Here we dive into the specifics of blackjack strategy. For further depth, you can refer to one (or more) of the books on blackjack strategy that we recommend below.
By learning to predict the probability of certain outcomes in blackjack, you can further reduce the house edge and increase your chances of winning. We explain the concept of insurance (and when you should take it), positive variations of blackjack and generally how to win with our top five tips.
Blackjack Strategy Guide
Blackjack strategy charts are the key to memorizing basic strategy. You probably already know that blackjack offers some of the best odds in the casino, but the catch is that you have to make the correct decisions in order to enjoy those odds. This suits players with the right temperament. Players who have no interest in learning basic strategy should stick with games like slot machines.
How Basic Strategy Works
There is a single mathematically correct decision for every situation you’ll encounter in a casino blackjack game. A blackjack strategy chart puts every decision into a color-coded chart to help people with a visual learning style memorize that information. The chart explains when to hit, when to stand, when to double down, and when to split.
Most casinos have no problem with players using a basic strategy card at the table. Even when you play perfectly, the casino retains a mathematical advantage, so they know they’ll be winners in the long run. Of course, if you combine card counting or shuffle tracking with your use of basic strategy, you can gain an edge over the casino, but it takes more than a color coded chart to do that.
How Basic Strategy Charts Are Organized
A basic strategy chart for blackjack is organized along two axes. The horizontal axis is labeled across the top, and it represents the dealer’s upcard, which is always going to be one of 10 cards: 2 through A. The vertical axis is labeled across the left side, and it consists of the various player totals that are possible.
These player totals are organized by type. A blackjack hand can consist of 3 different kinds of hands:
A hard hand is a hand without an ace, although it’s also a hand where an ace has to be counted as “1” in order to avoid busting. Your strategy chart is going to cross-reference all hard totals of between 8 and 17 along the side with the dealer cards of 2 through A across the top. You’ll always hit a hard 8 or less, and you’ll always stand on a hard 17 or higher. The other totals require decisions based on the dealer’s upcard.
A soft hand is a hand with an ace, in which the ace can count as a “1” or as an “11”. The soft totals are 13 through 20. You’ll always stand on a soft 19 or a soft 20, but the other totals require decisions.
Pairs are hands that consist of 2 cards of the same rank. For example, 22 and 33 are both pairs, and these hands require different decisions because you have the option of splitting pairs. When you split a pair, you place an additional bet, and the two cards in your original hand become the first cards of two new hands. You’ve probably heard that you should always split aces and eights, and you might have heard that you never split 4s, 5s, or 10s, but the basic strategy chart will provide you with specific instructions for every possible pair.
Blackjack strategy charts are a grid with 28 horizontal rows and 10 vertical columns. That means that there are a total of 280 different decisions to learn, but since many of them are the same, it’s not hard to learn them reasonably quickly.
For example, once you realize that you always hit a hard 8 or less, and that you always stand on a hard 17 or higher, you’ve memorized 20 of the 280 decisions. When you realize that you always split aces and eights, and you never split 4s, 5s, and 10s, then you’ve memorized a total of 50 out of 280 decisions, which is almost 20% of the basic strategy chart right there.
What Basic Strategy Will Do for You
Basic strategy will make sure that you’re playing against the house with the lowest possible house edge. That means that you’ll lose (on average) less money than would if you weren’t using basic strategy. What does that mean over the long run?
If you’re not using basic strategy, the house has an edge of between 2% and 5%. Taking the median, that means over time you’ll lose $3.50 for every $100 you wager on the game—assuming you play long enough to reach the expectation.
Assuming that you play an average of 60 hands per hour at $100 per hand, you’re looking at losing an average of $210 per hour over time at that rate.
On the other hand, if you’re using basic strategy, you can reasonably expect to reduce the house edge to 1%. That means you’ll lose $60 per hour on average over time. That’s a big difference in the cost of your entertainment.
What Basic Strategy Won’t Do for You
Basic strategy won’t give you an advantage over the casino. Advantage play methods that give you an edge over the casino exist, but they require more work than just using perfect strategy. In fact, before you can get an edge over the casino by using card counting or shuffle tracking, you have to master basic strategy first.
Once you’ve mastered basic strategy, you can learn how to count cards, and you can get an advantage of between 0.5% and 1% over the casino. If you’re playing $100 per hand on average, at 60 hands per hour, then you could theoretically earn between $30 and $60 per hour counting cards.
But keep in mind that this is a combination of basic strategy and another technique. Basic strategy is just the beginning of blackjack wisdom. Entire vistas of knowledge become available eventually, but they all start with the memorization of a basic strategy chart.
Popular Blackjack Books – Well Worth the Read
Over the years, 100’s of books have been written on blackjack – ranging from beginners guides through to complex strategy for experienced card counters. There are two reasons you might want to enjoy these books. Firstly, for entertainment – many of the characters involved in the gambling scenes were larger than life, and their books filled with colorful stories involving their escapades. Second, selecting from this list of popular blackjack books will be an education in itself. These books can turn you from novice into card counting expert who is ready to beat the house edge in any blackjack game.
This list of the most popular blackjack books are ordered by level of experience of the reader. If you are new to blackjack strategy, I recommend you start with the books at the top of the list. These will give you a solid grounding to appreciate the more detailed information in the more advanced books.
#1 – “Basic Blackjack” by Stanford Wong
This book is a solid foundation in blackjack strategy aimed squarely at the non-counter. It includes information on rule variations and how they affect your strategy. Stanford Wong wrote several more books which built of Basic Blackjack, adding information on card counting and deep layers of analysis and math. For newer players looking for a grounding on which their blackjack careers can be built – this book fits the bill perfectly.
#2 – “Beat the Dealer” by Edward Thorp
This book introduced the concept of card counting way back in 1966. The system used is known as the 10-count and is really only suitable for the single-deck games which were common at that time. This blackjack book remains popular both for historical interest (Thorpe really did change the gambling landscape!) and a solid introduction to the theory behind card counting. You will also find some information on hiding the fact that you are card counting from the casino security teams.
#3 – “Playing Blackjack as a Business” by Lawrence Revere
Another historically interesting book, by the late and great Lawrence Revere. There are two reasons this book has maintained its popularity over the years. The first is the solid explanations of basic blackjack strategy and how to adapt your decisions when the rules change. Second it introduces two card-counting systems which were ground breaking at the time (1970’s). The Revere Plus-Minus System and Revere Point Count System both influenced many of the more complex strategies used by today’s blackjack professionals.
#4 – “The World’s Greatest Blackjack Book” by Lance Humble
This book includes rules commonly used in Atlantic City and in International casinos as well as those commonly found in Vegas. This modestly titled publication also includes information on the Hi Opt 1 card counting system. By the time you get to this far down the list of popular blackjack books you will have already learned about some of the key variations in card counting strategies used by the people who beat the game for millions.
#5 – “Million Dollar Blackjack” by Ken Uston
Ken Uston was one of blackjack’s legends. He left a high flying career in finance to play professionally and was soon taking casinos around the world for millions. Uston also invented some very advanced card counting variations, some of which like the Uston Advanced Point Count, still share his name. There were several books written by this author. While this is the most technical and educational one, some of the others are full of colorful and entertaining stories from this great player’s past.
#6 – “Turning the Tables on Vegas” by Ian Andersen
One of the big issues faced by blackjack experts is that the casinos are actively trying to spot card counting and ban the counters from their games. After you have read the books above and gained the knowledge of how to beat the math of the game, you should check out ‘Turning the Tables on Vegas’ next. This is a very detailed account of some strategies for avoiding your card counting getting noticed.
#7 – “Theory of Blackjack” by Peter Griffin
By now you should be ready for some advanced reading and a real deep-dive into the math behind the games. This book is aimed at advanced players and assumes that you already have experience in card counting (you’ll find it dry and confusing if you do not yet have this). Out of all the popular books on blackjack, none do deeper into the mathematical roots of the game.
#8 – “Bringing Down The House” by Ben Mezrich
After reading all those math based books you will already be ready to hit the casinos. Why not relax with a hugely popular blackjack book which is more for entertainment than for business first. Bringing Down The House is the story of the infamous MIT Blackjack Team who took casinos for millions from the 1970’s through to the 1990’s. You’ll sometimes wonder if there are embellishments to make the stories better, but wow – what a great tale.
Famous Blackjack Cheats & Cheaters
Cheating in blackjack is very uncommon and ill-advised nowadays. Players are protected from cheating in modern casinos by the high levels of regulation and surveillance in place. The amount of scrutiny around the blackjack tables also makes it virtually impossible for players to successfully cheat the house.
Regardless of how cheating has diminished it stills pays you to be aware of what could happen. In order to provide you with this knowledge I have listed the common cheats dealers have previously used to influence the game. Following that is a collection of common cheats players have used.
Cheating Tricks Used by Blackjack Dealers
The majority of cheats dealers can use come from sleight of hand techniques. These methods involve manipulating the deck to deal out chosen cards to players, rather than having a random distribution. For the most part these techniques have been made redundant by casinos operating with shuffling machines and dealer shoes.
Dealing from the Bottom – The dealers deals the bottom card of the deck to players or themselves. Usually the dealer has been able to place a certain card on the bottom of the deck during the deal, or can glance at which card is on the base of the deck.
Second Dealing – Similar to dealing from the bottom, this technique involves dealing the second card off the top of the deck.
High–Low Pickup – This involves a stacked deck that has already been set up with alternative rounds of high and low cards. A cheating dealer can use shuffle techniques which look real, while leaving cards in the prearranged order. When cards are dealt, the order in which they come make it likely for players to bust.
Marked cards – Simply by placing a mark on various high cards, dealers can identify these. The term pegging is also used when cards are dimpled subtly to mark them. Decks are swapped often to prevent this as players can also use to as an advantage.
Manipulating Chips – Player could find themselves short-changed if dealers fail to pay off winning bets correctly. While this can be done intentionally, it can also easily be a mistake by the dealer. Either way it can be avoided by observing and checking the amount of chips you are left with to ensure dealer is paying out correctly.
Cheating Tricks Used by Blackjack Players
The ways players can cheat at the game of blackjack have diminished greatly with the introduction of rule prohibiting players from touching the cards. Casinos have some of the most sophisticated surveillance equipment available and frequently employ security experts, often previous cheaters, to observe the games. Even the most sophisticated cheater now runs a very high risk of being detected and facing possible criminal consequences. As a result, while the tricks listed below make for interesting reading as part of blackjack’s colourful history, it is not recommended they are attempted.
Palm and Switch –Cheaters can palm cards they have been dealt, replacing them with another card they have on their person or even claiming they never received it. This could involve cheaters bringing their own cards in to swap or just using the cards in play.
Late Betting and Removing Bets – As a dealer is attending to other players, cheaters can add or remove chips from their own bet in order to improve a win or reduce a loss.
Marking Cards – This is simply marking the highest cards to identify them. Players can do this in several ways from simply making an indent on the card with their fingernails to using hi-tech markers only special contact lenses or glasses can see.
Team Play – There are various forms of team play, made famous by the blackjack movie 21. These teams can assist the player by causing distractions or providing information making card counting and cheating easier. A basic form of team play is Spooking where the cheater works with someone sat behind the dealer who indicates what the dealer has. Apart from being obvious to observers this has the disadvantage that in most casinos dealer’s backs are facing the backs of other tables.
Blackjack Cheats – A Difficult Task
Cheating on a large scale is no longer a real option for anyone operating in a modern casino. The majority of dealer cheats come from skilful sleight of hand techniques which they no longer have chance to perform with modern technology. Meanwhile cheats used by players are often crude and obvious to trained casino staff.
Apart from risking being blacklisted by casinos, cheating is illegal and could result in arrest and even prison time. It would be dangerous to cheat, so instead it is best to use the knowledge of what cheating looks like to protect yourself from it.
Composition Dependent Strategies
You will notice that when a house-edge is discussed in blackjack, it is with the disclaimer that the edge requires perfect strategy. Well, that perfect strategy is the ‘basic’ blackjack strategy based on points totals. With the right knowledge and the right situation, there is a chance to adjust your strategy for the individual cards which make up that points total. This is known as ‘composition dependent strategy’ and can lower the house edge a little further if used correctly. This article outlines how composition dependent strategy works and when you might want to use it.
First of all, you’ll find some examples of when composition of the hand might affect your decision making. After that a look at the situation in which you can use these plays – which are actually very rare nowadays. Finally the debate about whether it is worth learning this strategy at all, with the much bigger edges available from learning even simple card-counting methodology often considered to the better choice after you get the basic strategy memorized.
What Are Composition Dependent Strategies? Here’s An Example
Here is the ‘classic’ example of a composition dependent strategy. You have a total of 12 against a low dealer card like a 5. Ordinarily, you would choose to ‘stand’ here. Since there is a high chance of the dealer going bust, the risk of hitting a 10 yourself before the dealer has a chance to play is considered too big.
However, a 12 can be completed in several ways. The ‘composition’ of your 12 can be any of the following 2-card combinations:
2 +10, 3 +9, 4 +8, 5 +7 or 6 +6.
One of those combinations, the 2+10, removes one of your ‘danger cards’ from the deck – making it less likely that you will bust by hitting your 12 on this occasion. The other combinations actually take away many of the small cards which might help the dealer (6, 5, 4, 3 and 2 all give him a hand which will beat your 12 if you stand).
The difference here is minuscule, and relies on you being in a rare Single Deck Blackjack game even make any difference at all. However it does demonstrate how the individual cards which compose your hand can influence your decision making.
A Second Example of a Composite Dependent Strategy
There are certain situations where you can deviate from the basic points strategy with a 16 made up of 3 cards, in situations where you would hit on a 16 made up of 2-cards. Hoping for the dealer to bust, even when he is showing a 10 as his up-card is considered to be an ever-so slightly ‘least bad’ option compared to hitting here.
Again the situation needs to be perfect to make this work. There should be only one deck in the game to start – and the game should not have any ‘negative rule variations’ which might kill the very advantage you were looking for by changing your strategy to suit the composition.
A Simple Card Count Would Be Better
Card counters keep track of the ratio of small cards to big ones which have been dealt, and then increase their bets when the count becomes favorable. There are many card counting systems like the Hi Opt 2 System and Revere Hi-Lo Count.
If you look at the example with the 12 from the perspective of a card counter, it is easy to see how composition strategy falls behind. Here you are changing up your play based on seeing a single 10. Imagine in that same game that you had kept track of the last 5 hands and seen a total of 10 more small cards than you would have expected by chance compared to the high cards you have seen. Instead of getting a few thousandth of a percent advantage based on the single 10, you have now pushed the whole game into positive territory thanks to your knowledge that the deck has proportionally more 10’s than it normally would (which is positive for the player).
This is just one example. In a multi-deck game, composition strategy is more or less redundant, with the difference being so infinitely small it is hardly worth the mental effort to memorize the changes. If you instead find ways in which the count for the entire deck can change your strategy, the opportunity will arise to make potentially statistically significant changes in the game probabilities.
There is certainly a place for composition dependent strategy in blackjack. That place is in single deck games as an add on to card counting strategy and compositional strategies which come from this should be based on the overall count as well as the specific cards in your hand.
Probabilities of the Dealer Hitting Specific Hands in Blackjack
The probabilities for the dealer’s final totals vary considerably based on what kind of upcard she’s showing. The probability of most interest to most players is how likely it is for the dealer to bust. If the dealer has an excellent chance of busting her hand, it makes it a lot easier to stand in certain situations.
Dealer probabilities also make a considerable difference to blackjack tournament players. Basic strategy varies in tournament situations because the player has to weigh the odds of losing the tournament when making the right strategy decision. One of your main goals in a tournament, especially in the early levels, is to stay alive until you need to start taking risks. Weighing the various probabilities for the dealer’s final hand can make that decision a lot more accurate.
Does the Dealer Stand on a Soft 17 or Not?
If the dealer hits on a total of soft 17, the casino gains 0.22% on their edge. This change in the rules also affects the probabilities of various totals for the dealer, but those changes are generally pretty minor. A tenth of a percentage here or there on whether or not the dealer will bust doesn’t have a major effect on your basic strategy decisions, which is why most basic strategy charts will work on most blackjack games.
How Many Decks Are in Play?
If the casino is using multiple decks, then the house edge increases. The more decks in use, the better the odds are for the casino. A single deck game is the best situation for the player, as it increases the player’s edge against the house by 0.48%. The worst case scenario is to play against 8 decks or more.
Of course, having multiple decks in play also changes the various probabilities of outcomes for the dealer, too. But just like the soft 17 rule, the changes are largely minor on individual totals, and they don’t result in very many or very major changes in the correct strategy decisions.
The Dealer’s Upcard Is Key
The ideal situation for a blackjack player is for the dealer to bust. The odds of the dealer busting on a hand go up dramatically with some cards, while it goes down dramatically with other cards. The numbers below are based on a single deck game where the dealer stands on all 17s, including soft totals of 17.
The dealer is most likely to bust when she has a 5 showing as her upcard. In that situation, she has a 42.89% chance of busting. The 4 and the 6 are also cards in which the dealer is apt to bust, with a 40.28% chance and a 42.08% chance, respectively.
Any upcard between 2 and 6 represents a good chance for the dealer to bust , in fact. Even a total of 2 or 3 will bust the dealer more than once every 3 hands. The odds are 35.3% and 37.56% respectively.
On the other hand, if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing, her chances of busting fall dramatically, especially when she has an ace showing. (That shouldn’t be a surprirse, as an ace can count as 1 or 11, so it’s harder to bust with an ace.) The odds of busting with a 7 showing are 25.99%, and the odds of busting with an 8, 9, or 10 are almost identical: 23.8%, 23.34%, and 23.25%, respectively. The dealer only has a 16.98% chance of busting when she has an A showing.
What does that mean for the player? It means that the player has to make riskier and more aggressive plays when the dealer is showing a 7 or higher.
Standing on a hard total of 13, 14, or 15 versus a dealer 2 through 6 makes a lot of sense when you realize that the dealer has at least a 35% chance of going bust in that situation. You can decide to stop taking cards, but the dealer has to take a hit on any total of 16 or less, which means you can just hope for the dealer to bust rather than trying to improve your hand. Since your odds of the dealer busting in those situations is better than the chance of improving your hand, you stand on that total and hope.
On the other hand, if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing, she usually has a less than 25% chance of busting, which means that if you have a hard 13, 14, or 15 showing, you’re usually better off trying to take another card and improving your hand.
Other Dealer Probabilities
Looking at some of the other probabilities facing the dealer can also help explain some of the other basic strategy decisions you might make. For example, you’ll stand on a total of 20 versus a dealer 8. One of the reasons you do that is because the dealer only has a 6.83% chance of also getting a 20 (which would result in a tie in that situation) and a 6.98% chance of getting a 21, which is the only way the dealer could beat your 20. That’s a great situation to be in, but it’s also great to understand the math behind why.
All of these probabilities, of course, assume that the dealer has already looked at her hole card and determined that she doesn’t have a blackjack. Of course, if she already has a blackjack, the game is over before it’s even begun, and there are no probabilities to calculate. She’s already won (or at least tied).
The probability of the dealer going bust in that situation is 0%.
How to Reduce the House Edge in Blackjack
As casino games go, blackjack has a small house edge. This is the percentage of each bet that the casino will take in the long run, which is expressed as a percentage. The exact percentage will depend on the specific rules for each variation – and is generally between 0.26% and 0.56%. This means for every $100 bet, the casino stands to make between 26 and 56 cents.
This article shows you how small mistakes by players can make a big difference to the house edge of the casino. After that you’ll find some tips for making sure you keep the casino advantage to a minimum, and some information on how comps and bonuses can help you.
Blackjack’s small house edge is built into the rules of the game. It assumes that the player is using a ‘perfect’ strategy, making the best possible moves at every point along the way. In reality, very few people play perfectly in each variation of this game.
Blackjack House Edge – How Much Do Mistakes Cost?
Mistakes in blackjack can be subtle – for example not doubling on a soft 15 against a 6, or they can be large, for example never doubling or only ever splitting aces.
In the short-term the player making smaller mistakes will be unlikely to feel the effects. Small mistakes can add 0.5% here and 1% there to the house edge, and these situations come up only every 10 or even 20 so hands. Depending on the total number of errors in different situations, the overall house edge might only increase by a few tenths of one percent.
Bigger mistakes, like standing on a 12 against a dealer 3, are cumulative much more dangerous. There are two reasons for this. First, the effect of giving away edge to the house is much bigger. This can be in the range of 2% for some errors. Second, these situations come up far more frequently. A complete novice can make mistakes on 30% of hands, which is simply handing money to the house.
Table and game selection is another common mistake which increases the edge for the casino. If there are two games with identical rules and number of decks, and one of them pays 3/2 for blackjack while the other pays 6/5, you could be giving up another 1.4% by playing in the 6/5 game. Once again, you can still go on winning streaks playing incorrectly in games with bad odds, however the house edge will show over time in faster losses.
How To Minimize The House Edge
There are 3 things you can do to keep the house edge to a minimum. First you can make sure you know the correct strategy for the game you are playing. Second you can take a bonus from your casino, and 3rd you can play somewhere that offer comps for the time you spend at the tables.
A quick note on betting systems, which many players believe can help redress the balance in their favor. This is not correct. The house edge will remain however you adjust your betting. Systems based on stake-doubling or more creative versions can help you ride out swings in the short-term. However over time the house edge is always there, the game has been designed so that it gives the casino their advantage however you choose to bet.
Perfect strategy will depend on the game rules and number of decks in play. You should start by making sure you have a solid understanding in Basic Blackjack Strategy. If possible you should find a strategy card for the specific game which shows you how to act on those marginal spots. Simply eliminating major mistakes from your game will ensure that you keep the house advantage as small as possible.
Online casinos offer bonuses for their players. These vary from sign-up bonuses to reloads and special one-off offers for playing certain games. With such a small house edge in online blackjack games, you’ll be able to almost wipe this out by smart use of bonuses. First, make sure your casino keeps you topped up with regular offers – if not then there are plenty of other places what will. Second, keep your casino bankroll in an electronic wallet like Skrill or Neteller instead of with the casinos. This will allow you to move it quickly to whichever casino is offering the most generous bonus offer at that time.
Finally, don’t forget comps! These come as rewards for the time you spend at the tables and can be swapped for bonuses or chips at many of the best online casinos. There is nothing more satisfying than playing the game with chips given away by the house – even if they do have a small edge at the tables.
When to Take Insurance in Blackjack
Insurance is a blackjack side-bet which is designed to lessen the blow of the dealer getting a blackjack – which will beat all player hands and tie with a player 2-card 21. Different players have different opinions on whether to take this bet. This article looks at the insurance side-bet in detail – to let you make an informed choice of whether and when this should be a part of your blackjack strategy.
First of all, I have explained a little more about the mechanics of this bet and the payouts. Next you will find a note on how US and European blackjack rules affect how the insurance against dealer blackjack. After that some information about card counting, and whether this can influence your decisions on this side-bet .
Blackjack Insurance – How This Bet Works + the House Edge
Players are invited to participate in this bet by the dealer when the dealer’s upcard is an Ace. In a live game the dealer will ask the players, in an online game the question will pop onto your screen, along with yes / no buttons. If you decide to accept, then a bet equal to half of your stake is made, which will pay out at 2:1 if the dealer turns over a 10 and makes a blackjack. You will have seen your own cards at this point, and if you do not have 21 then you will lose your initial stake when the dealer turns over blackjack – and win that stake back in the form of the payout for the insurance bet. If you do have blackjack yourself, you can still make this bet. In this case you could win the insurance side-bet and also get your initial stake back – making a profit equal to your initial stake.
The odds of the dealer making blackjack when showing an ace are exactly 9:4 against. There are 13 differently numbered cards, exactly 4 of them are 10’s (10, Jack, Queen and King) and 9 are not. This puts the odds another way of looking at this is that for every 1 time the dealer makes blackjack, he will miss 2.125 times. This means that every time you make this bet, you are giving a 12.5% edge to the house.
That is a big edge.
In fact, it is one of the biggest edges you can possibly give to the house on a blackjack table. The only one which always beats this is a progressive jackpot side-bet made when the jackpot is reasonably small.
Serious players always decline this bet. Whether the dealer turns up with a 10 on any one occasion does not matter – over time you are giving away 12.5c for every dollar you bet, every single time. If you take away one thing from GamblingOnline.com today, make it that insurance is a sucker bet that should always be avoided.
European And American Rules for Blackjack Insurance
In US blackjack games including Atlantic City Blackjack and Vegas Strip Blackjack games – the dealer will ‘peek’ at their holecard to check for blackjack before the players act on their hands with an Ace or 10 showing. In European Rules Blackjack there is no holecard to peek at. In this game the dealer gets the second (and extra) cards only after the players have acted.
This does make a difference to the correct strategy, since in US rules you will know that the dealer does not have 21 by the time you act on your own hand. In European rules you do not know this, and need to act a little more conservatively as a result.
It can be tempting for players of European blackjack to think of insurance as an extra ‘hedge’ against them taking the risks with their own hand, then seeing their work undone by a dealer blackjack at the end. This is not good thinking – the insurance bet has exactly the same house edge and is still a losing proposition in both sets of rules.
Blackjack And Card Counting
Here is where things get interesting, there are certain points in advanced card counting strategy where the deck becomes so ‘positive’ that taking insurance can be the right move. Note that with a lot of 10’s in the deck the dealer is more likely to get blackjack. This means that the card counter has calculated that they will lose a small percentage less on their initial stake by insuring at that point. Not so much an easy win, as a way of making a losing situation slightly less bad!
Realistically, you’d need to be a card counting expert to spot those situations, and be playing live blackjack too. For most players, the insurance is a bad bet all of the time – and it should be avoided.
Negative Variations of Blackjack
A key reason for the enduring popularity of blackjack is the low house edge. This can vary from 0.26% for the single deck game, through to around 0.50% for 8-deck games. With a house edge this low, your money can go a long way – hopefully including some big winning streaks.
However, you need to be vigilant. Many casinos, both live and online introduce seemingly small rules changes which tip the odds in their favor. For example, a small restriction on the cards which you can double can add .01% to their long-term edge.
Negative Variations of Blackjack
This page highlights the rules which can work against you so that you know what to look for before you play. First up, the payouts for player blackjack are considered. Next, dealer rules on whether to hit or stand on a soft 17 is discussed. Rules of splitting, then doubling also affect your edge and these are covered below. After that some more niche rules which have a massive advantage for the house are outlined- before a final word of warning about the side bets available in many games.
Payouts for Player Blackjack
If you hit a blackjack (21 in your first 2 cards) and the dealer does not, then that particular hand ends for you and you are paid a premium of 3:2, or $15 for every $10 bet. This is the default on which the lower house edge for blackjack games is calculated.
Some games give you a lower payout, for example 6:5 is common and even money can also be found. Since blackjack does not come along all too often, you might think that this only has a small effect on the house edge. In reality, the difference is big. The 6:5 payout increases the house edge by 1.39% and the 1:1 payout increases it by a staggering 2.4%.
Dealer Hits on Soft 17
A soft 17 is an Ace and Six in two cards, or combinations of 3 cards also containing an ace. You will see the rules the dealer must follow written on the felt, and the ideal is a game where the dealer stands on 17. If the dealer rules allow a hit, you will find another 0.22% added to the house edge. Remember that this is cumulative with any other negative rules.
Splitting and Doubling Rules
There are three types of splitting rule which will increase the house edge. The first is to allow you to split only twice – you can split your original paired hand, then once more if dealt another pair. This rule adds a small though significant 0.14% to the house edge, while restricting 3 splits adds a tiny 0.01%. The next negative blackjack splitting rule to watch out for is that no doubling is allowed after a split, which adds another 0.14%. Third, some games do not let you split aces adding yet another 0.18%.
Doubling rules also add up to a bigger house edge for the casino if you are not careful. The most common is to only allow doubles on 10 or 11. This increased the house edge by 0.2%, adding a 9 to this is a little more favorable, though still negative to the player to the tune of 0.9%.
Big Effects for Dealer-Wins-Tie Rules
Here is a negative blackjack variation it can pay to stay alert to. Some casinos stipulate ties with certain scores are counted as wins for the dealer instead of a push. This rule gets progressively worse for the player as the number of ‘losing ties’ increases. The dealer winning a 17 tie gives the casino and extra edge of 1.87%, add 18 and this is 3.58%, add 19 to get to 5.3% and 20 gets you to a crazy 8.38% house edge. You’d simply be throwing money away by playing in a game with those rules.
There is one more ‘tie’ rule which is even worse for your winning chances. Sometimes you’ll find games where a dealer 22 bust is counted as a ‘push’ regardless of the player winning the hand. The effect of the house edge is massive, with an increase in 9.53%.
Side Bets and Player Mistakes
Even if you find a ‘good game’ with the smallest number of decks and favorable player rules there are opportunities to give the house more of your money. First are the various side bets like Perfect Pairs and Progressive Jackpot Blackjack. You’ll need to balance the chances of getting a big win with the extra cash you are handing to the house while playing these games.
Most important of all is the extra edge you give to the house by playing incorrectly compared to the mathematically correct strategy for your particular game. Make sure you know exactly when to split, double and hit before you play to keep the negative edge to the minimum possible.
What are the Odds in Blackjack, and How Can I Improve Them?
Blackjack offers some of the best odds in the casino. Everyone knows that already. But what does it mean to say that one casino games offers better odds than another casino game? This page goes into some detail about how to measure the odds of a casino game. Then it continues with an examination of the specifics related to the game of blackjack.
Odds and Probability Explained
Probability is the branch of math that covers how likely it is to achieve a certain result. Any possible result can be measured as a number between 0 and 1, with a 0 meaning that it will never happen and a 1 meaning that it will always happen. It’s probably easier to think of this number as a percentage, so something with a 0% chance of happening will never happen, while something that will always happen has a probability of 100%.
If you add the probability of something happening with the probability of something not happening, you will always get a total of 100%. So it’s always possible to calculate that number backwards. For example, if you know that there is an 80% chance of something not happening, you also know that there is a 20% chance of it happening, and vice versa.
Probabilities are sometimes explained as odds. This is just a way of expressing a probability as the number of possibilities of it failing versus the number of possibilities of it succeeding. For example, if you want to express the odds of getting an ace with the next card you draw out of a fresh deck of playing cards, then you know that the odds are 12 to 1. (For every ace in the deck, there are 12 cards that are NOT aces.)
Casinos make their money by paying out wagers at odds that are less than their odds of happening. For example, on a single number bet in roulette, the odds of winning are 37 to 1. (There are 38 different numbers, and you only bet on 1 of them in this example.) But that bet only pays out at 35 to 1.
In a mathematically perfect set of spins, you’d win once and lose 37 times. If you’re betting $1 per spin, then you’ve lost $37, but you’ve won $35 the one time you got a winning spin. The casino gets the other $2, and that’s how they stay in business.
All casino games, including blackjack, work on this seemingly-simple principle. In fact, it’s relatively easy to determine a percentage of each bet that you make that the casino can expect to receive over time. This percentage is called the house edge.
In the roulette example above, the house edge is 5.26%. That’s the amount of each bet that will be lost over an infinite number of trials. Of course, in the short term, anything can (and often will) happen, but as you get closer to an infinite number of trials, the closer the results become to the mathematical expectation.
The house edge can be as high as 25% on slot machines in Nevada, or as low as 0.5% on blackjack in the same state. But achieving that 0.5% number requires a certain amount of skill and strategy. Players who just use “common sense” or who “play their hunches” face a house edge of closer to 2-4%.
Basic Strategy Is the Key to the Best Blackjack Odds
The key to maintaining the lowest possible house edge on blackjack is to use basic strategy every time you play. By doing so, you maximize your expectation and minimize the casino’s expectation. Basic strategy is the mathematically perfect play in every possible blackjack situation.
This might seem like an unearthly number of scenarios to memorize, but it’s actually easier than you think. The dealer’s upcard is limited to 10 possibilities. Your hand is limited to 20 different totals. Since many hands will be played with the same strategy as many others, memorizing basic strategy is far easier than you’d think.
Many websites and almost all blackjack books offer basic strategy charts which can help visual learners memorize the correct strategy. The conditions and house rules can affect a handful of strategy decisions, but even then, it’s a tiny percentage of the potential situations you might face. Learning one basic strategy is better than learning no basic strategy at all. In other words, don’t get hung up on making the occasional error because of local playing conditions.
Playing Conditions and Rules Variations
The other key to getting the best odds in blackjack is to make intelligent choices about which blackjack games you’ll play. The biggest variation that you need to watch out for is the payout on a natural 21. At most casinos, a natural 21 pays out at 3 to 2 odds, but you’ll often find games that pay out at 6 to 5 odds instead.
The difference in that single rules variation is tremendous. In fact, it gives the casino an additional edge of 1.39%. In most blackjack games, this doubles or even triples the house’s edge. The easiest way to avoid that additional “tax” on your game is to just say no to any blackjack game that doesn’t pay out at least 3 to 2 for a natural.
Other variations in the rules can actually improve the player’s odds. For example, a single deck blackjack game versus a game with two decks or more gives 0.48% back to the player. That’s not nearly as significant as the 1.39%, so don’t fall for the trap of playing a single deck game with a 6 to 5 payout on a natural blackjack.
Most other rules variations have smaller effects on the house edge, but they can add up quickly when combined. For example, if the dealer hits on soft 17 (instead of standing), the house gains 0.22%. But if the player is also limited to only being able to double down on 10 or 11, the house gains another 0.18%, for a total gain to the house of 0.4%.
The Effects of Card Counting on the Odds
Entire books have been written about counting cards and how it affects the player’s odds in the game of blackjack, but for the purposes of this page, I just want to explain how card counters get an edge over the casino. Suppose you found a way to get another 1-2% edge on the casino by raising your bets when you have better odds and lowering your bets when you have worse odds?
For example, if you had a deck with nothing but aces and tens in it, your chances of getting a natural (and the corresponding 3 to 2 payout) would be much greater, wouldn’t it? So it would make sense to bet more in that situation.
On the other hand, if all the aces in the deck have already been dealt, it’s impossible to get a natural, which means you should lower your bet.
It turns out that each card that’s dealt out of a blackjack show affects the odds by a certain amount. By tracking the ratio of high cards versus low cards that have already been dealt, a card counter can raise or lower her bets in order to take advantage of favorable situations.
By doing so, the counter can actually gain an edge over the casino. This is mostly the result of putting more money into action when the odds are good, but some card counters also make strategy adjustments based on their count, too.
This page provides an introduction to blackjack odds. Many other pages on this site go into more details about the rules variations that increase or decrease the odds in the players and the casinos’ favor. The most important things to remember are that you should always play using basic strategy, in order to minimize the house’s edge, and also to avoid playing 6:5 blackjack games.
Positive Variations of Blackjack
In the game of blackjack, subtle variations in the rules can improve the player’s chances of winning, or they can decrease the player’s chances of winning. The measuring stick for this improvement (or lack of improvement) is measured in terms of the house edge.
In simple terms, the house edge is the percentage of each bet that the casino mathematically expects to win over the long run. For example, when someone plays a game with a house edge of 1%, the house expects to keep $1 for every $100 the player puts into action over time. So if a player is betting $100 per bet on average, and she’s playing 60 hands per hour, then she’s wagering $6000 per hour. If the house has a 1% edge, the casino expects to make $60 per hour from that player.
This amount varies because of standard deviation. In the short term, anything can (and often will) happen. Standard deviation and the short term are the mathematical principles that send some players home as winners. The house edge and the long run are the mathematical principles that make the casinos profitable.
The purpose of this page is to look at some of the rules variations in blackjack that benefit the player, not the casino. That’s why we call them “positive variations”. For most blackjack players, this reduces the amount of money they lose over time, but for card counters and other advantage players, these positive variations can actually affect how profitable the player expects to be over time.
Single Deck Blackjack
The first rules variation that affects the edge in blackjack is how many decks are in use. The standard in most casinos now is 8 decks, so the fewer decks you’re playing against, the better your odds are. Playing against 6 decks instead of 8 provides you with an extra 0.02%. Playing against 5 decks provides you with 0.03%. Four decks doubles that to 0.06%. A double deck game improves your odds by 0.18%, but the best game, in terms of number of decks, is the single deck game, which is 0.48% better than the 8 deck game.
0.48% doesn’t sound like much, but it’s almost 50 cents per hour when playing for $100 a bet. In some games, this is the difference between profitability and losing when counting cards. The appropriate way to think about these differences is over the long run, and 0.48% is a big deal over the long term.
3 to 2 Payouts
90% or more of the blackjack games you’ll find will offer 3 to 2 payouts on a natural. A natural (or a blackjack) is a two card hand that totals 21, and the casino pays out 3 to 2 on such a win. This is where most of the edge comes from when counting, because the counter is raising her bets when the deck is rich in tens and aces. That higher payout improves the player’s odds dramatically.
In recent years, casinos have started offering blackjack games with seemingly-attractive rules variations that include a lower payout on naturals. These are often called 6:5 games, because instead of paying 3 to 2 on a blackjack, they pay 6 to 5.
This seems like a small difference, but it’s a play on the naivete of the average casino-goer. Everyone knows that single deck blackjack is better than multi-deck blackjack, but the difference between 6:5 and 3:2 blackjack makes up for that 0.48% difference and then some. The difference here is 1.39%, so the casino has a net gain of over 1% when offering a single deck game with a 6 to 5 payout.
Blackjack that pays even odds on a natural is even worse. The casino gains a whopping 2.27% from this rules variation. Ugh!
The best advice you’ll ever see about positive rules variations in blackjack is to stick with the games offering 3 to 2 payouts on a natural.
A blackjack game in which a player can double down on any 2 cards offers a 0.23% improvement to the player. The reasons for this should be obvious—sometimes when the dealer has a stiff hand, the player might double down with something other than a 10 or an 11 in order to get more money into action in the hopes that the dealer will bust.
Also, if a player is counting cards, doubling down will sometimes be a deviation from basic strategy that makes sense in certain situations but not others. This makes this rules variation even more important. Besides insisting on single deck blackjack with 3 to 2 payouts, this is the most important rules variation to look for.
Five Card Charlie and Six Card Charlie
A five card Charlie is a hand with 5 cards that doesn’t bust. (You can probably figure out what a 6 card Charlie is based on that, right?) In some games, a “Charlie” is an automatic win. If a casino has a five card Charlie rule in effect, then the player gains 1.46%, making this a huge advantage for the player. The six card Charlie is also advantageous, gaining the player 0.16%.
These rules variations are a little rarer than some of the other variations discussed on this page.
One of the first tenets of blackjack basic strategy that everyone learns early in their casino gambling career is that you should always split aces. That’s because there are more 10s in the deck than any other card, and if you split your aces, you get two opportunities to draw to a natural, which pays out at 3 to 2.
Some casinos allow you to only receive only one additional card when splitting aces, but if you’re allowed to draw additional cards beyond that, you gain 0.19%. If you’re allowed to split again after you get dealt an additional ace after splitting, you gain another 0.08%.
The Importance of Basic Strategy
It doesn’t matter how favorable the rules are if you don’t follow basic strategy. That’s the mathematically correct play for every situation in blackjack, and you should never deviate from it based on hunches. Blackjack is a game of math, and there is no such thing as luck—just standard deviation.
If you ignore basic strategy, you’re giving up between 2-4% to the casino. None of the positive rules variations matter if you’re ignoring basic strategy and just winging it.
Single Deck Blackjack Strategy
Single-deck blackjack as a reputation as being the ‘holy grail’ of blackjack games. This comes from live casinos, and the days when card-counting was rife. Online you will not be able to count cards – as the deck is shuffled after each deal. However this version of blackjack does have a very low house edge, and makes an entertaining change from the usual 6-deck games.
This article explains the unique rules of single-deck blackjack. You will also find information on the pros and cons of playing this variation, and some tips on how to keep the casino edge to a minimum while playing. At the end of this article you will find information on some more variations on the blackjack theme which can help to keep this game fresh and entertaining.
What Makes This Game Unique?
In a brick and mortar casino, the initial cards are dealt face-down. This allows each player to look at their own hand and muck or play as needed, and may also have given advantage players the opportunity to scratch or mark the cards.
Online this can’t happen of course, though there are still some minor rule variations to keep in mind. Firstly, the dealer will ‘hit’ on a soft 17 (most other games the dealer stands on a soft 17). This adds a small percentage to the house edge. You will generally only be paid 6:5 for Blackjack in this game (usually this is 3:2), this unfortunately increases the house edge a little more.
You will also find that splitting and doubling is more restricted than in the 6-deck game. You can only double with 9, 10 or 11 and splitting aces means only one more card gets dealt for each – with 21 not counting as ‘blackjack’ if you do spike a 10.
Pros and Cons of Playing Single Deck Blackjack
This game is fast, fun and the different rules do make a refreshing change from the same old formula. You will also not be distracted by side-bets, this is a simple blackjack variation at heart and you can focus on the action.
However a combination of the hit on soft 17 and the 6:5 payout for Blackjack – along with the restricted double-down rules – means that you end up giving a little more of a house edge than you would do playing the multi-deck variants.
How to Reduce the House Edge
The first thing you can do to keep the house edge to a minimum in this 1-deck game is to make sure you know the perfect strategy. This means you will be playing a mathematically perfect game, doubling splitting and standing in line with the odds down to 2 decimal places.
You should also look at some different casinos and play a game where blackjack pays 3:2 rather than 5:6. This makes a significant difference to the amount of profit the house takes, and is a good enough reason to shift casinos all on its own.
Bonus payments can also make a big difference when you are playing single deck blackjack. This is more than just the welcome bonus offered by online casinos – you really should find a casino that offer you regular reload bonuses and promotions on top. Most casinos put minimum play through of 20x for their blackjack players. This may seem like a lot, but it will quickly add up – and when combined with perfect strategy – and the odd lucky streak, you’ll find bonuses, comps and promotions to be a great way of keeping your bankroll nicely topped up.
Some More Cool Blackjack Variations
This great casino game has enough variations to keep even the most hardened fans interested, here is a selection of the games you might like to try.
Live Dealer Blackjack: You’ll experience a live casino from your own home, with a live croupier dealing the cards through a video-link. This is as close as online blackjack gets to the real thing. See this article on Live Dealer Blackjack for more.
Pontoon: You’ll need to make sure you understand the rules of this blackjack variant, which comes from a British card game – as the dealer’s strategy can change depending on what the player shows. One excellent quirk is that you get paid 2-to-1 for making a 5 card hand of 21 or under.
Progressive Blackjack: This game has a fun side-bet which can lead to a huge jackpot prize. You have the option to bet separately to your main hand, and if you get dealt 4 aces of the same suit (from a 6-deck shoe) then you’ll scoop the prize. Many casinos also give smaller prizes for other combinations of suited and off-suit aces. See our article on Progressive Blackjack for more on this cool variant.
How to Win at Blackjack?
Blackjack is casino game you can beat in a live casino setting. To do this you will need to master the basic strategy, and then learn to count cards while hiding the fact that you are counting from the casino security team. For most people, the path to pro blackjack player is too time consuming or mathematical. You can still win in the short-term – and by reducing the house edge with smart play and taking advantage of casino comps and bonuses, you’ll find your bankroll lasts long enough to enjoy a few nice upswings.
Online you will not be able to use counting to overcome the house edge. This guide will show you how to use the online games to become a blackjack expert who could one day take on the live casinos – and to have a lot of fun along the way. I have started with some nuts and bolts – money management and the rules / basic strategy. After that you’ll find information on card counting – followed by some notes on emotional control.
Tip#1 – Money Management
When it comes to Blackjack and all other forms of gambling, you should only be betting amounts you are willing to lose. Set aside a portion of money that you are willing to gamble with, which should be capped at an amount high enough to enjoy the thrills – but low enough not to negatively impact your life should it end up in the houses’ coffers. My recommendation is never to enter a game with less than 50 bets to allow you to play for a decent amount of time and easily absorb the swings of the game.
Tip #2 – Understanding the Rules
You need to be familiar with the basic rules of blackjack before you start playing. Knowing you bust if you go over 21 is not enough, you will have to be comfortable with all aspects and terminology of the game. Make sure you understand what is meant when insurance is offered (and never take it!), and if you can double down with certain hands. This will not only benefit you but keep the game flowing nicely for all players.
Local casinos and even online card rooms can have their own subtle difference and variations on the rules. You should avoid unprofitable and awkward situations by checking these before you sit down to play. A strategy card is a must-have for serious players. Many casinos allow you to use one while playing – though it will make your Blackjack session far more enjoyable if you can memorize this.
Tip #3 – Card Counting
By taking to time to study and practice how to card count, you can get a legitimate edge over the House. Card counting is simply keeping track of what cards are yet to be dealt and adjusting betting amounts based on whether the cards to come are favorable or not. If there is a comparatively large number of high cards left in the deck compared to lower ones the player has an edge, and this is a great time to increase your bet sizes.
Learning to card count does take significant amount of time studying and practicing until you can implement it correctly, but if you are willing to do this the increase in your hourly winnings at the table will be worth it. I recommend the Hi Opt 2 or Uston Advanced Count systems, there are many others which are easier, only they do not work so well in the modern 6 to 8 deck games.
Remember that card counting will not work online. If you play online the best you can do is play ‘perfect’ strategy for the individual game rules, then add a fat Casino Bonus on top to make sure you get some extra cash in your account.
Tip #4 – Emotional Control
Once you have researched you strategy and have put it in place, keep to it. Even when you have an edge it will be very thin so expect the inevitable swings of the game to come. You should avoid chasing loses and getting reckless in your betting in order to get back to where you were as soon as possible. Likewise after a hot streak you should avoid getting confident and celebrating your victories with too many drinks, or betting more because you are running good.
Keep your cool and bet only in the logical yet confident manner you have spent time practicing. Ultimately the cards do not care if you are winning or losing and with a comfortable bankroll neither should you. The edges will work themselves out in the end.
Tip #5 – Defy Common Belief!
Common belief says you cannot win at Blackjack. You should now see this is wrong in the live casino setting at least – and you can play winning Blackjack with study and discipline. Keep learning everything you can about the game from the basics to advance strategy while making sure you have enough bankroll to support your play and emotions.