Blackjack has many wonderful qualities. It’s a game where your decisions matter. It’s also a game where you can get an edge over the casino (if you know how to count cards).
Most of all, it’s just plain fun.
But blackjack is more fun when you’re winning more often.
Luckily, it’s a game where the mathematically correct way to play each hand has already been figured out. Computer programmers have run millions of hands of blackjack through simulators to come up with the moves that have the highest expected value.
A word about that:
“Expected value” refers to how much a bet is worth. In some situations at the blackjack table, the expected value of a specific decision is positive. It might be more positive than other positive decisions.
In some other situations at the blackjack table, you must choose between the lesser of several evils. If you have a stiff hand, the best you can do is go with the decision that loses you the least amount of money in the long run.
As luck would have it, you only have a handful of totals to make decisions about. The highest possible total you can have without busting is 21. The lowest possible total with 2 cards is 4.
In the post below, I’ll look at each possible total and how it could occur. Then I’ll explain how to play that total based on which cards it’s made of and what the dealer has as her face-up card.
All these explanations are based on basic strategy.
A Total of 21
When you have a total of 21, you should always stand. It doesn’t matter what cards make up that total. It doesn’t matter what the dealer’s up-card is.
You always stand with 21. Any other choice costs money.
A Total of 20
You’ll always stand with a total of 20, too, no matter what the cards are. It also doesn’t matter what the dealer’s face-up card is.
The reasoning behind this is clear. There’s only one possible total the dealer could have which will beat a 20, which means you’ll win with it most of the time.
You might need to decide whether to split a hard total of 20. If you have 2 cards of the same rank, you can put up another bet and start 2 hands using the cards in your hand as the first card of the 2 subsequent hands.
It seems like this might not be a bad idea. After all, any hand with a 10 as its first card is probably going to turn out okay.
It’s a mistake, though. Most of the time, you’ll wind up with 2 hands that aren’t as strong as your total of 20. There are more cards in the deck that aren’t worth 10 or 11 than there are cards which are worth 10 or 11.
A Total of 19
You will ALMOST always stand on a total of 19, regardless of which cards make up the total.
But there’s one exception:
If you have a soft total of 19—an ace and an 8—you’ll double down. But only if the dealer has a 6 showing.
In some casinos, you’re not allowed to double down on a soft total of 19. If that’s the case, you’ll just stand.
On any other total of 19, though, you’ll stand. It’s such a strong hand that it will beat anything except a total of 20 or 21 from the dealer.
But even if you suspect that the dealer has one of those totals, your odds of winding up with a worse hand are too good for it to be a smart move to take another card.
The only reason you double down against a dealer’s face-up 6 is because the dealer is so likely to bust that it’s worth the risk.
A Total of 18
If you have a total of 18 that’s made up of two 9s, you must decide whether to split your hand or not. Most of the time, you will split your hand, but there are exceptions.
You’ll split a pair of 9s if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. You’ll also split 9s if the dealer has an 8 or 9.
If the dealer has a 7, 10, or ace showing, you’ll stand.
If you have a total of 18 that includes an ace that can be counted as 1 or 11, you have a “soft” 18. If the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, and if the casino allows it, you’ll double down on this hand.
If the casino doesn’t allow you to double down on a soft 18, you’ll stand instead.
If the dealer has a 7 or 8, you’ll stand on a soft 18.
If the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing, you’ll hit a soft 18.
Being able to count the ace as 1 or as 11 gives you some flexibility with how you play this hand. The combination of the possibility to improve your hand and the possibility that the dealer will bust results in the possible doubling down decisions.
Any other total of 18 will be a hard total, and you’ll always stand on a hard total of 18.
A Total of 17
If you have an ace that counts as 1 or 11, you have a soft total of 17. In that case, you should double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing. If the dealer has any other card showing, you should hit this total.
If you don’t have an ace, or if counting the ace as an 11 would bust you, you have a hard total of 17. It’s easy what to decide to do with a hard 17:
A Total of 16
Once you get down to the total of 16 or less, you’re getting into “stiff hand” territory. A stiff hand is one which is likely to bust.
It doesn’t matter, though.
There’s still only one correct way to play each stiff hand, too.
The first kind of total of 16 you should think about is a pair of 8s. You should always split a pair of 8s. The reasoning behind this should make sense. You’re trading a mediocre hand for 2 hands which are likely to improve. More cards in the deck will improve an 8 than will hurt it. Any ace, 10, or 9 will give you a better total than 16. (And there are 16 cards worth 10 in the deck, so that’s almost half the deck in total.)
The second kind of total of 16 to worry about is a soft 16. Again, this is a total where the ace can count as 1 or 11. You will NEVER stand on a soft 16.
You’ll double down on a soft 16 if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing. If the dealer has any other card showing, you’ll fold.
Finally, you need to know what to do with any other hard total of 16. You’ll stand if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. You’ll hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
If the dealer has a 6 or less showing, you’re hoping she’ll bust. Otherwise, you’re hoping to improve your hand so that you have a fighting chance.
A Total of 15
A soft total of 15 is easy to play. You’ll play it just like you would a soft total of 16, in fact. You’ll double down if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
A hard total of 15 isn’t hard to play, either, although it’s a bummer of a hand. Again, you’ll play a hard 15 just like you would a hard 16. Hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher. Otherwise stand.
A Total of 14
If you have a pair of 7s, you need to decide whether to split. You will split if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing. If you don’t split, you’ll treat the hand as any other hard 14.
If you have a soft 14, you will never stand. You’ll double down if the dealer has a 5 or 6 showing. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
If you have a hard 14, you’ll play it just like a hard 15 or 16. Stand if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. Hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
A Total of 13
A soft total of 13 is played just like a soft 14. You’ll double down if the dealer has a 5 or 6. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
A hard total of 13 is played just like a hard 14, 15, or 16. Stand if the dealer has a 6 or less. Otherwise, hit.
A Total of 12
The first kind of 12 total to worry about is a pair of 6s. (You always consider whether to split first.) You should double down if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. If not, you’ll treat the hand just like you would any other hard total of 12.
Next, you’ll think about a soft total of 12. This could mean you have a pair of aces. In that case, you always split. (Just remember—always split aces and 8s.)
There’s no other way to get a soft total of 12, so you’re left with the possibility of a hard 12. If that’s what you have, you stand against a dealer 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, you hit.
A Total of 11
If you have an ace and a 10, you COULD consider that a soft total of 11. But really, you have a blackjack. Just accept your winning with grace.
On any other total of 11, you’ll double down. That’s an easy decision, because you have lots of cards which will increase your total to 21. There’s no real downside to doubling down on an 11, because it’s impossible to bust such a hand.
A Total of 10
You never split 5s. They’re always treated as a hard total of 10.
If you have a soft total of 10, you really have a soft total of 20, and I’ve already covered that. (Think about it.)
With a hard 10, which is really the only way you’ll ever have a total of 10, you’ll almost always double down. The only time you won’t double down is if the dealer has an ace or 10 showing. In that case, you’ll just stand. (You don’t want to put extra money into play because of the increased likelihood that the dealer will have a 21.)
A Total of 9
A hard 9 is played ALMOST exactly like a hard 10. You should double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
A Total of 8
You never split a pair of 4s. (In fact, you can remember this rule—never spit 4s, 5s, or 10s.)
In fact, there’s only ONE way to correctly play a hard total of 8. Always hit.
A Total of 7
Always hit a hard total of 7.
A Total of 6
If you have a pair of 3s, split if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing. Otherwise, just hit.
If you have any other hard total of 6, just hit the hand.
A Total of 5
Always hit a hard total of 5.
A Total of 4
If you have a pair of deuces, play it just like a pair of 3s. Split if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing. Otherwise, just hit.
You only have 18 possible starting totals in blackjack. Once you’ve learned how to play each of those totals correctly, you’ve mastered basic strategy.
Why is that a good thing to do?
If you’ve mastered basic strategy, the house edge for most blackjack games is between 0.5% and 1%, making it one of the best games in the casino.
If you misplay these hands, the house edge goes up. Most players are bad at basic strategy, by the way. If you look at the casino’s numbers, the average blackjack player is so bad that he’s facing a house edge of between 4% and 5%.
With those kinds of numbers, you might as well play craps or roulette. You don’t have to make any playing decisions with those games.
I think it’s well worth your time to
memorize basic strategy in this way.
Blackjack is supposed to be one of the easiest casino games to beat. After all, it features a low house edge in comparison to most games.
However, you still may find yourself struggling to book winning sessions on a consistent basis. Even when you are winning, your profits can drain out as you continue playing.
In these cases, it really helps to know why you have such a tough time beating blackjack. Below, I’ll discuss 5 reasons why the dealer keeps kicking your butt along with how you can change things around.
1 – The Dealer Acts Second
Some gamblers have adopted an extreme strategy that involves mimicking the dealer. Their thought process is that if the dealer wins most of the time, then they can at least match the croupier by playing by the same rules (I.e. hitting until a hard or soft 17).
The same gamblers are dead wrong on this strategy! Mimicking the dealer results in a massive 7% house edge. But why?
The croupier doesn’t win just because they play by a strict set of rules. In fact, being forced to hit until a soft/hard 17 actually lowers their chances of winning.
Instead, the dealer’s biggest advantage comes from acting after you. They deal the cards and wait for you to play your hand before doing anything else.
If you bust out, then you automatically lose. Meanwhile, the dealer beats you without ever having to make a decision.
The casino tries to soften the blow by giving you extra actions that the dealer doesn’t enjoy. You can split pairs and double down when rules permit.
These special privileges help when you’re trying to reduce the house edge. But they still don’t allow you to totally overcome the dealer’s advantage.
2 – Not Everybody Bothers With Blackjack Strategy
One of the most-entertaining parts about blackjack is that it features in-depth strategy. You can improve your chances of winning by knowing how to act in each situation.
Here’s an example of a tricky blackjack scenario:
- You hold a pair of 9s.
- The dealer’s upcard is 7.
- You split these 9s in most situations.
- However, basic strategy calls on you to stand in this specific instance.
There’s one right way to play the above situation and multiple wrong ways. You’ll run into these types of decisions again and again in blackjack.
You won’t automatically know how to deal with tricky situations. That said, a basic blackjack strategy chart can do wonders for your results.
These charts, which are extremely easy to find by the way, show the correct move for every situation. As long as you can read a color-coded chart, you can play perfect blackjack.
Nevertheless, many gamblers still don’t bother to take the two minutes it requires to find one of these charts online. They instead think that they’ve already mastered the game through experience alone.
Most gamblers can play reasonably well as long as they don’t try mimicking the dealer. But they’ll still surrender anywhere from 2% to 4% edge by ignoring strategy.
3 – Blackjack Games Move Fast
It seems like the casino already benefits quite a bit from the dealer acting second. But as I’ll discuss later, you can still lower the house edge to 0.5%–or even less in certain cases.
The problem, though, is that casinos can still beat you badly even if they only have a tiny advantage. Blackjack games are built to move fast so that the house can capitalize.
Depending upon the dealer’s speed and number of players involved, a blackjack table can see up to 100-150 hands per hour. You may even play 300+ hands an hour through online blackjack.
More action creates more entertainment when you’re gambling. However, it also leads to bigger losses over time.
You might still not feel like taking breaks and slowing the game down after reading this. After all, the point of blackjack is to have fun rather than trying to minimize your losses. But the fact remains that the casino wins more money, on average, when you’re exposed to more hands.
4 – The Rules Are in the Casino’s Favor
As I covered before, casinos give you special options that the dealer doesn’t have access to. Doubling down and splitting in the right situations give you a better chance at beating the dealer.
Even still, any competent casino will still ensure that they skew the rules in their favor. They tweak each rule to ensure that they at least hold a small advantage.
Of course, you can counteract this to some degree by looking for tables with the best rules. Even then, though, you’re not going to find any games that give you the edge.
Some casinos use tricky moves to fool you into thinking that your chances of winning are better. For example, they’ll offer single-deck tables with 6:5 natural blackjack payouts.
A single deck reduces the house edge by 0.59% when compared to the common 8-deck games. However, the 6:5 natural payouts boost the house advantage by 1.39% compared to 3:2 payoffs.
You know to look for this rule and avoid it in the future. But you’re still going to face other rules that increase the house edge.
5 – Casinos Boot Card Counters
Card counting is the most-popular way to gain an edge over the casino in any circumstance. In fact, blockbuster movies have been made about the subject.
However, casinos don’t just let you walk into their establishments and make easy money. They’re private businesses and they have the right to stop you if they think you’re counting.
You might feel that this is unfair when considering that the casino can take your money but is afraid to lose. But every gambling jurisdiction, except for Atlantic City, allows the house to boot counters.
It’s still possible for you to evade casino detection and make money. But you’ll find camouflaging your play to be much more difficult than simply learning card counting.
What Can You Do to Beat the Dealer in Blackjack?
You can see that you’re up against a lot when trying to win blackjack profits. Luckily, you can boost your chances of success by following the tips presented below.
Look for Games With Favorable Rules
Casinos have slowly added more and more rules that favor themselves. The house edge now pushes 2% in some gambling establishments—even when you use perfect playing strategy.
Fortunately, you don’t have to settle for these terrible games. You can still find fair real money blackjack tables both online and in land-based casinos.
The main thing you want to look at before placing a bet is the table felt. Specifically, you need to ensure that natural blackjacks pay 3:2 instead of 6:5. This is lone rule improves your chances of winning by 1.39%.
You can also look for one or more of the following rules that reduce the house edge:
- Single-deck 8-deck blackjack – Lowers house edge by 0.59%
- Double down on any total vs. doubling on 9 through 11 – Lowers house advantage by 0.25%.
- Dealer stands on soft 17 vs. hitting – Lowers house edge 0.2%.
- Double down after splitting (DAS) – Lower the house edge or advantage by 0.17%.
- Re-splitting aces – This reduces the house advantage by 0.08%.
- Late surrender – This lowers house advantage by 0.07%.
Learn Blackjack Strategy
It never ceases to amaze me how many blackjack players refuse to learn strategy. The same gamblers are basically throwing money away by not putting their pride aside.
You merely need to find a strategy chart through Google to get started. You can probably complete the search within 15 seconds.
Assuming you’re playing online blackjack, you can easily refer to a strategy chart on every hand. Eventually, you’ll memorize the moves and not have to look at this resource as much.
Land-based casinos don’t want you slowing down the action by referring to your chart on every single hand. But if you’ve already practiced online first, you won’t have to look at the chart so often.
Try Card Counting
Earlier, I discussed how the main challenge associated with card counting is getting away with it. Casinos almost everywhere have the legal right to throw you out for counting.
But you should still consider this advantage gambling method if you’re truly serious about blackjack. You can use card counting to gain an edge over the house ranging from 0.5% to 1.5%.
You might be surprised to know that learning how to count cards isn’t that difficult.
The dealer’s biggest advantage is that they get to act second. Assuming you bust out, then they automatically win before even flipping over their hole card.
The croupier also benefits from the lack of common blackjack strategy knowledge and rules skewed in the house’s favor. If they deal at a fast speed on top of this, then you’ll really have some trouble winning.
Nevertheless, you can still improve your odds by learning strategy and seeking favorable rules. You might even try your hand at card counting to see if this helps too.