comfortable betting thousands of dollars a hand at blackjack because I know that if I do the same thing at a high limit game as I would at a lower limit game, the math will work out the same, just with a higher return.”
It also means that you can look back at the decisions you made in Blackjack and know whether you made the right decision or not, regardless of whether you won the hand in question. Because card counting is based on very concrete rules, you don’t have to second guess all the additional variables that you do in poker.
The consequence of there being such a definitive way to play blackjack, however, is that you are always playing against a house edge of around 0.5 to two per cent, which means that even if you patiently count cards, your winnings will be limited.
Furthermore, once the casino figures out you’re going to keep winning, you face being told to leave. In poker the house invites competition because you’re playing against other gamblers and the house is taking a cut from every pot, but in blackjack they only want suckers who are going to keep losing at the table.
Poker, meanwhile, is a game of grand strategy. As we’ve already discussed, the outcome of a game of blackjack is dictated largely by the maths surrounding the cards in the deck. Yes, that’s an element of poker. You need to know, for example, that the best opening hand going into a pot is probably going to be the best hand at the end of the pot, too. Knowing your cards is an essential aspect of any game of poker, but it’s one among several.
There’s also risk assessment. When you’re making the call about whether to raise or fold, you need to know whether your cards are worth the amount of money that will be in the pot. As the game moves along, will your winning hands win out over your losing hands, based on how much money is in the pot?
The other really big element of a game of poker is psychology.
It’s not just about card playing skills, it’s also about understanding human behaviour and having mastery of your own.
If you’ve determined that the pot odds are against you, will you have the self-control to fold?
Will you control your own behaviour so well that you’ll be devising false tells to throw your opponents off track?
Can you read the other players in the room, even when they might be deliberately trying to throw you off track with false tells of their own?
That’s before you even get into the aforementioned meta gaming of exploitative versus GTO play. In exploitative play you act in a way that maximizes your expected value in any situation by making the right moves to counter your opponents’ weaker tendencies and sub-optimal plays.
With a GTO playing style you basically attempt to play perfect poker yourself, so you only allow your opponents to make mistakes against you. It incorporates mixing bluffs and semi-bluffs with your value bets and can help clarify bet sizes.
Bringing these elements into play elevates the level of strategy yet again.
All of the above blends together to make poker a much deeper, richer and more tense game than blackjack, and the lack of a house edge means that you can win (or lose) big based on your own level of skill. For us, that certainly gives it the edge, but for a certain type of player blackjack will always be their game of choice.