One of the most important things you can learn about as a blackjack player is how the strategy affects the game, since it can literally make the difference between being a winning player and one that loses consistently.
This page provides an overview of how to use blackjack strategy from the basics to advanced tactics which should always be used to ensure you have the lowest possible house edge when you decide to play the game.
Our favorite site for online blackjack
Basic blackjack strategy
The single most important thing that you need to understand about the game of blackjack is that it is a game of player decisions.
Unlike any other game in the casino, when playing blackjack your decisions can have an outcome on how the hand plays out and thus can contribute to the wins or losses of the players at the table. Because of this fact, there is a mathematically proven strategy that gives you the best advantage when playing, and this should be used every time you play if you want the best odds in the long run.
This strategy is known as basic strategy and is illustrated in the chart shown below:
As you can see from the diagrams in the chart, basic strategy outlines exactly how you should optimally play when considering what you have been dealt in relation to the dealer’s hand. Many new blackjack players make the mistake of going with gut feeling and being afraid to bust when they play, but using basic strategy every time is the best way to give yourself favorable odds during play.
If you are familiar with casino games, you will know that the house has the advantage in every game in the casino, which is how they turn a profit. Blackjack is no exception, however is one of the lowest house edge games in the casino, which is why it’s such a great game for players to learn and play.
The house edge in a typical blackjack game is around 0.50 percent when a player uses perfect basic strategy during play. This means that for every $100 you bet, the casino expects to win $0.50 from you over an infinite number of hands. The reason why basic strategy is so important is because if you take this same example of a $100 average bet and apply it to an unskilled player, the house advantage can go as high as 2.5 percent or more, meaning that the house would expect to win $2.50 or more over time.
Because of this, it’s easy to see why playing with basic strategy is the best choice for players each and every time.
Advanced blackjack strategy – card counting
I’m sure if you’ve had any experience in the casino, you have heard of what is known as card counting – a system that allows you to gain a positive expectation while playing blackjack putting the house edge in your favor. While card counting is not explicitly illegal, most casinos will kick out card counters since they can seriously damage the casino’s profits if they hit a hot streak.
Below is a brief introduction to card counting if you are curious about how this tactic is done.
In a nutshell, card counting is a tracking system where players use their memory to keep track of what cards have been dealt in blackjack. Since the game is dealt from a shoe (in most casinos) and there are only a certain number of cards in play each round, it is possible to get an idea of what is remaining in the deck and adjust your betting strategy accordingly.
Most counting systems use a -1, 0 and +1 system which gives each card in the deck a value. Usually cards 2-6 are +1, cards 7, 8 and 9 are 0 (neutral) and face cards and aces are -1.
As the cards are dealt, the player keeps track of the count using this system to get an overall picture for the remaining cards in the shoe. Since most blackjack games use multiple decks, the player will have to divide the running count (current count they have) by the number of decks they believe are left to form what is known as the true count.
Using the true count value, the player adjusts the bet so when it’s high in the positives they bet much more, however when the count is low they lower their bet since the odds aren’t in their favor. This system takes a ton of practice, however it is a proven method to get an advantage over the casino in blackjack.
Card counting in casinos is a concept surrounded by misconceptions, with most people assuming it is a skill only mathematical wizards can pull off successfully. Blackjack and poker players are often assailed by questions regarding the big deal with counting cards, as well as its legality and workability.
Counting cards is really just a variation of basic strategies, not rocket science. It requires no mathematical prowess or photographic memory, even though mathematicians developed and established the first card counting systems. The actual counting is a skill average players master without a challenge; the difficult part is usually avoiding getting kicked out of a casino, though this is not a problem with online casinos.
It makes it possible for a Blackjack player to be at an advantage over the casino for a lengthy period of time, which means that overall, players that are counting cards will experience more wins than losses. This is only possible when the player knows when the odds of winning are in their favor, so they can bet more, and when the odds of losing the hand shift to the dealer. This is done by keeping track of the cards during the game.
How to Count Cards in Blackjack
Blackjack is a game of adversaries, with the player’s opponent being the house dealer. The game has many variations, but for standard Blackjack, the player aims at having a hand of cards totaling to 21 points without exceeding. The face value of all cards in the deck is considered to be their points, except for 10, Jack, Queen, and King, which are the Royals, each with a value of 10. The Ace can serve as a 10 or a 1, depending on the player’s decision.
To play, the dealer deals each player with two cards, face down, and two cards to themselves, with only one face down. The player is then able to see the exposed card and can speculate what the dealer’s hole card and hand value is.
In Blackjack, you should not expect to see the deck being shuffled except for that one time at the onset of the game. For players with extremely good memory, they can mentally mark every card they see, hand after hand, and then deduct the number of cards remaining in the deck as well as which ones have been dealt already. Following this deduction, a player can tell when it’s time to bet high or low. For instance, if only small cards have been revealed for a while, there is a great chance that Royals will be the next hand, and this may be the best time to bet high. On the other hand, if only large cards have been shown, betting low is the best option, and you can hit without worrying about a bust.
Why do Large Cards Favor the Player?
Before you venture into playing blackjack for real money, understand that the mix of cards in the deck influences the probability of your winning a hand. The probability increases when the mix has an abundance of large cards, such as Aces, 10s, Kings, Queens, and Jacks. When dominated by small cards, the odds remain in the dealer’s favor.
To understand how large cards shift the odds to the player’s favor, start by understanding that a mix full of large cards is likely to yield more Blackjacks. Even as the dealer also has the same chance of obtaining Blackjacks, the player’s Blackjack hand wins them a 3:2 bonus payoff.
Sometimes the dealer may end up with a stiff hand (such as 12 to 16), and at this point he has to draw. If large cards are the majority in the deck, it is more likely that the dealer will bust. However, the player’s situation when the deck is still rich in large cards is the contrary, as they are not obliged to draw on a stiff hand.
Players who double down in the large card mix usually make good. Likewise, when the dealer’s face card is weak, the player can get quite a lucrative pay by splitting the pair into two hands. On the other hand, there is more profit for dealers who hold stiff hands and draw from small card-rich decks.
How then does the player know if the deck is laden with large or small cards? This is where understanding the basics of card counting in Blackjack come in handy.
Basic Strategies of Card Counting
The basis of a card counting strategy is the odds that come with every card in the deck. However, when a hand has been played, the used cards are put by the dealer in the discard tray. The next hand is dealt with what remains of that deck. An estimated half or three-quarters of the same deck may end up being used before the cards are reshuffled.
Normally, card counting systems base their calculations for the odds of drawing a 10-value card on the cards still in the deck. When a player is able to keep track of the cards as they are played, deduction becomes easy. Keeping track of the cards is easiest done by assigning each card with a tag.
Hi-Low, the most popular system of counting cards, assigns a tag of +1 to the small cards favorable to the dealer (2-6). A tag of -1 is assigned to the player favorable cards, which are the large cards (10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace). A tag of 0 is assigned to the cards left (7, 8, and 9).
The player observes keenly as the cards are played and then discarded, and he continually adds their values. Zero is the starting point immediately after a shuffle, and the values fluctuate between positive and negative, the total being the running count. At the start of the first round, when the cards are faced, the player adds the tags. If, for instance, player #1 shows a 2 and 4, you add +1 tag for the 2 and +1 tag for the 4 to get a sum count of +2.
This addition of the card tags should continue for every card the player sees, increasing the count by 1 for small cards and decreasing by 1 for large cards. As the first round draws to a close, the running count will either be negative or positive. The player may have seen 10 (-1), 9 (0), 2 (+1), King (-1), Ace (-1), and Jack (-1) dealt in the first hand, in which case the count would be -3.
A negative running count indicates more high value cards have been played, and therefore, the deck is rich in small cards. At this point, the dealer will have the edge and the player bets the lowest amount allowed. The reverse is true of a positive running count: the discard tray contains many low value cards, which in turn means the deck still has a greater percentage of high value cards. This has a positive impact, as the next hand brings the odds in favor of the player, and the next bet he makes should be larger.
Considering a player bases his strategy on the assumption that a 10-value card will be dealt in the next hand, this assumption becomes stronger when it is backed by the greater percentage. This, therefore, strengthens the overall basic strategy.
Placing the Bet
A typical user of a card-counting system usually places a minimum bet against the table when the deck is still fresh. As the running count increases and gets to a particular level, like a +4 or higher, the system user doubles down aggressively or increases his bet significantly. The higher the running count, the larger the bet placed and vice versa.
These are the beneficial odds the player uses to make wins while the deck is still hot. When the count drops to less than a zero or the dealer shuffles the deck, it is high time to go back to the minimum bets.
This goes to show that card counting in Blackjack is simply adding each card’s tag as it is played, and it changes the amount you bet but not the rules of the basic counting strategy.
Putting Theory into Practice
As a player, you must put all you have learned so far into practice. Take a deck of cards and thoroughly shuffle them, after which you should turn each card over at a time, reciting its tag. If, for example, the first card is a 4, say “plus 1” and if the one that follows is a Jack, say “minus 1.” Do the same for the whole deck, so that you can be able to associate each card with its tag.
Next, flip the cards in the same deck over one at a time while making a mental note of the running count. If the first card is 3 and the next is 2, the running count is “plus 2.” If the third card is 8, the running count remains a “plus 2,” as the tag for 8 is 0. By the time you are done counting the entire deck, “zero” should be your running count. This is the test for card counting accuracy.
Success at card counting comes with the ability to make an accurate count down of a deck of cards in under 30 seconds. Other skills also come to play, which include the following:
How to place a bet depending on the count.
How to determine the amount of bankroll you need.
When to stop using the basic playing strategy and make a deviation.
How to play without indicating you have an edge.
How to gauge risk of ruin.
How Legal is Counting Cards?
Card counting is not cheating, unless counting machines or devices are used. In spite of the many attempts by casinos to get laws criminalizing it passed, it remains legal. This means that winning a card game by employing a mental strategy or skillfully using the information you have is not an issue. You cannot really be stopped by anyone from counting cards in your head!
The problem comes in when the casinos, which are private establishments with the right to serve the customers they choose, deem a counting strategy cheating and believe a player to be counting cards. Such a decision could even stem from the fact that the player’s winning streak is so long that the casino begins to lose money. At this point, the player risks not only being thrown out of the casino they are playing at, but being blacklisted by other casinos as well.
Most brick-and-mortar casinos hire people with the training and experience for spotting players counting cards so as to boot them before the casino incurs significant loss. They also share a common network, and it is quite possible for a player barred from entering one casino under accusations of rigging a game to be given the same treatment in all casinos within the same link. Charges of trespass become inevitable if you go to these casinos after being blacklisted.
Blackjack strategy frequently asked questions
Do players have the best odds in blackjack?
The answer is yes. The odds normally depend on the rules of the game, as well as how skilled the player is. For instance, with Las Vegas Strip rules, in a single deck game where you play using the correct basic strategy, you are allowed to double after splitting and this gives you an advantage of +0.1 percent.
What does the term “Las Vegas rules” mean?
This is a term often used when comparing different variations of blackjack, and it refers to the variants with rules that are typical of Downtown Las Vegas. These include:
Players are allowed to double down on their initial two cards.
- Players are allowed to re-split.
The dealer can hit a soft 17.
Insurance is allowed.
The “Las Vegas rules” enhance the odds of the player slightly, as the dealer has to stand on soft 17.
What is meant by the correct basic blackjack strategy?
Blackjack has a single correct basic strategy, given the game’s basic rules. However, the strategy can vary slightly from game to game, as different casinos may offer different rules. The basic strategy can also be affected by the number of decks used in different blackjack variants.
What is the first step in learning how to win at blackjack?
There are many good books on blackjack that you can read. Learning the basic strategy perfectly is the first step towards a winning streak. As you read and practice this strategy, keep your bets in the casino at the minimum, and be wary of any promises of advantages exceeding 1.5 percent.
You should also keep off money management systems and progressive betting. You can even subscribe to reputable newsletters for the latest strategies. Most of all, be disciplined. This is your money at stake!
Which games are better: single deck or multi-deck?
The answer cannot be a certain yes or no. When having the same rules, there is a 0.5 percent to 0.6 percent disadvantage of the multi-deck game over the single deck game, with the difference between the two stemming from the impact of removing cards. The removal of one card in a shoe game has a negligible effect while in a single deck, the effect is big.
On the other hand, finding player-friendly conditions and good rules in multi-deck shoes is much easier. Therefore, single and double-deck games have an inherent advantage over multi-deck games, but they are also easily manipulated to the casino’s benefit.
What factors should be considered when evaluating a game of blackjack?
It depends. As a card counter, you look for the games that have the best conditions for best utilizing the card counting system. As a player who uses basic strategy, you look for single-deck games with the best options and rules. As a gambler, casinos with slow dealers, full and single-deck games, the least number of players, and liberal comp policies options are your best bet.
How “beatable” is blackjack really?
Blackjack is not just a fun game or brainteaser, but an investment opportunity that involves skill, knowledge, risk, and bankroll. You have to consider these factors every time you want to place a bet.
For a player with high skills but a small bankroll, he must settle for only a couple dollars in wins per hour, with the alternative being risk of financial ruin. Still, those are better chances than you’ll usually enjoy when playing online slot machines or roulette.
Does card counting increase the amount I win?
The most honest answer is that there is always a fair chance of losing money in blackjack, even with card counting skills. Your achievements largely depend on a combination of your skill level, amount of risk you are ready to take, bankroll, and the game quality.
When these factors are in the balance, you, hypothetically speaking, get a 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent long-term advantage. This means that over time, you can expect to bag about 1 percent of the total of your actions, although it does not in any way imply that you have a greater advantage in an individual circumstance or bet. So, if you are making $25 bets on average on each hand and each hour you play 75 hands, you can expect about $19 in wins every hour.
Beware, though, that this is not a given, considering expected variations.
Is card counting legal?
Yes. Card counting is purely a mental activity, and it is as legal as counting the money in your pocket using only your head. As long as you do not use blackjack counting machines and devices, there is no law that makes card counting skills illegal.
Some casinos do consider it cheating, though, and if suspected of counting cards, you may be asked to leave the casino.
What is the best system of counting cards?
Only robots can have a “best” card counting system, but for a human, you have a number of limitations when it comes to the ability to keep track of each and every card played. For multi-deck (shoe) games, all systems of card counting work within about one-tenth of one percent of each other.
For single deck variations, there can be a significant theoretical improvement when there is a balanced multi-level count that includes an ace side-count instead of single-level counts. The huge problem with such a counting system is that you run the risk of mental fatigue, which inadvertently results in error.
For most players the simplest system is the best, and rightly so. Simple card counting systems for multi-deck games include Zen, Hi-Lo, K-O, and Red-Seven systems, while those for single-deck games include Zen, Hi-Opt I, and Omega II systems.
Are there other ways to beat blackjack besides card counting?
Many years of playing and modifying blackjack have proven that card counting is the unparalleled method of beating the game.
Many casinos offer different variations of blackjack, which sometimes presents players with windows of opportunities to increase their wins. Other such factors on a blackjack game include comps, shuffle tracking, peeking, tells, front loading, sidebets, coupons, flashing, basing, warps, promotions, rules, mistakes, and new games.
Is cheating something to worry about?
In large and long-established casinos, you do not have to be concerned about cheating. With small, out of the way casinos, though, this may be a different case. Relatively speaking, single deck blackjack is one of the card games best known for easy cheating. With multi-deck shoes, there is usually physical evidence of rigging left behind.
As a player, it is up to you to know all the tactics used to cheat and stay on alert, so as to protect yourself. For instance, if you are playing single deck, look out for preferential shuffling by the dealer, which happens whenever the odds shift to the players’ advantage. It is better to just leave the game when you suspect anything shifty.
When is it advisable to take insurance?
As a player who uses the basic strategy, you shouldn’t think of taking insurance. The card counter is the only person who is usually aware when there is a profitable insurance bet. If the dealer deals you a Bblackjack and then he shows an ace, your simple answer should be “No, I will take my chances!”
Politely refuse to take even money, as you are at a greater advantage when your payoffs are 3:2 most of the time, instead of having to receive even money for every win you make.
What is the big secret to winning at blackjack?
To win at this game, you must have the knack for taking advantage of the situation. This means balancing your skills and knowledge with risk and bankroll factors. The ultimate secret, though, is dedication to blackjack and experience.
Long gone are the days you had to be sporting a tuxedo to be able to play blackjack in a brick and mortar casino. The advent of online blackjack has brought with it a very casual attitude to the game, such that there is no one to stop a player from placing a $1000 bet while sitting in their underwear.
Etiquette is, however, of the essence when playing live blackjack at a non-online casino.
Playing online blackjack does not come with as great a demand for proper etiquette as in a brick and mortar casino, but there are still expected table manners. Some players may prefer to have a bit of banter or chat with fellow players, while others may prefer silence as they play in order to concentrate on their game.
Every blackjack player is different and the blackjack table manners are put there to create a balanced and conducive atmosphere in the gaming room, whether online or off.
Talking at a blackjack table
Maintain silence if the other players or the dealer are not chatty. If you are an outrageously loud player, you may find yourself playing alone, as having a comment to make on every hand dealt can get on the nerves of others. This goes for live blackjack as well as the chat box of an online blackjack room.
Know how to play
Before you settle down for a new game at a land-based casino, make sure you understand all the rules of that game variation. There will typically be a small sign listing how the game is played at the side of the dealer at every table should you have a question.
There are also more game rules, which include the dealer’s expected action when on a hard, soft, or all 17s; insurance; bet details; and the payouts. It is only courteous to take time to learn the rules, so as not to drive fellow players crazy with unending questions like, “Can I double down this hand?” or “Can I split?”
Rules differ between games. If you are in a London casino, your cards are dealt face up, and you must never touch them even just once during the game. If at a Nevada casino, you are dealt your cards face down and can handle them, although it is wise to do this as little as possible.
Failure to follow rules can have you thrown out of the game and/or the casino altogether. And for both games, you make your bet before the round begins. After that, you do not touch your bet again. When you want to double down, you do not place this bet on top of your original bet, but rather beside it.
In case you wish to buy insurance, there is an area set aside on the table for making this type of bet. If it is absent, place the bet beside your original bet.
Respect other players
You should never treat the player who seats on the table’s last position as your enemy, even though every single move they make has a direct effect on the dealer’s hand. Blackjack is a game of respect and sophistication.
Do not abuse other players when the card they take leads to the dealer’s win. Oftentimes, this player is blamed by the others at the table for standing their hand or taking an extra card when a different decision would have caused the dealer to bust. Remember your decisions also impact the overall game.
Tipping the dealer
Tipping a blackjack dealer is allowed, but avoid getting carried away. If you are in the habit of flipping a chip to the dealer in every win you make, you should know it is your bankroll you are giving away, thus dramatically lowering your chances of making a bigger win.
It is wiser to wait for the time the dealers are shifting to offer your tip or after a big win.
Respect the dealer
Don’t take your anger out on the dealers if you are experiencing a losing streak, as they are only doing their job. Take a break rather or move to another table.