Unless you haven’t been paying attention to my blog, you already know that blackjack is a game of skill. You probably also already know that there’s a mathematically optimal way to play every hand. This mathematically optimal way of playing each hand is called “basic strategy.”
If you’ve visited a casino gift shop, you’ve probably seen the little laminated basic strategy cards. Those are fine to use in the casino, but they’re not always ideal. The dealers and the casinos don’t mind you using such cards, but it’s more fun to just know the correct play in each situation.
When I was learning blackjack, I was stressed out about having to commit a multi-colored table to memory. My brain just doesn’t work well that way. I have some thoughts about an effective way to learn using a basic strategy table that I’ll share below, but I have other ideas about the best ways to learn basic strategy, too.
The most important idea I have, though, is that you should be able to learn basic strategy in less than an hour.
Yes, there are close to 200 individual situations in blackjack where you need to know the correct move. The thing is, though, that many hands in many situations should be played the same way.
If you’re willing to sacrifice a small percentage back to the casino, you don’t even need to memorize the entire basic strategy. You can just start by memorizing a simplified version of basic strategy.
Whether You Should Surrender
The first question you should ask is whether you should surrender.
The good news is that you’ll almost never surrender. With the simplified strategy I want you to memorize, you only need to surrender if you have a hard total of 16 versus a dealer up-card of 10.
A “hard” total, by the way, is a total without an ace. A total with an ace is called a “soft” total because you can change the value of that ace to 1 if it would otherwise bust your hand. In some cases, after you’ve hit a few times, a hand with an ace can become a hard total. If you MUST count the ace as 1 to avoid busting, it’s a hard total.
But that’s the only time you need to worry about surrendering.
It’s not hard to remember, because everyone knows 16 is a lousy hand.
And everyone knows that a dealer 10 is a bummer, too.
Whether You Should Split
If you get 2 cards of the same rank, you have the option to “split” your hand. To do this, you place a 2nd bet, the same size as your initial bet. The 2 cards are separated into 2 new hands, with a bet on each of them. Each hand is then dealt another card, and you play each hand as if it were a brand-new hand.
But you don’t always split when you have a pair of cards of the same rank. It depends on the cards, and it also sometimes depends on the dealer’s face up card.
You’ll always split aces or 8s. If you have a pair of aces, you really have a soft total of 12. That’s not a terrible hand, but you have a lot of cards worth 10 in the deck. It’s worth it to get 2 hands that start off with an ace as their first card, because a lot of the time you’ll wind up with a total of 21.
If you have a pair of 8s, you have a hard total of 16. We already talked about what a lousy situation that is. But if you split, you’ll have 2 hands with 8 as the first card in the hand. If you get a 10 for your next card, you have a total of 18, which is respectable. That will happen often enough that it’s worthwhile to split those 8s.
You’ll never split 4s, 5s, or 10s. A pair of 4s is the same as a hard total of 8. That’s just like having an 8 as your starting card when you split, which isn’t terrible. It’s impossible to bust with one card dealt to a total of 8, and you’ll almost certainly improve to a strong hand.
If you split, you’d wind up with 2 hands where your starting card is 4, which isn’t anything to write home about. If you get a 10 as your next card, you’re looking at figuring out what to do with a hard total of 14, which is a drag. It’s not as bad as a hard total of 16, but it’s a drag, nonetheless.
A pair of 5s is the same thing as a hard total of 10, which is a great starting hand. If you get a 10 or an ace, you have a total of 20 or 21, which is almost unbeatable.
On the other hand, if you split those 5s, you wind up with 2 hands where 5 is the starting card. You’re looking at potentially getting a hard total of 15, which is a hand that’s likely to bust if you hit it, but unlikely to win if you stand.
A pair of 10s is a hard total of 20. That’s so hard to beat that it’s never wise to break it into 2 hands, even though those 2 hands would be good, too. Starting a hand with your first card as a 10 isn’t a bad deal at all.
With any other pair, you’ll split if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. Otherwise, you’ll treat the card as its corresponding hard total. When the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, he’s got a higher than average chance of going bust. Any time you can get more money into action when the dealer is likely to go bust, you should go for it.
It’s incorrect to always assume that the dealer has a 10 in the hole, and it’s also incorrect to always assume that the next card you’re going to be dealt is going to be a 10.
But the fact is, you have more cards in the deck worth 10 than any other single value, so if you do make that assumption, you’ll come closer to basic strategy than you might otherwise.
Whether You Should Double Down
Another option you have, which is one we haven’t discussed yet, is the option to double down. To double down, you double the size of your bet. You also agree to take one more card and no more.
When you have a hard 9, 10, or 11, you MIGHT double down. You’ll double down with a 9 if the dealer has a 6 or lower; otherwise you’ll just hit. If you have a 10 or 11, you’ll double down as long as your hand is higher than the dealer’s up-card. Otherwise, you’ll just stand.
You’ve probably noticed by now that the dealer having a 6 or lower is a big determining factor for these basic strategy decisions. Keep that in mind. If the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, that’s better for you. Sometimes it means you should play your hand more conservatively.
You should treat a soft total of 16, 17, or 18 the same way you’d treat a hard 9. You double down if the dealer has a 6 or less, and you hit if the dealer has a 7 or more.
Those are the only 6 totals you’ll double down on:
- Hard 9
- Hard 10
- Hard 11
- Soft 16
- Soft 17
- Soft 18
Whether You Should Hit or Stand?
If none of the situations above apply to you—you don’t surrender, you can’t split your cards, you’re not going to double down—then your only decision is whether to hit or stand.
This will be the decision you’ll be faced with most of the time.
You’ll always hit a hard hand of 8 or lower. There’s no downside to doing this. It’s impossible to bust the hand, so any card you get will improve your total.
If you have a hard total of 12 through 16, you’ll stand if the dealer has a 6 or less. If the dealer has a 7 or more, you’ll hit. Any total of 12 through 16 is susceptible to going bust, but if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing, you have to risk it to have the best chance of winning. If you stand on a 12 through 16, you’re hoping that the dealer will bust.
If you have a hard total of 17 or higher, you’ll always stand. The probability of busting such a hand is just too high to ignore.
You’ll always hit any soft total of 15 or less. Again, it’s impossible to bust, so you might as well try to improve your hand.
You’ll always stand on a soft total of 19 or higher. It’s ungrateful to ask for a hand stronger than a 19, even if it is impossible to bust such a hand. The probability of improving your hand is negligible. Chances are, you’ll wind up with a total worse than you started with.
We already discussed how to play a soft 16, 17, or 18, in the section on doubling down. I won’t repeat those instructions here.
Summing this Basic Strategy Up as a Single List
If you want all the rules for how to play your hands in a single list, here it is:
- Surrender a hard 16 versus a dealer 10.
- Always split aces or 8s.
- Never split 4s, 5s, or 10s.
- With any other pair, split if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. Otherwise, treat the hand as its corresponding hard total.
- Double down on hard 9, soft 16, soft 17, or a soft 18 if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing; otherwise, hit.
- Double down on hard 10 or hard 11 if your total is higher than the dealer’s up-card. Otherwise, stand.
- Always hit a hard 8 or lower.
- Hit a hard 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16 if the dealer has a 6 or lower. Otherwise, hit.
- Always stand on a hard 17 or higher.
- Always hit a soft 15 or lower.
- Always stand on a soft 19 or higher.
That’s it–a simplified basic strategy that’s summed up in 11 guidelines for how to play your hands.
I’ve put this list of guidelines in hierarchical order, too. This means you make a decision based on the first thing that comes up.
For example, with a hard 16, the first thing you do is decide whether or not to surrender. If that doesn’t apply, you continue to go down the list until you get to #8.
Here’s another example:
With a pair of aces, you have a soft total of 12. You split that, so you never get to the guideline which recommends hitting such a total.
Wait—This Seems TOO Easy
If you think this version of basic strategy seems too, easy, well, that’s because it’s a simplified basic strategy. There are a couple of places where the correct strategy was ignored to keep the strategy simple.
For example, with a hard total of 12 versus a dealer up-card of 2, the actual correct strategy is to hit, but the strategy I’ve shared above suggests standing.
But even with all the “mistakes” included in this simplified basic strategy, the house edge is only 0.1% or 0.2% higher than it would be if you memorized basic strategy exactly.
Most of the blackjack players I know don’t have basic strategy memorized that well. In fact, most of them memorize a basic strategy that’s correct for a game where the dealer stands on a soft 17.
But in most casinos, the standard is for the dealer to hit a soft 17.
Any rules change can change what the correct basic strategy is. In other words, there’s not one basic strategy to memorize.
Each game under its own rules has a correct basic strategy. Since there are multiple blackjack games out there to choose from, you’re almost always going to be playing with a basic strategy that’s slightly incorrect anyway.
So why not memorize a simplified basic strategy and give up that 0.1% or 0.2%?
In fact, unless you’re counting cards, it’s not going to make that much difference.
How Much Do these “Simplifications” Cost in Dollars?
We can estimate the cost of these simplifications with ease. Your predicted hourly loss at any gambling game is just the amount of money you’re putting into action each hour multiplied by the house edge of the game.
Let’s assume you’re playing for $20 per hand, and you’re at a table where you’re getting 75 hands per hour.
That’s $1500 you’re putting into action each hour.
Let’s say that the game conditions are such that the house edge would be 0.5% if you were playing with PERFECT basic strategy.
Your predicted hourly loss for that game is $1500 X 0.5%, or $7.50/hour.
That’s cheap entertainment, all right.
Now let’s assume that you’re using the simplified basic strategy above, and instead of facing a 0.5% house edge, you’re facing a house edge of 0.65% instead.
Now your predicted hourly loss is $9.75.
That’s an extra $2.25/hour, sure, but keep this in mind, too…
If you play any negative expectation game long enough, you’ll eventually go broke. It’s just a question of how long it will take.
Anyone can memorize the simplified basic strategy I’ve shared in an hour or less.
Not everyone can memorize the entirety of the 100% accurate basic strategy in less than an hour.
Learning by Using a Blackjack Strategy Chart
Basic strategy is usually presented using a table or chart. Along the top are listed the 10 possible up-cards the dealer has, and along the left side are the possible totals the player might have.
The resulting table includes the correct decision for every hand. This is usually color-coded, with green being the most common color indicating you should hit and red being the most common color indicating you should stand.
If you want to learn basic strategy this way, I have a suggestion for how it might be easier to do.
Create a table in your favorite word processing program, but leave the decisions blank.
Sit down with a pen and a printout of your blank basic strategy chart.
Fill out the correct decisions as best you can, then compare it to the chart you’re trying to memorize. Spend some time studying the decision points you missed.
Keep going back to this test repeatedly until you can do it perfectly. Even then, don’t stop studying. Everyone forgets stuff if they don’t revisit it periodically.
Blackjack basic strategy isn’t nearly as hard as you might have thought it was. You can memorize the simplified basic strategy presented in this post in less than an hour easily. When you do, you can deal with a house edge of about 0.65% if you pick good games.
It might be worth your while to memorize a more advanced version of basic strategy, but for my money, this one works just fine. I prefer to spend less time studying and more time playing.