Most gamblers, even novices, know what blackjack basic strategy is. But if you don’t, let me explain it for you simply here, and then I’ll explain the pros and cons of learning via those little cards you can buy at the casino or just studying the subject in simple words.
Blackjack is a game of decisions–you decide whether to hit, stand, double down, split, etc. Unlike when you play slot machines or roulette, the decisions you make have an effect on your outcome. This would seem obvious, but if you doubt it, then ask yourself whether taking a hit when you have a total of 20 is more or less likely to win? (Obviously there’s only one card in the deck that will help you in this situation, the ace. The other 12 cards will make you bust, so standing on a total of 20 makes sense no matter what.)
There’s a mathematically correct decision for every total you can have in a game of 21, and the dealer’s upcard affects that decision. For example, if a dealer has an ace or a ten showing as an upcard, you’ll generally play more aggressively, because she’s more likely to have a strong hand. On the other hand, if the dealer has a 5 showing, she’s more likely to go bust, so you’re more likely to want to stand, even if you have a total of 16. The rules require a dealer with a total of 15 to take a hit, and that’s going to result in the dealer busting more than half the time.
Casino gift shops and online stores sell blackjack strategy cards to help you memorize basic strategy. You can even use them while you’re playing at the table, in fact, although some people might tease you a little bit. The casino doesn’t mind if you use basic strategy, though, because even when you play perfectly, the house still has an edge of between 0.5% and 1%.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Memorizing Basic Strategy Using a Card or a Chart
People who think visually will have an easier time of memorizing basic strategy by using a card, because it’s color-coded, and visual learners can imagine the chart in their minds. Using a card offers another advantage, too–it’s portable, so you can study it anywhere.
One problem with using a chart to memorize the correct strategy is that the card is only as good as the person who created it. Some of these cards are perfect for certain games, but small variations in rules at different casinos result in errors. Every errors costs you a small percentage advantage.
On the other hand, some sites offer basic strategy card generators, where you input the rules for your situation, and the site’s algorithm creates the perfect strategy for your particular game. Of course, you’ll have to memorize how it’s different from whatever basic strategy you originally memorized.
Basic Strategy in Words
My preferred way of learning basic strategy is by words. Once you’ve broken the various situations down into something that can be described verbally, you can memorize how to play various hands while also understanding WHY you’re playing them that way.
For example, you should always split aces and eights. That’s an easy rule to remember, and it also makes a lot of sense. Splitting aces makes sense because you have a good chance of hitting a blackjack and getting a 3 to 2 payout on each hand. Splitting eights makes sense because a hard total of sixteen isn’t really a great hand, but hitting an eight is an easy decision and will often make a good hand.
On the other hand, you should never split fours, fives, or tens. Obviously, if you have two tens, then that’s a total of twenty, which is too good a hand to risk. If you have two fives, then you have a total of ten, so it’s always going to make sense to double down here and hope for an ace. And a total of eight isn’t bad, but two totals of four are pretty lousy, for obvious reasons.
With other pairs, you’ll usually split if the dealer has a six or less showing. If the dealer has a six or less showing, then she’s more likely to go bust, so you might as well get two hands going up against her instead of just one.
That covers all the possible pairs. It’s not a “perfect basic strategy”, but it doesn’t give up much to the casino, and you can easily memorize the exceptions once you have the basic principles memorized.
Anytime you have a total of nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one, you should always stand. This is true regardless of whether you have a hard or a soft total.
If you have a hard seventeen or eighteen, you should stand. The chance of going bust with a hard total this high is just too high to make any other decision a positive expectation move.
On the other hand, if you have a SOFT seventeen or eighteen, you’ll double down if the dealer has a six or lower showing. The dealer has a good chance of going bust in this situation, but even if she doesn’t, you’ll still got a decent chance of winning the hand.
If you have a hard thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen, you should stand if the dealer has a six or less showing. Otherwise, hit. The dealer has a good chance of busting with a six or less showing, but not so great that you want to double down. On the other hand, if you want a chance of winning against a seven or higher, you’ll need to risk busting to try to get a higher total.
If you have a soft thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen, you’ll always hit, and sometimes you’ll double down. The soft nature of the hand makes busting in this situation unlikely, so you’re not risking much by trying to improve your hand. You’ll double down on a soft thirteen or fourteen if the dealer has a five or six. You’ll double down on a soft fifteen or sixteen if the dealer has a four, five, or six.
If you have a total of twelve, you either have a ten and a deuce, or you have aces. Always split aces. If you have a ten and a deuce, stand if the dealer has a four, five, or six, otherwise hit.
You’ll always double down on a total of eleven. You want to try to get a blackjack with its 3 to 2 payout here.
You’ll double down on a total of ten, UNLESS the dealer has an ace showing. If the dealer has an ace showing, she might have a blackjack, so you’re better off just taking a hit.
If you have a total of nine, you’ll always hit, but you’ll double down if the dealer has a four, five, or six. When the dealer has those low cards, the player really gains in expectation.
You’ll always hit a total of eight or less.
That covers the basics of basic strategy for blackjack in simple English words. Most people should be able to memorize these a rule at a time with maybe an hour or two of study. Even if you’re a slow learner, you should be able to grok this with three or four hours of study.
Is It Even Worth the Trouble?
Learning basic strategy is certainly worth the trouble. The house edge for blackjack is between 0.5% and 1% if you play with perfect basic strategy, but if you just trust your gut, you’ll be giving the house at least an additional 2% edge. The cumulative effect of that difference is enormous.
Suppose you’re playing 80 hands of blackjack per hour, which isn’t an unusual rate of play. If you’re betting $100 per hand, you’re putting $8000 into action each hour. If the house has a 0.5% edge, then you’ll lose (on average, in the long run) $40. But if the house has a 3% edge, you’ll lose (on average, in the long run) $240. Same game. Same entertainment level. Totally different cost.