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Basic Blackjack Strategy

Basic blackjack strategy can look daunting when you first see it in chart form, but once you start playing a few hands, you can quickly begin to memorise the main aspects of your chosen strategy.

In principle, basic blackjack strategies all work on the same premise – a chart comparing your own initial two-card hand with the one face-up card dealt to the dealer. Depending on those three cards, your percentage chance of winning the hand differs, making it wiser to hit in some instances and stand in others.

Even basic strategies typically incorporate the additional options of splitting and doubling, which should make them suitable for most online blackjack games, including random number generator (RNG) blackjack and live-dealer games.

How Much Does It Help?

The ‘normal’ house edge in blackjack arises from the fact that the player goes first – and if you bust by hitting to a hand value of more than 21, you lose your stake. Estimates of how much this affects your overall odds vary depending on the precise house rules, and how good you are at playing the ‘perfect’ game. Generally speaking, an ordinary player, choosing to hit or stand based on gut instinct rather than any formal strategy, faces a house edge of 2-5%.

A very basic blackjack strategy simply hits when it is statistically favourable to do so, and stands when it is not, to minimise the risk of busting and so lower the house edge. Basic strategies cut the house edge to less than 1%, which you can then improve further by adjusting the amount you bet.

Rule-of-thumb betting strategies typically involve increasing your bet after each win, but returning to a low base level immediately following any loss. The idea is to maximise your earnings from any short-term winning streak, without risking too much on the inevitable losing hand.

BASIC BLACKJACK STRATEGY CHART

You have: The Dealer is showing a:
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 T A
Key: H = HIT | D = DOUBLE | S = STAND | SP = SPLIT
5 to 8 H H H H H H H H H H
9 H D D D D H H H H H
10 D D D D D D D D H H
11 D D D D D D D D D H
12 H H S S S H H H H H
13 or 14 S S S S S H H H H H
15 or 16 S S S S S H H H H H
17 to 21 S S S S S S S S S S
13 or 14 (soft) H H H D D H H H H H
15 or 16 (soft) H H D D D H H H H H
17 (soft) H D D D D H H H H H
18 (soft) S D D D D S S H H H
19 or 20 (soft) S S S S S S S S S S
A, A or A, A SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP
2,2 or 3,3 SP SP SP SP SP SP H H H H
4,4 H H H SP SP H H H H H
5,5 D D D D D D D D H H
6,6 SP SP SP SP SP H H H H H
7,7 SP SP SP SP SP SP H H H H
8,8 SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP
9,9 SP SP SP SP SP SP SP SP S S
10,10 S S S S S S S S S S

What About Advanced Strategies?

Advanced strategies eke out the final few fractions of a percent from the house edge – and may take into account everything from your initial dealt hand to splits and doubles, bet size adjustments, and potentially even card-counting where it is possible to do so.

Remember, online, card-counting is unlikely to be meaningful, as RNG blackjack games are generated at random rather than being dealt from a contiguous deck of cards – effectively they’re shuffled after every game.

Even in live-dealer games, decks are usually shuffled before they have been fully played through (called ‘deck penetration’) and one or more cards are usually removed face-down between hands (called ‘burn cards’), both of which make it harder to count cards, and lower the percentage advantage to the player of doing so.

Putting card-counting to one side, many players still choose not to deploy advanced blackjack strategies, as they can deliver player benefits measuring in the tenths or even the hundredths of a percent – often making them more trouble than they’re worth.

The Greats of Blackjack Strategy

Talk to a professional about blackjack strategy, and Julian Braun’s name is likely to come up as one of the subject’s all-time greats. Braun was an IBM computer programmer who turned his attentions to blackjack strategies – and in particular, to improving the strategy outlined by Edward O Thorp, author of Beat the Dealer.

After developing ‘better’ versions (in statistical terms) of Thorp’s basic blackjack strategy and Hi-Lo blackjack strategy, Braun’s work was published in a revised edition of Beat the Dealer. This was in 1966; 14 years later, Braun’s own volume, How to Play Winning Blackjack, was published, approaching blackjack strategy from the angle of logic and statistics, rather than simply anecdotal evidence from professional players.

Ken Uston is another blackjack strategist who was a household name in the decades leading up to the 1980s. He focused on card-counting and team-based strategies, and reputedly played for stakes of $12,000 per hand.

More recently, Don ‘The Blackjack Beast’ Johnson made headlines after winning over $15 million in five months from three Atlantic City casinos. Don Johnson’s strategy involved negotiating special treatment – such as a partial rebate on any major losses – to erode the house edge. He also behaved in an irritating manner, distracting the house dealers so that they made more mistakes, improving his odds still further.

What About House Rules?

The basic strategy of blackjack depends on the specific house rules in play – and there are more variables than you might expect.

Any of the following factors could influence the perfect strategy:

  • The number of decks of cards in play.
  • What does the dealer do if dealt a soft 17? (i.e. a hand worth 17, which includes an Ace)
  • Can the player double any hand, or only certain values?
  • Can the player double after splitting?
  • How many times can the player split? (i.e. to two, three or four hands in total?)
  • Can Aces be resplit?
  • Can a split hand of Aces be hit on?
  • Is a late or normal surrender rule in play?
  • What odds does a Blackjack hand pay?
  • What losing odds does a dealer Blackjack cost?

Depending on the house rules, there may be other factors that influence the final win percentage and optimal strategy. Generally speaking, as with advanced strategies, the effect of any one small variation in rules is minimal – just a fraction of a percentage – so if you play at a normal land-based or online casino, and apply the basic strategy without adaptation, you should still face a house edge of less than 1%.

Top Tips

Putting a fairly basic blackjack strategy into practice shouldn’t be too difficult – but here are five ways to avoid getting it wrong.

  • Be confident about your chosen strategy – don’t get it confused with any others you may have read about during your research.
  • Check the table rules and limits – make sure the strategy you are applying is suitable for the specific rules in play.
  • Hold your nerve if you hit a rough patch – remember, even the best strategy only works in the long term, so things should balance out eventually.
  • Only take advantage of ‘splits’ and ‘doubles’ if you can afford the extra wager – hardly any blackjack strategies, whether basic or advanced, recommend taking ‘insurance’.
  • Make sure you choose a strategy you can keep track of – too complex and you risk getting it wrong, too basic and you’ll lose out to a higher house edge.