You’ll hear from or read about basic strategy in blackjack from almost every gambling expert in the world, but what is it?
In a nutshell, basic strategy is just the mathematically optimal way to play each hand given the following information:
- What’s in your hand
- What the dealer’s face-up card is
I should point out that this is the correct strategy if you’re not counting cards, too. If you are counting cards, the mathematically optimal decision changes in many situations.
But basic strategy isn’t just one matrix of decisions. The correct mathematical decision in many situations changes based on the conditions of the game you’re playing. One of the major changes that affects basic strategy is the number of decks in use.
Most writers offer a basic strategy for single deck games and another basic strategy for multi-deck games. For the most part, once you have 4 or more decks in a game, the basic strategy changes are minimal, if any.
Here’s an example:
The first decision you make in any hand should always be whether to surrender. If you surrender, that’s it. No further decisions are necessary. If you don’t surrender, you move on to the next question in the sequence.
So when I say I’m going to offer information about blackjack basic strategy step by step, you can think of each step as the next question you should ask yourself about the hand.
And like I just said, we’ll start with whether you should surrender:
When Should You Surrender in Blackjack?
Some casinos don’t allow surrender at all. If that’s the case, you can just move on to the next decision.
Surrendering means forfeiting half your bet, but you don’t have to play the hand. Sure, you’ll lose half your bet, but in cases where surrendering is appropriate, you stand to lose more by playing the hand than you lose by giving up and only losing half your bet.
But if you are allowed to surrender, you’ll only surrender in 1 of 2 situations:
- If the dealer has an ace showing.
- If the dealer has 10 showing.
If the dealer has an ace showing, you should surrender if you have a hard total of 16. There’s an exception here, though. If you have a pair of 8s, you should split them. (Always split aces and 8s.) I’ll talk more about splitting in the next section.
Now’s a good time to start talking about the difference between hard hands and soft hands, by the way:
- A hard hand is one that doesn’t have an ace in it. It’s also a hand where you have an ace, but it must count as 1 or you’ll bust. That won’t ever be the situation when you’re looking at whether you should surrender, because that’s a decision you must make based on your 1st 2 cards.
- A soft hand is one that has an ace in it. It’s soft because if you get a card that would normally make you bust, you can just count the ace as a “1” instead of an 11 and stay in the game.
If the dealer has a 10 showing, you should surrender with a hard total of 14, 15, or 16. The same exception I mentioned earlier counts—if you have a pair of 8s, always split them—never surrender a pair of 8s if you can split them instead.
Keep in mind that knowing when to surrender doesn’t make you money. It does save you money in bad situations.
When Should You Split Pairs?
If you don’t have a pair, you move on to the next decision on the list. If you do have a pair, though, you have the option of splitting your hand.
Splitting your hand requires you to put up a 2nd bet. You then start a 2nd hand, and you play both hands separately. The 1st card of each hand is one of the 2 cards from your initial hand.
Some of the rules for splitting cards are easy to remember, and they actually cover almost half the possible situations you’ll see:
- Always split aces and 8s. The reasoning for these is probably obvious, but here’s a brief explanation. A pair of aces is a soft total of 12. There’s nothing exciting about that, but since there are a lot of 10s in the deck, if you split the aces, you have 2 hands which could potentially total 21 on the 1st extra card. A pair of 8s, on the other hand, gives you a hard total of 16, which is a real drag. You’re unlikely to win a showdown with a hard 16, but you’re also likely to go bust if you hit. You’re better off starting 2 new hands where the 1st card is an 8.
- Never split 4s, 5s, or 10s. The reasoning behind these is also easy to understand. A pair of 10s is a total of 20. The only way a dealer can beat you is if he gets a total of 21, so you’re almost certain to win with that total. With a pair of 5s, you have a total of 10. You have a great chance of getting an ace or a 10 if you hit, which will give you a great total. If you split those 5s, you’re likely to wind up with 2 hands that will easily bust. Similar logic applies to a pair of 4s.
The other totals you must memorize case by case:
- Split 2s if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 showing.
- Split 3s if the dealer has a 4, 5, 6, or 7 showing.
- Split 6s if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 showing.
- Split 7s if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 showing.
- Split 9s if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, or 9 showing. (Notice the exception—you don’t split 9s against a dealer 7.)
Also, if the casino allows re-splitting, you should always re-split if that’s the correct strategy listed above.
If you don’t split the hand, you treat it as the corresponding hard hand when deciding whether to hit or stand.
In most casinos, if you split aces, you only get one additional card, regardless of what that card is. Some casinos treat that as a natural if you get a blackjack and pay 3 to 2, but not all of them. And most casinos don’t allow you to re-split aces, although some do.
Some casinos allow you to double down after splitting, too, but many don’t. It doesn’t hurt to ask about the rules for that. The dealer is there to answer your questions about the rules.
Do You Have a Hand You Should Double Down On?
To double down is to double the size of your bet and take one (and only one) additional card. I like to think of this as the opposite of surrendering, by the way. When you surrender, you’re getting away from a hand that’s unlikely to win. When you double down, you’re putting more money down on a hand that’s likely to win.
The hardest part of basic strategy for me to remember is which soft hands I should double down on. Here’s a list of the rules for that. (I’ll be studying this list hard before my upcoming trip to Vegas in November.)
- If you have a soft 13, 14, 15, or 16, you should double down if the dealer has a 4, 5 or 6 showing.
- If you have a soft 17, you should double down if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing.
- If you have a soft 18, you should double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing.
- If you have a soft 19, you should double down if the dealer has a 6 showing.
Those are the ONLY soft totals you’ll double down on, and you’ll only double down in the situations described.
With hard hands, you’ll only double down if you have a total of 9, 10, or 11, as follows:
- Double down with a 9 if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing.
- Double down with a 10 if the dealer has 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 showing.
- ALWAYS double down on a total of 11.
That’s it for hands where you can double down on. Just so you have a list, here are the only 10 hands where doubling down is ever correct strategy:
- Soft 13
- Soft 14
- Soft 15
- Soft 16
- Soft 17
- Soft 18
- Soft 19
- Hard 9
- Hard 10
- Hard 11
Hitting and Standing on Soft and Hard Totals
Once you’ve eliminated the possibilities of surrendering, splitting, and doubling down, you only have 2 possible decisions left:
To hit is to accept an additional card.
To stand is to accept the total you have and forgo any additional cards.
The strategies for hitting or standing vary based on the total and whether the total is soft or hard. Here are the situations with soft hands to prepare for:
- With a soft 17 or lower, you’ll never stand. If you didn’t double down, you’ll hit.
- With a soft 18, you’ll stand if the dealer has a 2, 7, or 8 showing. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
- With a soft 19 or higher, you’ll always stand. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
The strategies for hitting or standing on hard totals are a little more complicated. You’ll notice that you play soft hands aggressively. That’s because it’s impossible to bust a soft hand. With a hard hand, you’ll often stand to avoid going bust.
Here are the hard hand totals to decide on:
- You’ll never stand on any hard total of 8 or less. You’ll always hit.
- You’ll also never stand on any hard total of 9, 10, or 11. If you didn’t double down, you’ll hit.
- With a hard total of 12, you’ll only stand if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- With a hard total of 13, 14, 15, or 16, you’ll stand if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- With a hard total of 17 or higher, you’ll always stand.
And that’s all there is to basic strategy. There might be some subtle differences in how you play certain hands based on how many decks are in play, but this will get you started.
How the House Edge Works When You Use Basic Strategy in Blackjack
A casino game’s house edge is the mathematically-predicted loss per bet expressed as a percentage. It’s an average expectation based on the probability of winning versus the amount won. For example, if someone says that a casino game has a house edge of 5%, you can expect to lose an average of $5 for every $100 bet you place.
In most casino games, your decisions don’t matter. The house edge for a bet is whatever the house edge for that bet is. For example, in craps, the house edge for the pass line bet is 1.41%. That doesn’t change based on how well you roll the dice. (Yeah, I know that’s debatable based on the claims of certain players who claim to be able to “control” the dice. But the casinos aren’t too worried about that, so neither am I.)
It’s important to understand that this is a long-term average, and in the short run, anything can happen. In blackjack, for example, it’s impossible to get a result that mirrors a 1% or 4% house edge. If you bet $100 on a blackjack hand, you’ll win $100 or $150, or you’ll lose $100.
That still wouldn’t be the mathematical expectation, though. The Law of Large Numbers suggests that the longer you play, the closer your actual results will come to the mathematical expectation, though.
In the game of blackjack, the decisions you make have a major effect on the house edge, though. If you play every hand with the correct basic strategy, the house edge for blackjack is less than 1%. But if you just play your hunches or best guesses, the house edge might be as high as 6% or more.
The rules in place at the casino also affect the house edge, but the biggest deciding factor is how closely you adhere to basic strategy. If you have trouble memorizing basic strategy, you should consider buying one of the basic strategy cards that are for sale in the casino gift shop.
By the way, you’ll occasionally see someone claim that if you play perfect blackjack, you’ll have an edge over the casino. This isn’t true. Basic strategy will minimize the house edge, but the house will still have a mathematical advantage over the player.
That’s simple to understand when you think about it. You must play your hand 1st. If you bust, you’re out of the running. This is where the casino gets most of its mathematical edge.
The basics of blackjack basic strategy are easy enough to memorize if you take it step by step. You’re basically going to ask yourself a series of questions, but it’s important that you ask them in order:
- Should I surrender?
- Should I split this pair?
- Should I double down?
- Should I stand or hit?
The deciding factors for each of these decisions are twofold:
- Your cards
- The dealer’s face-up card
Every situation in blackjack has an optimal means of being played. You can’t always get an edge by making the right decision, though. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a smaller average loss. Hands like a hard 16 versus a dealer 10 aren’t going to go well for you often no matter how well you play.