Should You Play One or Two Blackjack Hands?

Should you play blackjack with one hand or two? I’ve been asked this question numerous times from blackjack players. My answer is this: “It depends on whether you have the edge or not.” Let me explain.

First let me focus on the majority of players who don’t have the edge when they play blackjack. (This includes blackjack basic strategy players.)

Sometimes you’ll see a blackjack player playing two hands on every round. Other times a player may start a shoe playing one hand, and then suddenly, in the middle of the shoe, spread to two hands. Why do some players do the latter? Mostly to “change the flow of the cards,” which they mistakenly believe will change their luck. (Because the house edge is the same on both hands, spreading to two hands will not guarantee that your luck will change.)

The one obvious thing that happens when you spread from one hand to two is that you will be dealt more hands per hour. For example, if you play with two other players, you can expect to be dealt roughly 100 rounds per hour. If, instead, you play two hands, you’ll get about 80 rounds dealt to you per hour, or a total of 160 hands per hour (that’s 60 more hands per hour). This isn’t a good idea because when the house has the edge and you play more hands per hour, you’re exposing more of your casino bankroll to that house edge, and you will lose more money.

But let’s say that instead of betting $20 on one hand, you split your bet evenly and wager $10 on each of two hands. Your theoretical hourly loss when you bet $20 on one hand is roughly $10 (assumes 100 hands per hour). Betting two hands of $10 each, your theoretical loss drops to $8 per hour (assumes 80 hands played per spot per hour, or 160 total). Therefore, you will decrease your hourly loss if instead of putting all your money on one hand, you bet half as much on each of two hands. (Note: The amount of the decrease of loss depends on how many other players are at the blackjack table with you.)

What if, instead of betting $20 on one hand, you bet $20 on each of two hands? Now you’ve increased the total amount bet in each round from $20 (one hand) to $40 (spread over two hands). In this scenario, the total amount that you wager per hour would be greater betting two hands than betting one, and your theoretical hourly loss will increase. Betting in this manner on two hands is, therefore, not recommended.

On the surface you would think that the swings in your bankroll would be the same whether you bet, say, $50 on one hand or $25 on each of two hands, since the total amount wagered per round is the same ($50). However, the two hands are really not independent because they are associated with the same dealer’s hand, so if the live dealer has a lousy hand, you are likely to win both hands (and vice versa if she has a strong hand). What this means in practical terms is that your bankroll will not fluctuate as much when you bet $25 on each of two hands compared to betting $50 on one hand.

Many blackjack players are happy if they can stretch their bankroll so it gives them a reasonable amount of time on the table (e.g., a three-hour session). Others are happy if they can achieve a predetermined win-goal (say, winning $150 with a $300 bankroll). Will betting more than one hand help you to achieve these objectives?

To answer this question, several years ago Norm Wattenberger, who is one of the foremost blackjack software developers, ran some computer simulations for different betting options (assuming the player started with a $300 bankroll) to determine what were the player’s chances of his bankroll’s surviving over a three-hour playing session (second column in table), and independently, the chances of a player’s winning $150 and quitting (third column). (Assumes100 hands per hour.)

What the data in the table show are:
1.For the same total amount wagered per round, betting two hands improves the chances of your bankroll’s lasting three hours but it also lowers the likelihood of winning $150.

2.Increasing the total amount wagered per round from $10 to $20 increases your chances of winning $150, but it also decreases the chances that your bankroll will last for three hours. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways.

The bottom line on playing two hands with half as much bet on each hand vs. betting it all on one hand is this: you will experience less fluctuation in your bankroll, and you are less likely to tap out during a session, but, you will have less chance of achieving a win goal.

Now, what about a player who is card counting … is there an advantage to spreading to two hands? The answer is, yes, for several reasons.

1.Playing two hands is an excellent way of increasing your bet spread when the count is in your favor.

2.You can also bet 50% of what you would have bet on one hand, on each of two hands, with less risk and variance.

3.You can also keep your risk the same by betting 73% of what you would have bet on one hand on each of two hands instead. (For example, instead of betting, say, $50 on one hand, you could bet $35 on each of two spots with the same risk but greater expectation, assuming you are not playing alone.)

4.When the count is negative, you can spread to two hands with minimum bets to “eat” the small cards (i.e., by removing the small-value cards, the remaining unplayed cards become richer in the more player-favorable, high-value cards).

5.In a double-deck game, when the count is positive prior to the last round before the cut card appears, spreading to two hands will give a counter a slightly greater penetration (which increases his advantage).

6.If you are playing heads-up and spread to two hands, your chances of being dealt the high-value cards increase since you will be playing two hands against the dealer’s one hand.

7.Another way to camouflage your play and “eat” the small cards is to start a shoe betting two hands with minimum bets then reduce to one hand with larger bets when the count becomes favorable.

There are other reasons why spreading to two hands is advantageous to a card counter; if you want to learn more, I encourage you to consult Chapter 10 of my Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.

(Note: Most, but not all, casinos may have the requirement that when you spread to two (or more) hands, you must bet double the table minimum on each hand. Also, if you are card counting, spreading to two hands may bring attention your way from the pit. For details on this, see Chapter 10 of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.)