If you’re new to playing blackjack this guide will give you all the information you need to play confidently and successfully both in person and online. And even if you’ve been playing blackjack for years, but you want to win regularly or play professionally, then read on, because this guide will give you all the information you need to do just that.
Blackjack is one of the most popular card games in the world. Let’s see why.
Can I Really Win Playing Blackjack?
When blackjack first became a casino staple, it was assumed that it was rather like baccarat, where the house, by virtue of the rules determining play, had a statistical edge. Players assumed that this advantage existed based on two simple facts – the player had to act first, and all busts (hands totaling over twenty-one) were losers no matter what.
Conventional wisdom began to change in 1956 when a paper by Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermont was published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. This paper and a blackjack strategy manual published by Baldwin et al. the following year proved to be the first step toward determining that blackjack is, in fact, a winnable game.
Edward O. Thorp, a scientist at MIT, understood the implications of the work of Baldwin and his colleagues and made two important observations – that the composition of a deck of cards changes with every card dealt, and that some deck compositions favor the player and others favor the house. In 1962 Thorp published his now famous book, Beat the Dealer, which contained a simple yet profound message. Unlike dice, roulette wheels, and slot machines, decks of cards have “memory” that smart players can take advantage of to beat the house.
Blackjack, unlike roulette, for example, is a winnable game because of this “memory.” Let’s look at an example. You are playing roulette and the ball comes to rest on the number 9. Now, in the next round, what are the odds of the ball landing on 9 again? The odds of the ball landing on 9 again are exactly the same as they were the first time. Let’s take it a step further. Assume that the ball does indeed land on 9 again – twice more. Now the ball has landed on the 9 three times in a row. What are the odds of it landing on 9 a fourth time? They are exactly the same. There is no statistical reason that the ball would avoid landing on 9 again. It’s pure chance.
Blackjack is different. Let’s look at a similar situation in blackjack. You are at the table with two other players. The dealer deals a 9 to each of the players at the table. Now the odds of dealing another 9 have been significantly reduced. In a six deck game the odds have been reduced from 3:49 to 7:104. This fact is what professional players take advantage of and what makes blackjack a winnable game.
How to Play Blackjack
Blackjack is played at a table with a single dealer and from one to seven players. There are rules that vary from game to game, such as the payoff for blackjack, for insurance, and whether the dealer hits on soft seventeen. There will also be the table stakes and any special rules, such as whether surrender is allowed. You must pay attention to all of these details. You will need to know, for example, whether doubling down after splitting is allowed, whether a player may double down on any two cards, whether pairs may be split a second time, and whether aces may be resplit. These factors will determine whether the basic game is favorable or unfavorable.
The game itself is simple. You, the player, attempt to accumulate cards with a numerical total closer to, but not more than, twenty-one, and greater than those accumulated by the dealer. If you do so, you win. If the dealers’ total is closer to twenty-one than yours, you lose. Winning hands are paid off at even odds. If you and the dealer both arrive at the same total, the hand is a “push,” and nobody wins. All bets must be made before any cards are dealt, and no bet may be changed once the first card has been dealt.
Each player is initially dealt two cards; they may be face-down or face-up, depending on the rules of that game. The dealer gets two cards, one face-up and one face-down. The value of the cards is given by their face value except that the ace (A) counts as either 1 or 11 and the 10, jack (J), queen (Q), and king (K) all count as 10.
The combination of an A and any 10 on the first two cards is a blackjack and is an automatic winner (unless both dealer and player have it, in which case it’s a push). A player blackjack is paid at 3 to 2. When the house has a blackjack the player merely loses his bet and not one and a half times that bet. Any combination of cards that exceeds 21 is a bust and a loser. The player always goes first, so if the player’s total exceeds 21 the hand is lost — even if the dealer also busts later. If the dealer busts, all remaining players are winners. The dealer has no options; play for the dealer is fixed by the rules.
After the first two cards are dealt, the player must decide whether or not to take additional cards based on two pieces of information: the cards held and the dealer’s upcard. This is where the game begins to get interesting. A wide variety of options begin to present themselves, and unless the player understands the principles of the game there are numerous ways to go wrong. Let’s review the options first; correct play will be discussed later.
The player elects to “stand” with the current total and not to draw any additional cards.
The player elects to draw an additional card or cards.
If your first two cards are of the same value, you may split them and play each as a separate hand. After splitting a pair, various other options become available. You can re-split if a third like-valued card appears. Or you can double down on the split hands should an appropriate card be drawn. For example, if you have split 8’s and catch a 3 on the first 8, you may now double down on this total of 11. Both re-splitting and doubling and doubling down after a split are to the player’s advantage.
The player may double the size of the original bet and elect to draw only one additional card. The typical doubling situation is where you have a hand that stands a chance of becoming a very good hand with one additional card. For example, your first two cards total 10 or 11. You double down. This wager may be as much as but not more than your original bet. Virtually all casinos permit doubling on 11 and 10; most on 11, 10, and 9, and many will allow it on any two cards. The latter rule is the most advantageous to the player.
When the dealer shows an A, players are given the option of taking insurance against the dealers’ having blackjack. Calling this “insurance” is a bit misleading. Actually, it is nothing other than a side bet that is paid at 2 to 1. If you wish to take insurance (which is only recommended in very specific circumstances which are only recognizable by an expert card counter), you will place a bet equal to half your original bet. If the dealer has blackjack, you will lose your original bet but win the insurance wager and break even on the hand. If the dealer does not have blackjack, you will lose the insurance bet and the hand will be played out normally.
If your hand looks particularly unpromising against the dealers’ exposed card, you have the option of surrendering half of your bet and retiring from the hand. For example, should you have 9, 7 against a dealer 10 and your chances of winning the hand are slim — less than .5 — and it would be to your advantage to give up half your bet. There are two forms of surrender: “late” and “early.” In the late form, the player may surrender after the first two cards provided that the dealer does not have blackjack. In early surrender, the player may surrender after the first two cards even when the dealer is later revealed to have blackjack. Both forms of surrender are to the players’ advantage with early surrender being most beneficial.
Evening the Odds
When you sit down at a blackjack table to play, the house will have a small advantage over you if you do not implement some kind of strategy to balance the odds. This section will teach you how to do that. Do not skip this section. Learning basic strategy is the first step toward becoming an expert blackjack player.
Remember our friends Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel, and McDermont? They worked out – painstakingly, since they lacked access to a high-speed computer – a set of recommendations that were surprisingly close to today’s basic strategy.
Edward O. Thorp, the MIT scientist who essentially invented card counting, took this strategy a step further because he had computational power at hand that Baldwin and his coworkers lacked. He used this power to carry out what is known as a “Monte Carlo” simulation of the game. A computer was programmed to play out tens of millions of hands of blackjack and analyze the outcomes to determine which circumstances tended to produce wins for the player and which tended to produce losses. He used this data to refine and sharpen the Baldwin, et al. basic strategy.
Since the essential features of basic strategy were developed, a number of refinements have given us the current optimal set of principles for standing, hitting, doubling, splitting, and surrendering. These, along with other more sophisticated forms of play, were worked out by using the Monte Carlo model based on the analysis of literally billions of hands. If I tell you that you should hit a total of 16 against a dealer’s 7, it’s because the analysis shows that hitting a 16 against a 7 loses less often than standing. Sure, following this advice produces a bust on many of these hands, but analysis shows, utterly compellingly, that on average if you don’t hit this hand you are more likely to get beat by a higher total — like 17.
The following description of basic strategy is based on a multi-deck game where the dealer stands on a soft seventeen, pairs may be re-split once, doubling down is permitted after a split, and the player may double down on any two cards. Other games require some minor adjustments that I’ll note where appropriate. However, you should never give up an edge against the casino. I highly recommend playing only where the rules are more favorable to the player.
“Soft” & “Hard” Hands
A hard hand is a hand without an A where the payer’s total is given by the face values of the cards, or a hand with an A that can only be counted as 1. A soft hand is a hand with an A which can be counted as either 1 or 11. For example, A, 4 is a soft hand because the A may be counted as a 1 or 11; but A, 4, 7 is not, since counting the A as 11 would be a bust.
Hit or Stand
The guidelines for hitting are rather straightforward. If the dealer shows a 2 or 3, you continue to take a hit until you have a hard 13 or a soft 18. If the dealer shows 4, 5, or 6, you continue to take a hit until you reach a hard 12 or a soft 18. If the dealer shows 7 or 8, you continue to take a hit until you have a hard 17 or a soft 18. If the dealer shows anything higher than 8, you continue to take a hit until you have a hard 17 or a soft 19.
|2 or 3||hard 13 or soft 18|
|4, 5, or 6||hard 12 or soft 18|
|7 or 8||hard 17 or soft 18|
|9, 10, or A||hard 17 or soft 19|
Let’s look at some of the logic.
- If the dealer shows a 7 or above, then the most likely two-card total is 17 or above (with a 10 or an A in the hole), so you are going to have to take a card on any total under 17 or likely lose.
- When the dealer shows a card less than 7, the two-card total will likely be less than 17 (it can be exactly 17 with a 6 and an A), and the dealer will be forced to take another card. Since there are more 10’s in the deck than any other denomination, the dealer will have a fairly high probability of busting and you will win.
- If you were to take a card with a total between 12 and 16 you would be likely to bust. In situations like this the proper play is to let the dealer pull. If the high card shows up and there is a high card in the hole, you will win.
- Hit a total of 12 against a dealer 2 or 3. I’ve seen articles that tell you to stand in these situations. They are wrong. You must take a card.
- Hit a 16 against a dealer’s 7. Many inexperienced players have trouble believing that this is the proper play but it is. Countless computer simulations have proved it again and again. From the players point of view a total of 16 is no better than a total of 12; you can win with such totals only when the dealer breaks. Besides, there are still five cards that can help out a 16 (A, 2, 3, 4, 5).
- You take a card whenever you have A, 6 (unless you double down) and you hit an A, 7 against a 9, 10, or A. It’s true that you will sometimes find yourself going “backwards” and have a hand that is “weaker” than you just had. However, computer analysis consistently demonstrates that this is the proper play.
- It may come as a surprise to inexperienced players, but 18 is not a strong hand when facing a dealer 9, 10, or A.
When to Split
The guidelines for splitting are best described in a table.
|Split||If Dealer Shows|
|A , A||Any Card|
|10 , 10||Never|
|9 , 9||2 – 9 except 7|
|8 , 8||Any Card|
|7 , 7||2 – 7|
|6 , 6||2 – 6|
|5 , 5||Never|
|4 , 4||5 or 6|
|3 , 3||2 – 7|
|2 , 2||2 – 7|
Again, there is some logic behind these guidelines.
- Always split A’s. The totals of 2 or 12 are not nearly as good as hitting 11’s.
- Never split 10’s. Two 10’s is a great hand — don’t screw it up!
- Never split 5’s, but you may want to double down!
- Splitting 4’s is a close call. Don’t do it in one or two deck games. Do it in multi-deck games when the dealer shows a 5 or 6.
- Split 9’s against a dealer card of 2 – 9 except 7. The reason for this exception is simple. You have 18. The dealer’s most probable total is 17. Don’t screw up a good hand.
- Splitting 8’s, like 4’s, it depends on the game’s rules. Always do it when the dealer shows 2 – 9. If the dealer shows 10 or A and you happen to be lucky enough to be playing in a game that allows early surrender, you should surrender. If surrender is not an option, split.
- Splitting 6’s and 7’s is straightforward. If the dealer’s card is higher than your card, don’t split.
- Always split 2’s or 3’s if the dealer’s card is less than 8.
You should also note that the “value” of splitting is increased if you are playing in a game that allows doubling down after a split.
When to Double Down
The principle behind doubling down (and splitting) is that it increases the amount of your money in play when the conditions of the hand are in your favor. These are both very important parts of expert blackjack play and must be mastered. Once again, the best way to present the guidelines is in a table.
|Double Down||If Dealer Shows|
|11||2 – 10|
|10||2 – 9|
|9||3 – 6|
|A, 7 or A, 6||3 – 6|
|A, 5 or A, 4||4 – 6|
|A, 3 or A, 2||5 or 6|
When to Surrender
The guidelines are straightforward. Use the table below to decide when to surrender.
|If Dealer Shows||
|A, 10, or 9||any 16 except 8 , 8|
Early surrender provides a tremendous advantage for the player. If you are playing a game that permits early surrender, use the following rules:
|If Dealer Shows||Early Surrender if Holding|
|A||All hard 5 – 7 and 12 – 17|
|10||All hard 14 – 16|
|9||10, 6 and 9 , 7|
When to Take Insurance
Never! Next topic.
“Wait a minute!” I can hear many players saying. “Don’t you always take insurance when you have blackjack yourself?”
Let’s stop and take a look at that situation more closely. Many people do believe that this is a no lose situation. The logic goes something like this: If your original bet is $10 and you have blackjack and you take insurance ($5), the hand will play out in one of two ways – either the dealer will have blackjack or he will not. If he does, the hand is a push but you will win $10 because of the insurance. If he does not, you will win the hand but not the insurance bet and you will still win $10.
While taking insurance when you have blackjack seems like a win in every case, it is not your best play. What most inexperienced players fail to realize is that the insurance is a side bet. It is completely unrelated to the original bet. Let’s take a closer look.
You are guaranteed a “win” when you take insurance, but you are missing the opportunity to play the odds for a larger win. Assume you are playing alone with the dealer in a six deck game and you bet $10 on your hand and bet $5 on insurance. A six deck shoe contains 96 10’s and 214 non-10’s. After you and the dealer have been dealt your cards, you have blackjack and the dealer shows and A, so there are 95 10’s and 214 non-10’s left. There are 95 ways for the dealer to have a 10 in the hole, and if you take insurance, you will win $10 on each of them for a cumulative income of $950. However, there are 214 ways for the dealer to have a non-10 in the hole, and on those occasions you will lose $5 each, for a cumulative loss of $1,070. This is a cumulative loss of $120 – 7.8 percent – on 309 possibilities. A very bad bet!
(It should be noted that there are certain times when taking insurance is advantageous to the player, but these circumstances can only be detected by the best card counters.)
Tipping the Odds in Your Favor
Up until this point you have learned how to bring the odds to just about even in most games. Following the rules of basic strategy presented to this point will essentially remove the casino’s advantage over you while you play. This is no small achievement. This will allow a recreational player without fear of losing.
If you are like most players though, you want to find a way to give yourself the advantage over the house. After all, most players enjoy the game for the possibility of winning. If you want to take the advantage, you will need to learn how to count cards.
Many inexperienced players have a misconception about card counters as mathematical geniuses who can keep track of every card in a multiple decks of cards. While there may very well be people who can do this kind of thing, card counting is not about keeping track of every card. The idea behind counting cards is to keep track of the players statistical likelihood of winning a hand and then adjusting betting and play accordingly.
The idea behind card counting is simple strategy. Any professional gambler will tell you that the way to win at gambling is to bet more when you have the advantage and bet less (or not at all) when you do not. It is that simple. In blackjack, certain cards remaining in the deck are good for the player and certain cards are not. If you keep track of these cards, you will always know when you have the advantage.
Edward O. Thorp’s work confirmed that 10’s and A’s remaining in the deck were good for the player, while 5’s and 6’s remaining in the deck were bad for the player. He worked out the circumstances under which particular combinations of cards remaining in the deck gave the player an advantage over the house. He also presented the first two card-counting systems, Thorp’s five-count and Thorp’s ten-count. The latter, which is more powerful, was based on determining the ratio between 10’s and non-10’s remaining in the deck. Card counting was born from irrefutable logic: Keep track of the cards and make small bets when the deck favors the house and large bets when it favors the player.
Thorp’s analysis was later improved upon by the work of many others, notably Julian Braun, Lawrence Revere, Peter Griffin, Stanford Wong, Ken Uston, Arnold Snyder, and Lance Humble. Today the game is understood at a rather deep level, and sophisticated systems exist that give a knowledgeable player a distinct edge over the house.
Which Cards Matter?
The object of card counting is to keep track of cards that are advantageous to the player. The simple question is, then, “Which cards matter?”
The card most beneficial to the player is the 10. 10’s are advantages to the player for several reasons. One, they will cause the dealer to bust since he is required to take cards based on the rules of play. He has no discretion. Two, they turn hands that you double down on into very strong hands. (Which is why you double down on those hands, by the way.) Three, they are used to create blackjacks. Remember that blackjacks are more beneficial to the player since getting one pays 3 to 2 but losing to one only costs the original bet. Another important card for the player is the A. Aces present soft doubling (and hitting) opportunities and they create blackjacks. Remember – blackjack is more important to the player than the house!
The worst cards for the player are 5 and the 6 (and 2, 3, and 4 to a lesser degree). The reason these are not good for the player is simple – since the house is forced by the rules of play to take cards on any hand lower than 17, the 5 and the 6 present the possibility of very strong hands for the dealer. Remember that 10’s are not advantageous to the dealer since they make “busts” of these hands.
Before we begin to learn how to count we should talk about how this will help us. You should remember that the purpose of counting is to know when the player has an advantage and when he does not. This knowledge will do nothing for you unless you do something with it. What you want to do is adjust your betting and your play based on your advantage.
Adjusting Your Bets
Adjusting your bets is very straightforward. When the composition of the deck is in your favor, you bet more. When it is not, you bet less. Very simple. Learning this can give you as much as a 2% advantage against the house. If that advantage does not sound like much, keep in mind that many casino slot machines only produce a 2 – 3% advantage for the casino, and that is enough to make billions of dollars of profit for the casino. Granted, this is at a much higher volume, but remember that bet sizes are also much smaller.
Adjusting Your Play
Learning to adjust your play based on deck composition is not an easy task but the rewards are phenomenal. Taking this step can increase your advantage by another 2% for a total of 4% against the house. The good news is that you can learn this with a lot of practice. The principles are simple but mastering this level of play takes practice.
An expert card counter will adjust play in many different ways depending on the composition of the deck. It is common for an expert card counter to do things that break the rules of basic strategy like:
- Standing earlier if the deck is very 10 rich – if the dealer can bust, so can you!
- Standing later if the deck is very 10 poor.
- Splitting 10’s when the deck is extremely 10 rich.
- Doubling down on A, 9 when the deck is extremely 10 rich.
Easy Card Counting System
Let’s start with a very simple system. After you have mastered basic strategy play, this system should only take a couple of dozen hours play to learn but it will dramatically increase your results. This system will involve a simple count, a running count, bet progressions and a few minor adjustments to play.
First the count.
Our count will keep track of 10’s and A’s on one hand and 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, 5’s, and 6’s on the other. Start by keeping a running count of your advantage or disadvantage. In the interest of simplicity we will start with a single deck. A deck of cards has 4 A’s and 16 10’s (4 each of 10, J, Q, and K), for a total of 20 cards that benefit the player. The deck also contains 20 cards that are advantageous to the dealer (4 each of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6). As noted earlier, 5’s and 6’s are better for the dealer than 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s, but this is a simple count. Much more sophisticated counts exists and the reader is encouraged to master this one first and then begin to look at more complex systems.
So, we know we start with a running count of zero. Twenty cards for the player, twenty for the dealer – no advantage – zero. As play begins, you will add 1 to your count for every 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 that is dealt. For each 10 or A, subtract 1. The idea is simple. If a 5 is dealt, the deck now contains 20 “10s” and 19 of the “other” cards. More tens is to your advantage so you add one. If a 10 (or J, Q, K, or A) is dealt next, the advantage is back to 0 ( 19 to 19 ). Now you have a running count. As long as play continues with the same deck you will add 1 for every 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 you see and subtract 1 for every 10 or A you see.
The next step is to adjust the running count so that you have a real count for the entire shoe. In a one deck game this is simple, but in a multi-deck game the advantage will be significantly different, though still an advantage. Compare our one deck example with a six deck game. Let’s assume in our one deck game you have seen 11 “10s” and 14 of the “other” cards. This gives you a running count of +3 (0 plus 14 minus 11 ). In a six deck game you will have the same running count but the advantage is not as great.
Looking at the actual number of cards we will see the difference. In our one deck example, there are 9 “10s” left and only 6 of the others. If there are six decks in the shoe, and the same number of cards have been dealt, you have 109 “10s” and 106 “other” cards. It is clear that a 9:6 advantage is much different than a 109:106 advantage.
The easiest way to adjust for multiple decks is to divide your running count by the number of decks. In our example, you would have an advantage of +3 if there were only one deck, but an advantage of +0.5 if there were six decks. ALL OF YOUR BET ADJUSTMENTS NEED TO BE BASED ON THE “REAL” COUNT. If you have a real count of +0.5, you have an advantage. If you have any number less than +0.5, you do not have an advantage.
Now you can count. What do you do with that knowledge?
Let’s take a look at a simple bet adjustment strategy that can be mastered by anyone. Start with a base unit for your betting. Your bet on each hand should be calculated based on this base unit of betting as follows: Your “default” bet is 2 times the base unit. When your “real” count drops below 0, drop your bet to the base unit. When your “real” count is greater than or equal to one, you should increase your “default” bet by the amount equal to your base unit times the count.
Let’s look at an example. If your base unit is $5, play would go as follows: When the count is positive but less than one, you will bet $10 (2 times $5 ). When the count is below zero, you will bet $5 (base unit). When the count is +1, you will bet $15 ($10 + $5 times count). If the count is +3, you will bet $25, and so on.
Is Counting Cards Illegal?
No. Counting cards is not illegal. That being said, casinos do not like card counters.
Playing Blackjack Professionally
Can you play blackjack professionally? Of course you can. As we have seen, blackjack is a winnable game and anyone willing to invest in hours of practice will consistently have an advantage over the house. Once you have mastered the techniques presented up to this point, you may want to learn some of the more advanced techniques.
How to Practice
Take a deck of cards and deal off one card at a time while trying to keep a running count. After all cards are dealt, your count should be zero. If you get good at this at increasing speeds, you should move to dealing off the cards in pairs and learn to count two at a time. This will train you to look at cards in groups which will leave you more time during games to calculate your bet and make bet adjustments.
Advanced Betting System
The most efficient betting strategy is called the Kelly Criterion. This system, named for the mathematician J. L. Kelly, is much more complex than the system we learned earlier but it is much more efficient. This system dictates that the player should bet the percent of his bankroll that corresponds to the probabilistic advantage you have on that hand. If your bankroll is $1,000 and you have a 1% edge, you will bet $10. If you have a 2.5% edge, you will bet $25.
This system relies on knowing your edge at any point in the game. This can be calculated using the following formula: edge = expectation + (0.5 * real count)
We haven’t talked about expectation, but it represents the player’s expectation of a win following basic strategy and it is dependent on the rules of the casino. A player who follows basic strategy in a single deck game where the dealer stands on soft seventeen, doubling down is permitted on any two opening cards (but not after splitting), and there is no surrender will have an expectation of 0%. He will be even with the house.
Use the chart below to get an idea of your expectation based on rule differences.
|Rule Variation||Impact on Expectation|
|Early Surrender||+ 0.62|
|Late Surrender ( 1 or 2 decks )||+ 0.02|
|Late Surrender ( 4 or more decks )||+ 0.07|
|Doubling on three or more cards||+ 0.20|
|Drawing more than one card on split A’s||+ 0.14|
|Doubling on split pairs||+ 0.10|
|Re-splitting of A’s||+ 0.03|
|Re-splitting of pairs||+ 0.05|
|No doubling on 11||– 0.89|
|No doubling on 10||– 0.56|
|No doubling on 9||– 0.14|
|No doubling on soft hands||– 0.14|
|Two decks||– 0.38|
|Four decks||– 0.51|
|Six or more decks||– 0.60|
|Dealers hits soft 17||– 0.20|
You can win playing online blackjack. Period. You cannot expect to become an expert overnight, but once you are an expert and can implement these strategies you can win consistently. Spend time mastering basic strategy, practicing playing and card counting, and implementing a betting system and you will have an edge against the house.