There may be a new sheriff in town. No, I'm not talking about the upcoming primary elections here in Las Vegas. I'm talking about a game called Free Bet Blackjack. Free Bet Blackjack is owned by Bally Technologies and invented by Geoff Hall, who also gave us Blackjack Switch. Geoff's key patent covers the concept of the Dealer pushing on a 22. This means that any Player hands that have not busted (and were not a Natural Blackjack) will PUSH if the Dealer busts with a final count of 22.
It takes a while to get used to this concept, but it would appear that Players are doing exactly this. It is also used in his prior successful game of Blackjack Switch. Blackjack Switch, however, adds an extra level of complexity in the strategy because you need to learn when to switch the 2nd cards of your 2 hands. Free Bet is a bit simpler to master.
First let's cover the rules of the game. You make a wager just like in regular blackjack. If you are dealt a Hard 9, 10 or 11 you get to Double Down for FREE. If you ask for a Double Down, the Dealer will place a 'lammer' (that's the technical term for a plastic chip that tells the casino something) to indicate that you made this 'wager'. If you win the double down, you'll get paid even money on both your base wager and for your lammer which is worth your original wager. So, if you are a $5 Player and you Double Down in these cases, you will win $10 if your Double Down wins and lose $5 if it loses.
In similar fashion, if you are dealt a Pair of 2's - 9's or Aces, you can split for FREE. This works just like the Double Down. You ask for a split and the Dealer places a lammer. If your split results in a 2-card hard 9, 10 or 11, you can get a FREE Double Down. If you wind up winning the hand, you get paid for that hand. If you lose, the only money that you can lose is your original wager. You can re-split to up to four hands. Essentially all the other rules of hitting and splitting are as per regular blackjack.
Players can still Double on soft hands, but they aren't free. Players can split tens/faces, (but please don't as these won't be free). As I stated earlier, the 'catch' is that if the Dealer winds up with a 22 and the Player has a 'free' split or double down that would normally win, it will now push instead.
I have not yet had a chance to do a complete analysis on Free Bet Blackjack. I believe that there are times that the Player should NOT take the free splits and/or Double Downs, but need to work on this part. This is, quite frankly, the easy part of what needs to be learned. The rule that the Dealer pushes on 22 makes significant changes to basic blackjack strategy. If you sit down and play a game like Free Bet using regular blackjack strategy, you're going to roughly double the house advantage.
I mentioned earlier that the Player can still Double Down on soft hands. But, in Push 22 games, the Player is not going to want to do this nearly as often as a regular blackjack games. A Player will only want to Double on a soft 17 or soft 18 vs. a 5 or 6. When you Double Down with a soft hand you are counting on a Dealer Bust to occur often enough to make up for the times you wind up drawing a total dud. But in Free Bet, the Dealer will bust far less often - or at least bust in a way that results in a win - and as such, the incentive for Doubling is greatly diminished.
On the hard hand side, we find that a Dealer 2 is a very dangerous card now. As a result, we hit 12 and 13 against a Dealer 2. In fact, we hit a 12 against a 3 and a 4 as well. With a 12, the odds of busting is marginal and the Dealer having many more ways to force a Push, we need to improve these hands.
Blackjack Switch has a payback comparable to regular blackjack and when I'm done with my analysis, I'm guessing that I will find that Free Bet is right there in the same ballpark. In general, casinos rely on strategy errors to generate a significant amount of their profits. Over the years, Players have greatly improved on their basic blackjack strategy. The requirement to learn a new strategy allows the casinos to offer this new version of blackjack with a similar payback yet expect a higher hold (profit margin) as a result of so many Players being unaware of the right strategy to utilize.