One of the reasons why blackjack is so popular is that it is possible to increase your chances of winning. Hit when you should and stand when you should and, if the statistics are kind to you, you should expect to at least break even.
But learning the strategy off by heart is a massive challenge, and putting it into practice can be even more difficult, particularly in fast-paced online blackjack where you might only have a few seconds to make your next move.
Here are some of the best reasons to adopt advanced blackjack strategy, compared with the basic ‘do what feels right’ approach that many newcomers to the game adopt.
|Basic strategy||Advanced strategy|
|Easily followed using a chart||Based on sound understanding of statistics|
|Not adapted to different sets of rules||Adapts to different number of decks, hands etc|
|May omit options like insurance/doubles||Includes all normal casino rules|
|Easier to remember and apply||Harder to memorise and use correctly|
The core of any strategy is knowing when to hit and when to stand – and most appear as a two-dimensional grid based both on your own hand, and on the dealer’s visible card.
In some rule sets, you may have the option of doubling your bet, in return for being dealt only one more card to complete your hand. You may also have the option of taking out ‘insurance’ against going bust or losing the hand; most strategies advise against doing so.
A good blackjack strategy will include contingencies for where any one of these rules is not in play, and generally this should mean hitting in place of doubling.
Part of knowing how to implement an advanced blackjack strategy is making sure you understand the terms involved. Individual rules, such as insurance, doubling and so on, should be explained by the casino you are playing at, particularly if they are applied in a slightly different way than usual.
Some terms – such as hit and stand – are so basic and fundamental to the game that you probably shouldn’t be playing at all unless you understand them. Others are less obvious; for example, a ‘soft’ hand is one that contains an Ace that you still have the option of counting either as one or eleven points. All other hands are ‘hard’ hands, as their total points value is set in stone, and these give you slightly less flexibility in terms of your strategy.
While it can be difficult to memorise what to do for every combination of cards, there are a couple of decisions you can make based on your own initial cards, and these are often easier to remember.
If you are dealt a matching pair of cards, you often have the option to split your hand into two – you’ll be dealt a second card to each new hand, and must then play them through separately.
The general advice is:
If, after splitting, you are dealt another card of the same value as the first, you may be allowed to resplit that hand once more.
Splitting in general can make weak hands strong, and strong hands even stronger, so by following the same rules as above, resplitting can potentially increase your expected return substantially. Remember though, you will have to place a new wager – equal to your original stake – on each new hand formed by splitting, so make sure you don’t go beyond what you’re willing to risk.
Doubling, or Doubling Down as it is often called, typically involves doubling your stake, receiving one additional card, and having no option but to stand on whatever your new total might be. It’s an option you should use conservatively – and always check the house rules before trying to Double Down, as it might only be permitted on certain hands.
Generally speaking, doubling when you are holding a hand worth 11 is a good idea; double a pair of Fives too, unless the dealer is showing a Ten or Ace. When holding a hand totalling 9, consider doubling only if the dealer is showing a card worth Six or less.
Surrendering is a little more complex than the strategies mentioned above, and allows you to ‘fold’ your hand and receive half of your stake back.
Do not surrender if:
If the dealer hits a soft-17 hand in play, and your hand is worth 15 or 17, consider surrendering.
As you might expect, some ‘strategies’ are basically a list of what not to do, and while that can be useful in some circumstances, an overly conservative approach to blackjack is not likely to win you the best possible return.
This is one of the biggest mistakes newcomers to the game make, trying to score 21 at all costs, and without even glancing at the dealer’s exposed card. Remember, the aim of the game is simply to beat the dealer – if they go bust, you win with any total, potentially even one in single figures.
Good strategy means ridding yourself of the expectation of scoring 21 every time, and focusing instead on hitting when your chances of busting are low, and standing when you’re in danger of scoring 22 or more.
Just as bad as aiming for a score of 21 is the mistake of standing too conservatively, as this will inevitably lead to you losing more hands. Stand at just the right score, and you maximise the likelihood of the dealer either busting, or failing to beat you.
This is based on the dealer’s initial exposed card, which can subtly shift the statistics towards them either busting, or beating you – and requires you to adjust your strategy slightly to compensate. If you literally never hit when your hand is already showing a hard 12 or more, you add almost 4% on to the house edge – and lose the corresponding amount from your potential earnings.
As the player, you typically have more options open to you than the dealer – including split hands and doubles, for instance. If you follow the same rules as the dealer, who must usually hit or stand based on a very simple strategy, you lose the benefits afforded to you as the player, and the extra earnings that they can bring. This can create an artificial house edge of almost 5.5%, even when the rest of your basic strategy is ‘perfect’, and that can eat into your winnings considerably.
A conservative approach could be to assume the dealer’s face-down card is a Ten, and adopt the statistically ‘best’ strategy based on the resulting conditional probabilities. This does not apply where the dealer’s ‘up’ card is an Ace, as a face-down Ten would make for blackjack, which the dealer would declare immediately. In all other circumstances, assuming the hole card is a Ten can be disastrous, adding 10% or more to the house edge.