Basic Strategy Play

After the fundamental features of basic strategy for winning at blackjack were developed, a number of refinements occurred and today the current optimal set of principles for standing, hitting, doubling, splitting, and surrendering have been formatted. These, along with the other more sophisticated forms of play were worked out by using Monte Carlo techniques based on the analysis of literally billions of hands. It was the Monte Carlo simulation system that helped the statisticians arrive at the conclusion that certain hands of black jack were ideal for winning and a few could only result in losses. For example, the Monte Carlo system suggests that if a player should hit if he draws a total of 16 versus the dealer’s 7 but stand down if the total was greater than 16. The billions of hands that the computing system played out provide the required data to come to this conclusion. What is important to note is the fact that there is no mathematical data to support this conclusion… all recommendations made by the Monte Carlo method are only derivations from the immense amount of data generated by the computer playing billions of blackjack hands.

Despite the fact that logical explanations are not provided, the Monte Carlo simulations have been the primary basis for strategies to be developed so as to improve the chances of winning in Blackjack. The following depiction of basic strategy is based on the multi-deck game found in several Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos, where the dealer stands on a soft seventeen, pairs may be re-split once, doubling down is permitted after a split, and the player may double down on any two cards. Other games require some minor adjustments. However, it is important to remember that players should never give up an edge against the casino. It is highly recommend that players opt for casinos where the rules are more favorable to the player.

Before setting out to learn the basic strategies to adopt so as to win at blackjack, it is important to know the type of hands that a player would have to deal with. They are:

Hard and soft hands

A hard hand is a hand without an Ace where the payer’s total is given by the face values of the cards, or a hand with an Ace that can only be counted as 1. A soft hand is a hand with an Ace which can be counted as either a 1 or an 11. For example, Ace, 4 is a soft hand because the Ace may be counted as a 1 or 11; but Ace, 4, 7 is not, since counting the Ace as 11 would be a bust.

It is also vital that players know when to hit and when to stand when playing Blackjack and the Monte Carlo technique does provide some clues to help decide what to do with the hands that have been dealt. The guidelines for hitting are rather straightforward. If the dealer shows a 2 or 3, you continue to take a hit until you have a hard 13 or a soft 18. If the dealer shows 4, 5, or 6, you continue to take a hit until you reach a hard 12 or a soft 18. If the dealer shows 7 or 8, you continue to take a hit until you have a hard 17 or a soft 18. It the dealer shows anything higher than 8, you continue to take a hit until you have a hard 17 or a soft 19. A tabulation will help to make it easier to understand:

Dealer Shows Hit untill you have
2 or 3 Hard 13 or Soft 18
4,5 or 6 Hard 12 or Soft 18
7 or 8 Hard 17 or Soft 18
9,10 or A Hard 17 or Soft 19

While it is not possible to mathematically prove each of the deductions that the Monte Carlo technique provides, there is a simple logic that can be seen in the deductions. For example:

  • If the dealer shows a 7 or above, then the most likely two-card total is 17 or above (with a 10 or an A in the hole), so the player is going to have to take a card on any total under 17 or likely lose.
  • When the dealer shows a card less than 7, the two-card total will likely be less than 17 (it can be exactly 17 with a 6 and an A), and the dealer will be forced to take another card. Since there are more 10’s in the deck than any other denomination, the dealer will have a fairly high probability of busting and the player will win.
  • If the player were to take a card with a total between 12 and 16 he would be likely to bust. In situations like this the proper play is to let the dealer pull. If the high card shows up and there is a high card in the hole, you will win.
  • Hit a total of 12 against a dealer 2 or 3. While there are books that tell the player to stand in these situations, they are wrong. The player must take a card.
  • Hit a 16 against a dealer’s 7. Many inexperienced players have trouble believing that this is the proper play but it is. Countless computer runs have proved it again and again. From the players point of view a total of 16 is no better than a total of 12; the player can win with such totals only when the dealer breaks. Besides, there are still five cards that can help out a 16 (A, 2, 3, 4, 5).
  • The player should take a card whenever they have A, 6 (unless they double down) and the player hits an A, 7 against a 9, 10, or A. It’s true that the player will sometimes find themselves going “backwards” and have a hand that is “weaker” than the one that they just had. However, computer simulations consistently show that this is the proper play.
  • It may come as a surprise to inexperienced players, but 18 is not a strong hand when facing a dealer 9, 10, or A.

It is also vital that players know when to choose the option of splitting when playing Blackjack. A table best illustrates the ideal options when it comes to splitting.

Split If Dealer Shows
A, A Any Card
10, 10 Never
9,9 2-9 Except 7
8,8 Any Card
7,7 2-7
6,6 2-6
5,5 Never
4,4 5 or 6
3,3 2 – 7
2,2 2 – 7

There is a definable logic behind these assumptions. They are:

  • Always split Aces. The totals of 2 or 12 are not nearly as good as hitting 11’s.
  • Never split 10’s. Two 10’s is a great hand – splitting will only destroy all chances of winning!
  • Never split 5’s, but the player may want to double down!
  • Splitting 4’s is a close call. Don’t do it in one or two deck games. Do it in multideck games when the dealer shows a 5 or 6.
  • Split 9’s against a dealer card of 2 – 9 except 7. The reason for this exception is simple. You have 18. The dealer’s most probable total is 17. Don’t screw up a good thing.
  • Splitting 8’s, like 4’s, depends on casino rules. Always do it when the dealer shows 2 – 9. If the dealer shows 10 or Ace and the player happens to be lucky enough to be playing in a game that allows early surrender, then the player should surrender. If surrendering is not an option, only then should the player split.
  • Splitting 6’s and 7’s is straightforward. However, If the dealer’s card is higher than the player’s card, don’t split.
  • Always split 2’s or 3’s if the dealer’s card is less than 8. The player should also note that the “value” of splitting is increased if you are playing in a game that allows doubling down after a split.

Choosing the Double down Option

The principle behind doubling down (and splitting) is that it increases the amount of your money in play when the conditions of the hand are in your favor. These are both very important parts of expert blackjack play and must be mastered. A table will help to understand the concept of Doubling down much easier.

Double Down If Dealer Shows
11 2 – 10
10 2 – 9
9 3 – 6
A, 7 or A, 6 3 – 6
A, 5 or A, 4 4 – 6
A,3 or A, 2 5 or 6

When does one surrender in Blackjack?

Surrendering late is still an option in a few of the casinos and it is also the last resort that players should consider. The strategies involved in surrendering are very straightforward and easy to understand. Another table will illustrate the logic behind the options of surrendering.

If Dealer Shows Surrender If Holding
A 10 or 9 Any 16 except 8,8
10 15

Early surrender provides a tremendous advantage for the player which is why you may never find a game that allows it. If you are lucky enough to find one, use the table below to decide when to surrender.

If Dealer Shows Early Surrender If Holding
A All hard 5 – 7 and 12 – 17
10 All hard 14 – 16
9 10, 6 and 9 , 7

When does one choose the option of Insurance?

Insurance is the first option that people who have a blackjack will want to choose. Not only does it insure all the bets placed, even if the dealer were to have a blackjack the player with insurance is sure to get back whatever was bet. The issue with insurance however is that there is no way to double the bet if the player is sure of winning a hand after the dealer draws and comes up with a no-win hand. While most people prefer to insure, blackjack aficionados know that insurance bets are only “side bets” and have no relevance on the original bet itself. For example, if there is a player playing alone with the dealer in a six deck game and he/she bets $10 on their hand and bet $5 on insurance. A six deck shoe contains 96 10’s and 214 non-10’s. After the player and the dealer have been dealt the cards, the player has the blackjack and the dealer shows and A, so there are 95 10’s and 214 non-10’s left. There are 95 ways for the dealer to have a 10 in the hole, and if the player chooses to take insurance, then the player will win $10 on each of them for an income of $950. However, there are 214 ways for the dealer to have a non-10 in the hole, and on those occasions you will lose $5 each, for a loss of $1,070. This is an expected loss of $120 –7.8 percent — on 309 possibilities. A very bad bet!

The best use of insurance is only made by the best of the card counters – for the others the chances of loss are far greater than the winnings are!

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