Most people already know that blackjack offers the best odds in most casinos. What they don’t necessarily realize is how important blackjack strategy is to achieving those great odds. In every situation in a blackjack casino game, there’s an action which offers the best expected value. If you make that action correctly in every situation, blackjack has a house edge of less than 0.5%.
If you’re an average gambler, though, just playing by the seat of your pants, you can be expected to give up another 2% to the house just from making consistent mistakes. Don’t stress, though. Blackjack strategy explained correctly is easy – way easier than you might think, in fact.
The Difference between Blackjack Strategy and Blackjack Tactics
- A strategy is an overall approach to an endeavor.
- A tactic is an appropriate response to a specific situation.
- A strategy, then, is a collection of tactics.
When it comes to blackjack strategy, you’ll often see people referring to “basic strategy.” That’s just a collection of specific tactics for specific situations, usually organized into a multi-colored chart or table. Blackjack strategy can also encompass more than just basic strategy. It can also include how you manage your bankroll and whether you use advantage play techniques like card counting or shuffle tracking.
This post provides an overview of basic strategy as well as some observations about other basics of blackjack strategy that other pages on the internet tend to leave out.
Blackjack Odds and the House Edge
When people talk about blackjack odds, they’re usually discussing the house edge, which is expressed as a percentage. The house edge is theoretical average amount lost in the long run assuming theoretically perfect numbers. In the short run, it doesn’t mean much, but in the long run, the house edge means everything.
For example, suppose you sit down at a blackjack table with a 1% house edge. (It’s not posted on the table, but it’s easy to find the house edge for a specific set of rules.)
- This 1% house edge means that in the long run, for every $100 you bet, the casino is mathematically expected to win $1.
What’s the ultimate example of a short term situation in blackjack, though?
It’s a single hand. If you bet $100 on a single hand of blackjack, you’ll lose $100, win $100, or win $150. It’s impossible to lose $1 on a single hand. In fact, it’s impossible to achieve the mathematically expected average in a single hand or even over the course of a dozen hands.
How to Play Each Hand in Blackjack
You have two pieces of information in every blackjack hand:
- What’s in your hand.
- One of the dealer’s cards.
A blackjack basic strategy chart cross-indexes every possible total you have with every possible dealer face-up card. It then tells you which action you should take for the best expected value.
In some situations, the best expected value is still negative, but the best move means you’ll lose less money in the long run than you would making any other move.
What’s in your hand:
Your starting hand in blackjack is always either a soft total or a hard total.
- It’s a soft total when it has an ace in it that can be counted as 1 or as 11 without busting your hand (going over 21).
- It’s hard total when there’s no ace.
As you take additional cards, if the ace must be counted as 1 to avoid busting, the hand switches from a soft total to a hard total.
The strategies for playing hard hands are different from playing soft hands. Generally, you play soft hands more aggressively. After all, it’s impossible to bust a soft hand.
The deck has more cards worth 10 than cards of any other value, so if you assume that any card you’re dealt will probably be a 10, you’ll be on the right track – although this isn’t true 100% of the time.
As a general rule, hard hands of 16 or lower tend to need to get hit more often than hard hands of 17 or higher.
What the dealer’s showing:
Also, you’ll play more conservatively when the dealer has a low card showing than you will when the dealer has a high card showing.
For purposes of basic strategy, it’s often (but not always) correct to assume that the dealer’s face-down card is a 10. This is true often enough that you won’t lose much expectation by assuming that.
If the dealer’s showing a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, he’s more likely to go bust. He has no choice but to hit any total lower than 16. For this reason, you’ll often stand on hands you’d otherwise hit.
If the dealer’s showing a 7 or higher, he’s less likely to go bust, which means you’ll need to play more aggressively and hit more often. For example, if the dealer’s showing a 7, he has a total of 17 about 1/3 of the time.
Other player options:
You have more options than just hitting or standing, too.
For example, if you have a pair – two cards of the same rank – you can split the hand into two hands. You must put up another bet, but then you get to play two hands. The first card of each of those hands is one of the two cards from your original hand.
You also have the option of surrendering, which means to give up half your bet in exchange for not having to play out the rest of your hand.
And you have the option of doubling down, which means taking an additional card and doubling the size of your bet.
A Simple Version of Blackjack Basic Strategy
If you don’t want to bring a strategy card to the table with you, and you’re not interested in learning the full basic strategy for the game by heart, you can use the following rules to guide your play and only give up a couple tenths of a percent in house edge.
- Hit any hard total of 8 or less, regardless of what the dealer’s face-up card is.
- If you have a hard 9, double down unless the dealer has a 7 or higher. In that case, just hit.
- If you have a hard 10 or 11, double down unless the dealer has a higher card showing. In that case, just hit.
- If you have a hard 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16, stand against a dealer 6 or lower. Otherwise, hit.
- If you have a soft 15 or lower, hit.
- If you have a soft 16, 17, or 18, double down if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. Otherwise, hit.
- If you have a soft 19 or higher, stand.
- Always split aces or eights
- Never split 4s, 5s, or 10s.
- Split any other pair if the dealer has a 6 or less. Otherwise, play it according to its hard total value.
If you follow this strategy, you’ll be making mistakes on some hands, but you’re only giving up 0.2% (or less) in expectation.
Bankroll Management and Advantage Play Techniques
An advantage play technique is a strategy for getting a mathematical edge over the casino. Counting cards is an example of an advantage technique.
Your bankroll management approach should change based on whether you’re an advantage player or a recreational player.
An advantage player must minimize the amount of his bankroll that he risks so that he can avoid going broke before getting into the long run. Remember, in the short run, the odds matter, but your actual results will almost always differ from the expected results.
A recreation player, on the other hand, only needs to be able to meet his goals of getting enough action to have fun.
If you sit down at a table where the minimum bet is $100, and you only have $100, you’re going to be disappointed regardless of which type of player you are.
My suggestion is that if you’re an advantage player, you should have at least $1000 to play a $5 blackjack game.
If you’re just a recreational gambler, you can get by on much less than that — $200 should be plenty for a $5 game if you just want to have fun and give yourself a shot at walking away a winner.
If you are playing with a modest bankroll, I recommend you to check this article: 7 Ways to Get the Most from a Modest Bankroll.
How Much Does It Cost to Play Blackjack in the Long Run?
I always suggest looking at casino games as entertainment with a cost. That cost amounts to the average bet size multiplied by the number of bets and multiplied again by the house edge.
If you play 50 hands of blackjack at $5 per hand, you’ve put $250 into action.
If the house edge is 0.5% when you’re using basic strategy, your expected loss is just $12.50.
On the other hand, if you play badly and give up another 2% to the casino by making lots of mistakes, that same amount of play will cost you $62.50.
So, yes, it’s worth it to learn blackjack strategy.