# Spanish 21 Versus Blackjack: What’s the Difference?

Spanish 21 is based on blackjack, but the rules are so different that it’s often considered a separate game. Unlike many older casino games, Spanish 21 is a trademarked game from a specific company—Masque Publishing Inc. Casinos which offer Spanish 21 pay royalties to Masque Publishing Inc. in exchange for being allowed to offer the game.

Spanish 21 also features favorable odds for players who are willing to learn the differences between it and standard blackjack games. This post examines the differences between “regular old” blackjack and Spanish 21. Once you’ve read this post, you’ll be able to make an educated decision about whether you’d prefer to stick with standard blackjack (which you’re probably more familiar with) or learn to play Spanish 21 (which usually offers better odds for the players.)

## The Spanish Deck

The first and possibly most important difference between standard blackjack and Spanish 21 is the use of a “Spanish” deck of cards. This is just a standard 52 card deck with the 10s removed—not the face cards, which are also worth 10, but only the cards with the number 10 on them.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts about card counting, you probably know that a deck rich in aces and 10s is more likely to produce a blackjack. If you were counting cards using the Hi Lo System, which counts aces and 10s as -1, you’d be starting with a count of -4. As the Dude (from The Big Lebowski) would say, “That’s a bummer, man.”

The reason the 10s and aces are so important is because they make it more likely to be dealt a blackjack (or a “natural”). A blackjack is a 2-card hand with a total of 21. The only way to get a 2-card hand totaling 21 is to get an ace and a 10. Fewer 10s in the deck result in a lower probability of getting a natural.

That one’s easy—a natural (or blackjack) pays off at 3 to 2 instead of at even money. Most bets in blackjack pay off at even money if you win. For example, if you bet $100 and win, your winnings are in the amount of $100.

A 3 to 2 payoff on a $100 bet, though, is $150.

If the only difference between Spanish 21 and regular blackjack was the use of a Spanish deck, Spanish 21 would be a clearly inferior game.

Luckily, that’s not the only difference.

## Favorable Player Rules

If you’ve read any of my other blackjack posts, you probably already realize that specific rules and game conditions in blackjack games result in better or worse odds for the player. For the most part, any game condition or house rule that allows the player more flexibility results in a lower house edge. (That’s a fancy word for the mathematical advantage the casino has over the player.)

In some blackjack games, you can split aces once, but if you get another ace afterward, you can’t re-split. In other games, you can re-split aces every time you get them. It doesn’t take a logic professor to realize that the 2nd option is better for the player.

In Spanish 21, a whole plethora of new rules compensates (and then some) for the Spanish deck. Of course, house rules vary from one casino to another.

In Spanish 21, the player has the option to surrender. (Many blackjack games allow surrender, but not all of them.) To surrender, you simply forfeit half your bet. It’s like folding in poker, because you give up any chance to continue in the hand. It’s impossible to win if you don’t play, but in some situations, the expected mathematical value of giving up half your bet is better than risking your entire bet.

In some rare blackjack games, “early surrender” is an option. This is not the case in Spanish 21. “Late surrender” is the order of the day. This means that you can decide to surrender only after the dealer has checked to see if she has a blackjack. If she does, you can’t surrender, because you automatically lose. (Yes, if you push—or tie—the dealer, you don’t automatically lose. But you’d never surrender if you had a total of 21 anyway, so the point is moot.)

Also, in Spanish 21, you’re allowed to double down after splitting. It’s easy to see why this rule is so favorable to the player. For example, if you’re dealt 2 aces, you’d want to split. Now you have 2 opportunities to get a blackjack and the corresponding 3 to 2 payoff. Naturally, you’d want the opportunity to double your bet and take one (and exactly one) card. And that’s the opportunity that being able to double down after splitting offers you.

You’re also allowed to re-split aces in Spanish 21. In most blackjack games, you can split aces, but you don’t get to re-split if you get another ace. It’s hard to overstate how important those aces are, by the way. That’s one of the 2 ranks you need to get that 3 to 2 payoff. And even though a Spanish deck only has 12 cards worth 10 points in it (instead of 16), there are still more cards worth 10 points than any other value.

Earlier, I mentioned tying the dealer if you have a total of 21. That’s actually only how it works in regular blackjack games, because in Spanish 21, ANY player total of 21 wins automatically—regardless of the dealer’s hand. This is a huge difference in favor of the player.

Also, in a standard blackjack game, a player natural versus a dealer natural results in a push (or a tie). But that’s not the case in Spanish 21. A player blackjack always beats a dealer blackjack in Spanish 21.

In most blackjack games, you’re only allowed to double down on your first 2 cards. In Spanish 21, you can double down on any number of cards.

It’s easy to see why this would be favorable to a player. Suppose you’re dealt a 3 and 4 for a total of 7 on your first 2 cards. You take a hit and get another 4—now you have a total of 11. Naturally, you’d want to double down on a total of 11, even if it was made up of 3 cards.

These situations where the favorable rules come into play, by the way, don’t have to be common situations. There are enough of these situations to make a major mathematical difference in the game’s odds.

Spanish 21 even offers a spectacularly rare option called “double down rescue.” Basically, this is the option of being able to surrender AFTER doubling down. Instead of forfeiting half your original bet, you forfeit your original bet only. (When you double down, you put up another bet equal to your first bet.)

Spanish 21 also offers a variety of bonus payouts for various hands.

A 5-card hand totaling 21 pays off at 3 to 2, just like a natural would. A 6-card hand totaling 21 pays off at 2 to 1. A 7-card hand totaling 21 is clearly rare, but it pays off at a whopping 3 to 1. (And yes, it’s possible to have a total of 21 with more than 7 cards in your hand. Such hands also pay off at 3 to 1.)

Those aren’t the only hands with bonus payouts, though. If you have a hand with a 6, 7, and 8, or a hand with 7, 7, 7, you get a 3 to 2 payoff. (Both those hands total 21, by the way.) If those hands are made suited, you get a 2 to 1 payoff instead. AND, if you get one of those hands in the suit of spades, you get a 3 to 1 payoff instead.

You even get a shot at some payoffs that are large enough to qualify as “jackpots” in my book. The trigger for this is a suited 7, 7, 7, but the big payoff only happens when the dealer also has a 7 showing face-up. But when it pays off, it pays off big. If you bet less than $25, the payoff is $1000 in this situation. If you bet more than $25, you get a whopping $5000 payoff.

Other rules variations, like the number of decks in use, or whether the dealer hits a soft 17, vary from casino to casino. These variations don’t always favor the player. For example, a casino using 8 decks instead of 6 isn’t offering as good a game. If the dealer hits a soft 17, that’s bad for the player, too.

Still, with such a massive number of rules changes that benefit the player, Spanish 21 more than makes up for the Spanish deck in use. I’ll get into the specific math of that next.

## The House Edge in Spanish 21 versus the House Edge in Blackjack

I mentioned earlier that the house edge is a mathematical expression of the advantage the house has over the player. It’s an estimate based on probability, and it ensures that the casino will win in the long run. That’s how probability works, by the way—in the short term, anything can happen. But in the long run, the actual results tend to mirror the mathematically expected results.

The house edge is the average amount you can expect to lose on every bet, expressed as a percentage. If a casino game has a house edge of 5.26% (as American roulette does), the casino expects to win an average of $5.26 every time you bet $100.

Obviously, in the short run, it’s impossible for actual results to mirror this mathematical expectation. It’s easy to see why if you think about the ultimate short-term result—the result of a single bet. If you bet $100 on a spin of the roulette wheel, you’ll either lose $100 or win $100 (or more). There’s no way to lose 5.26% of a single bet.

That average only comes into play over thousands of bets. Over 10 bets or even 100 bets, anything can happen. That’s how players get lucky and walk away winners. Almost all casino gamblers are looking at short-term results. But the casino is always engaged in long-term results. They have hundreds of games going on at any given time, which results in the long-term expectation happening much more quickly for them than for the player.

You’ll often see the house edge for blackjack being touted as somewhere between 0.5% and 1.5%, depending on the rules in play. This is a little misleading, because it makes a big assumption.

The house edge in blackjack is based on the assumption that you’re using perfect basic strategy. When players refer to basic strategy in blackjack, they’re referring to making the mathematically correct decision in every situation that arises. It’s safe to say that no one masters basic strategy intuitively or based on common sense. Intuition and common sense might be good starting points, but to get those low house edge figures, you must do the work of learning basic strategy and then making the correct decisions on every hand.

Most players don’t know basic strategy, by the way. The house edge for them, given all the mathematical mistakes they’re making, is probably closer to 4% or 5%. If you don’t learn basic strategy, you might as well be playing a game with a higher house edge—like roulette, for example.

The house edge for Spanish 21 is generally better than the house edge in blackjack. If you ignore the effect of those jackpot hands, which come up as rarely as you might expect, the house edge for Spanish 21 is about 0.4%.

This assumes, of course, that you’re playing with perfect basic strategy.

I cover some of the intricacies and strategy differences in the next section.

## Basic Strategy Differences

Some of the basic strategy for Spanish 21 is the same (or at least similar) to the basic strategy for any blackjack game. For example, you’ll still hit any hard total of 8 or less in Spanish 21.

But the strategy for doubling down is trickier in Spanish 21 because you need to account for the number of cards you have. That’s because of the bonus payoffs for getting a total of 21 with 5 cards or more.

If you have a hard total of 9, you’ll hit unless the dealer has a 6 as her up-card. In that case, you’ll double down.

That’s not complicated, but when you start looking at what to do with a hard total of 10, things get trickier.

You’ll hit a total of 10 if the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing. But if the dealer has an 8 or lower showing, the number of cards you have affects your choice of doubling down. You’ll always double down in this situation if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing.

But if the dealer has a 2 or 3 showing and you have 5 cards or more, you’ll just hit.

If the dealer has a 7 showing, you’ll hit instead of doubling down if you have 4 cards or more.

And if the dealer has an 8 showing, you’ll hit instead of doubling if you have 3 cards or more.

With a total of 11, you will double down unless you have the following numbers of cards versus the following dealer up cards.

- If the dealer has a 2, 7, 8, or 9, you’ll hit with 4 cards or more
- If the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6, you’ll hit with 5 cards or more
- If the dealer has a 10 or an ace, you’ll hit with 3 cards or more

And that’s just the strategy for doubling with hard totals. You also need to know when to double on a soft hand. (A soft hand is a hand with an ace in it where the ace can be counted as either 11 or 1.)

You’ll double with a soft total of 15 versus a 6 unless you have 4 cards or more, in which case you’ll hit.

You’ll double with a soft total of 16 versus a 5 or 6 unless you have 3 cards versus a 5, or 4 cards versus a 6. In those cases, you’ll hit.

You’ll double with a soft total of 17 versus a 4, 5, or 6, unless you have 3 cards, 4 cards, or 5 cards, respectively. In those cases, you’ll again just hit.

You’ll even double down on a soft 18 against a dealer 4, 5, or 6, unless you have 4 cards, 5 cards, or 6 cards. Again, in those cases, you’ll just hit.

Those are the strategies for doubling, but those strategies only cover 27 possible situations. And the game presents more possible situations than that.

In some situations, you’ll have a decision to stand unless you have a certain number of cards.

If you have a hard total of 17, you’ll stand unless the dealer has an 8, 9, or 10, AND you have 6 cards already. Your goal is to get that 7-card 21 so that you can experience the big payout.

You’ll always stand on a hard total of 18 or more, so that’s easy to remember.

If I were to list every possible situation and every possible decision you’d need to make, this post would never end, in fact. And that’s not even considering that the strategy for the game changes based on how many decks are in play and whether the dealer hits a soft total of 17 or not.

When discussing basic strategy for regular blackjack, I usually recommend learning the strategy via a list or via a series of paragraphs explaining the various situations.

This isn’t practical for Spanish 21. If you want to get the correct basic strategy for Spanish 21, my suggestion is to find a site with a printable basic strategy specific to the rules variations you’re facing. Print the card and use it while you play.

In fact, that’s one aspect of Spanish 21 that doesn’t differ from blackjack. The dealer doesn’t mind if you use a basic strategy chart to card—as long as it doesn’t slow down the game.

And if you’re slowing down the game, prepare to face the wrath of both the dealer and the other players at the table.

Don’t be that guy. Nobody likes that guy.

## Unlicensed Versions of Spanish 21

Here’s an interesting side note: you can trademark the name and presentation of a game, but you cannot copyright the actual rules of a game. (You can copyright the expression of those rules, but not the rules themselves.)

In the case of Spanish 21, this means that some casinos offer variations of Spanish 21 that are slightly different but are essentially the same game with a different name. This enables the casino to offer something uncannily similar to Spanish 21 without having to pay licensing fees or royalties to Masque Publishing Inc.

This is especially common with online casinos, which operate mostly offshore. (I’m writing for an audience in the United States.)

## Conclusion

The answer is yes if you’re looking for an entertaining breath of fresh air AND if you’re willing to learn the new rules and strategy for the game.

But the difference in house edge isn’t significant enough for some players to make the switch. Basic strategy for a standard blackjack game results in a house edge of 0.5%. That extra 0.1% probably isn’t worth the extra effort for the typical player.

On the other hand, if you’re counting cards, every tenth of a percentage point counts. And if you’re a card counter, memorizing a new basic strategy won’t be hard for you.