5 STEP BLACKJACK STRATEGY GUIDE
Follow this five step blackjack strategy guide to learn the skills you need to have more fun and keep from losing your hard earned money!
Did you know that blackjack only has the lowest house edge when you use proper blackjack strategy?
Players who only follow general guidelines or their gut instincts when playing blackjack lose much more money in the long run compared to individuals who show up with little or no training.
Although the house generally wins over the long-term, players can reduce the casino’s odds dramatically by using simple strategy rules. Blackjack tables typically turn between 50 and 100 games every sixty minutes, which means that even a conservative player betting $10 per hand is cycling through up to $1,000 in wagers per hour. Decreasing the house edge from 3% to 1% for example can result in $20 in savings during that limited amount of time. Since bet sizes and lengths of stay at the casino can vary substantially, savings can add up quickly. Using blackjack strategy to reduce the house edge can mean the difference between having a great trip or a lousy vacation and the difference between dining in the cheap buffet and savoring a meal in the five star steakhouse at the end of the night.
USE BASIC STRATEGY
Basic strategy is the only reason that blackjack has the lowest house edge of any casino game. Decades ago, some savvy mathematicians used computers to figure out which moves were statistically most effective for every card combination in blackjack. After simulating hundreds of thousands of hands, they finally came up with a list of the best possible in-game actions. There were slight variations in which moves were ideal for certain types of games and rules, but most of them were the same. Those charts of ideal moves became known as the basic strategy, BS or just basic.
Using perfect play, you can lower the house edge to anywhere from just less than 1 percent in eight-deck games to 0.13 percent in single-deck games. A house edge that low means that a good player has almost the same chance of winning during a sitting of blackjack as he or she does of winning a coin toss.
Unfortunately, many players fail to learn that the house only has such a small edge when the player is flat betting (betting the same amount each time) and playing basic strategy over many hands. Depending on which mistakes you make, you can lose more money more quickly in blackjack than in a game like a slot machine. In order to be a smart player, stick to the basic strategy moves and use flat or conservative bets that are appropriately sized for your bankroll.
As noted above, basic strategy is simply the set of statistically correct blackjack moves for each possible combination of dealer and player hands that will minimize the casino’s edge over the long-term. Each basic strategy action can be broken down into one of three categories: offensive, defensive, and neutral.
Offensive strategies are designed to ensure that players make the most of situations where the odds of winning are in the player’s favor. For example, consider a player that has a soft 19 versus a dealer’s 6. In this situation, the player already has a winning hand – the dealer has a high likelihood of busting and the player has a strong point total. If the player were simply to stand (a neutral move), he would likely win the round. However, in this situation, basic strategy usually dictates that a player should double down. While doubling opens the player up to the possibility of drawing a card that could make the current 19 weaker, it also enables him or her to put more money in play and take maximum advantage when the dealer is weak.
Defensive strategies, alternatively, are meant to blunt the effect of disadvantageous situations. For example, a player with a pair of 8s has a total of 16, which is expected to lose against nearly every dealer up card. In order to give the player an opportunity to improve his hand, basicstrategy instructions say to split, thus turning the one poor hand into two new ones. By splitting, the player is defensively retreating out of a position of weakness with the hopes that the combination of the resulting two hands will be better than the original.
Basic strategy is typically learned using charts or flashcards. Strategy charts are grid-like systems that show each individual move based on the intersection of rows and columns that represent player and dealer hands. Whereas strategy charts can be complicated to comprehend, flashcards have the same information as the charts, but are designed to teach players in a simpler, and more familiar process that also more closely resembles game play in the actual casino environment.
Just like you shouldn’t try to cram everything the night before a big test, you shouldn’t try to learn all of basic strategy in one day. While it is possible to learn quickly, you will retain the information and understand how everything fits together better if you pace yourself. For example, you might spend one day doing flash cards for situations in which you must decide whether to hit or stand. The next day, you might work on splitting pairs. If you make your own flashcards, make personal notes about certain hands so that you can remember them later.
Most habitual players learn the rudiments of basic strategy, but few actually take the time to learn all of the moves. For instance, most people know not to hit a 16 vs. a 6, but some may not know that you hit A,7 vs. a dealer’s 9. Hitting your 12 against a 3 in a multi-deck game is another action that most people do not know to make. These small mistakes add up over the long term, and they undermine your ability to play an even game against the house.
Blackjack is a fast-paced casino game. You may not be the only one at the table, and the dealer may get in trouble if he or she is not dealing enough hands per hour. Players and dealers alike may get annoyed with you if you take too long while deciding on your moves, placing your bets and so forth. As such, it is important that you memorize all of the right moves before sitting down to play at a real table with real money. As stated previously, the house edge is only low when you play perfectly, so it is definitely worth your while to learn basic strategy thoroughly, or, at a minimum, to memorize at least a handful of playing decisions.
Although we recommend using flashcards to learn basic strategy, we have included several basic strategy charts in the appendix to help you get started learning right away. The charts cover eight variations including basic strategies for typical games styles found in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Single and Double Deck games. Each is shown with and without surrender.
OPTIMIZE YOUR BANKROLL
Unless you are counting cards, the house has the advantage over the long term. You may have big swings of luck, but it is nearly impossible to win more hands over time than you lose. Taking that into account, it is important to determine how large your bankroll should be and what your maximum wager size should be if you want to keep from running out of money.
For a normal sitting, most infrequent players should expect to sit down with 20 times their average bet. So a player with a betting spread of between $5 and $10 using basic strategy can sit down with $200 and expect to probably not lose all of his or her money in that sitting—he or she might even triple that amount. The reason you want such a large bankroll in proportion to your wagers is so that you can avoid losing all of your money before it can go back up due to variance. Also having an appropriately sized bankroll helps ensure the ability to perform multiple splits, double downs, etc. (all situations that are good for the player). Forfeiting these opportunities as a result of not having enough money can significantly reduce your odds. In layman’s terms, an appropriate bankroll affords players elbowroom to take advantage of opportunities and withstand the inherent ups and downs of the game.
KNOW WHERE TO PLAY
In addition to your own individual play (how well you invoke basic strategy), several environmental factors can significantly impact your overall odds and enjoyment. At a minimum, you should be aware of how the general casino environment, individual table rules, and side bet options can influence your game.
One of the primary rules of blackjack strategy is to always play at the best possible venue. You want to find somewhere that has playing conditions, rules, dealers, and minimums that are in your favor. If you plan on staying for a while, you should also look for favorable comp plans so that you can win free massages, meals, hotel rooms, and other bonuses. Unless you plan on playing online, which is typically inadvisable, you will need to find the right casino.
Scout out the venues before you play. If you are going to be in a city for a weekend or a week, you should take a few hours to check out all of the venues that offer blackjack before you sit down to play anywhere. If you fail to properly check out all of the casinos in an area, you might miss a very good game with great rules and the limits that you are looking for. When you walk around, you can get a feel for what the other players are like, if there is cigarette smoke everywhere, how fast the dealers are, what the rules are, how high the table minimums are, and so forth. Taking a few notes on each of the places is a good idea because you might not remember everything the first time around.
Regardless of how high the stakes, it is always a good idea to talk to the dealers and their managers (the pit bosses) to build good rapport. You can ask pit bosses about the games and whether the limits or conditions change during peak hours. Most casinos run on three eight-hour shifts, so you can usually expect to see the same dealers and pit bosses at the same time every day. If you befriend the dealers and pit bosses early, you are more likely to receive comps, bonus offers, and other preferential treatment later.
Find a place with minimums that you can afford. Some casinos raise their rates in the evenings and on the weekends in order to make tables less crowded and to get people to bet more. Tables usually have signs that will tell you what the minimums are, but they get changed frequently. Some casinos may give you private tables if you are willing to bet enough at a time. Setting up a private table is typically at the discretion of the pit bosses or managers on duty, so you can ask them what their policies are during your initial scouting trip.
Some casinos have pamphlets at their front desks that can tell you about how their comps and bonuses for players work. Otherwise, you can ask a pit boss or find a customer service kiosk. There are almost always separate comp systems for table players and slot players. You should mostly pay attention to how the comps work for the table players. Some casinos require that you play a minimum number of hours at a certain average bet in order to qualify for their comps. Rather than betting outside your bankroll to meet a casino’s comp requirements, you should find a casino that offers comps at wagering limits that you can comfortably afford.
Assuming that you are only planning on playing blackjack, the other games at the casinos shouldn’t really matter. In fact, some of the smallest casinos offer the best blackjack games with the lowest table minimums. It is relatively standard for casinos to offer blackjack, so you might find some smaller places that only have slots, video poker machines, and a few blackjack tables. As such, you should make a point to check out smaller venues when you go to a new city.
After you find one or more casinos that have everything that you are looking for, look around for a comfortable table. There are different factors to look at when evaluating a table, and you may have to move a few times as conditions change and people sit down or leave, but you will enjoy your playing sessions more if you follow a few general guidelines.
Unless you absolutely do not know how to play a single-deck game or the dealers are very slow, you should always try to play at tables that use fewer decks. The house edge is diminished in single- and double-deck games, which allows you to play very close to an even game. However, if these tables are crowded, the minimums are too high, or you are uncomfortable with the style of play, find a different game.
Some players prefer slower dealers, and some players prefer faster dealers. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of games. The slower dealers are more likely to give you time to think out your playing decisions, which can really help if it takes you a while to remember the correct basic strategy moves. Faster dealers will deal more hands per hour, which can be great if you are winning, but a fast dealer can wipe out your bankroll during a bad streak if you aren’t paying attention. Faster dealers may also rush you during your turns to act, and this can cause you to make stupid mistakes that you wouldn’t otherwise make. During your practice sessions, determine whether you prefer faster or slower deals, and then take your preference into account when you look for a table.
You should generally look for tables with fewer players, but that is not always an option during busy nights. You might also enjoy the social experience of playing at crowded tables. Regardless, try to find a table that has players who look like they are there to play for a while. If you see someone with only a few chips, he or she is likely to play erratically, making moves that the crowd might perceive as costing the other players at the table their money. A good table will typically have a few players who are betting moderately, have decent-sized chip stacks, and are sitting down instead of standing—players who are standing may be prone to leave and come back, causing disruption or disjointed play at the table.
You do not always have to start playing as soon as you find a table. Some places like Atlantic City might not even allow you to start playing in the middle of the shoe. Given the way that card distribution works, a shoe can stay relatively neutral, go well in the beginning and bad in the end, or go badly in the end and well in the beginning. If you see that a shoe is mostly dealt, and all of the players say that the dealer has been winning every hand for most of the shoe, there may be a high concentration of good cards left. In a situation like this, jumping in toward the end might work in your favor. Conversely, if you see a bunch of big cards come out and players winning early in a shoe, you should wait until the decks are reshuffled before sitting down to play.
AVOID SIDE BETS
A side bet in blackjack is a bonus game that you can play on top of your normal blackjack hand. There are many different types, and you are likely to see at least one in every major casino. Generally, you place a side bet by putting extra chips in an area next to your primary betting circle. Some games have strict limits on how much you can bet. Others permit you to bet the table maximum in your side circle. When you sit down at a table, the dealer may tell you how the bonus game works. Alternatively, you can always ask a dealer, pit boss, or player to explain the rules to you. The general idea is that you can risk a relatively small amount of money on your side bonus in the hopes that you will see a return several times what you wagered.
Casinos use side bets in their blackjack games for a number of reasons. One big reason is that side bets add variety to a game that is otherwise played almost the same way no matter where you go. Another obvious reason that casinos offer side bets is that they typically put players at a greater disadvantage. Playing most side bets is like playing the slots. Losing a few dollars on the side every few hands might not seem like much when you are betting $15 per hand, but those incremental losses make casinos a lot of money.
UNDERSTAND BLACKJACK RULE VARIATION
In blackjack, the house’s hypothetical edge is affected by small changes in its rules. What may seem like small differences in games may actually be taking a toll on how much you win or lose in an hour. Many casinos take advantage of the fact that few people know how certain rules affect gameplay. Some rules are in place simply to make money; others are there to protect games from professional card counters. Different regions have accepted rule standards that are important to know before you play.
Most people know that games with fewer decks give the house a lower house edge. With perfect basic strategy and very liberal rules, you can get the house edge down to roughly 0.13 percent in a single-deck game. Realistically, you will never see rules that liberal in a single-deck game. Since most games have six decks, your objective should typically be to play games that have house edges closer to 0.6 percent than 1 percent. As a general rule, you should avoid playing games that pay out diminished blackjacks instead of those that pay out at 150 percent (3 to 2) of your bet. While it would be nice if all casinos offered surrender in their blackjack games, most do not.
Games in Las Vegas tend to mostly use six decks in order to get in more hands per hour and dissuade counters from playing. The dealers are faster than in most places, but they aren’t as fast as those on cruise ships. Almost all games hit on soft 17. Most of the tables now use automatic shuffling machines so that the six-deck shoes can be immediately swapped out. You will not see much variation in playing conditions within Las Vegas.
Atlantic City can be more challenging than other locations. The pit bosses are very wary of card counters, so they take numerous measures to increase the house edge. Some measures include only using 50 percent shoe penetration before reshuffling. You may not be allowed to sit down in the middle of a shoe—a rule to counteract advantage players who jump into games when the high-value card counts are favorable. Furthermore, due to the heightened awareness, players are more likely to be suspected as a card counters when playing perfect basic strategy.
Many of the games in Europe use no-hole-card rules, which are the same as in normal blackjack, but the hole card (the dealer’s face-down card) is drawn after all of the players act. This is disadvantageous to players because the dealer may take all of their money from splits, doubles and so forth before checking for a blackjack. Before playing, ask if a casino only takes your initial bet upon getting a blackjack. Averaged out over time, no-hole-card games don’t add to the house edge as much as smaller blackjacks or other handicaps, but you may find yourself inclined to play more carefully when the dealer shows a 10-value card or an Ace. Ironically enough, second-guessing your basic strategy moves in no-hole-card games only increases the house’s edge. Always stick to the basic strategy.
Bahamas and Netherland Antilles
The Bahamas and Netherland Antilles are great places to play. Both have their pros and cons. The primary places to play are Nassau and Aruba, but St. Maarten and Curacao also have some decent casinos. Casinos in all of the islands tend to have a lot of locals and tourists, so weekends and evenings are far busier than weekdays. The Bahamas tend to be more wary of advantage players, and the dealers are slower, but Nassau does have one very large casino that is often an attraction. Unlike other places, Nassau is busy during the day because of all the cruise ship passengers who offload during business hours, so you may find that it is more relaxing to play in the evenings. Overall, Aruba has the best playing conditions and the most variety. Most of the major hotels have casinos, and there are a few very large ones. As long as you are friendly toward everyone and as easy going as the local players, you can get great comps and do quite well here.
Asia and the Middle East
Blackjack is very popular in Asia and can be found throughout the majority of casinos. In the Middle East, however, blackjack is harder to find since it can still be considered a game of skill, not luck which can be considered taboo there. The Middle East continues to change rapidly, though, and laws and customs are adjusting accordingly. The casinos that do offer blackjack in the Middle East are frequented by the rich sheiks as well as tourists. In terms of playing conditions, in Asia, dealers can be extremely fast because of the popularity of and familiarity with the game in the region. Dealers in Asia are very fast and impatient at the table, which is something to be aware of. Once the cards are dealt, dealers expect players to make a prompt response so they can move on to the next player. Little help is given along the way as they believe it is up to each person to learn the game before sitting down. Alternatively, in the Middle East, since the game is not as well known, the dealers typically have less experience dealing blackjack and are slower. Players can expect to have time to decide their next move, although similar to Asia, they shouldn’t expect assistance with their hand. There are generally no rule differences in blackjack in either the Middle East or Asia and table setups are standard. In Southeast Asia, it is common to find a variation being played called Chinese Blackjack. This variant usually contains two decks of cards, anyone can be the dealer (thus each round can be dealt by another player), and Aces can have values additional values. Chinese blackjack or other variants should be obviously marked for players, but if they aren’t, players should ask a dealer for specifics of what is being played at the table.
Advance BlackJack Strategies
Every day, players come up with new ways to beat blackjack and tweak their play. Some advanced methods of beating the house are illegal; others are not. The legality of advantage play also varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is usually legal to beat the game in ways that do not utilize outside devices or otherwise breaking the stated rules of the game. Whether multiple players working together count as “outside devices” has been an enduring point of contention in lawsuits against blackjack teams. Regardless, most casinos are considered private property, so pit bosses and managers can bar you from the premises if they catch you counting or generally attempting to game the system.
Most professional players start off by learning basic strategy in and out. Basic strategy isn’t considered an advantage system or cheating, but it is the foundation for every advantage strategy. Once basic has been mastered, professionals then often practice Hi-Lo, a card counting methodology, for a few months in a controlled setting. After they have solid grounding in both, they start learning basic strategy play variations for Hi-Lo. After a player can do Hi-Lo, basic, and play variations in his sleep, he pulls together a bankroll and plays in a live setting. Some are fine with just Hi-Lo, but others choose to learn more advanced counting strategies or come up with their own. It is important for professionals to know how to play individually, but some people choose to work in teams in order to either insulate themselves from individual risk of ruin or to increase the camouflage of their play so that they can have longer professional careers without being caught.
There are numerous strategies that have been devised to track cards in blackjack. The general idea is to mentally track the balance between cards that are advantageous and disadvantageous to you. The most common system is Hi-Lo, which is a balanced card-counting system. There are other more advanced systems, like Hi-Opt II, but they require greater mental dexterity, concentration, and time to learn. The general idea in any card-counting system is to bet as little as possible when you are at a disadvantage and bet as much as you can safely get away with when the cards are in your favor.
The most common form of advantage play is Hi-Lo card counting. In Hi-Lo, Kings, Queens, 10s, Jacks, and Aces are assigned a value of -1. Cards 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are assigned a value of +1. The neutral cards, 7, 8, and 9, have a value of 0. Using simple addition and subtraction, players determine the running count by adding and subtracting chunks of cards as they come out. Ifthere are multiple decks, one divides the running count by the number of decks left in order to determine the true count. The true count, or TC, is the number of player-advantageous cards left in the un-dealt pile per deck. When the TC is higher, card counters bet more; when it is lower, they bet as little as possible.
Other advanced counting strategies like Hi-Opt II with Ace sequencing are much more difficult than Hi-Lo, but they are somewhat more effective. Some players choose to use different systems for different types of games and amounts of decks. For instance, for a longer game with six decks, a counter may use Hi-Lo while specifically tracking Aces. The same player may use Hi-Opt II with Ace and neutral tracking for a single- or double-deck game in order to get a higher degree of playing efficiency (essentially the effectiveness of one’s actions at different counts). In order to utilize a system’s increased playing efficiency, pros memorize deviations from basic strategy when the TC is at different levels. Tracking traditionally untracked cards in a system can further increase playing efficiency.
There are additional advanced playing strategies, but some are no longer used as widely. For instance, it used to be common for teams of players or individuals to peek at the dealer’s hole card in order to dramatically improve their playing decisions. In order to combat this, most casinos now use mirrors that are integrated into the tables so that only the dealers can see. Some casinos even use microchips inside their cards so that a machine can let the dealer know whether or not there is a blackjack without anyone actually seeing the card. The reason some places use electronic card readers is that some advanced players are very good at reading body language and can study dealers for days or weeks at a time in order to determine their tells, much like poker players figure out when somebody is bluffing.
Shuffle tracking is another advanced strategy that is no longer practiced as frequently. Not only is shuffle tracking an extremely difficult skill to master, it can also be derailed by something as simple as another player sitting down. Some players and teams of players are able to track one or more individual cards or clumps of cards in order to manipulate a shoe or deck’s composition during play. If a player knows exactly when one or more cards will come out, and in what sequence, he can play accordingly and bet a large amount when the time comes. In order to combat this, casinos take measures such as using automatic shuffling machines, burning cards between hands, cutting off big sections of the shoe, and using more advanced shuffling strategies. Still, for those blackjack masters who can actually pull it off in live games, the advantages can be very substantial.
There are specialty systems for individual side bets and even specific games that can only be found at one or two casinos. Side bet strategies usually involve using basic strategy, some type of balanced or unbalanced counting system like Hi-Lo, and one or more side counts for whatever card or cards the game warrants.