Blackjack basic strategy is just the mathematically best way to play every possible hand in the game. This means that computers have done simulations and calculations about the expected value of every possible decision. When you make the decision that has the highest EV in each of those situations, you’re said to be using basic strategy.
I’m a proponent of memorizing basic strategy so well that you’re able to play perfectly without having to think about these decisions. Basic strategy isn’t powerful enough to get you a mathematical edge over the casinos, though. You’ll still be playing at a disadvantage.
But that disadvantage will be as low as it possibly can be, and it will be FAR lower than your mathematical disadvantage (the house edge) on any other game. Lots of people want to learn to beat blackjack. Basic strategy alone won’t do it for you. You’ll have to learn a legitimate advantage gambling technique to flip the odds in your direction. For most people, this means learning how to count cards.
Counting cards, though, won’t get you an edge if you’re not able to implement basic strategy. This post offers some advice on the easiest and fastest way to learn basic strategy.
A Simplified Basic Strategy Is Probably the Best Way to Start
I’ve seen multiple “simplified” versions of basic strategy. Most of these are a fine place to start. I’ve seen online versions of this, but I’ve also seen simplified strategies in books. The simplified strategy I present below is based on Kevin Blackwood’s Play Blackjack Like the Pros, which I highly recommend by the way.
This simplified basic strategy only has 10 rules to follow:
- Always stand on a hard total of 17+.
- Hit a hard 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16 versus a dealer 7+. Otherwise, stand.
- Double down on 11 if the dealer has anything but an ace, in which case you should hit.
- Double down on 10 if the dealer has anything but a 10 or an ace, in which case you should hit.
- Double down on 9 if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- Always hit a hard 8 or less.
- Always split aces or 8s.
- Never split 5s or 10s.
- Always stand on soft 18+.
- Always hit soft 17 or less.
That’s not a lot of memorizing to do, and it’s a great starting point. You can probably memorize this simplified blackjack basic strategy in less than an hour, in fact. The difference between this and using the full version of basic strategy is probably only about 0.2%.
In other words, if you were facing a game where the house edge were 0.5%, and you use this instead of the full basic strategy, you’re still playing a game where the house edge is only 0.7%. That’s better than almost any other game in the casino still.
A Few Definitions for New Blackjack Players
It crosses my mind that some of the expressions and phrases used in that short simplified version of blackjack basic strategy might be unfamiliar to some readers. Here are some definitions and explanations:
Expected value is the mathematically projected value of a bet in a specific situation. It’s either positive or negative, and it’s the product of the amount you can win multiplied by the probability of winning, minus the product of the amount you can lose multiplied by the probability of losing.
When discussing basic strategy, expected value is the predicted value of a given decision in a given situation. A bet with a positive expectations is one in which you have a mathematical advantage over your opponent. If a bet has a negative expectation, your opponent has a mathematical edge over you.
To stand in blackjack is to refuse any additional cards and stay with the total you have.
A hard total in blackjack is one in which you can’t count an ace as 1 or 11. This could be because your hand doesn’t have an ace in it, but it could also be because you have a hand where you’re already having to count the ace as 1 to avoid going bust.
To bust in blackjack is to reach a total of 22 or higher. If you bust, you automatically lose immediately.
Doubling down is agreeing to take one (and exactly) one more card from the dealer while simultaneously doubling the size of your bet.
To hit is to accept an additional card from the dealer. The only limit you have to the number of times you can hit is if you go bust. At that point, you can’t take any more cards because you’ve automatically lose.
To split is to separate a pair of cards on you first hand to create 2 new hands. This requires putting up an additional bet for the new hand. It also requires using each of those cards to be the first card in each of those 2 new hands. Those 2 hands are played out separately as if they were just additional starting hands.
A soft total is a hand that contains an ace which can count as 1 or 11. The thing about soft hands is that they’re harder to bust, because you can always change the value to 1. The total, when describing a soft total, is always counting the ace as 11. Once you have to count the ace as 1 to avoid busting, you have a hard total.
The house edge is the predicted amount of money you’ll lose in the long run of the game, on average, per bet. It’s expressed as a percentage of your action. If I saw that the house edge is 0.5%, this means that in the long run, you’re expected to lose 50 cents for every $100 you bet on the game.
Most casino games have a house edge of over 1%, and in most cases, it’s considerably more than 1%. The house edge in blackjack varies based on how closely you adhere to basic strategy decisions. The closer you get to following basic strategy perfectly, the closer you get to that predicted house edge.
Many players are so bad at basic strategy that they’re giving the casino an edge of 2% to 4%.
The house edge can be used to predict how much money you’ll lose in the long run. You multiply how much action you’ve brought by the house edge to get the expected loss.
Here’s an example:
You’re playing for $25 per hand, and you play for 12 hours per visit to the casino. You’ll probably average 100 hands of blackjack per hour, for $2500 in action per hour. Over 12 hours, that’s $30,000 in action. If the house edge is 0.5%, your expected loss for the trip on blackjack is $150. If you’re using the simplified basic strategy above, the expected loss for the trip on blackjack is $210. That’s a lot of entertainment for your money, especially compared to other games.
Take roulette, for example. The house edge for roulette is 5.26%. Assume you bet $25 per spin of the wheel in roulette and see 50 spins per hour. (Roulette is a slower game than blackjack.) That’s $1250 per hour in action, or $15,000 for the entire trip. Your expected loss on that action, though, is $789. That’s a HUGE difference.
Another factor I like to consider is whether my decisions make any difference when I’m playing a gambling game. I enjoy the challenge of making correct decisions that affect the outcome. There’s no opportunity for that in games like roulette, but in blackjack, there’s a mental factor that I enjoy.
This Simplified Basic Strategy Presented as a Chart or Table
Most presentations of basic strategy are done in the form of a chart or a table. I find it easier to memorize a list of 10 rules, but if you’re a visual learner, you might find the following tables easier to remember:
HARD HANDS
Total/
Dealer’s Card |
2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | A |
17+ | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S |
16 – 12 | S | S | S | S | S | H | H | H | H | H |
11 | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | H |
10 | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | H | H |
9 | H | D | D | D | D | H | H | H | H | H |
8- | H | H | H | H | H | H | H | H | H | H |
PAIRS*
Total/
Dealer’s Card |
2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | A |
AA | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT |
88 | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT | SPLIT |
TT | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S |
55 | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | D | H | H |
*Play any other pair according to its hard total.
SOFT HANDS
Total/
Dealer’s Card |
2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | A |
18+ | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S | S |
17 – | H | H | H | H | H | H | H | H | H | H |
S – Stand
H – Hit
D – Double
You can find this information presented in other charts and tables and in other forms. This is NOT the only simplified blackjack basic strategy on the internet.
Taking Basic Strategy to the Next Level
If your ultimate goal is to keep the house edge as low as possible, you should memorize all of basic strategy. If you want to be a card counter and get an edge over the casino, you need as much help as you can get mathematically. If you just want to milk the casinos for comps, you can do that in blackjack, too, but that’s most effective when you play perfect basic strategy.
And even though we’re only talking about a difference of 0.2% or less, I think you should milk the game for everything it’s worth. To do that, you need to take the next step and master the full basic strategy. The easiest way to do that, to my mind, is to start learning the exceptions to that list of 10 rules in the simplified basic strategy above. Here are those exceptions:
HARD HANDS
Here are the exceptions to make to basic strategy in some situations involving hard hands:
- With a hard total of 12, you’ll hit if the dealer has a 2 or 3 showing. Otherwise, follow the strategy above.
That’s it. Now you know basic strategy for hard hands, perfectly.
SPLITTING PAIRS
You’ll notice that the simplified strategy only addresses 4 sets of pairs. To really master basic strategy, you need to know how to handle the other pairs, too. The only way to learn this is to memorize them:
- Split 2s, 3s, or 7s if the dealer has a 2 through 7.
- Split 4s if the dealer has a 5 or 6.
- Split 6s if the dealer has a 2 through 6.
- Split 9s of the dealer has a 2 through 6 or an 8 or 9. (Stand if the dealer has a 7, 10, or ace.)
SOFT HANDS
And here are the exceptions for soft totals:
- Double on soft 13 or 14 if the dealer has a 5 or 6. (Otherwise, hit.)
- Double on soft 15 or 16 if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6. (Otherwise, hit.)
- Double on soft 17 if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6. (Otherwise, hit.)
- Double on soft 18 if the dealer has a
Basic Strategy for Insurance
Insurance is a side bet you can place when the dealer has an ace showing. The bet size is half your original bet, and if you win insurance, you get paid off at 2 to 1 on that bet. You win the insurance bet if the dealer has a 10 in the hole.
Of course, if the dealer has a 10 in the hole, he has a blackjack, so you lose your original bet immediately. Since the insurance bet is half the size of your original bet, and it pays off at 2 to 1, it’s a wash. You’ll win as much on the insurance bet as you’ll lose on your original bet.
The idea behind insurance is that the dealer has a reasonably high probability of having a 10 in the hole. The following cards in the deck are worth 10:
- 10
- Jack
- Queen
- King
There are 4 of each of these cards, for 16 cards total. 16/52 is close to 1 in 3, but not quite. It’s still a negative expectation bet. But…If you’re counting cards, and if the deck is rich in 10s—in other worse, the count is significantly positive—the insurance bet becomes a positive expectation situation.
If you’re just a basic strategy player, the rule of basic strategy is simple: Never take the insurance bet when it’s offered, no matter how much the dealer or the other players at the table seem to think it’s a good idea.
Blackjack basic strategy is easier to remember if you take it piecemeal. Some situations don’t come up often enough to make a huge difference to your bottom line, and they can be safely ignored to simplify the strategy. For example, if you have a hard 12 versus a 2 or 3, you should hit.
But you don’t lose much in that situation by standing instead. By just treating that 12 like a 13, 14, 15, or 16, you simplify what you need to remember tremendously. For players who are just learning basic strategy, learning the simple strategy first is the way to go. Once you’ve mastered that, you can start learning the rest of the possible situations which will come up.
If your goal is to become an advantage gambler (or a comp wizard), you should invest the time and effort to mastering every aspect of blackjack basic strategy. But if you’re just a recreational gambler, you’re probably just fine using the simplified basic strategy I’ve presented.