Blackjack Strategy Guide

Blackjack Strategy Guide
It seems like there are blackjack games everywhere these days. In bars, dorm rooms, and online. Or you can go to a casino and play. Maybe it’s because the game is easy to learn and it’s fun to play. You don’t have to be genius; you just have to have a plan. The backstory to the fun part is that some players have perfected a way of playing called basic strategy that reduces the house edge to about half of one percent. That’s tiny compared to slot machines that have a 10% house edge.

Beyond that, players have improved on basic strategy with card counting systems that put the odds in the players’ favor. Ever play a casino game knowing you hold the golden key and can actually earn money having fun? Nope? Well, I’ll tell you, it’s worth the work. Now, no matter how much you want to learn, this guide will improve your odds and can take you from beginner to expert. It will even teach you about counting cards. If you haven’t played blackjack before, you might want to check out our Beginner’s Blackjack Guide first, but either way, what you need to win is right here.

And if you’ve ever heard that playing blackjack as an expert is against the law or dangerous, it’s not. Casinos don’t like it, but the worst they can do is ask you not to play anymore, and that’s unlikely ever to happen unless you are counting cards and winning thousands. By then, you’ll understand cover play and going unnoticed at the tables.

Some of the information here will cover etiquette for playing blackjack in land-based casinos, but the gameplay itself is the same whether you choose to bet in a land-based or online casino like one of the ones we recommend. Either way, I’ll make sure you know everything you need to in order to be successful at the game.

Also know that learning doesn’t happen all at once. You can read a few pages and come back anytime to get more information. It’s all here, and it’s all free, so let’s get started.

A Little Blackjack History

At first glance, blackjack is a simple game. You try to beat the dealer’s hand by taking cards until you get close to 21. If you go over 21, you lose. If the dealer goes over 21 and you don’t, you win instantly. The only hitch is knowing how to play your cards without busting. So, read and rule!

Blackjack has been around a long time. Decades, even. In fact, the author of Don Quixote mentioned the game “Ventiuna,” or 21, in a book first published in the 17th century. And a similar game called Vingt-et-un was played in Europe a decade later. Late in the 19th century, the game got a lot of play in mining towns, especially in California and Nevada where the miners were hard-working, hard-drinking, and hard-headed. They bucked the bad odds of finding gold in mines and the bad odds offered at blackjack, where players had no options but to hit or stand.

Double downs, splits, and 3 for 2 for a blackjack came later, only slightly before open gaming was legalized in Nevada in 1931. At the time, players preferred poker and roulette. Although casinos offered blackjack on a table or two, it wasn’t a popular game. That changed in the 1950s when a few knowledgeable gamblers started taking advantage of the game and its liberal rules regarding bet sizes.

What the players realized was that they could scam the system a little by tracking how many aces had been played and raise their bets when the aces were all still in the deck. In those days, tables in Reno and Lake Tahoe used single decks. So did most of the games in Las Vegas.

Since players got paid 3 for 2 on blackjack, the players did fine, but not necessarily well enough to buck the house odds and consistently beat the game. What they really needed was a strategy for playing every hand. Enter the good doctor Edward Thorp and the age of computers.

Beat the Dealer

Although Thorp wasn’t the first person to see the need for an optimized blackjack strategy, he was the first to put a computer to work simulating play and generating an overall system to improve the players’ odds at the game. After more than a year of programming and simulations, Thorp perfected what he called basic strategy (more on that soon), similar to what mathematician Roger Baldwin had developed in 1956.

With his strategy and a simple plus/minus counting system, he hit the casinos in Reno and Lake Tahoe for a little look-see. Thorp was surprised by how much heat his play attracted from the pit bosses, but they soon realized he wasn’t cheating by marking or crimping the playing cards.

A month later, Thorp convinced professional gambler Manny Kimmel to front him $10,000 and proceeded to double the money in a single weekend. The bosses were skeptical and steamed, so Thorp decided to head to Las Vegas, where there were more casinos. Although he didn’t repeat his success in Reno during his first trip, he did find a groove and had good results during weekend forays for the next few months. He kept his side job teaching college math. His success convinced him that there might be a good book in his story.

That book, Beat the Dealer, introduced readers to Dr. Thorp and his Ten Count, used to keep track of the makeup of the deck and the players’ changing odds of winning. The book was reviewed in Time Magazine, it hit the New York Times Bestsellers List, and suddenly Las Vegas didn’t have enough blackjack tables to keep the throngs of players flooding to Las Vegas happy.

The Sands, Flamingo, and Tropicana casinos changed their rules in a panic but soon learned that while there were a lot more players, they weren’t any good. People read the book, but they didn’t put all the good doctor’s advice to use. Things haven’t changed much since then. They say those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so read the upcoming basic strategy section and try to learn it. Don’t just run to your local casino assuming you are now a pro!

Unlike players in the 1960s who had a hard time finding legal casinos, there are clubs all over the world now where you can play blackjack. Not every location has the generous rules Atlantic City and Las Vegas offer, but with practice, you can play nearly even with the casino by just following basic strategy.

Blackjack Basic Strategy

If you already know how to play blackjack, that’s great. You know when to hit and stand, how to double down, and which pairs to split. What basic strategy does is take you further with specific moves against any up card the dealer shows. And by learning this strategy, you’ll reduce the house edge to as little as .5%.

I cut a few corners with my basic strategy to accommodate the different house rules that some casinos offer. Instead of making you memorize lots of charts and rules, I present an overall strategy you can use anywhere. It’s easier, so it’s more fun, and less likely you’ll make mistakes. The fewer decks used on a blackjack game, the better it is for you. A single deck is better than a double deck, and both are better than a six- or eight-deck shoe game. So if you have a choice, go small.

You should also know that some clubs have instituted 6-to-5 payoffs for blackjacks instead of the standard 3-to-2 (which is 7.5 to 5). This change is horrible for the player. If you’ve got no choice, then play the 6-5 game if you want, but it’s not a good game. You will be playing your hands much the same as outlined in our beginner’s blackjack guide. You will always hit, split, or double down until you have at least hard 12.

Hard Hands

You’ll still have plenty of options once you reach hard 12, so follow these rules for each hand.

  • Hard 12: Stand if the dealer’s up card is 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • Hard 13: Stand if the dealer’s up card is 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • Hard 14: Stand if the dealer’s up card is 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • Hard 15: Stand if the dealer’s up card is 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • Hard 16: Stand if the dealer’s up card is 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit. An exception can be made to hitting your hard 16 against a dealer’s 10 or ace if you see many small cards and few tens on the layout.
  • Hard 17 or higher: Stand unless you have a split or soft hand.

Hard Double-Down Hands

You’ll only want to double down on 9, 10, and 11 according to the rules below.

  • Hard 9: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • Hard 10: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 2 through 9. Hit against a 10 or ace.
  • Hard 11: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 2 through 10. Hit against an ace.

Soft Double-Down Hands

If you can double down on soft hands, follow the rules below. You will always stand on soft 19 and 20.

  • A-2 and A-3: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 5 or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • A-4 and A-5: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • A-6: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, take a hit.
  • A-7: Double down against a dealer’s up card of 3, 4, 5, or 6. Stand against a 2, 7, or 8. Hit against a 9, 10, or ace.

Pair Splits

Splitting pairs is an art unto itself. If you can memorize these splits, you’ll do much better at blackjack. The easiest thing to remember is always to split aces and eights. The aces make sense since you will have a huge advantage starting a new hand with an ace. However, splitting a pair of 8s against a dealer’s up card of 9, 10, or ace may seem crazy.

It’s still best because if you don’t hit, you’re stuck with a 16, which is worse. The following splits are the correct move, honest. All proven by millions of computer simulations.

  • Holding 2-2, you should split against a dealer’s up card of 2 through 7 and hit against 8 through ace.
  • Holding 3-3, you should split against a dealer’s up card of 2 through 7 and hit against 8 through ace.
  • Holding 4-4, you should hit.
  • Holding 5-5, you should play your hand as a 10, then hit or stand according to the double-down rules.
  • Holding 6-6, you should split against a dealer’s up card of 2 through 6. Otherwise, play as a 12.
  • Holding 7-7, you should split against a dealer’s up card of 2 through 7. Otherwise, play as a 14.
  • Holding 8-8, you should always split.
  • Holding 9-9, you should always split except against a dealer card of 7, 10, and ace.
  • Holding 10-10, you should be happy and tuck your cards under your money; you’ve got 20.
  • Holding A-A, you should always split.

That’s it for splits. And that’s it for basic strategy. After memorizing the rules, you can play comfortably in any casino knowing the house edge is as low as it will go until you try a card counting system. Still, there are some general knowledge rules you’ll want to learn about that follow.

Your First Time Playing Live Blackjack

Now you can move forward with some practice sessions. I know, you figure you’ve got it and are ready to play for money, but you should still take some time to practice. Listen, Steph Curry practices his jump shot every day, and he’s been playing basketball for 25 years. Does Tiger Woods still practice his chip shot and drives before a tournament? Of course he does, and those guys get paid huge money. Shouldn’t you practice before you risk your money?

Just get a deck of cards and deal a hand to yourself and one for the dealer. Then think, “What’s my play here? Hmm, A-5 against a 7. That’s a hit.” Good. Keep practicing until you make almost no mistakes. Write down the basic strategy rules and read them over and over. We are talking about saving real money! Whether you find a reputable online casino to play some blackjack at or head down to a live casino, you’ll want to consider all rule variations before you play. If you have a choice of properties, you might as well get the best odds for your money.

In the US, games in Atlantic City and on the Las Vegas Strip have the best odds. You can find single-deck games on the Strip, but most properties offer six-deck shoes. In Arizona, you’ll get the same games, plus you can re-split aces. A single-deck game is usually best unless they try to slip the dreaded 6-5 blackjack payoffs past you. Then, forget it. Otherwise, a single-deck game is .48% better than an 8-deck shoe. That’s a big difference.

Great rules for the player include the standard dealer hits on soft 17, double on any two cards, and split any pair to make up to four hands (aces may or may not be re-split). Some other options that help include:

  • Early surrender + .24%
  • Double down on any number of cards + .23%
  • Redraw to split aces + .19%
  • Re-split aces + .08
  • Late surrender + .8%

The number of decks is important. Compared to an eight-deck shoe, your odds improve with these numbers:

  • Six Decks + .02%
  • Five Decks + .03%
  • Four Decks + .06%
  • Two Decks + .19%

Rules that add to the house edge and work against the player should be avoided when possible. One example is the even-money payoff for a blackjack found on older video games (-2.27%). Some other rules include:

  • Split pairs to only three hands -.01%
  • Double down on 9, 10, and 11 only -.09%
  • Split to only two hands -.1%
  • European no hole card -.11%
  • No double down on split pairs -.14%
  • Double down on 10 or 11 only – .18%
  • Dealer hits soft 17 -.22%
  • Blackjack pays 7 to 5 -.45%
  • Blackjack pays 6 to 5 -1.4%

Do these rule changes hurt you? Well, just the change to 6-5 blackjack payoffs will cost you 1.4% of your average bet per hour. If you bet $10 per hand and play 60 hands, that’s 14 cents times 60, or a total of $8.40 per hour. Ouch!


One of the options that you may or may not find offered involves surrendering half of your wager after seeing your first two cards. That may seem like a terrible thing to do – giving up half of your money before ever trying to improve your hand – but hear me through. You’ll only want to do this when you hold a hard 15 and the dealer shows a ten, or when you hold a hard 16 and the dealer shows either a 9, 10, or ace. And you won’t ever do it with a soft hand.

The math behind this play is a lot like splitting eights against a ten. It seems like a bad play, but here’s the math to prove the logic. According to millions of computer-simulated hands, after considering the times you will push, you’ll lose 77 hands out of 100 when you hit that lousy 16. If you decide to get cagey and stand, you’ll still lose 77 hands out of 100. Either way, you get paid even money 23 times.

That 23 times gets you 46 units. For every 100 hands, 54 units. That’s pretty terrible. If you use the surrender option at a land-based casino, you’ll run your finger across the layout horizontally in front of your wager, and the dealer will take half your bet. In this case, after 100 surrenders, you’ll have 50 units left. It’s still terrible, but it’s the lesser of two evils. And it saves you four units, which makes the play correct.

This does not apply to a 16 that is a pair of 8s. You’d still split the 8s because you’ll only lose with them 47% of the time, and that’s better than taking the 50% surrender return! So, when you have the option to surrender, do so with no pair and hard hands only, 15 against a 10, and 16 against a 9, 10, or ace. You might only get the option three or four times an hour, but if you are betting $10 per hand, you’ll still save a couple bucks.

Choosing the Right Blackjack Dealer

Nobody likes a grumpy dealer. You might as well choose someone who is at least smiling, right? A happy, experienced dealer is usually your best bet. They’ll get a good number of hands out per hour and won’t rush you too much. The more relaxed you are, the better you will play. That’s important. You want to have time to make the right decision every hand. Don’t let the dealer or the other players rush you. If you are confused about something, ask. That’s what the dealer is there for – to help you.

On the other hand, a new dealer can be helpful, too. And they will occasionally make an error that requires the pit boss to come by the table and correct. Sometimes you’ll get a choice of killing your hand or playing it out. One freebie an hour can make you an instant winner! And if you are new to basic strategy or have moved on to a counting system, you’ll like having some extra time. Remember, even if you are struggling to keep up, be friendly. Friendly players get the benefit of the doubt if a problem comes up. Jerks don’t.

For the most part, dealers do their best and will talk to the players when possible. You’ll get what you give. And giving the dealer an occasional tip helps their mood immensely. They are working for minimum wage and need tips just like the waitresses do. How much should you tip? The nicer they are, the more I tip. Win or lose. Still, I tip more if I’m winning. The actual amount is up to you, but one average bet isn’t bad.

Choosing the Right Table Limit

Don’t forget to check the table limits before you sit down. Higher-limit tables may have players who get annoyed regardless of how fast or slow, good or bad, you play.

Low-limit games are likely to be more fun with little pressure. That’s usually better for beginners, and until you are a basic strategy pro, you are a beginner. That’s okay; take your time and make the right plays. Once you are comfortable, you can move to higher minimum limit tables, but there’s no rush. The same thing goes for online live dealer play. You’ll have plenty of time to act, and there won’t be any pressure if you are at the minimum limit tables.

If you are comfortable at a higher limit, give it a try, but we might want to discuss your bankroll first.

Bankroll Requirements

It doesn’t matter how well you play if you don’t have any money. Since playing blackjack is gambling, you can’t reasonably expect to win at any specific time. All you can do is set aside some money for entertainment and give it a go.

Personally, I’ve always been a stickler for a strict bankroll. But it’s not just your total bankroll; it’s your table stakes. I think in terms of units, not dollars. Chip stacks rise and fall like waves on the ocean, so I like to have at least 20 units to work with at any table. If the table minimum is $10, I want to have at least $200 to start.

As a basic strategy player, you are trying to buck about a .5% house edge. The average player is playing closer to a 2% disadvantage. Still, blackjack tables in casinos around the world have about a 15% hold. That means they win 15% of all the money cashed at the tables. How can that be? Well, it’s a matter of time and hands played. If the casinos’ average win is 2% on each bet, then a player’s bankroll gets whittled away. And players make mistakes in strategy. That usually happens when they are rushed, stressed over their losses, or drunk.

You can avoid those problems by taking your time, having a reasonable bankroll, and not drinking much. And you can help yourself by choosing a table minimum that fits your pocketbook. Sure, it’s fun to sit at the $25 table, but if you only have $200 – that’s eight units. You can burn through that in two or three hands if you get a couple of double-downs that go wrong.

Ideally, what you bring to the table is only a portion of your bankroll. I like to have just 5% of my cash on the table at any one time. So with a $4,000 bankroll, I put $200 into action and am likely playing at a $10 table. Now, how much can you wager each hand? As a beginner, I think you should stick to a bet like $10 and only raise that amount when you are winning. Streaks do happen, and it helps if you increase your wagers slightly as you are winning more hands. When bad streaks happen, you want to get down to the limit and ride it out.

If you are going to learn to count cards, you’ve got to treat your bankroll like your best friend. Keep your table buy-in to 5% of your bankroll, and when you are winning, it will be slightly higher. When things get lean, you’ll be buying in for less. If you try to stick with that same 5% buy-in, you would want a $2,000 bankroll to buy in $100, and your lowest best would be $5. That gives you stability and peace of mind. Your chances of tapping out are only about 5%.


Getting Comped for your Play

One of the great things about playing online and live blackjack is that you can join the casino’s players club and earn complimentary bonuses. Comps in live casinos are for food and beverages and hotel rooms. You can usually use your players club card for purchases at the gift shop, too. You won’t earn that much with a $10 average wager (about a buck an hour), but it adds up.

If you are playing in the UK or Canada, there may be no comps, but then again, you won’t have to tip the dealers, either. It’s a trade-off. If you are earning points in a land-based casino and want to get a hotel room, make sure you ask a pit boss (after you’ve started playing) if you can get a casino rate on a hotel room. Most properties offer this low rate to players, and it can save you 50% off your room. The best part is that the savings don’t come off your points. It’s just a benefit of having the card and playing!

When you first sign up for a card, you’ll get a bonus, too – perhaps a tee shirt, maybe $20, but it’s all good. If you join an online site, you’ll get a match bonus, which gives you more to gamble with. You should note the rules and regulations, though. Usually, your play at blackjack won’t count towards clearing your bonus (allowing you to withdraw your funds).

As for comps online, they are in the form of free money to use on slots and at the tables. They too must be cleared, so again, get your reading glasses and check the rules. Once you’ve practiced and understood most of the basics presented here, you might want to go ahead and read about card counting. You need to be strong at basic strategy to move on, but you can learn about it first. And I’ll tell you about single-deck rules and multiple-deck stuff, too.

Blackjack Card Counting Systems

Card counting is a system that allows the player to know when they hold a small edge over the house. This allows the counter to bet more money and vary their play slightly at the right time. When the count is negative, the player gets their base bet as low as possible. Beyond that, the counter plays basic strategy and tries to look as inconspicuous as possible.

If you ever caught the movie “Rain Man,” when the Las Vegas pit bosses tell Tom Cruise, “Counting into a six-deck shoe is impossible,” that’s just Hollywood. Bosses know it happens all the time. That’s why they watch their big players carefully, like in the movie “21.”  Of course, that movie made it look like counting cards is simple, and so is winning. Not so. One of the best card counters ever, Ken Uston, admitted he once lost 61 straight times playing in Vegas. That’s an ugly streak that I’ve never approached and proved it’s a tough way to make a living.

It’s a lot easier to learn a count and play in your free time for entertainment. If you do that, you’ll probably find that you can win a little money and get some free rooms and food. That’s a good goal to have. Card counting works because the casino’s edge at blackjack changes as cards are removed from the deck during play. The player acts first, risking a bust, but the player doesn’t have to hit while the dealer does. If many small cards are removed from the deck, the dealer is more likely to draw a big cad and bust.

Tens and aces also help the player make blackjack and get paid 3 to 2, while the dealer can only beat you for even money with a blackjack. All those extra tens in the deck also help you make a big hand when you double down, so that’s a good time to raise your bet. We like all those tens in the deck, so when the small cards come out, we count positive numbers. When tens go by, we count in the negative. When the count is positive, the player has the edge, and we bet more. When the deck is negative, we get our bet as low as possible.

The obvious goal of card counting is to win money by betting more on positive counts, and to do this, each card is given a numerical value that the player adds or subtracts in their head. With a standard deck of 52 cards, each count system starts with zero and ends again with zero after all cards have been removed. You won’t see all the cards, though, because even with a single deck, the casino will cut off about one-third of the deck and shuffle when they get to the cut card.

A simple Hi-Lo count works like this: cards 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are plus one (+1); cards 7, 8, and 9 are zero (0); and all tens, face cards, and aces are minus one (-1). Take a regular deck of cards and count through them, adding and subtracting a one for each card, and skipping past 7, 8, and 9. You might notice that there are 20 cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) that are plus one and 20 cards (ten-values and aces) that are minus one.

If you just take a couple tens out of the deck, your count would be minus two, and the house would have the edge (at zero, also). Counting and knowing when you have the edge is just that easy! There are more advanced counts, but it’s best to start with something reasonable. Master this count before you move on.

When you try this on a single-deck game, keeping track of the count is pretty easy. The more you practice, the better you will get. Just keep going through your deck, one card at a time, saying “one,” “plus one,” “plus two,” “plus one” as you go along. You’ll want to keep practicing until you can get through a deck perfectly in about 30 seconds.

The Making Money Part

You really can make some money counting cards if you play perfect basic strategy and learn a count system. To do so, you’ll want to start with a single-deck game, the first hand after a shuffle, and bet the table minimum. If the count stays at zero or is negative after the first hand, keep your bet small.

If the count goes up, raise your wager. To begin with, raise your wager one unit for every +2 change. That means that you don’t raise until the count is +2 where you would bet two units. Raise to 3 units at +4, 4 units at +6, and 5 units at +8. Don’t go any higher your first few outings. Just enjoy the game, and do your best to make as few mistakes as possible.

Keep in mind that although you might be new to the game, the pit bosses aren’t. They are trained to notice players who vary their bets at opportune times. Fortunately, most players vary their bets at all kinds of contradictory times. That means they won’t see you as a threat unless you do things like betting 1 unit until you have a big edge and then plunking down a 10-unit bet. That will get noticed.

You might want to start small and inch your way up during positive decks. Suppose you find a $5 game and get some $5 chips and some $1 chips. Every time you win, add $1 to your bet. If the count is positive, add two or three, but at most $5. When you lose a bet, drop back down to $5. It’s not a perfect system, but to begin with, walk. You can run later.

Single-Deck Blackjack Games

I prefer to play single-deck games because I can count cards easily. I don’t have to wait as long for good shoes to turn profitable, and if I make a mistake and drop the count, it’s only two minutes until the deck gets shuffled again.

It’s important that you play cat and mouse with the pit bosses when you play a single-deck game. They can wait for a new deck and count you down, too, to see if you change your wagers along with the count. Be careful. If you are playing alone, you may get a lot of hands dealt in an hour. While that simple Hi-Lo count may only be worth a tiny percent in your favor, you’ll win a lot more getting 200 hands per hour than the 60 you might get on a crowded table. So, choose your tables wisely.

Taking Insurance

Insurance is usually a bad bet since the odds of winning are 16 out of 51, or 16-35, which is less than 50%, and that’s what the bet pays. On the other hand, if you are playing a single deck and it’s the first hand with three players on the table, and the six cards you can see are all small cards, the count is positive, and now the odds are in your favor. You would win 16 times and lose just 29, a positive edge (you will win 55% of the time).

Counting Aces

Getting a blackjack payoff is always great, and when there are lots of aces in the deck, you’ll get more blackjacks. Suppose after the first round of play that you have seen ten cards, and none were aces. That’s good. Now suppose the count is positive. Instead of just increasing your wager a little, you can safely add an extra unit to your bet. If on the other hand there were two aces played, you might just keep your wager at a single unit, even if the count went positive. The truth is that you don’t have much of an edge now.

Overall, you’ll win about 43% of the hands you play, push close to 9%, and lose 48%. You’ll make up for the extra losses by being able to double down, split pairs, surrender, and maybe even hit a few blackjacks. If you are counting and raising your wagers when you have the edge, you’ll earn more with every win.

Multiple-Deck Blackjack Play

The Hi-Lo (or Plus Minus) count was designed for single-deck play. When the casino managers saw more counters, they started adding decks on the tables. Today, six- and eight-deck shoes are dominant in the casino industry. Bummer! Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t win; you just have to work harder. As a beginner with a Hi-Lo count, all you have to do is keep track of the count and raise or lower your wagers. With multiple decks, you’ll have to keep a current or running count and divide the remaining decks by that number to get a true count.

On a single deck, that +4 count is worth a bet of three units. However, on a six-deck shoe after the first hand, that +4 is insignificant because only a tiny fraction of cards have been played from the shoe. To combat that, you must do a little math. The math is based on the number of decks remaining in the shoe. After a hand or two, there are still five full decks left, so you divide your count of 4 by 5 and get .20 and go, hmmm? Well, .20 is small, so you stick with a single unit. If your count were +10, you’d divide 10 by 5 and get +2. Then you could double your wager.

Don’t worry; the math is always pretty simple, and you don’t have to do it if the count is negative, right? Just stay with that single-unit bet. So, what’s your edge using this simple count?  With favorable rules and perfect basic strategy, you may hold an edge over the house of as high as .60%. You won’t get rich, but you can win! However, there is one other thing you need to know.

You need to have good bet variance to win at any counting system. If you go slow and vary your wager from $5 to $20, you are slightly ahead. If you get more confident and vary your wagers from $5 to $40, you’ll get about a .40% edge. You can’t hit that .60% edge until you are enjoying a 1 to 10 spread ($5 to $50).

If you are wondering about taking insurance, it’s the same with a single deck as with multiple decks. On a single deck, you should take insurance (when the dealer shows an ace) any time the count is higher than +3. With multiple decks, you’ll have to do that math again and turn your running count into a true count. When the true count is higher than +3, insurance is a good wager.

What will your earnings look like with perfect basic strategy? Remember, the house still has the edge, so it will cost you about 5 cents for every $10 you bet. Sixty hands an hour, and your entertainment costs are about $3 per hour.  With comps, reduced room rates, and free drinks, you’ll be ahead of the game. It gets better with the Hi-Lo count.

There, you hope to turn things around and get a .60% edge for your play. If you play well enough and get 60 hands per hour with an average bet of $25 (average, not your base bet or your highest wager), you put $1500 into action. That earns you about $9.  If the dealer is fast and you get 100 hands an hour, you could earn $15 per hour, plus your comps. Pretty sweet.

Bet Size and Bankroll Size

Whether you are learning to play blackjack for the first time or learning the Hi-Lo count, the odds are good that you’ll lose money the first few times you play the game. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a learning curve. You’ve got to get the basics under your belt first. Then you can do some winning.

If you are on short money, you are more likely to make mistakes and avoid good opportunities. Don’t say things like, “Oh, I’m not going to double down because I haven’t got the money,” and expect to win. Those double downs and split hands are usually the difference between winning and losing each evening.

Why? Because you’ll win those bets more often than you’ll lose them, and that makes the difference. Don’t guess or “go with your feelings” instead of following basic strategy. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Some Final Thoughts on Blackjack
Playing blackjack is fun and exhilarating, but the longer you play, the more likely you are to make mistakes. Keep your sessions to no more than 2 hours to start. After a few hours, go grab a meal, and go over in your head all the things you did right. Did you make any mistakes?Drinking alcohol while you are playing is a bad idea. Alcohol is likely to loosen your inhibitions and make math tough. That’s a bad combination for a blackjack player. And finally, your bankroll needs to be sufficient to support you through some losing sessions. If I had to offer money advice, I’d say don’t even play until you have at least a 100-unit bankroll, and I wouldn’t risk more than 20% of that on any one outing.

Gambling comes with an emotional content that can hit you like a truck. Gamble with money you can afford to spend on entertainment, not your rent money. Carrying that baggage is crippling. Gambling isn’t a sure thing, but playing blackjack with basic strategy is a great start.