Of all the casino games out there, blackjack is one of few where your decisions actually matter. A majority of games found in a casino, from slots to roulette and baccarat, are designed in a fashion where the house edge remains unchanged regardless of player’s actions at the table.
But not with blackjack.
Knowing how to properly play the game and learning intricacies of the basic blackjack strategy can have a tremendous influence on your bottom line. Although the house will always stay ahead slightly (unless you’re counting cards, which we’ll also discuss in here), by knowing how to play a sound blackjack strategy, you can almost reach the break-even point.
On the flip side, if you’re playing without following these guidelines, you might be increasing the casino edge quite significantly. Since you’re playing the game that’s inherently not in your favor, the last thing you want to do is decrease your winning chances by making mistakes along the way.
So, if you’re someone who likes to play an occasional hand of blackjack or are looking into getting started with the game, this is your ultimate blackjack starter pack. In here, you’ll find all the concepts and strategies required to take your game up a few notches. Some things mentioned here might require additional research but at the very least you’ll have a good idea of where to start and what to look for.
Blackjack Basic Strategy in a Nutshell
For many people, making decisions at a blackjack table comes down to intuition and feel. If you have a good mathematical mind, this intuition might help you make close to optimal decisions, but it is hard to figure correct plays on the spot all the time.
Sometimes, things are clear-cut, like when you have a 10 and are against the dealer’s 6. But, what about those times where you have 13 and the dealer is showing 5? And should you split ever 10s, and if you should, when is the right time to do it?
Answers to these and many other similar questions are provided by the basic blackjack strategy. Although we don’t know who exactly came up with it or if it came to be as a result of work of more different players, the important thing is that it works. The basic blackjack strategy tells you exactly what to do in every situation imaginable and the suggested decision is always the best one from the profit/loss perspective.
Hit or Stand
The reoccurring theme in blackjack is having to decide whether to hit, i.e. take another card, or stand and pass action over to the dealer. Most people try to navigate these decisions the best they can on their own, but the basic strategy gives us a clear path of what to do depending on what we have and what the dealer is showing.
For Soft Hands (Containing an Ace)
- Always stand on soft 20
- Double on soft 19 against dealer’s 6, otherwise stand
- Soft 18: double against 2 through 6, hit 9 through Ace; stand in all other instances
- Soft 17: double on 3 through 6; otherwise stand
- Soft 16 and 15: double vs. 4 through 6; hit otherwise
- Soft 14 and 13: double against 5 and 6; otherwise hit
For Hard Hands (No Ace)
- Always stand on 17+
- 13 through 16: stand vs. dealer’s 2 through 6; otherwise hit
- 12 – stand against 4 through 6, hit in all other instances
- Always double on 11
- Always double on 10, unless the dealer is showing 10 or an Ace, where you should just hit
- With 9, double against 3 through 6, otherwise just hit
- Always just hit on an 8
There are some other things contained within the basic strategy you could learn to become even sharper and there are many detailed charts out there you can refer to. However, the advice outlined here is enough to bring your game close to the optimum and it is easy to memorize. As you can see, there are only about a dozen different items you need to memorize and you’ll be good to go.
Splits and Surrenders
Apart from deciding whether to hit or stand, players also have a couple of other choices available to them from time to time. Whenever you’re dealt a hand containing a pair (two cards of the same rank), you can proceed to play as normal or decide to split it and play two hands. But, when should you split?
- You should always split Aces and Eights (8s)
- Never split 10s
- Never split 5s; double against 2 through 9; otherwise just hit
- Split 9s if dealer is showing 2 through 9, with the exception of 7, else stand
- Split 7s vs. 2 through 7, otherwise hit
- Split 6s against dealer’s 2 through 6, otherwise hit
- Split 4s against 5 and 6, otherwise hit
- Split 2s and 3s against 2 through 7
When it comes to surrendering, i.e. giving up on your hand for half the bet, this is usually not a sound strategy and is to be avoided. However, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule:
- Surrender hard 16 against 9 through Ace
- Surrender hard 15 against a 10
Learn Basic Strategy by Heart
As you can see, the basic blackjack strategy is fairly easy to learn and there isn’t that much information to memorize. However, knowing these things by heart and always sticking to them can help you significantly improve your results. It will take you maybe an hour to really absorb all this info and you’re guaranteed to see improvements over the course of your next few sessions.
Remember, this strategy doesn’t change the fact blackjack favors the house. You won’t become a winner all of a sudden. However, by diminishing the house edge, you will have many more winning sessions along the way, which will improve your bankroll and the amount of fun you’ll have on each visit to a land-based or an online casino.
Card Counting: What Is It & Does It Really Work?
Card counting and blackjack go hand in hand, at least in popular culture, where this skill has been made legendary through numerous books and movies. The stories about card counters taking down casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and other places around the globe are certainly the stuff dreams are made of.
But, for many, counting cards remains this mysterious notion that they either don’t understand or don’t believe is a real thing. The truth of the matter is, card counting is very real and it does work – when it works. However, there are certain conditions that need to be met for a card counter to utilize his or her edge.
Card Counting: When Does It Work?
First thing first, counting cards online is completely useless. At electronic blackjack tables, cards are generated using a Random Number Generator and the entire shoe is used for every deal. This means the fact that some cards have been dealt on the last hand is irrelevant because they are immediately returned to the deck. For any card counting strategy to work, it is essential for cards to actually be removed from the shoe, as we’ll explain in a moment.
So, card counting strategies work only in live casinos with actual blackjack shoes and physical cards. This isn’t to say that they will always work in a live casino, but it is important to understand they will never work at an online casino so your card counting efforts online can only be used for practice, not to help you make money.
How Does It Work?
The reason many people don’t believe card counting is real is because they are missing the basic premise of the whole concept. They believe that card counters memorize each and every card that is dealt, which does sound impossible.
However, there is no need to do this.
In blackjack, there are certain cards that are good for the player, primarily Aces and 10s, and then there are some that are bad for the player, like 4s, 5s, and 6s. Although there are many different counting systems, the basic premise is that you want to keep track of good and bad cards and by keeping the running count in your head.
So, for example, every time you see an Ace or a 10-valued card hit the felt, you would subtract one point; every time you see a low card such as a 5 or 6, you add one point. This is much easier than trying to remember all the cards as you’re basically just adding few points at the time and keeping the number in your head.
What you want to achieve is a high count, which means there are many high-value cards remaining in the shoe as opposed to low-value cards. This means the shoe is favorable and your winning chances are increasing.
The problem with card counting is that for it to work, the shoe needs to go deep, i.e. many cards need to be dealt without re-shuffling or introducing a new shoe. The more cards are out, the more useful your count becomes because it is closer to the actual situation. These days, casinos are countering card counters by simply cutting the shoe often, making counting cards virtually useless.
Should You Learn to Count Cards
Although many casinos these days have these anti-counting techniques in place, there are still some venues where you might get away with it. Many smaller local casinos don’t pay attention to it that much and this is where you could still go and count cards successfully.
I didn’t go into details of particular card counting systems in detail in this article because that would make it way too long. However, now that you understand the basic premise of how it works, you can look for some basic and easy-to-learn systems such as:
- Hi-Opt I
- Hi-Opt II
In the right circumstances, following a good counting system correctly can actually give you a slight edge over the house. This means that you can expect to win in the long run (provided they don’t change anything), but variance of the game can still be brutal. Don’t expect your every session to be a winning one even if you’re counting cards.
Conclusion: Make Every Hand Count
Every time you play blackjack, odds are against you. So, you need to make sure to make every hand count and play it the best you can. By applying principles of the basic strategy, you’ll achieve exactly this and make sure you aren’t missing out on any value when the opportunity presents itself. You’ll know exactly when to stand, hit, double, and split, without any doubt or pause.
There is no better way to play blackjack out there, so if you like to spend your time at blackjack tables, it is definitely to your benefit to take a bit of time and learn these fundamental things. Card counting is a more elaborate strategy and it doesn’t always work, so that one you can live without if you’re primarily playing for fun. But there is every reason on earth to learn the basic strategy and stick to it every time you play.
And not a single reason against it, no matter what anyone might tell you!