Learning the fundamentals of blackjack strategy and some basic strategy can help increase the odds of winning. It’s one of the most popular casino table games to play because of the opportunity of high strategy, thrill, and expert gameplay.
Blackjack can be played with one or more standard 52-card decks where each card is assigned a point value. The players objective is to beat the dealer. You can beat the dealer by drawing a hand which totals closer to 21 than the dealer’s cards but doesn’t go over 21, by the dealer drawing a hand over 21 or by drawing a natural blackjack on the first deal when the dealer does not. A natural blackjack is drawing a 10 and an ace for the first two cards.
Before dealing each players bets are made, within the minimum and maximum limits that are established by the casino. Once all players have placed their bets, the dealer will deal each player and themselves two cards. The dealer will place one of their cards called the upcard, face up so players can see its value. The dealer's other card is called the downcard or hole card and is left unseen. Players cards may be placed face up or face down, it depends on the casino rules. Whilst you will be playing with other players, you are only playing against the dealer and not each other.
The total of the hand is the sum of the card values within the hand. Cards 2 through 10 are worth their face value and kings, queens and jacks count as 10. Aces may be used as either a 1 or 11 although it’s always assumed ace equals 11 unless it makes the hand total over 21. In casino blackjack and online blackjack card suits have no meaning. Players must look at their initial two cards, the value of the upcard and make playing decisions based on this.
The best hand is the titular blackjack, which is a two-card 21. Gaining a blackjack pays 3 to 2 odds if the dealer doesn’t have one. For example, a £5 bet would receive £7.50 return. If the dealer also has a blackjack, it’s called a tie and the player will take back the initial bet. Ties also occur if both players have the same total in their hands. If a player’s hand exceeds 21, this is called busting and they automatically lose the bet. If the players unbusted hand is closer to 21 than the dealer’s hand, the play wins on 1 to 1 odds.
In blackjack players can have a hard hand or a soft hand. These are important to differentiate when playing because playing strategy often changes depending on it. A hard hand is any hand that either does not contain an ace or if it does the ace is counted as a 1. A hand that contains an ace that is counted as 11 is called a soft hand. For example, a 10-5 is a hard 15, A-10-4 is a hard 15 and an A-4 is a soft 15. Players can never bust when drawing a soft hand as when the next card is dealt, the ace will convert nomination to a 1 and become a hard hand. A stiff hand means a hand that can be busted with one more card, such as a hard 12 through 16. When a player has a stiff hand, it’s then up to what the dealer's upcard is to make the decision to hit or stand.
After the initial two cards are dealt there are a few different options of play. If the hand that has been dealt with is satisfactory, standing rules apply where players keep the hand they have. Hitting rules dictates the player wants the dealer to deal another card for their hand to try and get closer to 21.
If the player has two of the same card they can choose the option to split them and create two separate hands. When the player splits, they must make another bet that is equal to the original bet. Pair splitting means the player is playing each card as a separate hand and they can draw as many cards as they would like, except for split aces where some casinos only allow one draw card for each ace. Players are required to play out one split hand to completion before starting to draw for the other.
If the initial two cards drawn are a good hand, the player can also choose to double their initial bet in return of receiving one, and only one, draw card. However, if the hand is a bad hand, some casinos also offer a surrender rule at the same point of play where half of the initial bet is returned.
When the dealer’s up card is an ace, they will ask players if they want to make an insurance wager. This is a side bet on whether the dealer's downcard is a ten-value card. An insurance bet can be less than or equal to half of the initial bet made and winning the bet pays 2 to 1 odds. If the dealer has an ace and the player has a blackjack hand, the dealer will instead as if the player wants Even Money. This automatically gives the player a 1 to 1 payoff on the bet before the dealer checks for a potential blackjack and yields the same result as insurance.
Why Play Blackjack
Blackjack, as a game, has different statistical odds of winning for the player than many other casino games. Games like roulette are independent trial processes where each spins odds are completely independent of previous spins. This then assumes that no systems can overcome the casino’s advantage and players, in the long run, are expected to lose more money than they win.
However, blackjack has dependant trial processes which makes it more favourable for players. Because player hands are dependant on what cards have not been dealt already, players can understand their odds of winning much better than with other casino games. For example, when playing a single-deck game, if all the aces are dealt in the first round, there are zero odds of gaining a blackjack in the second round because all the aces are dealt.
With this in mind, blackjack isn’t just a game of luck but a game of skill. By using strategy, betting techniques and logical thinking about the cards being dealt, it’s possible for players to overcome the house edge and swing the odds in their favour. Which isn’t possible for any other casino game.
Casino and Player Advantages
In blackjack, the ‘double-bust’ rule is what creates the house edge or the casino advantage. The player has to draw first, and if they bust they automatically lose even if the dealer subsequently busts in the same round. Compared to other casino games, blackjacks house edge is already relatively low and can be lowered even more with strategy and betting techniques.
Players also have an advantage in blackjack as they have options that the dealer does not. Players get a bonus payout on a blackjack hand, can double their wager on favourable hands, can split pairs and also stand on lower totals of 12-16 where the dealer cannot. Players can also use strategies to play whereas dealer choices are pre-determined by the casino to hit on 16 or less and stand on 17-21.
Basic Blackjack Strategy
The first step to becoming an expert player to overcome the house edge is to learn basic blackjack playing strategy. Many players think they know this strategy, although the majority of players still go wrong and lose, which is how casinos continue to profit.
Importance of Basic Blackjack Strategy
The basic blackjack strategy is a set of rules giving the optimal plays for each and every hand dealt when the only information the player has is the two initial cards and the upcard. Basic strategy is stated to be the mathematically correct way to play, to maximise winnings and minimise losses. Blackjack has a fixed set of rules and so is appropriate for mathematical analysis.
Blackjack Surrender Strategy
The word surrender has many negative connotations but in blackjack, it can be a very smart play for some hands, especially if hitting or standing are risky. If the player decides to surrender, the dealer will take half of the bet, giving the other half back to the player, and discards the hand as they forfeit the right to play. There are two types of surrender in blackjack, late surrender and early surrender.
Late surrender is when the player only surrenders their hand after the dealer has looked at the downcard when their upcard is an ace or a ten, to determine if they have blackjack. However, If the dealer has blackjack, the surrender option is not available and the player loses the bet. When surrender is used correctly and for the right hands, it can further reduce the house edge especially in multiple-deck games.
Early surrender isn’t offered as often, however, it’s much more favourable to the player. Early surrender is when players can surrender their hand to a dealer with an ace or 10 upcard before they check to determine blackjack.
Surrendering should happen when the expected loss of the hand is worse than 50% as it will save money for the player in the long run. Surrendering not only reduces the house edge, but it helps the player to stabilise their bankroll and flatten out large fluctuations where losses occur.
Blackjack Pair Splitting Strategy
Casino rules for splitting pairs are straight forward. When dealt two of the same card the player may split them into two separate hands by placing the same bet they initially placed. The player then plays out the first hand to completion before playing the second. Whilst pair splitting was first introduced to reduce the casino’s advantage, many players don’t know when to split or not to split which means casinos are profiting.
Different factors determine which strategy for when to use for pair splitting such as how many decks are in play, and the playing rules. However it’s a general rule that you should always split aces and eights, and never split fives or tens. Logically, there are three reasons as to why you should pair split:
- Bold Strategy - the player will win more money on average.
Player is already most likely to win money for this hand, however, if they split they can make even more.
- Defensive Strategy - player will lose less money on average.
Player is most likely to lose money on the pair, but will lose less on average in the long term if the pair is split.
- Offensive Strategy - player will turn losing hand into a winning hand.
Blackjack Doubling Down Strategy
When casinos give the option to double down, it allows players to double their bet in return of only drawing one card. Some casinos may allow double down on any two card hand, however some restrict to specific hands. However, finding ones that allow for any hands are more player friendly and lowers the house edge.
As a general rule, the hands that players are most likely to double are soft 13 (A-2) through 18 (A-7) hands and hard 8, 9, 10, and 11. Although, the dealers upcard and how many decks are in play also plays a factor in the decision to double down.
On hard hands, the logic for doubling down is an offensive strategy. This should be played when the player has an edge of the dealers upcard or the dealer has a high probability of busting. For soft hands, it’s to get more money onto the table when the dealer is vulnerable to busting by having low-value upcard.
Blackjack Hit & Stand Strategy
Hitting or standing is the most frequent decision to make for blackjack and should be made with the assumption that surrender, splitting or doubling down is off the table or already occurred. It should be the last question you ask yourself in a game.
Whether to hit or stand depends on whether you have a hard or soft hand, the amount of decks in play and the value of the upcard. A common mistake can be standing on a hard hand of value 12 to 16, however, the fear of busting can be outweighed by the chance of a dealer reaching closer to 21 because they currently have a 7 or higher. A stronger dealer is more inductive of hitting in this situation to increase the chances of winning.
Another mistake is players who stand on soft hands, despite not being able to bust on them. The assume the high value is good enough the beat the dealer, which would be correct with a hard hand, however, the mathematically best decision is to double down or to hit until reaching a hard high value. A general rule is to never stand on a soft 13 to 17.
Blackjack Insurance and Even Money Strategy
Blackjack has interesting side bets which gives the perception that players can protect their hand against a dealer blackjack. Before you undertake any other strategy you can be making the decision for insurance and even money and need to know when it’s best to take them.
When the dealer gains an ace upcard, they will offer the player an insurance bet. This is optional and separate to the initial wager and is betting that the dealer has a ten or picture downcard. This second bet is equal to a half of the original wager or less and wins at 2 to 1 odds, which is the same amount as your initial bet letting you break even. If the dealer does not have a 10, then the insurance bet is lost and the game continues. Mathematically, an insurance bet is a bad bet for basic strategy and should be avoided by players.
Even Money Strategy
Similarly to insurance, the dealer will ask for even money when they have an ace. However, you will also already have a blackjack in your hand. If you agree, the dealer will pay you even money on your initial wager and all cards will be removed from play. In this situation, the dealer has a 30% chance of also gaining a blackjack where for the other 70% you will win 1.5 times your bet. So overall you’re more likely to win more than if you do not take the even money.
The strategies above help decrease the house edge, however, there’s still more to further increase your own chances. The composition-dependent strategy considers the composition of the cards in your hand to increase precision, rather than the total value that is focused on in basic strategy. Whilst a fully comprehensive chart or strategy table would be too long and hard to remember, these three plays are easily learnt to improve a player's odds.
Hand 16 Against Dealer 10
With this hand, assume surrender is unavailable as for basic strategy you would surrender all two-card hard 16s unless it was 8-8. However, there’s a difference in a hard 16 of two cards and a hard 16 with three or more cards. If you have a hand of three or more with small values, that lowers your odds of getting another small value, which means you’re better off standing.
Hand 12 Against Dealer 4
Basic strategy states to stand on this hand or split on two sixes, however when taking into account which cards are in the hand, you’re slightly better off hitting when you have the specific hand of 10 and 2. However this chance diminishes as the number of decks increases, and so with an eight deck, it’s best to stand or with four or more decks when there’s a h17 rule for the dealer.
Hand 15 Against Dealer 10
With basic strategy, you would surrender with a 15 to a 10 upcard. But if your hand consists of an 8-7 and there are 6 or fewer decks, you have a slight advantage when hitting. This is because, with an 8 and a 7 out of play, there are fewer odds of the hit busting your hand than for any other combination of a 15 hand.
Different blackjack games can have different rules depending on the casino. Different rules change the house edge for the better or for the worse, and knowing the good from the bad rules can help you pick the right table to play at. In general, rules that give the player more options like surrender, double-down and splitting can be favourable to the player (if the right strategy is used!). On the other hand, rules that limit options can be unfavourable.
Dealers rules can also be favourable or unfavourable, such as whether they need to hit on s17 or h17. Plus odds for blackjack payoffs, whether natural or unnatural, can increase the favourability of a game to the player. So as a player you need to understand how many of the ‘good’ rules are in a game you’re about to play.
List of good rules in blackjack:
One rule is early surrender, which is less common. It works similar to a normal surrender, but you can surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack or offers insurance.
Another positive rule is doubling down after pair splitting. This rule is allowed by most casinos and is favourable to the player to take as they can earn bigger wins.
Some casinos allow you to resplit aces after already splitting aces, which allows you to have up to 4 separate hands in a round. As the ace is such a strong card for a player, this is extremely favourable when you get your second card for each hand.
- Resplit pairs
- Doubling down on any first two cards
- Doubling down on soft hands
- Single and double deck
- Blackjack pays 2-1
- Blackjack pays 3-2
- Late surrender
- Dealer stands on soft 17
- The player is allowed to enter a game in mid-shoe
- Manual or auto shuffle
List of bad rules in blackjack:
One of the less favourable rules is when blackjack pays 6-5. Some casinos will reduce the payout from 3-2 to 6-5 to increase the house edge and earn more profits. This can make card counting useless, and takes more money out of players pockets.
Another poor rule is the use of CSM to shuffle the cards as this worsens the odds for basic strategy players, and also makes card counting impossible.
In blackjack, the more decks there are, the higher the house edge. This makes six or eight decks as a rule unfavourable to the player. Multiple other rules may also be in or out of play depending on if there’s a multi-deck which further skews towards the house.
- No doubling down after pair splitting
- Doubling down only on 10 and 11
- No doubling on soft hands
- No resplitting aces
- No surrender
- Dealer hits soft 17
- No mid-shoe entry
What to look for in a Blackjack Table
Minimum-Maximum Betting Limits
Whilst the betting limits won’t affect which strategy you’ll be playing with, you should still check before you play what they are. This will help your bankroll, if it’s already limited, to not waste time at a table that you can’t afford in the long-term.
Number of Decks
As the number of decks increases, the house edge also increases and there’s a mix of rules for different strategies as more decks are added. The point is to know if you’re playing a single, double or multi-deck game. Often multi-deck games are not shown up-front, however, the dealer will be able to tell you.
Playing Rules Variants
The mix of playing rules alongside the number of desks is what really determines the house edge. It’s important to understand where the dealer will stand and hit, as s17 and h17 require different strategies. Knowing whether you can double down on any cards or specific hands, whether you can surrender, or whether splitting and re-splitting is allowed. The payoff for unnatural blackjacks may also be different depending on the table.
How Cards are Shuffled
Generally, single and double decks are shuffled by hand, however as more decks are added an automatic shuffler will be introduced. There are two types of auto shuffler, the first is when one multi-deck is in use, a second multi-deck will be put in the shuffler until the dealer reaches the cut card and swaps them. The second type is a continuous shuffling machine which acts as a shuffler and a dealing shoe combination where after a round is played, the cards are placed straight back into the shuffler, ready to be dealt back into play.
The continuous shuffling machine does decrease the house edge, but because there’s no downtime for shuffling the casino can deal more hands per hour. In theory for players, this would increase the theoretical loss compared to a manually shuffled game.
Number of Players
It is better to play at a full table rather than with fewer people or head to head against the dealer. This is because you’ll play fewer hands dealt when at a full table which reduces your bankrolls exposure to the house edge.