Winning at Blackjack
Blackjack is an exception. It's the only casino game that doesn't rely solely on chance. The outcome of a bet on any other game is purely random - where the reels stop, where the roulette ball lands, which cards come up in baccarat or video poker games. In blackjack, you can make decisions based on strategies to influence the house odds, turning them more to your favour.
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Basic blackjack strategies
All gambling games favour the casino, as the odds have been carefully calculated to ensure that the house will win a little bit more than it loses in the long run. This is known as the house edge. For instance, slot games typically have a payout percentage that varies between 94% and 98%, which means that over time you will win $94 to $98 for every $100 you bet. The difference is the profit the casino makes on the accumulation of everything you've wagered on the game in any given session and in your playing lifetime.
We become blinded to this by our lucky wins, when we hit a nice juicy payout on a single spin. This makes us think that we're ahead of the game, when the truth is that, even if we factor in these wins, over time we've still lost a few dollars out of every $100 we've spent. Succinctly put, you can't beat statistics. But you can reduce the house edge by following basic rules.
1. Understand the basic rules
At first glance, blackjack is a simple game - all you have to do is beat the dealer by getting as close to 21 as you can. Most of us played a simple version of this as children.
You are dealt 2 cards, face down, which are added together to get the hand value. Face cards have a value of 10 and the other cards are counted at their face value. Aces can either count as 11 or 1. The dealer also gets 2 cards, but one of them is face up, so that you can see what it is.
We simply need to decide whether to take more cards to increase our hand value (hit), or to stick with the cards we have (stand). The dealer then makes the same decisions based on its first 2 cards, and the hand that is the closest to 21 wins. If you get 21 with your first 2 cards you have a "blackjack" and you win immediately.
However, there are other decisions you can make to influence your chances of winning, and these are the basics of blackjack strategy.
- Split - when you have two cards of the same value (e.g. a pair of 7s) you can split them to form two hands, each with their own bets, and play with two hands.
- Double down - you can choose to immediately double your bet, and then only take one more card.
- Surrender - in some blackjack games you can immediately surrender your hand and get half of your initial bet back.
2. Understand the casino's advantage
You have to play first, giving the dealer the benefit of watching what you do, which allows it to make decisions based on how you played. Your disadvantage is that you can't see the dealer's face down card, known as the "hole card".
The rules also mean that if you manage to get a hand value of 21 by taking more cards, the dealer can still draw with you if it also gets 21. This is known as a "push" and you simply get your bet back. More importantly, if you go over 21, known as a "bust" you will lost your bet even if the dealer also busts.
You must thus factor in the card that the dealer is showing, and the fact that other players at the table have also been dealt cards.
3. Learn basic blackjack strategy
As we've already said, blackjack is a game where you can apply simple strategies to influence your odds of winning. You must learn how to play specific types of hands - what to do if you get certain hand values, compared to the card that the dealer is showing. You must know when to split and double down, and what to do when you have if the dealer is showing a 10 and you have a hand value of 16 or 17, for example. You can learn this by memorising blackjack hand charts until it becomes an intuitive part of the way you play. Play as much as you can so that you become comfortable in making these decisions. Experience is your best friend.
4. Know the table rules
Blackjack tables are governed by house rules, that determine what you are allowed to do (e.g. split or double) and how the dealer has to act. Some tables require that the dealer must stand when it has a hand value of 17, for example. You can use this to your advantage, by knowing that if you have a hand value of 18, the dealer cannot beat you. Thus you should avoid tables where the dealer is allowed to hit on 17, as your advantage is taken away. Another thing to look for is whether there are automatic shuffle machines or not, as this makes it impossible for you to "count the cards" - more on this later.
5. Understand the tables rules for paying out a blackjack
Different tables can have different payout odds when you hit a blackjack. Most tables will pay out at 3:2, meaning that you will get half your original bet on top of what you wagered. So if you bet $10, you will get $15 back.
However some tables only pay out at 6:5, which means that you will only get $12 back on a $10 bet. You obviously don't want to play at these tables.
6. Have a basic betting strategy
A good rule of thumb to increase you chances of making a profit is to be consistent with your betting, avoiding big highs or lows. If you want to increase your bet, the best way is to add only $1 to each subsequent bet until you beat the dealer. And don't be fooled into the ideas that a deck can fun hot or cold, or that you are due for a win after a run of losses. Statistics don't work this way, as they have no memory, so to speak. Treat each hand as separate from the last one. You can err on the side of caution by betting lower after each shuffle of the deck, or after you've lost a hand.
7. Increase your bet when you have a better chance of winning
Bet a little higher when you calculate that your hand may favour a win, based on keeping track of the cards that have been dealt in previous hands. Once again, we'll cover this kind of card counting further down. This is also a good option when you are dealt cards with a value of 10, as they increase the likelihood of getting closer to 21.
8. Don't take insurance
Many blackjack tables allow you to take insurance against the dealer hitting a blackjack. This comes in the form of making a small side bet, which you will win if the dealer does get a blackjack, so you at least get some money back even though you lose your main bet. This might sound like a good idea, but in the long run you're more likely to lose both bets by losing to non-blackjack hands. So avoid taking insurance, however tempting it may seem. All it does is create a false sense of security.
You probably heard a lot about this, perhaps from popular movies about it, and you might think that it is illegal. The truth is that card counting is perfectly legal, as long as you don't use any kind of calculating devices, and you don't interfere with the natural course of the game. There is nothing stopping you from keeping track of the cards that have been dealt in your head.
1. Give each card a point score
Card counting is based on a Hi-Lo method, where you assign a 1-point value to the cards as they are dealt, depending on their face value. It's really simple: cards from 2 to 6 score one point; cards from 7 to nine score zero; 10s and aces score -1 point. All you do is add or subtract these points as the cards appear, to give you an overall score for the deck as it is dealt over the course of several hands. You then bet higher when the count is on the high positive side, which is when you have the best chance of winning, statistically.
2. Keep a running count as you play
This you will need to practice. The easiest way is to simply use a single pack of cards, turning each over one after the other, and adding or subtracting points to get the total score for the deck as you proceed. For example, if you turn over an ace, then a 9, then a 3, the running count will be one (ace = -1 + nine = 1 + three = 1). Practice this until you can do it quickly. If you've done it correctly the score should be zero by the time you've worked through the whole deck.
3. Use a true count as well
To counteract card counting, most casinos use multiple decks in a blackjack game. This messes up your simple count, as there are no longer only 4 of each card that you have to contend with. To get a true count, you keep a running count, and divide it by the number of decks the casino is using. For example, after 20 hands the running count might be 6, but if there are 3 decks in use, the true count is 2.
4. Practice with distractions
It's one thing to count cards in the peace and quiet of your own home, but casinos are noisy environments, with lots of distractions - waiters serving drinks, other players acting up, music and the sounds of slot machines. So try to simulate this atmosphere when practicing at home: play music, practice in a room where other people are having conversations. Once you're comfortable with this, kick it up a notch by participating in these conversations yourself, while maintaining your card count.
5. Bet according to the card count
The trick is to increase your bet when the count is in the high positive, because this means that more low cards have been dealt than high ones and face cards. These latter cards make it easier to hit a blackjack or a high hand value, increasing you chances of beating the dealer. So this is when to strike. But remember not to make wild bet swings. Raise your betting amount judiciously, in small increments.