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Blackjack Strategy

You've got two choices when it comes to blackjack strategy (alright, three, but we'll leave card counting out of this for the time being) - and those are, follow basic strategy all the time, OR, deviate from basic strategy some of the time.

Simple right?

Basic strategy lays out the most 'statistically advantageous decision' for any given situation. This means that a computer has run through a billion simulations and followed every possible decision you could make on any hand a million times, then labeled each one that would, on average, make you the most (or save you the most) money in the long run.

The second choice is pretty much doing anything other than what basic strategy suggests.

Now, these two strategies aren't either-or, in fact, the best blackjack strategy is a combination of basic strategy and decisions based on a gut feeling that doesn't fit what basic strategy says. Really, how often have you seen anyone surrender? Although you may have been hoping to find a page that says something other than 'always employ basic strategy' you likely know in your heart of hearts that it really is the best approach.

How can you argue with the fact that basic strategy is comprised entirely of statistically correct moves? Well strangely enough, although they are statistically correct, the suggestions don't always seem logical. Occasionally there is a strong human urge to do what it sees as logical, while the basic blackjack strategy chart says to do something different. For instance, when you are dealt two nines and the dealer has a 7 showing, part of you will have an urge to split them, as you envision two nineteens by your finger tips, but basic strategy suggests to stay. What's the logic here? Obviously basic strategy is working on the premise that they dealer will most likely have a 17 and you already have that beat with an eighteen, but why not try to get two nineteens? At that point you're taking a risk, and it affects the numbers. Although it is not a very big statistical difference, you would be expected to win $40 (for every $100 bet) standing on double nines, and only stand to earn $36.90 when splitting. It comes down more to the fact that you have to double your bet when you split, so even if you get one nineteen and win, you may lose your other bet, which pulls down the earning potential of your decision.

If you like to play with your gut, keep this in mind: The casino doesn't arbitrarily decide to have the dealer stand on 16's today, it doesn't change the way it plays day to day, and, perhaps, you shouldn't either. Are there card games that are made for those who rely on instinct? Well baccarat is as close as you'll get, since it's basically just luck.

To understand how playing conditions can contribute to your fortune, let's revisit the 'old strip' game, which was standard in Vegas until the mid eighties. It was played with a single deck, dealer stands on soft 17, double down on any two cards, no doubling after splitting, pairs can be split up to four times except aces, split aces only receive one additional card, no surrender rule. With these playing conditions, playing with perfect basic blackjack strategy brings the edge down to zero. Yup, zero. You're actually playing an even game, oh to have been able to get to Vegas in the early eighties... knowing what I know now of course. This chart is borrowed with permission from Blackjack-Info.net.

To learn what rule anomalies can affect the edge (such that you can incorporate them into your own blackjack strategy) have a look at the following table:

Rule Effect on Player Expectation
Two decks -0.32%
Four decks -0.48%
Six decks -0.54%
Eight decks -0.58%
Dealer hits soft 17 -0.20%
Double down only on 11 (no soft, no 10, no 9, no 8) -0.78%
Double down only on 10 or 11 (no soft, no 9, no 8) -0.26%
Double down only on 9, 10, 11 (no soft, no 8) -0.14%
No re-splitting of any pairs -0.03%
Dealer wins ties -9.00%
Natural pays 1 to 1 -2.32%
Natural pays 2 to 1 +2.32%
Double down on any number of cards +0.24%
Double down after splitting pairs +0.14%
Late surrender +0.06%
Early surrender +0.62%
Six-card winner +0.15%
Players 21 pushes dealer's 10-up Blackjack +0.16%
Re-splitting of aces +0.06%
Draw to split aces +0.14%

The basic indicators still hold true even in a modern multi-deck game, though the numbers wouldn't be exactly the same. Now you know exactly what to look for and what to avoid when examining the specific rules of any blackjack table. A plus before the number in the right hand column is good for you, the player; a negative is good for the house.

Using basic strategy will eliminate the normal 5 or so percent advantage the casino has over the unskilled player. With perfect basic strategy play, the house advantage can dip as low as 0.5 percent. That is less than a 1 percent disadvantage to the player. This is why blackjack can be one of the most profitable games to play in a casino. But be wary of games such as this where the house edge is a variable, it means you have to be a smart player, utilize a consistent blackjack strategy, and pay attention. To try and push the house edge even lower, and try to turn it into a players advantage, read up on card counting.