For my money, blackjack is the best game in the casino. If you can find a game with all the right rules option in effect, the house edge is as low as any other game in the house. You can find casinos offering blackjack games where the house edge is less than 0.5%. That’s almost an even money game, right there.
And if you know anything about casino games, you know that they never offer even-money games. Casinos offer games where they have a mathematical edge over the players. That’s how they make so much money. After all, those fancy neon signs aren’t cheap. If you’re going to gamble in a casino, I always suggest sticking with the bets where the casino has the lowest house edge. In most casinos, this means playing blackjack.
The House Edge in Blackjack
Perhaps an explanation of the expression “house edge” is in order. The house edge is the mathematically predicted average loss you’ll see on your action in any given casino game. The word “action,” in this context, just refers to the amount of money you’ve wagered.
If you play 10 blackjack hands and bet $10 on each hand, you’ve put $100 into action. If the house edge is 0.5%, your predicted average loss on that much action is 50 cents. The average house edge for most slot machines is closer to 8%. This means on $100 worth of action, you’ll lose an average of $8 instead of 50 cents.
Do you see the virtue of playing the games with the lower house edge now? How does the casino get this edge? They pay off the bets in a game at less than the odds of winning them. There’s usually a single factor in the way a game is played that results in the casino’s edge.
In roulette, for example, the house edge comes from the 0 and the 00 on the wheel. The payoffs on the bets would be fair, break-even bets if the wheel only consisted of the numbers 1 through 36. Those 2 additional outcomes give the casino its edge in roulette.
In blackjack, the way the casino gets its edge is by forcing you to play your hand before the dealer plays hers. Since one of the possibilities is that you’ll lose before the dealer ever finds out if she loses or not, the house has an edge. Keeping the house edge low reduces the cost of playing blackjack significantly.
The Basics of How to Play Blackjack
The 1st thing you should learn about any game—casino game or otherwise—is the object of the game. In blackjack, the object of the game is to win. You can do this in one of 2 ways:
- You can get a total closer to 21 points than the dealer does.
- You can still be alive in the hand when the dealer busts.
But what does all this mean? I’ll assume you know absolutely nothing about card games as I explain this. Blackjack is played with a traditional deck of cards. A traditional deck of cards has 52 cards in it. They’re divided into 4 suits, but in blackjack, the suits don’t matter. Most of the cards are numbered: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. There’s also an ace, and there are 3 face cards—the jack, queen, and king.
You start with 2 cards, which will have a total, naturally. Then you’ll decide whether to take additional cards or stand on the total you already have. The dealer does the same thing, and whoever has closer to 21 points without going over wins the hand. It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.
Here’s how to play, blow by blow, step by step:
The Action at the Blackjack Table
To play blackjack, you start by buying chips. The table will have a sign on it indicating the betting limits, both minimum and maximum, for the game being played there. You should read this. You’d be embarrassed if you bought in for $100 at a table where the minimum bet were $100.
And even though there are other players at the table, you’re playing heads-up with the dealer. What the other players do has no effect on your game at all. (Some people think it does, but they’re mistaken.) The dealer’s 2 cards are dealt so that one of them is face-up, giving you some additional information you can use to inform your decisions.
And even though in my broad overview above, I made it sound like your only choices are to take more cards or stop taking cards, you actually have some additional options, depending on how the hand goes. I’ll talk about each of these options below:
Insurance – If the dealer’s up-card is an ace, you have the option of “taking insurance.” Here’s why:
A 2-card hand that totals 21 is considered a “blackjack” or a “natural.” If the dealer has a blackjack, you lose immediately unless you also have a blackjack. Insurance is a side bet that the dealer actually has a card valued 10 points as her down card. The bet is in a prescribed amount—it’s always half the amount of the bet you placed on the hand to begin with.
If the dealer does have a blackjack, you still lose your original bet, but you get paid 2 to 1 on your insurance bet. Since the insurance bet is half the size of your original bet, you wind up breaking even. Let’s say you bet $100, and you take insurance. That’s a $50 bet, but if it wins, you win $100. You lose your initial $100 bet, but you win $100 on the insurance bet, for a net gain/loss of 0.
On the other hand, if the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack—which is more often than not—you lose the $50 insurance bet. You also still have to play out your hand normally, so you might win or lose your original bet. Also, if you and the dealer both have a blackjack, it’s treated as a “push.” That’s casino-speak for a tie. You get your original bet back, but you don’t collect winnings with it. Insurance is a sucker bet, by the way. You should always just say no to this bet, unless you’re counting cards. I’ll have more to say about that later.
Stand – One option you have is to stand. This is the correct option more often than you might think. Standing just means you’re going to stick with the total you have and not take additional cards. For example, if you have a total of 19 or 20, you’ll almost always stand. Most of the cards in the deck would give you a total of 22 or higher in this situation, which would result in an automatic loss.
Hit – This just means to take an additional card. Hitting and standing are the 2 most common options you have in a blackjack hand. If you have a really low total, like a total of 9, for example, you’ll almost always hit. If the dealer gives you a card worth 10, your total improves from 9 to 19. There’s no limit to how many times you can hit a hand, either.
Double – This is also often called “doubling down.” When you double down, you take one additional card from the dealer, but you also put up an additional bet—the same size as your original bet. Depending on the casino, you might only be allowed to double down on certain totals, like 9, 10, or 11.
Split – When you’re dealt 2 cards of the same rank, for example, your 1st card is an 8, and your 2nd card is an 8, you have the option to split. When you split a hand, you put an additional bet—the same size as your 1st bet—and you get 2 new hands. The 1st card of each of these new hands is one of the 2 cards from your original hand.
Surrender – Finally, if you hate your hand’s chances against the dealer, you can surrender. This is the equivalent of folding in poker. You forfeit half your bet, but you get half your bet back. Surrendering is usually the wrong move, but it’s useful in the worst possible scenarios.
The way the action works is simple enough. Once you get your cards, and it’s your turn, you get to take the appropriate actions until you bust or stand. If you bust, though, you immediately lose your bet. It’s possible that you and the dealer can both bust, but since your action is handled 1st, you lose—even though the dealer busted too. This is where the house gets most of its edge in blackjack.
Finally, the dealer doesn’t get to make any decisions about how her hand is played. She must follow the casino’s guidelines, regardless of what cards you have. This means hitting any hand with a total of 16 or less and standing on any hand with a total of 17 or more. This lack of discretion on the dealer’s part is one of the reasons that the basic strategy for blackjack is so straightforward and relatively uncomplicated.
Rules Variations from One Blackjack Game to Another
Casinos tweak the way the game is played all the time. These tweaks change the odds, but the game-play is more or less the same—for the most part, anyway. The big thing that changes is the house edge.
One of the biggest rules variations—if you can call it that—is how many decks the game is being dealt from. If you’re playing blackjack being dealt from a single deck, the house edge is automatically much lower than it is if you’re playing blackjack being dealt from 8 decks. This is true even if you’re not counting cards.
This has a big effect on the house edge, too, especially in a game with multiple decks. This also can change the house edge by 0.5% or more. The effect is greater in games with more decks. In some casinos, you can “re-split” aces. In other words, if you’re dealt a pair of aces, and you split, and you get another ace—you can split again. When you’re allowed to do this, the house edge improves by almost 0.3% in favor of the player.
The most heinous rules tweak you’ll see in casinos is the 6:5 payout on a blackjack. This is especially insidious because casinos often promote this as if it were good for the player. That’s because a lot of casino gamblers aren’t math-savvy. They think 6 is better than 3, so a 6 to 5 payout is better than a 3 to 2 payout.
Blackjack Basic Strategy
Everything you’ve read about the house edge in blackjack so far relies on a presumption that you’re making the mathematically optimal move in every instance. Most players don’t. If you’re ignoring or don’t know basic strategy, the house edge for you is probably 2% higher.
The perfect basic strategy player in that example is predicted to lose 72 cents per hour. The player who’s just “winging it” faces a predicted hourly loss of $4.72 per hour. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it goes up when you start playing more hands per hour or when you start placing larger bets. If your average bet is $100 instead of $5, those losses get multiplied by 20. That’s about $14 per hour versus close to $100 per hour in losses.
Most gambling websites include a basic strategy table of some kind in their blackjack section. Keep in mind that basic strategy changes based on the rules variations in effect in the game you’re playing. But playing with the wrong basic strategy table is still better than not using basic strategy at all. And some aspects of basic strategy don’t change from one game to another. You can find an excellent example of a basic strategy mapped out here in this computer science syllabus. The page does a nice job of explaining how basic strategy is calculated, too.
Beyond Basic Strategy
So far I’ve just written about how to get the house edge in blackjack as low as possible. But don’t some players have an edge over the house in blackjack? Yes, they do, and those players are called “advantage players.”
Most advantage players who play blackjack are counting cards. Here’s how that works:
Since a blackjack needs a 10 and an ace to occur, you’ll wind up with a better probability of getting a natural when the deck has a higher proportion of 10s and aces than other cards. This happens occasionally because the cards are randomized. As the cards are dealt, you can estimate how many high cards are there versus low cards, at least in a proportional way. You just start counting -1 every time you see a 10 or an ace, and you count +1 every time you see a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.
You can also make adjustments to your basic strategy based on the composition of the deck. For example, if the count is high enough, you have enough 10s in the deck relative to low cards that insurance might become a positive expectation bet. That’s not the only advantage technique used in blackjack, but it’s the most common one. Hole carding is another advantage technique. That’s when you find a way to spot the dealer’s hole card, either when she’s dealing or when she’s checking to see if she has a blackjack. Obviously, if you know what the dealer’s hole card is, you have more information that can inform how you play the hand.
Blackjack is still the king of casino games. No other game—except maybe video poker—offers you an easier opportunity to get close to a break-even game with the casino. But to achieve this kind of low house edge, you must memorize and use basic strategy.
Learning how to count cards can take blackjack from the realm of negative expectation into the realm of positive expectation, but counting cards isn’t for everyone. It isn’t illegal, but casinos do frown on it. They’ll refuse to let you play their blackjack games if they catch you. If you’re going to the casino to play casino games, you should prefer blackjack to every other game. It just plain offers the best odds for your money at most casinos.