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As stated elsewhere on this site, blackjack is one of the most popular casino games in the world, both online and offline and perhaps the primary reason for this is that there is a clear and unambiguous strategy and the odds come just about as close as possible to favouring the player.

Blackjack has one of the lowest house edges around, the house edge effectively being the casino’s advantage over the player. Using the most liberal rules found (rarely available but grab them if you happen to find them!), the house edge is just 0.28%, although it is more typical to find a house edge of around 0.5% and certainly less than 1%. This means that, with just a little luck, the player has a decent chance of making a profit, or, more likely, assuming “average” luck, they can play for an extended period of time and only lose very little.

Blackjack Basic Strategy

Basic Strategy (BS) is the name given to the mathematically proven best way of playing blackjack and it tells you exactly what to do in any given situation to assure you get the best return in the long term. Using this strategy is perfectly legal – indeed many land-based casinos offer BS cards at the table. It is very easy, whether playing online or in a real-world casino to consult the BS chart and know exactly whether you should hit, stand, split, double or anything else.

Even knowing that BS offers the most likely means of reward some players cannot bring themselves to follow the guidelines, preferring instead to use their instinct or an alternative strategy. If you are playing without much thought of winning this is fine, but for anyone who is serious about making money – or at least making their stay at the blackjack table as long as possible – employing Basic Strategy is a must.

Different rule variations, including such things as the odds at which blackjack is paid, the number of decks of cards used and rules regarding splitting, doubling and dealer-hitting have an impact on the house edge and, of course, on the exact details of BS. However, in general, the following rules are the most fundamental principles that any player should be aware of (although in truth memorising BS is unnecessary when it’s easy enough to refer to a printed or online guide). Along with the essentials of using Basic Strategy, we’ve also included the simplest ways to ensure you’re playing at a table with the lowest possible house edge (and thus the highest chance of walking away in profit) – these are listed first.

  • The fewer the decks, the better things are for the player, all other factors being equal.
  • Never play at a table where hitting blackjack pays at less than 3/2. Paying at 6/5 or even money is not uncommon and drastically increases the house edge (and hence eats into your potential profits).
  • Doubling down on any number is a big plus for the player, as opposed to just on 9, 10 and 11 or even just 10 and 11 as is common in Europe.
  • If the dealer must hit on soft 17 the player gains around 0.2% in the house edge stakes as opposed to games where the dealer stands on a soft 17.
  • The simplest element of BS to remember is to always hit (or double where applicable) until you reach 17 or more if the dealer is showing a seven or higher. You may not want to hit on 16 but the maths says you should, so man up and take that card!
  • The next simplest tenet is to stay on any hard (not including an ace) score of 13 upwards if the dealer has less than a seven.
  • Always double down on 10 or 11 unless the dealer has 10 or an ace.
  • Hit a soft 13-17 inclusive against ANY dealer card.
  • Never (EVER) take insurance.

The above are simply the easiest to remember guidelines, covering basic points only, and apply to games using four to eight decks in which the dealer will stand on a soft 17 and the player can only double down on 9, 10 or 11.

Alternatives to Basic Strategy

As said, there is no reason at all not to use BS – unless you have an aversion to money. However, there are a number of alternative strategies that players have a tendency to use and here we take a look at the most common ones and explain the impact they have on the house edge and, naturally, your profits.

Copy the Dealer

People assume that because the dealer, the casino, wins, by hitting to 17, that if they copy that strategy they will have a good chance of success. This, unfortunately, is completely untrue and the dealer’s advantage derives not from that but from the fact the player goes first, thus often busting before the dealer even plays their hand. By copying the dealer, that is to say standing on 17 and above (including soft 17), hitting on 16 and below and never splitting or doubling down, the house edge rises to just under 5.5% This is clearly not one to follow!

Never Bust

Having said that the dealer often wins because the player reaches 22 or above, it may seem a logical strategy to avoid busting and put the onus onto the dealer. However, by never hitting on 12 or above (unless it was a soft hand including an ace) but otherwise following BS, the casino’s advantage increases to almost 4%. Not catastrophic but sure to reduce your stay at the table and your chances of walking away with some cash in your pocket.

Play the Dealer Assuming a 10

Given only four of the 14 available card values are actually 10-value (10s, jacks, queens and kings), this may seem a strange choice – nonetheless, it is one that some players believe is a good strategy. Playing this way under a revised BS gives the bad guys – that’s the casino by the way – an edge of more than 10%!

Card Counting and other Blackjack Strategies

Card counting is legal and can, theoretically, allow the player to obtain an edge of around 2% over the house. By keeping track of the number of high value cards left in the pack the player can ascertain when is a good time to raise their stake and when it is wise to play for a minimal stake. In simple terms, high cards increase the likelihood that the dealer will bust and therefore if the player has memorised what has gone before they are able to beat the dealer consistently. Blackjack is the only casino game where what has gone before impacts future betting, essentially the key to card counting.

Casinos have numerous strategies to combat this, however, and card counting is much harder to profit from than it was in the golden days of the famous MIT team of the 1980s and 1990s. By using multiple decks, continuous shuffling machines and improved observation technology, as well as electronic blackjack, the card counters are very much on the back foot. Oh well, it was good whilst it lasted!

Another technique used by the MIT team and other blackjack advantage players is shuffle tracking. This involves watching and following a clump of cards as they pass through the shoe and playing at a time when the order of the cards is advantageous. It is hugely difficult and requires immense skill, as do other tactics such as cutting to an ace and identifying concealed cards (the latter through tiny wear marks, folds or cuts).

All in all these techniques are not something many people should consider but – I’ll say it again – picking the right rules and sticking to basic strategy should be musts. If you throw in the odd free beer or meal in a real casino and promotions and loyalty points online that low house edge gets even lower, making it easy to see why blackjack is so loved by casino fans.