Blackjack Strategy

Every time someone mentions the phrase “blackjack strategy” I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Vegas Vacation where Chevy Chase is explaining to a young woman at the blackjack table that a skilled blackjack player can get the advantage over the house. The implication is that if you just make the right playing decisions, you’ll be a winner. Most savvy blackjack players understand that the truth is more complicated than that.

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Basic Strategy

Blackjack Gambling Strategy - Basic StrategyBasic blackjack strategy (or “basic strategy”) refers to the mathematically correct play for every single hand of blackjack that can possibly be dealt. It seems like it would be an overwhelming list of rules and tactics to memorize, but it’s probably easier to memorize than you think. But even if you DO play perfect basic strategy, 100% of the time, the house STILL has an edge of 0.5%. In fact, depending on the nuances of the particular blackjack rules at the casino where you’re playing, the house edge could be higher than that.

An extreme example is 6/5 blackjack. This is a variation of blackjack that pays out 6 to 5 on a blackjack instead of the usual 3 to 2 payout. At most blackjack tables, if you bet $100 on a hand, and you get a blackjack, you get paid $150. (That’s a 3 to 2 payout.) But at a 6/5 blackjack table, that payout for that blackjack is only $120. Seems like a relatively small difference, especially if you’re playing for $10 a hand instead of $100 a hand.

According to Ken Smith’s site BlackjackInfo.com, that single rules variation adds 1.39% to the casino’s edge. So even if you’re playing perfect basic strategy, the house now has an edge of 1.89% instead of 0.5%.

What’s that mean in dollars, over time? The house edge is the amount of money you can expect to lose (expressed as a percentage) every time you bet over the long run. (The long run is thousands or tens of thousands of hands–the more you play, the closer your results will get to the theoretical mathematical outcome.)

So if you’re playing for $100 a hand at a typical blackjack table, you can expect to lose 50 cents per hand. That’s cheap entertainment, folks. Change the game to a 6/5 payout for a blackjack, and now you’re losing $1.89 per hand. That’s a big difference. The cost of your entertainment has gone up by a factor of almost four. Imagine if a movie ticket at one theater cost $9, and at another theater it cost $36. Which theater would you see a movie at? You should be using the same kind of thinking when you’re analyzing casino games like blackjack.

But keep this in mind too. Even if the house edge is low, if you play long enough, you’ll eventually lose all your money. The only difference between a house edge of 0.5% and a house edge of 1.89% is how long it will take you to lose all your money.

Counting Cards

And what about this legend of blackjack players being able to make a profit? It takes more than basic strategy to make a profit at blackjack. You need a bigger strategy, and that usually means counting cards. Other ways of profiting at blackjack exist, like shuffle tracking and dealer tells, but counting cards is the most common way to get an edge over the casino.

But even if you can count cards, your edge over the casino is probably not going to be much more than 1%. And that’s if you find games that are favorable to counting cards, which most casinos don’t offer. I’m not even a very good card counter, and I almost always play blackjack drunk, and the casinos still shuffle up on me every single hand once they realize I’m counting. And when they start shuffling every hand, you can forget about your 1% advantage. You’re right back to your 0.5% disadvantage.

How to Learn Basic Blackjack Strategy

A lot of people use charts to memorize basic strategy. If you’re looking for a place where you can get great blackjack strategy charts, I’m going to recommend Ken Smith’s BlackjackInfo.com site again. You can input the rules variations you’re expecting to face, and his site will automatically generate an accurate basic strategy chart for you. Another good place to go for basic strategy advice is Michael Bluejay’s site, VegasClick.com. Not only is the information he offers there accurate, it’s clearly and entertainingly written too.

But here’s how I’d suggest that you learn basic strategy. Divide the types of hands you’re going to be dealt into categories, and then learn how to play each hand in each category.

The categories of blackjack hands that you’re going to face are limited to:

  • Hard hands
  • Soft hands
  • Hands you can split
  • Hands you can double down on

Hard Hands

A hard hand in blackjack is a hand without an ace, so it only has one total. (A hand with an ace can have two totals, depending on whether you count the ace as a one point card or an eleven point card.) If you have a hand with an ace in it that would bust if you counted the ace as an eleven point card, then you’re still facing a decision with a hard hand or a hard total.

You should always hit an hard hand that totals between 4 and 11. That means you’ll always hit any of the following hard totals:

  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11

That covers a pretty good bit of ground right there, and I don’t think you’ll have a hard time memorizing that.

You should always stand on any hard hand that totals between 17 and 21. So that includes the following hard totals:

  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21

So you’ve now memorized exactly how to play 13 different potential hands in blackjack. See how easy this is?

But what about the other hard hands, the ones that total between 12 and 16? Your decisions on these hands will vary based on which card the dealer is showing. (That’s also called the dealer’s upcard.) Here’s the strategy for each of these hard totals:

  • 13 through 16 – You’ll take a hit if the dealer shows a 7 or higher as her upcard. Othewise, you’ll stand. This rule applies to hard totals of 13, 14, 15, and 16. (If you’re keeping score, you’ve now memorized basic strategy for 17 potential hands in blackjack.)
  • A hard total of 12 is a little trickier, but not much. You’ll hit if the dealer shows a 2 or a 3. You’ll also hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher. Other than that, you’ll stand. This is the only hard total that might be hard to memorize the basic strategy for, but the rest of the hard hands are so easy, you surely can get this one down with enough time and effort.

That’s basically 4 rules to remember, for a total of 18 potential blackjack hands. Once you’ve memorized the basic strategy for hard hands, memorize the basic strategy for soft hands.

I should also point out that the advice above doesn’t necessarily apply if you have a hand that could potentially be split. For example, if you get two 8’s, you’ve got a hard total of 16, but you wouldn’t stand or hit, you’d split. Splitting hands will be covered below; there aren’t many of them.

Soft Hands

A soft hand in blackjack is any hand with an ace in it where the ace can be played as either a one point card or an eleven point card. For example, if you have an ace and a three, you have a “soft 14.” It’s soft because if you get dealt a ten, for a total of 24, you can decide that the ace only counts as 1 point instead of 11, and your total becomes 15 instead, and you don’t bust.

There are only 8 possible soft totals, 13 through 20. (Two aces is technically a soft 12, but that will be covered in the list of hands that can potentially be split.) Here’s how to play each of them:

  • Soft 13 or Soft 14 – Double down if the dealer shows a 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit.
  • Soft 15 or Soft 16 – Hit if the dealer has a 2 or 3, or if the dealer has a 7 or higher. Otherwise double down.
  • Soft 17 – Stand if the dealer is showing a 7. Hit if the dealer has a 2 or an 8 or higher. Otherwise, double down.
  • Soft 18 – Stand if the dealer is showing a 2, 7, 8, or ace. Hit if the dealer is showing a 9 or a 10. Otherwise, double down.
  • Soft 19 or Soft 20 – You should always stand.

Those are five rules to memorize, for eight potential hands, and they seem complicated, but think about it this way. One of the five rules is to always stand on a soft 19 or soft 20. That’s a no-brainer.

The only other thing to learn is when to double down, stand, or hit. If you can learn a foreign language, you can learn how to play these eight soft totals without too much trouble. (Some people do find memorizing a chart easier, but I always thought that was nearly impossible.)

Splitting Hands

When you’re dealt two cards of the same rank, you have the option to split them into two hands by placing an extra bet. There are only 10 potential hands you could split, since face cards all count as 10. The rules for splitting are easier than you might think, too. And once you’ve memorized these, you’ve finished memorizing basic strategy.

  • Always split aces or eights. (That’s 2 out of the 10 potential hands you might split right there.)
  • Never split fours or fives. Treat them as a hard eight or a hard ten. (That’s 2 more, so now we have almost half of the potential splitting hands covered.)
  • With deuces or threes, split if the dealer is showing a 4 through 7. Otherwise treat the hand as a hard 4 or a hard 6. (You’re more than halfway finished now.)
  • Split sixes if the dealer is showing a 3 through 6. Otherwise treat this hand as a hard 12.
  • Split sevens if the dealer is showing a 2 through 7. Otherwise, treat this hand as a hard 14.
  • Always split 9’s unless the dealer is showing a 7. (If the dealer is showing a 7 in this situation, just stand.)

That’s another six rules to learn. So far, you’ve memorized a total of only 15 rules. Three more rules, and you’ll have mastered basic blackjack strategy.

Doubling Down

If you have a hard total of 9, 10, or 11, it’s often correct to double down. That means you’re agreeing tot take one (and exactly one) more card, and you get to double your bet.

You should always double down on 11 unless the dealer is showing an ace. In that case, just hit.

You should always double down on 10 unless the dealer is showing a 10 or an ace. In either of those cases, just hit.

If you have a hard nine, you should double down if the dealer is showing a 3 through 6. Otherwise, just hit.

A Couple of Final Thoughts about Basic Blackjack Strategy

Rules variations at various casinos will change the correct decision for some hands, but the percentage you’ll be giving up by just following the basic strategy above will be tiny. Also, some decisions will change based on the composition of the deck. That will only matter for people who are counting cards.

There’s a lot more to blackjack strategy than just memorizing basic strategy. You have to decide what your goals are, and then put together a strategy for how to best achieve them. If you’re going to play blackjack, you should at the very least learn basic strategy, because that usually means the difference between a house edge of 0.5% and a house edge of 2% or 3%, which is the average edge the house will enjoy if you just go with your gut.

Future blackjack articles will cover blackjack strategy in more detail.