Blackjack Rules, Odds and Basic Strategy

Blackjack

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Blackjack or “21″ as its known by non blackjack players, is the worlds most popular casino game.  The popularity of the game is directly related to how easy it is to learn, the competition of beating the dealer and of course, the low house edge.

The Rules Of Blackjack

Blackjack is a game of competition, you against the dealer. You are both dealt two cards, you get both of your cards dealt face up and the dealer gets one of his cards dealt face up. The objective of the game is simple, to get closer to 21 than the dealer without going bust (Going over 21).

Picture cards (Ten, Jack, Queen, King) have a value of ten, aces have a value of 11 or 1. All other cards keep their true number value.

Blackjack Variations

There are many different variations of blackjack, each variation changes the house win/loss slightly. Different variations include playing with more or less decks of cards, playing multiple hands at the same time and whether the dealer hits or sticks on soft 17. Before playing any variation of blackjack we recommend you find out the rules, nuances and house edge of each variation.

Blackjack Strategy

There are several mathematical absolutes in blackjack. For example, when it is impossible to bust (Your face cards add up to 11 or lower) you must always hit, double down or split. Likewise, if you have 17 or higher you must always stick.

Whether you should hit or stick when your cards add up to between 12 and 16 is dependent on the dealers up card.

The optimal strategy is further complicated by having the option to split when you have two cards of the same number or the option to “double down”. For example in some cases the player must split two 9′s despite having the value of 18.

Blackjack Basic Strategy Chart

Blackjack Basic Strategy Chart

As you can see from the basic strategy chart above we can formulate a plan of when we should hit, stick, split or double down. My advice to anyone who is wanting to win money playing blackjack is to memorize this table. A great way to do this is to play online with the table open next to the game. This allows you to learn the basic strategy chart interactively whilst playing the game.

Video Demonstrating Blackjack Basic Strategy


The above video gives a demonstration of using blackjack basic strategy. The video is best watched at 720p and in full screen.

When To Double Down

The chart above tells us that we should double down most often when our dealt cards add up to 11. We must also double down when our cards add up to 10 when the dealer shows a 9 or lower. Other times when we should double down include when our cards add up to 9 and the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6.

When To Split

Players are permitted to split their hand any time they are dealt two cards of the same value. Players must always split two aces and two eights. A common mistake many blackjack players make is by splitting two tens. In this case, players must always stick when they have 20 with two tens.

Players also split on 99, 77, 66, 33 and 22 although only some of the time. Please consult the chart above for instructions of when to do this.

When To Surrender

Some variations of blackjack allow the player to surrender. When a player surrenders they fold their hand and they lose half of their bet. As you  can see from the basic strategy chart above, surrendering is the optimal play very infrequently.

Players must only surrender when their cards add up to 16 and the dealer shows a 9, 10 or ace. Likewise players must only surrender when they have 15 and the dealer shows a 10.

In games where surrender is not allowed players must hit in these situations.

When To Take Insurance

Insurance is without a doubt one of the most misunderstood nuances of blackjack. A player is offered insurance any time the dealers face card is an ace. If a player takes insurance they wager half of their original bet and it is paid out at 2:1 in the event that the dealer has blackjack. In essence, when the dealer has blackjack you end up breaking even.

Mathematically speaking taking insurance is a losing proposition and should be avoided virtually all the time. The only caveat to this is when you are an experienced card counter and know that more than 1/3rd of the cards in play are value of ten. In this case it makes the insurance bet profitable, but in all other situations an insurance bet is unprofitable.

Blackjack House Edge and Loss

Different variations of blackjack have a different house edge or loss. The following list below shows the potential player edge against the casino when played perfectly.

Beatable Blackjack Variations

  • Single deck blackjack: +0.48%
  • Two deck blackjack: +0.19%
  • Four deck blackjack: +0.06%
  • Six deck blackjack: +0.02%

Unbeatable Blackjack Variations

  • Dealer hits on soft 17:  -0.22%
  • Blackjack pays 7 to 5:  -0.45%
  • Blackjack pays 6 to 5: -1.39%
  • Blackjack pays 1 to 1:  -2.27%

Blackjack Card Counting 

Card counting is a legal method in which players can skew the casino house edge in favor of the player. Many people assume that card counting is illegal, it is in fact legal however it is frowned on by the casinos (After all, the casino wants you to be stupid and give them your money).

Some people argue that card counting is actually good for the casino because many players either do it wrong or make mistakes which end up giving the casino an edge.

Unlike games like roulette or craps,  where there is a fixed percentage outcome on every bet. Previous blackjack hands impact the odds of future blackjack hands. This is because cards are taken out of the deck and make it more or less likely that certain cards will be dealt next.

Experienced card counters keep a count of which cards have come out the deck. This allows them to increase their bet size when the odds are in the players favor and decrease the bet size when the odds are in the casinos favor.

Some blackjack card counters play in a team to avoid detection. This was fantastically depicted in the movie 21.  In case you haven’t seen the movie, you have a variety of players making small bets and tracking the count. Then you have another player who plays as the high roller. When the count is large and in the players favor, the player tracking the count somehow signals the high roller. The high roller then comes over, places a few large bets and leaves when the count is no longer in the players favor. Playing in teams is a great way to avoid being spotted as a card counter.

The most famous and popular card counting system is the hi-low system. Cards of  ten, jack, queen, king and aces give a value of -1. Cards of 7, 8 and 9 are considered neutral and have a value of 0. Finally low cards 2-6 are given a value of 1.

The premise of this system is that tens, jacks, queens and aces benefit the player the most. Therefore, when lots of low cards are removed from the deck (And the count subsequently goes up), this becomes a favorable situation for the player and not the dealer. On the flip side, when lots of high cards are removed from the deck and their is a negative count, this favors the dealer more.

Apart from the hi-low count system which is the most simple system to understand, there are other card counting system that provide a higher degree of accuracy and other systems that encourage players to get a side count of aces. If learning blackjack card counting systems is interesting to you, i suggest you check out this Wikipedia card counting system article.

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