All blackjack Basic Strategy concepts began with a study the Atomic Energy Commission in Los Alamos conducted in the 1950s. Why and how a bunch of nuclear scientists got an OK to research blackjack on taxpayer time – at the height of the Cold War, no less – is anybody’s guess. But what they came up with is ingenious: It tells players exactly what they ought to do based on an exhaustive list of probabilities. We won’t go over these a second time, as we’ve already covered them in our “Blackjack Odds” section. What we will point out again, though, is that using Basic Strategy in blackjack reduces the house edge from 5 percent to less than 1 percent – a difference that drastically improves a player’s odds.
As for showing you how Basic Strategy works, we will do that exactly the same way the concept’s inventors did and show you a chart:
|Your hand||Dealer's face-up card|
|Hard totals (excluding pairs)|
- S = Stand
- H = Hit
- Dh = Double (if not allowed, then hit)
- Ds = Double (if not allowed, then stand)
- SP = Split
- SU = Surrender (if not allowed, then hit)
So going back to hitting, standing, splitting and doubling down, Basic Strategy teaches that anytime you choose between actions you should not only consider your own hand but the dealer's too. New players often don’t understand this facet of blackjack strategy. After all, you can only see one of the dealer's cards. Veteran players, though, always assume the dealer's down card is a 10 because, as we noted above, a good 30 percent of the time it actually is. Following this train of thought, if the dealer's visible card is an 8 a vet would assume his point total is 18. Obviously, it could be anything. But 18 is the worst-case scenario, and assuming it as a given allows a player to better assess the strength of his hand.
Of course, when you base your actions on a dealer's up cards, you must also know the rules he’s playing by. Generally, casinos require their dealers to stand on both “hard” and “soft” 17s, but a few only require them to stand on hard 17s. This distinction between “hard” and “soft” hands might seem confusing at first. (No doubt, it sounds like we’re discussing whether the dealer in question uses moisturizer). But, really, all these terms indicate is whether a hand includes no ace or has one that can only count as a 1 (a “hard” hand), or if it includes an ace that can be played as either a 1 or 11 (a “soft” hand). Nothing could be simpler than differentiating between these two types. But it's always important to consider them because the way you should play depends on whether your hand is hard or soft, and whether the dealer can hit on soft 17s: If your hand is hard and your point total is more than 17, you should consider standing. But if your hand is soft you should hit, especially if your point total is less than 19. Likewise, if your hand isn’t quite “pat” (that is, totaling 17 points or more – for more information, please see out “Blackjack Glossary
” section) or is soft and the dealer in a soft-hit casino is showing a 7, you should take the risk and hit.
Otherwise, deciding when to hit or stand according to blackjack Basic Strategy is pretty straightforward: If the dealer has to stand for all 17s, you should stand on a hard 17 or more as hitting on pat hands is almost always a recipe for disaster. Likewise, for middling hands that total 13 through 16 you should only hit when the dealer's up card is 7 or greater as this would put his hypothetical hand total above yours.
Finally, there is one piece of advice most blackjack Basic Strategy charts (including ours) don’t cover:
Never surrender. This isn’t some over-zealous call to arms, but an easy way to remember that, no matter what, the Surrender rule offered at some blackjack tables is not for you. The reason for this is that the rule itself is a con: When a player surrenders he checks his initial hand, then forfeits half his bet in order to fold. Meanwhile, if he doesn’t surrender he has about a 25 percent chance of losing. So in payout terms playing normally will only lose you 25 cents on the dollar sometimes; whereas surrendering will lose you 50 cents on the dollar every time. Simply put, you’d lose twice as much as you have to – and that, children, may very well be the dumbest idea we’ve heard yet.
Composition-dependent Play as a Blackjack Strategy
As you can see, there’s not much to blackjack Basic Strategy except memorizing what’s on the chart. What all the directions above don’t explain, however, is a minor tactic called “composition-dependent” play. This can be used in conjunction with Basic Strategy to lower the house edge even further. Some players argue that this reduction is so minor it makes learning how to execute composition-dependent plays pointless. Yet any edge you can get is ultimately a good thing, giving us more than enough reason to explain it:
Like any good blackjack strategy, composition-dependent play is based on mathematics. How it works is simple: Remember our short explanation of how drawing an ace first increases your probability of drawing a natural? This concept, that dependent events affect each other’s probability of occurring, is all the theory you need to know to understand how composition-dependent play works. For example, most blackjack Basic Strategy charts say you should hold on a 12-point hand if the dealer is showing a 4. Adding in composition-dependent play, though, you should hit. This is because in a blackjack game that uses one 52-card deck, having one 10-point card already in your hand drastically improves your odds of drawing low cards.
As we said, though, this strategy only gives you a very minor edge overall. And that edge shrinks as the number of decks in play rises. Yes, we realize we told you above that there is no difference between the probability of drawing a given hand whether you play a one-deck game or an eight-deck game. So before we lose you completely, let us explain: These probabilities remain the same at the start of every new deck or shoe. But they begin to vary with each subsequent game. For this reason, the house enjoys a significantly larger edge for each deck used because it takes longer to exhaust each rank in a large card pool. This affects composition-dependent play because you can make assumptions about what remains in a one-deck game far more easily than if there are multiple decks. In a six-deck game, for instance, composition-dependent play would only shrink the house edge 0.0031 percent. In a one-deck game, on the other hand, it would shrink it 0.0387 percent.
Blackjack Card Counting Made Easy
Blackjack card counting works much like calculating out odds in poker. In either case, you’re using probability to determine how many of the cards you need remain in the deck. The major difference is blackjack typically uses several decks while poker games only use one. And for this reason card counting invariably requires you use some mnemonic device to keep track of things.
But before we get into that, first we should to explain why blackjack card counting works – and why every casino on the planet will throw a fit if you use it at one of their tables: Blackjack card counting creates the ideal situation for players because it lets them know when to bet big, bet small and not bet at all. Again, we refer you to our “Blackjack Odds” section for a more complete description of how this works mathematically. But, basically, using this blackjack strategy will allow you to gain a 2 percent edge over the house.
Now, naturally, this edge is in itself theoretical because today’s casinos have changed their blackjack procedures to undermine card counters. Namely, they require that all player hands remain facedown, and they have introduced shoes. One result of these changes has been that card counters can no longer wait till a shoe’s count is in their favor, then jump in (a strategy called “Wonging”). Rather, they have to participate in games to begin their counts, and even then, they can only see their cards and the dealer’s. Good card counters deal with this problem by using Basic Strategy and varying their counting methods slightly. They use Basic Strategy first to limit their losses while they gather data on a shoe, then raise their bets when the count is in their favor. Ultimately, this means that card counting will net a little less than 2 percent over time, but this loss is so minor it’s negligible.
As for the real meat of our discussion, though, blackjack card counting isn’t nearly as complicated as movies like “21” would have you believe. As we said, all you have to do to keep track of which cards are spent is use a simple mnemonic. That is, you divide the cards into three groups: Low cards (2s through 7s), null cards (8s and 9s) and high cards (10s through aces). Beyond this, you simply keep score. Starting from the beginning of a shoe, if you see a low card count it as one point; if you see a null card add no points; and if you see a high card subtract a point. So, for instance, if the card order were 10, 2, 7, 8, 3, K, 5, A, J the count would be zero; and if the order were 5, 6, 2, 10, 5, 3, 4, 7, 7 it would be seven. It’s really that easy.
Now, we do have to warn you that this version of blackjack card counting is an established type – what’s called a “KO” count – and that casinos know it very well. What we suggest, then, is that you consider the information in our “Blackjack Odds” section and create your own point values based on it. Otherwise, you’re likely to get caught during your first session and get kicked out of the casino – or worse. Suffice it to say, that’s not something we’d wish on any of our readers. So we really do hope you’ll take our advice and not skip this step.
Blackjack Betting Strategy In a Nutshell
Most casino game betting strategies allow you to vary your bets in order to lower the house edge. For instance, playing a Labouchere system in roulette allows you to gain a certain advantage by betting predetermined amounts depending on whether the previous spin was in your favor. A good blackjack betting strategy, however, doesn’t create an edge in itself, but exploits those created by other blackjack strategies. In this way, it is just as necessary to winning at blackjack as card counting and Basic Strategy, and deserves its place beside them.
And yet, unlike learning to count cards or memorizing a Basic Strategy chart, developing a good blackjack betting strategy is impossibly simple. There isn’t much math to it because the other two strategies do all the heavy lifting as far as probabilities are concerned; all it does, in fact, is insert one additional step: Bet big when the odds are in your favor. If, for instance, the count is high you should lay extra money on your opening hand and split and double down heavily. If, on the other hand, the count is low you should take a breather and only bet the table minimum.
This simple idea – that you should bet big when you have good odds and small when you have bad odds – might seem like it goes without saying. But the reason we’re mentioning it is that without it Basic Strategy and card counting are pointless; even the best professional players, if limited to always betting the table minimum, would derive no advantage from the other two blackjack strategies and would actually still be subject to a house edge. And yet, all too often, after spending countless hours perfecting their blackjack card counting and Basic Strategy skills, players totally forget to use good betting principles. Our advice, then, is to make it just as much a part of your other blackjack studies to remember the following mantra:
Bet big on good odds. Bet small on bad ones.
Say that to yourself about ten times every night before bed, and we’re sure you’ll be fine when you finally hit the tables.