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Blackjack Strategy

When it comes to blackjack strategy there are two schools of thought. The first, which is heralded over all others on the Internet (for reasons we will look at), is the strict adherence to 'basic strategy.' This is the most statistically advantageous decision for any given situation. The second school of thought includes pretty much anyone who claims to have a reason to do something other than what basic strategy suggests. Now, these two strategies aren't mutually exclusive, in fact, I think the majority of basic blackjack strategy players make a decision based on a feeling that doesn't fit what basic strategy says during the course of a night of blackjack. Really, how often have you seen anyone surrender? What I really mean by a second school of thought though are the people who attempt to bring systematic approaches to the game, for better or for worse.

Although you may have been hoping to find a page that says something other than 'always employ basic strategy' it's really not going to happen. How can you argue with the fact that basic strategy is comprised entirely of statistically correct moves? Well strangely enough, although they are statistically correct, the suggestions don't always seem logical. Occasionally there is a strong human urge to do what it sees as logical, while the basic blackjack strategy chart says to do something different. For instance, when you are dealt two nines and the dealer has a 7 showing, part of you will have an urge to split them, as you envision two nineteens by your finger tips, but basic strategy suggests to stay. What's the logic here? Obviously basic strategy is working on the premise that they dealer will most likely have a 17 and you already have that beat with an eighteen, but why not try to get two nineteens? At that point you're taking a risk, and it affects the numbers. Although it is not a very big statistical difference, you would be expected to win $40 (for every $100 bet) standing on double nines, and only stand to earn $36.90 when splitting.

Why should you always use basic strategy? Because blackjack is not a game that calls for intuition. Save that for your love life. The casino doesn't arbitrarily decide to have the dealer stand on 16's today, it doesn't change the way it plays day to day, and you shouldn't either. Are there card games that are made for those who rely on instinct? Well baccarat is as close as you'll get, since it's all luck anyway. When you don't follow basic strategy you are essentially giving money away to the casino, and your money is at least worth a fighting chance. Some people claim it's dumb to use basic strategy all of the time because they aren't computers themselves, and they know the one thing that won't happen when they sit down at the table is a perfect statistically correct blackjack session. Although that's true, if you were able to chart out how far from a perfect statistical game each session is, you would soon find yourself looking at a bell curve; a chart centered around exactly what basic strategy suggests, with very few games that do not resemble statistical regularities, but the majority of which are very close.

Skill breeds long-term luck. Many a person has argued that they refuse to use basic strategy because it predetermines that they will only win 47% of the hands they play, and that's just not good enough. Regardless of the fact that you may not win more than half of your hands, if you have bet more on the half that you have won, you're up.

Blackjack offers two delightful little bonuses. You get paid an extra half of your bet on natural blackjacks, and you get to put more money down on favorable doubles and splits. So what's my blackjack strategy? It's a combination of two things; the first is consistently sticking to basic strategy even if a streak has my brain believing statistics can be used to prove anything. 4 out of 5 people know that! The second is looking for favorable playing conditions to help me reduce the house edge.

To understand how playing conditions can contribute to your fortune, let's revisit the 'old strip' game, which was standard in Vegas until the mid eighties. It was played with a single deck, dealer stands on soft 17, double down on any two cards, no doubling after splitting, pairs can be split up to four times except aces, split aces only receive one additional card, no surrender rule. With these playing conditions, playing with perfect basic blackjack strategy brings the edge down to zero. Yup, zero. You're actually playing an even game, oh to have been able to get to Vegas in the early eighties... knowing what I know now of course.

To learn what rule anomalies can affect the edge (such that you can incorporate them into your own blackjack strategy) have a look at the following table:

Rule Effect on Player Expectation
Two decks -0.32%
Four decks -0.48%
Six decks -0.54%
Eight decks -0.58%
Dealer hits soft 17 -0.20%
Double down only on 11 (no soft, no 10, no 9, no 8) -0.78%
Double down only on 10 or 11 (no soft, no 9, no 8) -0.26%
Double down only on 9, 10, 11 (no soft, no 8) -0.14%
No re-splitting of any pairs -0.03%
Dealer wins ties -9.00%
Natural pays 1 to 1 -2.32%
Natural pays 2 to 1 +2.32%
Double down on any number of cards +0.24%
Double down after splitting pairs +0.14%
Late surrender +0.06%
Early surrender +0.62%
Six-card winner +0.15%
Players 21 pushes dealer's 10-up Blackjack +0.16%
Re-splitting of aces +0.06%
Draw to split aces +0.14%

Now you know exactly what to look for and what to avoid when examining the specific rules of any blackjack table. A plus before the number in the right hand column is good for you, the player; a negative is good for the house.

The important thing to remember is that nearly all of the basic strategy rules are indisputable in the long run, but it is the long run that defines them. Only in the long run will the stats work out with any consistency, and basic blackjack strategy can only be said to be truly beneficial if you're playing for an extended period. Is this true? How can math only be valid over time? The finite nature of mathematical science dictates that a particular playing decision, based on the player's cards and the dealer's exposed card, will yield a predictable outcome after millions of hands of play. But at the same time, the prediction it makes is always applicable to the 'next' hand played, meaning there is a greater chance the prediction will be right than wrong, just no guarantee. So following this basic blackjack strategy truly is your best decision.

Using basic strategy, you will eliminate the normal 5 or so percent advantage the casino has over the unskilled player. With perfect basic strategy play, the house advantage can dip as low as 0.5 percent. That is less than a 1 percent disadvantage to the player. This is why blackjack can be one of the most profitable games to play in a casino. But be wary of games such as this where the house edge is a variable, it means you have to be a smart player, utilize a consistent blackjack strategy, and pay attention. The casinos are experts at distraction.

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