Blackjack Strategy Guide
Updated basic strategy guide for 2018
What do traditional blackjack and online blackjack players have in common? They both make the same mistake – it’s actually the #1 mistake that blackjack players make – forgetting to follow basic blackjack strategy. If you’re a real money blackjack player, please don’t make a bet before reading this article! In five minutes, you can use the same techniques, betting strategies and card-counting secrets that blackjack card counters have used successfully, to take millions of dollars from major casinos.
Playing with perfect strategy is key to beating the house. It’s especially important when playing online blackjack. The biggest advantage comes from counting cards, but the way most online games are designed makes that impossible.
The player who wants to get the edge over a casino needs to find the right table and the right bonus and promotional offers, and then play with perfect strategy. That will give you an edge over the house, and over time that will turn into consistent profits.The house has the advantage in blackjack because the player has to complete their hand first, which means they can bust out before the dealer even draws a card. That’s how the house maintains a small mathematical edge no matter how good the player is. The player does have one advantage over the dealer, however – the dealer must play their hand according to a fixed set of blackjack dealer rules that the player is privy to.
Knowing exactly how the dealer will act allows players to calculate the mathematically optimal play in any situation. A player who always makes the best possible play can whittle the house edge down to less than half a percent under the best possible circumstances.
Blackjack Bonus Offers and Player Comps
There are actually two ways for players to have a positive expected return while playing blackjack. The first is if comps and bonuses are generous enough to more than offset the very small amount of expected losses that come with perfect play. The second is by counting cards or shuffle tracking.
One can also play with perfect blackjack basic strategy to keep losses minimal until they hit a hot streak and then leave the table after getting up significantly, but this is not a reliably repeatable method so it can’t be said to “beat the game.”
Want to turn the blackjack odds in your favor? Basic blackjack strategy is the first thing you need to learn before betting real money at a live casino table. Without a strong grasp of basic blackjack strategy, the odds are stacked against you. Read this guide before trying to memorize a blackjack strategy chart. When you understand why you’re playing a certain type of bet, you’ll be able to improvise and adjust in real-time, to maximize your chances of winning.
Three custom-made, basic strategy cards are provided for you free. To save, download or print a blackjack strategy chart, simply click on the image. All charts are provided free of charge to blackjack.org readers!
Foundational blackjack strategy is all about knowing what move gives you the best chance of winning based on the cards you and the dealer are currently showing.
That’s a lot of information to memorize. Not only that, the strategy changes slightly depending on small tweaks to the rules and payout amounts of each table. Blackjack strategy cards simplify everything. They’re basically a “cheat sheet” you can keep on hand to tell you what the best move is in any situation. The big advantage of playing blackjack online is that you can comfortably use these cards without worrying about casinos forbidding them or other players at the table getting irritated.
A good one to start with is the “basic strategy” card. You can apply this strategy to any game to whittle the house edge down to somewhere between 0.50% and 0.75%, depending on the table rules.
If you want to have the best possible chance at winning money, however, what you need to do is identify the rules for the table you want to play at and get the blackjack strategy card that is optimized for them. Factors that can change blackjack strategy are:
Blackjack is one of the most popular casino games in the world, due to its simplicity, fast pace and low house advantage against skilled players. The dealer typically plays exactly the same way, regardless of what your hand might be.
That’s because the dealer is using the house’s own blackjack strategy—which gives it the advantage over card players.
The dealer always hits on 16 or less and stands on a hard 17. A hard 17 is when the dealer has a combination of cards that add up to 17 points that do not include an ace. A soft 17 is when the dealer has an ace and a 6. Because the ace can be worth one or 11 points, the dealer does not take the risk of going over 21 when hitting on a soft 17.
Blackjack table rules and the dealer’s play are always configured to give the house at least a small advantage over the player, even if the player makes the smartest choice in every situation. The two possible ways to beat the dealer are to play with perfect strategy while bonuses or comps are in place that makes up for the expected losses, or to count cards. Counting cards is not possible at standard online blackjack games, but it is at least theoretically possible at live tables that use streaming video of a real dealer.
As mentioned previously, the best possible house advantage you’ll usually see at blackjack tables is 0.5% or a little bit less, even with a solid understanding of basic blackjack strategy. However, it’s theoretically possible for blackjack to actually favor the player with the right rule sets. Certain rules actually add to the player’s expected return. These are collectively known as “liberal rules.”
So what exactly are liberal rules? The most liberal of the blackjack tables out there will do all of the following:
With a single deck, early surrender and all of these other rules allowed, the player would actually enjoy about a 1% advantage over the house when playing with perfect strategy. Of course, casinos never offer tables that favor the player. They always arrange their combinations of rules and payouts such that they maintain at least a small advantage. When it comes to online casino blackjack games, their software provider usually configures the games to be sure they can’t accidentally tweak the rules to give the player an advantage.
Each of the rules listed above actually gives the player a small boost to their expected return. On the other hand, the rules listed below tweak the expected return in favor of the casino:
There isn’t much standardization of blackjack odds because casinos are constantly mixing and matching these rules and payout amounts to try to create a profitable game that still appeals to players. A reasonable expectation of house edge for any given blackjack game you encounter at a casino is somewhere between 0.3% and 1%, however.
A blackjack strategy chart tells you exactly which plays to make based on what the dealer is showing, the cards you’re dealt, and the number of decks used in the game. If you take some time to examine the chart, you will notice that it is really quite simple to follow.
The dealer only has 10 card values you need to track, ranging from the deuce to the ace. Because the 10 and face cards are each worth 10 points, you don’t have to differentiate between them. Whether you hit or stand depends on the total value of the cards in your hand, compared to the up card shown in the dealer’s hand.
Looking at the chart, the blackjack strategy tells us to stand whenever you have 17 points or more in your hand, regardless of what the dealer is showing for an up card.
Reduce the value of your hand by one point to 16, and the chart says to stand when the dealer’s up card is a 6 or lower. It also says to hit if the dealer is showing a 7 or higher value card on the initial deal. The idea is to give your hand the maximum possible chance to win, versus the dealer’s highest potential hand. After all, the goal is not necessarily to get 21, but to beat the dealer in whatever way you can.
This is called an “advantage” because it literally means the player has gained a statistical mathematical advantage over the casino. This is why certain types of card counting systems are not allowed in casinos and famed card counters are regularly 86’d from any casino where they’re recognized by pit bosses or security guards.
Mastering the game of blackjack does not stop at just basic strategy. That only helps you choose when to hit or stand. Highly skilled 21 players know that splitting cards is a great way to maximize your profit potential. That’s especially true when the dealer’s up card suggests they have a relatively weak hand.
When playing 21, whenever you are dealt a pair you have the option of betting an additional wager and splitting your cards to create two separate hands against the dealer’s one hand.
Splitting cards requires a disciplined approach to prevent breaking up strong hands—especially if the dealer likely has a weaker hand. If you have any pair of 10s, Jacks, Queens or Kings, the strategy chart says to leave them alone and force the dealer to beat you. Unless the dealer gets 21, you have a great chance of winning on the 20 points you got on the deal. So, you don’t want to split any pair of cards that shows a value of 20 points. Likewise, the chart says to always split a pair of Aces and a pair of eights, no matter what the dealer is showing.
Another good example is when you have a pair of nines—totaling 18 points. That’s a strong hand, but still weak when the dealer is showing a seven, Ace, or a card worth 10 points. In that case, you would split your cards and hope to improve at least one and preferably both hands. If just one beats the dealer, you get a push. If both do, you win a lot more cash.
Another advanced blackjack strategy is the double down, which gives you a chance to double your wager and potential winnings after the initial deal. The idea is for you to lay an additional wager, but you can only get one more dealt card. With the double down, when the first two cards in your hand total 11 points, the strategy card says you should always double your wager. If the next card gives you 21 points, you likely will win.
When your hand totals 10 points and the dealer is showing a 10 or Ace, the strategy card says to simply take another card, rather than double down. That’s because the dealer easily could have 20 or 21 points, making it very difficult to beat.
Yet, if the dealer is showing a nine or lower card, and you have a hand worth 10 points, the double down is absolutely the right move. In fact, choosing to not double down in that situation would be the wrong choice.
That’s especially true when situated with an 11 off the deal—and the dealer is showing a weak hand—because many cards worth 10 points remain in the deck. In such a case, not doubling down would be a big mistake, as you likely would win much more often than lose in that situation. Those who count cards in blackjack can find doubling down to be particularly useful.
Many casinos have a surrender play that cuts your potential loss in half after the deal. The surrender is one that players find useful when dealt a poor hand, and the dealer is showing an Ace or card worth 10 points.
In that case, you can choose to surrender half your bet, but exactly when you can do this may vary between games. Some casinos allow an early surrender, which you do before the dealer checks to see if they have a blackjack. There is also the late surrender, which you can do after the dealer checks to see if he or she has 21.
Knowing the right time to surrender requires using proper blackjack strategy. When playing a single-deck game, the time to consider whether or not to surrender is when your initial hand totals between 15 and 17 points. If you have 15 points or 17 and the dealer is showing a hard 17 or more, the strategy says to surrender.
You would not surrender, however, if the dealer shows a soft 17 or lower hand. Yet, if you have 16 points, the strategy indicates you should surrender if the dealer is showing 10 or more points. Like all blackjack strategies, this also adjusts for the number of decks in use.
Another advanced play that can affect blackjack strategy is the buying of insurance so that you can protect yourself against the dealer hitting 21. When the dealer is showing an Ace as the up card, you can lay up to half your original wager on whether or not the dealer has a 10-point card in the hole. If the dealer does have blackjack, then you get paid 2 to 1 on your insurance wager.
That means you don’t lose any money on that bet. A lot of players of 21 will choose to buy insurance if they get a hand worth 19 or 20 points off the deal, but the dealer is showing an ace.
They view buying insurance as a way to protect a strong hand, but you still could lose both wagers, or wind up with a push and a loss. If your hand is worth 19 points, and the dealer has a 9 in the hole, you would lose your bet, as well as the insurance.
If you browse some strategy cards, you’ll notice that they incorporate almost every option available to the player – hitting, standing, doubling down, splitting and surrendering. You’ll have a hard time finding one that advocates taking insurance in any situation, however. That’s not an oversight – insurance is almost never an option that favors the player. The only time it is useful is to card counters who are deep into counting off multiple decks, a situation that is not accounted for by strategy cards.
Card-counting is a strategy that makes it possible to beat certain blackjack games if the conditions are right.
Movies often inaccurately portray this as memorizing every card that has already come out of the deck. While that might be possible with a single deck, it would take a savant to do this with the six or more decks commonly used at today’s blackjack tables.
There are actually a number of different count techniques, but the gist of all of them is to keep a count of how many high-value, middle-value and low-value cards have already come out. When lots of high-value cards are still in the deck, the player has a statistical advantage over the dealer, since their probability of hitting a natural blackjack is increased (which pays out more than a standard winning hand). They are also mathematically more likely to be successful when doubling down, and the dealer is more likely to bust when being forced to hit on a 12 or higher. The most basic counting technique has players add one unit to the count for when a low card (2-6) comes out, and subtract one unit when a high card (10 and face cards) comes out. The 7 to 9 cards are considered neutral value and not tracked. As the count value gets higher, the player has more of an advantage and bets higher.
There are more complicated counting techniques that are considered more accurate and profitable, but there is an increasing trade-off between tracking the count and continuing to play with the perfect strategy needed to make the system work. That’s only the case in games where strategy cards cannot be used, of course.
A card counter executing their count perfectly as well as playing with perfect basic blackjack strategy is estimated to have a 1% to 2% advantage over the house at most tables. Even with perfect play, it takes a large bankroll and sometimes many hours of play to see a significant profit from card counting.
Unfortunately, card counting is completely useless at video blackjack games (such as the ones seen on Game King machines), as well as the similar online counterparts. The virtual deck is “shuffled” for each new hand, so there is no point in tracking cards that have already been played.
Live video streaming blackjack creates an interesting possibility for card counting. Players can use strategy cards without detection to take some of the mental workload off, focusing solely on their count. They may also be able to use apps and software that aid in counting, though apps that interact directly with the casino software may be detected and get the player kicked out.
The absolute biggest player-unfriendly rule is when the house has the dealer win any sort of push. This can swing the house edge from 3.5 to 25% depending on how many types of pushes the dealer wins! You’ll almost never see any casino (either online or offline) allow dealers to win pushes, however. This rule is commonly referred to as the “House of God Advantage” as it’s most commonly seen in the charity blackjack games that churches sometimes run.
The biggest negative impact on the average blackjack game is caused by “short pays.” This is any table that pays less than 3:2 for a natural blackjack. Short pays increase the house advantage by anywhere from 0.5% to 2.25% depending on how bad they are.
Other bad rules include only allowing the player to double on 10s or aces, disallowing doubling after splitting, and the dealer hitting on a soft 17 (also often collectively called the “Reno Rules” for their prevalence in that city’s casinos). Individually these rules each give the dealer about a fifth of a percent of an advantage, and all three together give the dealer about a full half of a percent.
Certain other rules have a negative impact, like not allowing the player to split beyond three hands, but they generally have a trivial impact on the house advantage in isolation.
There are no government or state laws prohibiting card counting, including at online games. Some regions actually have laws preventing casinos from barring card counters, like Atlantic City and Mississippi.
However, outside of these odd exceptions, casinos are largely free to set the terms of their games and rules about player conduct. This means they are allowed to bar players they suspect of card counting. This won’t be an issue at most online casinos, since the video blackjack games cannot be counted. One might get in trouble for suspected card counting at a live video streaming blackjack game, however.
Casinos usually track card counters by their changes in bet size, especially as the shoe runs out. This means they need to monitor an extended period of play to determine if someone is actually counting cards. Once a card counter is identified and asked to leave a casino, however, they can expect that information to be shared with some amount of other casinos and to find themselves unwelcome at their blackjack games even if they have never played there before.
You don’t deviate from the base strategy on your strategy card in a blackjack tournament, but you will change your betting patterns somewhat. You need to keep an eye on the chip piles of other players relative to your own, and also be mindful of how far along you are in the tournament to determine the best bet amount for any given hand.
There are a lot of layers to tournament betting strategy, and it’s too much to neatly summarize here. Some general tips are to match the biggest bettor when you are leading in chips, bet opposite of the leader when you are trailing in the chip count, and hold back one chip when everyone else goes all-in on the final hand.
“Wonging” is a card counting technique developed by university professor and professional blackjack player John Ferguson, who goes by the pen name Stanford Wong. This technique involves observing a table and keeping count without actually playing, then jumping in only when conditions are favorable. Some tables forbid new players from joining in the middle of a shoe specifically because of this technique.
It’s relatively rare, but certain blackjack tables allow people who are not at the table to bet along with the seated players. This practice is more common at smaller casinos that consistently have more demand for blackjack action than they do available table space. Online casinos rarely bother with this as a theoretically infinite amount of players can be accommodated at any time. When piggybacking is allowed, the players who are not seated do not make any decisions about how the hand is played, but they are usually given the option to independently opt not to split or double when the player does. This creates an opening for teams of players to exploit certain hands to reduce the house edge, but casinos usually forbid this practice and will 86 anyone they suspect of doing it.
Aside from the piggybacking examples mentioned above, no, not at all. There are some popular casino urban legends about how bad players can give the dealer an advantage, particularly those at the third position. These are nothing but misinformation and superstition.
Yes! Aside from getting better ongoing coupon and comp offers for their play, high rollers who become regulars at a casino can often negotiate a rebate percentage for all of their blackjack play. Rebates as high as 20% are not unheard of for the biggest players.
A player with a 10%-20% rebate (and a bankroll big enough to absorb variance) can actually give themselves as much as a 10% advantage over the house with perfect play and by betting very aggressively.
Yes, there are blackjack betting strategies, but none of them have ever been proven to work over the long haul by mathematical testing.
The only times that bet amounts influence expected return are during tournaments and when a rebate percentage is involved, as discussed in the answers above.
It’s always important to remember that, while basic blackjack strategy is mathematically proven (check out this Cornell Article & Reddit Thread), there will be exceptions to the rules which are based on the conditions, the number of players, and the number of decks in use by the dealer. Unlike many betting mechanisms, blackjack strategy is a proven system based on scientifically studying the statistics and probabilities behind every potential play.
That doesn’t mean every play will have a predictable outcome because luck always plays a role. Yet, when you use blackjack strategy correctly, you should find your losing streaks far less common and much shorter than when simply playing based on hunches or intuition.