Table of Contents
- An Introduction to Blackjack
- Chapter I: How to Play Blackjack
- Chapter II: Blackjack Strategy
- Chapter III: Using the Strategies
- Chapter IV: Improving the Odds
- Chapter V: Bogus Strategies
- Chapter VII: FAQs
An Introduction to Blackjack
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We meet again, Mr. Bond
In the book that spawned the most successful film franchise of all time, Casino Royale, the world’s most suave and famous secret agent was embroiled in a high stakes game of baccarat with master criminal Le Chiffre. And so, the stage was set. The face might have changed, and 65 years on, Bond has finally kicked his nicotine habit, but the tuxedo, the dry martini and the mystique and edginess of the gaming table are an indelible part of the Bond phenomenon whether it be Blackjack, Poker or Baccarat.
The turn of a card has been a recurrent feature for 007. As well as numerous games of baccarat in several films over the years, he was seen playing gin rummy in Goldfinger and in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, baccarat is replaced by poker.
But as a child of the 1980s, I will always argue that the most iconic moment is in Timothy Dalton’s 1989 outing Licence to Kill. Dalton has almost become the “forgotten” Bond, which is hugely unfair, as he brought a grittiness back to the role after Roger Moore’s raised eyebrows and cheesy one-liners.
In the movie, which turned out to be Dalton’s second and last before Pierce Brosnan took over, Bond strolls into the lead villain’s casino, and takes the house for $250,000 at the blackjack table. For me, the tension as the focus switches from Bond to the cards, to the villain’s girlfriend, Lupe Lamora, played by the impossibly beautiful Talisa Soto, is what James Bond is all about.
I had seen Bond films prior to that, and I had played a little blackjack in my teenage years, but when the two came together, something just clicked, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Since then, more than a quarter of a century has passed, and I must have dealt a million hands of blackjack. In that time, I’ve stood opposite guys as smooth as Bond an even a few ladies almost as stunning as Soto, but more often, the reality has been regular everyday people like you or me who just want to capture an essence of that James Bond magic at the card table during a night out at the casino.
But here’s the really sad part. For every one newcomer who has taken on the house and, win or lose, had a magical evening, there must have been ten, maybe more, who have said to me outside the confines of the casino something like: “Oh, I would love to have a go at that, but I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Sounds familiar? If so, follow me, because I’ve got a little secret to tell you. We’ve already started.
From the Court of Louis XIV to the Online Casino
Blackjack is not only one of the most popular card games, it is also one that has stood the test of time. It goes back to the 17th century when cards were among the most popular pastimes among the French ruling classes.
In general, while the cards look almost identical, most of the games that were played back then have been lost in the sands of time. But there is one exception. The French game of vingt-et-un is not only the basis for modern blackjack that you see at many of our listed UK Casinos, it is, to all intents and purposes, the same game. Sure, there are some minor variations, but that is the beauty of so many card games, and something you will see in poker, rummy, whist, and almost every other game.
CHAPTER ONE: HOW TO PLAY BLACKJACK
The set up
When you sit down to play blackjack, the dealer will deal two cards to each player and to herself. Incidentally, we will keep to the female pronoun for the dealer, not out of any misguided political correctness, but in honour of the James Bond scene mentioned earlier.
Before the deal, the players must place their bets by putting their chips in the respective betting boxes. The table will usually have minimum and maximum betting limits clearly posted, so just be aware of that and you will avoid embarrassment.
The players will each have their cards dealt. Usually, they are dealt from a dealing shoe, which could contain up to eight decks of cards. More cards means quicker play, reduced shuffling and less chance of card counting – but we will go into that later. The players’ cards will generally be dealt face up, while the dealer will have one face down, known as the downcard or hole card, and one face up, known as the upcard.
At this point, there is an important fundamental to bear in mind. There could be anything up to eight players at the table, but you are not playing against them. Each of you is playing only against the dealer, so don’t get distracted by what the others are doing.
Blackjack Basic gameplay
If I asked you to describe the basic objective in blackjack, you would probably tell me it is to score 21, or as close to it as possible without going over. Forget it, you are coming at it from the wrong direction. The objective is to beat the dealer’s hand, and there are two ways of doing it:
- Get a better score than the dealer
- Don’t go over 21 when the dealer does
Cards score at face value, with picture cards scoring 10 and the aces worth 1 or 11. Your hand is the sum of the card values, so a jack-5 is worth 15, a 7-4 is worth eleven and a queen-queen is worth 20. Suits are irrelevant.
The two possible values for the ace are the only real complication, but again, the rules are simple. The default value for the ace is 11, but if that value sends your total over 21, it reverts to 1. So ace-5 is worth 16, while ace-ace is 12.
Clearly, the ideal hand is an ace and a 10 or a picture card, and this is known as a blackjack, or a “natural.”
You have probably heard of phrases like splitting, doubling down and surrendering. We will get to these in time, but first, let’s go through a basic hand in the simplest terms.
With the cards dealt, each player takes a turn, working clockwise from the player on the dealer’s left. When your turn comes around, you can either keep your hand as it is (stand) or request another card (hit). Usually, you can hit as many times as you like, until you feel you have a strong enough hand to go up against the dealer’s hand, or you bust (go over 21).
When all the players have taken their turn, the dealer will turn over her downcard. Unlike the players, she doesn’t have a choice of whether to hit or stand, it is dictated entirely by her hand. There are three possibilities:
- She has a natural – in this case, all players lose with the exception of any who also have a natural. This is known as a push, meaning the bet is returned to the player.
- She has less than 17, in which case she will push.
- She has 17 or more, in which case she will stand.
A natural beats all other hands in blackjack, including scores of 21 that use more than two cards.
Aside from that, if the dealer goes bust, then all players still in the game win. Again, remember, you are not playing against each other, so in the scenario where the dealer goes bust, if you have an 18 and another player has a 20, you are both winners.
If the dealer does not go bust, then if you have a higher total you win, if you have a lower total you lose, and if you have the same total, it is a push and you get your stake returned.
Winning players get a 1-1 payout, unless it is a natural, in which case there is a 50 percent bonus on top, ie a 3-2 payout.
Hard and soft hand
You might sometimes hear someone talking about a hard 18 or a soft 16. This is something which causes confusion to the uninitiated, but it is really nothing complicated, although it can have major implications on your gameplay, so it is a subject worth discussing now.
A hard hand in blackjack is one that either does not contain an ace, or contains an ace that is worth 1. A soft hand contains an ace that is worth eleven. So that hard 18 we mentioned might be a 4-A-8-5, while a soft 16 is a 5-A.
The reason it is important to understand the difference is that a soft hand gives you additional options. Draw a hard 16, for example a 9-7, and you will think twice about whether to push or stand. Draw a soft 16 of 5-A, and you will be more likely to push, as it is impossible to go bust. Even if you are dealt a 10, the ace will become worth 1, and hey, presto, your soft 16 has become a hard 16.
One other point worth bearing in mind concerning hard and soft hands relates to the dealer. Different casinos have different rules on what happens if she has a soft 17; in some she will push and in others she will stand. Sometimes, you will even find different tables in the same casino playing different rules. Your odds of winning are better if she has to stand on soft 17.
Some special cases
Still with me? That’s great, you are now equipped to sit at my table for a game of blackjack with no danger of making a fool of yourself, and believe me, that is the biggest concern that newcomers have. I will help you out with some little etiquette tips in a moment, to make sure you come across as James Bond and not Mr Bean, and then I have some insider strategy tips to improve your chances of beating the dealer at her own game.
But first, let’s cover those special cases we mentioned earlier. We’ll start with the split.
Pair splitting in Blackjack
The first thing to keep in mind is that splitting is not mandatory, and sometimes it does not make sense to do it. We’ll talk more about that in the strategy section later. The concept is simple enough. If you have a pair, for example, two 6s or two aces, you can split them and play each card as a separate hand. For purposes of splitting, any two 10 point cards can be considered a pair, there is no differentiation between 10, jack, queen, and king.
To split, you will need to double your stake, and this is conventionally how you let the dealer know your intention. So if you have bet a £10 chip, place another next to the first, and the dealer will immediately deal out the second card on top of each hand. In some casinos, if you are dealt another pair, you are permitted to split again, meaning you have four hands to work through.
You then play each hand to a conclusion as normal, starting with the hand on your right.
There are a couple of finer points relating to splitting that we should mention and these, as usual, concern out old friends the aces. Usually, only two card hands are permitted on split aces, so the dealer will deal the second cards, but you are not permitted to push further. The exception here is in the rare event that you are dealt another pair of aces on top of the first, in which case you can split again.
If you split aces and are dealt a 10 or a face card, that’s obviously great news, but it does not count as a natural. However, it does win against a 21 made up of more than two cards.
If you are confident from your opening two cards that yours will be a winning hand, you can double your original bet. Some casinos will allow you to increase it by a lesser amount. If you double down, you can only be dealt one more card, though.
Now is the time for us to throw in another of those acronyms that experienced players like to throw around in an attempt to confuse newcomers, and that is DDAS. It simply stands for double down after split, which is self-explanatory. As usual, rules vary, but most casinos permit DDAS, and as we will find out later, it can really improve your chances of winning.
Conceptually, this represents the opposite of doubling down. If the two cards in front of you suggest you are unlikely to beat the dealer from what you can see from her upcard, you can cut your losses and surrender your hand. You will get half your stake back and the house keeps the other half.
Most casinos will only allow a “late surrender,” which means the dealer must first ascertain whether she has a blackjack – if she does, the surrender will not be accepted and you will lose your entire stake.
Some, however, allow what is called an “early surrender” – in this case, the dealer will allow the surrender before she has checked her downcard, so even if she has a blackjack, you can still recover half of your stake.
Blackjack Insurance Basics
If the dealer’s upcard is an ace, you know that she is in a strong position, but you have a chance to make some money on the side through an insurance bet. This is a separate wager that her downcard will be worth 10. You can place up to half of your original bet, and if you win, you get a 2/1 payout.
Assuming you put down the full 50 percent, this basically means you break even, given that you lose your original stake, but get it back on the insurance bet.
Insurance bets are placed before any other player actions in the hand.
If you have been dealt a natural and the dealer has an ace showing, she will offer you even money. This means you can take a 1/1 payoff before she checks her downcard. This has the same net effect as making an insurance bet.
A brief recap
We have now covered all the playing rules. We’ve talked about splits and surrenders, double downs and insurance, soft hands and naturals, so let’s just take a moment to run through a hand of blackjack, step by step.
- The dealer deals two cards to each player, face up, and an upcard and a downcard to herself.
- If the dealer’s upcard is an ace, the dealer asks each of the players in turn whether they want to place an insurance bet. If you do, just place your chips up to 50 percent of the stake on the insurance line, which is directly above your betting spot.
- If the dealer’s upcard is an ace and you have a natural, the dealer will offer you even money.
- If early surrender rules are in play, you will have the option to surrender your hand and retain half your stake.
- If the dealer’s upcard is an ace or a 10-value card, she checks whether she has blackjack. If she does, any insurance or even money bets are paid, other bets are settled, and the game is over. If she does not, she collects the insurance bets, pays out to any player holding a natural, and the game proceeds.
- Each player still in the game then gets to play his turn.
- If late surrender is allowed, you can surrender at any point, as long as you are not bust.
- If you have a pair, you can split them.
- If you choose to double down, you can do so.
- You can then choose to hit as many times as you wish, or you can stand.
- If you have not gone bust, the dealer will turn over her downcard. If her score is less than 17, she will hit. If it is 17 or more, she will stand.
- When the dealer either stands or goes bust, the remaining bets are either collected or paid.
Some tips on etiquette
If you are still with me after the above pointers, you will have a good understanding of the mechanics of a game of blackjack. But of course, we all know there is more to it than mechanics.
I have yet to meet a player who doesn’t want to come out a winner, that goes without saying, and I will share some tips and strategies on that in just a moment. But I can also tell you that for the vast majority of players, it is the overall experience of being part of the magic that is the biggest attraction, and that is what brings them back time and again, win or lose.
I mentioned those who are nervous about understanding the dos and don’ts earlier, and to some extent, it can be understandable. The subtle hand signals can seem as alien as the special language of soft sixteens and double downs. Relax, there is nothing to be frightened of, and they are just as easy to understand.
Keep it visible
Any casino that is worthy of the name will have overhead cameras recording the action. They are there to ensure fair play and protect your interests as well as the dealer’s integrity. It is with this basic precept in mind that you need to be very clear about what you do with your hands. The cards need to be in view of the camera at all times – they have been dealt face up, and there is no need to touch them, so the simple advice is to keep your hands off.
The visibility and transparency ethos is also behind the accepted practice of using hand gestures to indicate your intentions to the dealer. I’ve lost count of the number of times a Britney Spears wannabee has said “hit me baby one more time,” but I can tell you that none of the other players found it any wittier the hundredth time than the first.
Let’s take a look at the signals you need to know:
- Hit – tap the table lightly with your fingers, or draw them back towards you in a beckoning gesture
- Stand – wave your hand from left to right across the cards, without touching them, of course.
- Double down – place the additional chips alongside your initial stake. In this case, you should also voice your intention, and you can add the hand signal of holding up one finger.
- Split – place the additional chips alongside the original stake but a little further apart than when doubling down. Again, voice your intention, and you can add the hand signal of a V sign (palm outward).
- Surrender – this is another one where you need to speak up, although you can support your words by drawing an imaginary horizontal line between your cards and the dealers.
Other basic manners
Beyond the mystery of the hand signals, which you will now appreciate are not so mysterious after all, most of the remaining etiquette is little more than good manners. In all my years at the table, I’ve enjoyed almost every minute, but whether it is through thoughtlessness, getting out of bed the wrong side or perhaps one too many dry martinis, there is always the chance of someone spoiling things.
I’m certain you are not one of them, and the following tips will make sure you don’t cause embarrassment or upset to yourself, your fellow players or the dealer:
- The table is for cards and chips, nothing else – keep your phone in your pocket (and on silent, please!), and place your drink in the holder provided.
- Hands off – I’ve mentioned this once and I’ll mention it again because it is the thing that novices most often forget. Don’t touch the cards, and once the chips have been placed keep your hands away from them, too.
- Chatting – there is no harm in some conversation around the table between players, and indeed the dealer. God knows it would be a long night just standing there dealing the cards for hours on end in silence. Just be mindful that some tables are quieter than others, and if other players don’t want to talk, respect that.
- Keep your strategy tips to yourself – following on from the above, remember what I said earlier about the other players’ hands? They do not concern you, so no comments or advice needed! Of course, if a player asks you what you think he or she should do, then that’s another matter.
- Joining mid shoe – this is a tricky one. Some casinos explicitly prohibit new players from joining in the middle of a shoe, and if that is the case, you know where you stand. If a mid-shoe entry is allowed, however, it is still good form to ask the other players whether you might join them. Remember, card players can be a superstitious lot!
- Play nicely – I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that if you have a bad run, it is not the fault of the other players or the dealer.
- Respect the dealer – OK, I have to declare a vested interest here. Again, it is not so much etiquette as simply good manners, but remember that the dealer is only doing her job, so treat her with courtesy and respect. That doesn’t mean she’s not human, so some friendly chat is absolutely fine.
CHAPTER TWO: BLACKJACK STRATEGY
Having spent so many years in and around casinos, I’ve been asked more times than I can count what game offers the best chances of winning. If there was an easy answer to that, we would not have the rich choice of games to play that we do, but in assessing where you stand the best chance of success, there are two things you need to bear in mind.
The first is that the house always wins. This is not to say that casinos are cheating or defrauding you, it is just a simple matter of economics – they have overheads to meet, staff to pay and shareholders expecting a profit at the end of the year, just like any other business.
This is where the concept of the house edge comes in: in a game of pure chance, the payout will be slightly less than your odds of winning. To take a simple example, if you bet a pound on the flip of a coin, you would expect a pound for a win, as there is an even chance of win or loss. If a casino has a house edge of five percent, you will actually get 95 pence back on your pound wager.
The second thing you need to bear in mind is that most games have a blend of skill and chance involved. Arguably, a game of cards demands a higher proportion of skill than a game on a slot machine.
Does that mean the card game gives you a better chance of winning? Perhaps, but only if you have the necessary skill and follow the right strategy. If you don’t you probably stand a better chance of success on the slot machine.
I’ve already told you the long years I’ve spent dealing cards at blackjack tables, but if you think that has given me a secret insight into how to win, prepare to be disappointed. What I have learned, though, is that basic blackjack strategy has its foundation in sound mathematics, and those who follow it will win more often in the long run than those who don’t.
Earlier on, we went step by step through a hand of blackjack, looking at insurance bets, surrenders, splits, double downs, hits and stands. Let me take you through the basic mathematical strategy for each.
Let’s start with the insurance bet, as if available, it will be the first decision you have to make. Insurance sounds comforting, doesn’t it? Safe, a guarantee that things will be OK.
Don’t be fooled. When you plug it into the mathematics, you will lose more often than you win on an insurance bet. The first thing is to let go of the idea that you are somehow “insuring” your hand. You are actually placing a separate side bet on the dealer’s downcard being worth 10. Let’s think about that for a moment.
In a 52 card deck, there are 16 cards worth 10 and 36 that are not. With the dealer’s ace out of the equation, that means 16 of the remaining 51 cards are worth 10. 16/51 equates to around 31 percent.
Of course, the odds are not exactly that, because you know what your two cards are, so there are actually 49 cards to choose from, and depending on whether none, one or both of yours are 10s, you will be betting on odds of 14, 15 or 16 out of 49. This still means the odds are between 28 percent and 32 percent.
Whichever way you look at it, 2/1 odds on a 30 percent chance of winning do not make for a mathematically attractive wager, so whatever anyone else tells you, my advice is this: Decline the insurance bet.
If insurance gives you a fuzzy, warm feeling, surrender conjures the exact opposite. But used wisely, the surrender strategy can allow you to reduce the overall house edge by as much as 1 percent. Again, the mathematics are simple and indisputable. If your chance of winning is less than 25 percent, you are “beating the system” by taking the surrender option and getting half of your stake back.
So how do you know when the odds say you should surrender? Take a look online, and you will find charts and tables listing combinations of hard and soft hands against the dealer’s upcard – it is enough to send your brain into a tailspin and convince you to take up snap or tiddlywinks instead.
Isn’t there an easier way? Yes, of course there is, I told you this was basic strategy, so how’s this for basic:
- If you have a hard 15 and the dealer has nine, ten or ace, surrender.
- If you have a hard 16 and the dealer has ten or ace, surrender. This assumes you do not have a pair of eights – if you do, you should split them (see below).
That’s it, no charts, no tables, no fuss. One other word to the wise: if you surrender, your fellow players will most likely look at you as if you have just beamed down from Mars. But in the long run, if you follow that simple formula, you will come out on top and have the last laugh.
To split or not to split?
A surefire way I found over the years to spot the novice players was that they love to split. But just like surrender, there are some basic guidelines, with a solid mathematical foundation, as to whether to split or not. They are easy to remember and will stack the odds in your favour.
The question is slightly complicated by how many packs are in play and whether the dealer stands on soft 17, but the following rules of thumb will see you through:
- Always split aces and eights.
- Never split fours, fives or tens.
- Split twos, threes, sixes, sevens and nines if the dealer has a seven or lower.
Some guides show slight variations, for example, they will say that you should not split twos or threes if the dealer’s upcard is a two, and some recommend splitting fours if the dealer has a five or six, but I would call these tweaks and refinements that go beyond basic strategy.
The simple formula of aces and eights always, fours, fives tens never and everything else, only when the dealer has seven or lower is easy to remember and will reward you well.
When to double down
In discussing the double down earlier, I talked about you having feelings of confidence that your hand could take on the dealer’s. So is there a simple formula, like the one we used for surrender strategies, that you can use here?
As part of your basic strategic armory, all you need to know is that the most attractive hands for a double down are nine, ten and eleven:
- Always double down on eleven.
- Double down on ten if the dealer’s upcard is 4, 5, or 6
- Double down on nine if the dealer has 4 or 5.
Later, we will talk a little about card counting, and that will provide some more opportunities for double downs.
Hit or stand
The most fundamental question in a game of blackjack is whether to hit or stand. In fact, it is the basis of the entire game. The question is not just a case of your total, but also depends on whether you have a soft or hard hand and, of course, on the dealer’s upcard. The basic strategy for hitting and standing is a little more complex than the simple guidance I have shared so far, but we will go through it step by step. Bear in mind that the basics we have covered relating to surrenders and splits take precedence.
To start off, we need to assume that the dealer’s downcard is a 10. Why? Simply because there are more 10-value cards than anything else. The probability of it being a 10 is around 30 percent, while the probability for each other value is around 8 percent.
Armed with these prerequisites, the basic strategy of whether to hit or stand becomes dependent on the dealer’s upcard as follows:
- If the dealer has an ace, 7,8 9 or 10, hit on anything up to 16.
- If the dealer has 4,5 or 6, hit on anything up to 12.
- If the dealer has 2 or 3, hit on anything up to 13.
CHAPTER THREE: USING THE STRATEGIES
Taken one at a time, and having them all set out in front of you, the strategies I’ve outlined in the last chapter look simple enough. But here’s a quick question to consider: Suppose you’ve been dealt a pair of 6s, and the dealer is showing a 9 – what should you do?
If you’ve scrolled up to look for the answer, that’s quite understandable, because you’re new around here, but we need to come up with some easy ways to remember. The answer, incidentally, is don’t split the sixes and hit.
Preparing flash cards or a strategy chart is a good start – it will save you from constantly scrolling up and down this article while you practice, but try to avoid using them as a crutch. Practice makes perfect, so let’s go through some simple routines. The idea is to practice for half an hour or so with your “cheat sheets” to hand, and then put them away and see how you get on without them.
Circuit training with a deck of cards
I call this circuit training, as it is almost like one of those gym routines where you spend five or ten minutes on each piece of equipment. Start with the 2 as the dealer upcard. Now, deal yourself two cards and from memory, decide how you should play that hand. Check yourself against your cheat sheets, and repeat through the deck.
Next, shuffle the deck, and repeat, but this time with a 3 as the dealer upcard, and so on.
Technology is your friend
If rifling through sheets of paper sounds a little 20th century to you, there is a modern alternative that is less hassle and will save a few trees in the bargain. There is a very cool app called Blackjack Mentor and you can download it to play on your PC, tablet or smartphone.
This basically allows you to do the same thing, presenting you with one scenario after another and asking you to choose the best strategic play. Even better, it will keep track of whether you are getting it right or wrong, allowing you to see if there are particular areas where you consistently stumble.
At the casino
Perfecting the art and getting the strategies clear in your mind while you are sitting in the comfort of your home, or practicing on the train on the way home from work is one thing. Having the cards laid out in front of you and the dealer looking you in the eye while she waits for you to signal your intention can be another matter entirely.
First and foremost, I used the slightly derogatory term “cheat sheets” earlier, which might give the wrong impression. There is no rule saying that you can’t bring strategy notes with you to the casino – just remember the rule about not putting things on the table.
Plenty of people do it and the other players won’t care in the slightest. After all, remember the golden rule – you are not playing against each other, so it doesn’t affect them either way. But I understand that however many times I tell you it’s OK, you will still be thinking that it’s not very James Bond, and you will worry that you look like some sort of novice.
Step by step approach
I didn’t select that earlier quiz question entirely at random – it is one that asks a number of questions, and with time, you will automatically think “pair of sixes, she’s showing a 9, hit.” But until the basic strategy is second nature to you, your brain will get tied up in knots unless you take a step by step approach. Remember there was a set order in which we looked at the individual steps in a hand, and then at the strategies to adopt?
Keep that order in your mind, ask yourself each question step by step, and you will soon find that your mental synapses automatically start making the shortcuts.
Do you remember the steps and the order of events? There are only four, so it is not too much to commit to memory, really. Here are the questions to ask yourself, the order in which to ask them and even a quick recap of the answers!
- Should I surrender?
Only to be considered if the dealer has a 9, 10 or ace. If she does, and I have a hard 15, then I should surrender. If she has a 10 or ace and I have a hard 16 (not a pair of 8s) then I should surrender. Otherwise, no surrender!
- Should I split?
Aces and 8s = Yes
4s, 5s, 10s = No
Anything else = Only if the dealer has a 7 or lower.
- Should I double down?
Only to be considered if you have nine, ten or eleven. Always double down on eleven, double down on ten if the dealer has 4,5 or 6 and double down on nine if the dealer has 4 or 5.
- Should I hit or stand?
Look first at the dealer’s upcard, and make the decision based on that. If it’s 2 or 3, hit if you have 13 or less. If it’s 4,5 or 6, hit if you have 12 or less. And if it’s 7,8,9,10 or A, hit if it’s 16 or less.
An even easier aide memoir is that the default position is hit on anything up to 16, and the only time you should be more conservative is when the dealer has a “low” card.
Let’s finish this chapter by going back to that pair of sixes I dealt you at the beginning. The dealer is showing a 9, remember.
- 12 is not a score on which we would consider surrender, so it’s no to the first question.
- Sixes are among the either / or pairs, where you only split when the dealer has 7 or lower, so no again.
- Double downs are only considered if you have 9,10 or 11, so it’s another no.
- Dealer has a high card, so default position is hit on anything up to 16, so that’s what you do.
Here’s an interesting follow up question – suppose you are now dealt a 3, what will you do next?
It has brought your total to the not very magical 15, so if the table offers surrender, now is the time to take it, I have a bad feeling about this hand. If surrender is not an option, it’s hit again and hope for a 5 or 6.
CHAPTER FOUR: IMPROVING THE ODDS
We talked a little about the house edge in an earlier chapter and how playing shrewdly can improve your overall returns. The basic strategy we have covered so far is your first step towards doing exactly that. But as the name suggests, it is only the first step, and there are a number of ways you can refine it to improve your chances further.
There are two things I want you to remember about all the strategies I’m discussing with you:
- There is no magic involved – everything I tell you is based on mathematics and statistics.
- Improving your odds does not mean guaranteeing a win. The house edge is always going to be there, and anyone who claims to have a system that will guarantee a win is deluded – more about that in the next chapter when we discuss bogus strategies.
Composition Dependent strategy
In all the basic strategy theories we’ve discussed, we have been working on the principle of a 52 card pack (or multiples thereof), and we’ve looked at the total value of the cards in your hand. This is what’s known as total-dependent strategy.
However, there are times when the make up of the hand can alter the odds. We saw this in an example earlier, when we were deciding whether to surrender on a hard 16. If you recall, we said that if the dealer has a 10 or ace and you have a hard sixteen, you should surrender unless that hard sixteen is comprised of a pair of 8s. This is an example of composition dependent strategy. We are not just looking at the total, we are also considering how it is made up.
C-D strategy runs deeper than simply looking for pairs we can split. Sticking with the same example, there are all sorts of ways you might have a hard 16. These include 10-6, 9-7 and 4-5-7, to name just three.
Let’s assume that surrender is not offered and you are presented with a hard 16 against the dealer’s 10. Basic strategy says hit, but we are right on the cusp of hit or stand. When we move into the realm of C-D strategy, we find that if the hard 16 is made up of three cards instead of two, it is actually better to stand.
When you think about it, that makes sense. When you hit on 16, you need a low value card, or else you are going to go bust. With a two-card 16, your hand is made up of high value cards only, meaning the low value ones are still available. If you have three or more cards, however, you already have at least one low value card out of the equation, and that is enough to shift the odds in favour if standing instead of hitting.
So with C-D theory, we have now got three possible courses of action when we have a hard 16 and the dealer has a 10:
- Pair of 8s = split
- 10-6 or 9-7 = hit
- Anything else = stand
There are two other C-D theories I want to tell you about here, which can also improve your odds and diminish the house edge.
Fifteen against dealer’s 10
Suppose you have a hard 15 instead of a hard 16 against the dealer’s 10. Basic Blackjack strategy says you should surrender, if the option is available to you. However, if your 15 is comprised of 8-7, you have two of the cards that could bust you removed from the equation.
This just tips the scales in favour of hitting rather than surrendering. If you have a 10-5 or a 9-6, then only one of the cards that could bust you is out of play, and surrender is the mathematically better option.
Twelve against dealer’s 4
Here’s an interesting one. Just to test your memory of basic Blackjack strategy, what do you do if you have 12 and the dealer’s upcard is a 4? I’m guessing that by now you are way ahead of me, and saying that it depends whether you have a pair of sixes, or the 12 is comprised in some other way. If it’s a pair you will split them, if not, you will hit.
Absolutely right, but just like the 16 earlier, we can reap dividends by taking the C-D theory a step further.
There is one thing you don’t want when you have 12, and that is 10. Of course, as we know, there are far more cards worth 10 than there are any other value, and if none of them are showing, you are marginally safer standing than holding. In other words:
- Pair of 8s = split
- 10-2 = hit
- Anything else = stand
There are other C-D Blackjack strategies around, but the above three are the ones that can really make a difference and improve your odds. The first one, relating to hard 16 against a dealer’s 10, happens all the time, so as an absolute minimum, you should add that to your arsenal.
A few words on card counting
One of the best known strategies in Blackjack, and one that some players misguidedly see as a guaranteed winner, is the concept of card counting. It is a phrase that everyone will have heard of – just go ask your mother or the old lady up the street, and they will tell you it is something shady and underhand that card sharks do to beat the system, using their amazing memories to remember which cards have been played.
All this sounds very exciting, but unfortunately, it is the stuff of fantasy. Card counting is not illegal, it’s not unethical and it doesn’t demand stupendous feats of memory.
The theory is this: Conceptually, high value cards, especially aces and 10s, are of greater benefit to you, while lower value cards are better for the dealer. This is based on the fact that the dealer has to hit on 12-16, whereas you can choose to stand. So if there are more 10s remaining in the shoe, that stacks things in your favour.
The most common method for card counting is to mentally assign a value of +1 to everything from 2-6, of zero to 7-9 and of -1 to 10 and ace. Then, just keep a mental running total of the cards as they are dealt.
Keeping count as each card is dealt will tell you whether the odds are shifting in your favour (indicated by a positive count) or against you (a negative count), and can sway your thinking as to whether to adopt a more aggressive or conservative strategy, for example when it comes to doubling down.
So let’s look at an example: 4,10, 8, 8, 10, 2 equates to +1-1+0+0-1+1=0 – in that particular run, the odds have not shifted.
CHAPTER FIVE: BOGUS BLACKJACK STRATEGIES
Only this morning, I received one of those emails telling me about a guaranteed scheme that would soon be earning me thousands of pounds a week. All I had to do was send off some money (of course) forward this great opportunity to ten friends who also want to get rich, and sit back to watch the money come pouring in.
These sorts of Ponzi schemes have been around for years and have been proven to collapse under their own weight, taking everyone’s money with them. Even Charles Dickens wrote about one in the wonderful and hugely underrated Martin Chuzzlewit – the Timothy Dalton of 19th century English literature if you will. He exercised his usual acerbic wit and observational powers on those naïve enough to fall for such nonsense at the hands of one of his most memorable villains, the wonderfully named Mr Montague Tigg.
Here we are, 170 years on, and we’ve still not learned.
I say this to if not justify, then at least to rationalise the fact that if you play blackjack seriously, you will be approached by the card playing equivalent of Montague Tigg sooner or later, telling you that he has a scheme where you are guaranteed to win. He is not saying this because he is trying to defraud you – in some respects, that would be less irritating – he is saying it, the poor soul, because he really believes it.
I will even explain how he thinks it will work, because, over the years, I can tell you that I’ve seen it all.
The Martingale system
This is the one you are most likely to come across. It has been around for the best part of 300 years, and you can bet Charles Dickens had heard of it. The theory is simple enough, and it sounds convincing at first glance. Start with the minimum table bet – let’s say it’s £10. If the bet loses, you double it in the next game to £20. If that loses, you double it to £40, and so on. Eventually, you will win, and hey, presto, you’ve got all your money back plus a little on top.
It sounds perfect. Suppose that third £40 bet is the winner. You’ve lost £10 on the first, £20 on the second and won £40 on the third, that puts you £10 up! If you have to wait till the fourth, it is the same thing. Play with the numbers, and it looks like you cannot lose.
Here’s the catch – sooner or later you will come upon a long losing streak that will deliver a catastrophic loss. Run that sequence to the 10th iteration and you will have to put down a bet of more than £5,000! Proponents of the system will tell you that such an eventuality is astronomically unlikely, but they will be wrong. Play for two hours, and there is one in eight chance that you will encounter ten consecutive losses at some point.
Even this is a moot point. If the table limit is, let’s say, £250, it will only take a six hand losing streak to run up against it. The point is, the system delivers small wins most of the time and catastrophic losses some of the time. In the long run, you will come out on the wrong side of even, because the house always wins!
The Parlay system
This one runs opposite to the Martingale, in that you double up on winning streaks, and when you hit a predetermined limit, you bank your winnings and start again at the minimum bet. Fans of this system will tell you that it is fool proof, because it takes advantage of that occasional winning streak, by taking down your profits, while throughout regular play where you win a few and lose a few, you will be betting with smaller stakes that will come out more or less even.
Again, the theory sounds great. More or less even plus a big win or two must bring you out on top, right?
Unfortunately, neither the maths nor my long years of watching players try to beat the house bear out the theory. If you follow a parlay system, you will usually come out with a small loss and occasionally a big win. But the long term effect? The small losses plus the big win add up to the house edge, and you are down again.
Betting progressions don’t work
If the maths doesn’t convince you and my observations from more than 25 years don’t convince you, then how about some conceptual reasoning? Betting progressions don’t work because they rely on a sequence of wins or a sequence of losses. You can only take advantage of such a sequence if you have a way of predicting it, and that requires one result to be in some way contingent on the one before it.
And it’s not! A hand of blackjack is not like a football match or a game of tennis, where you can study the form and predict who is likely to win the next game. Each hand of blackjack is completely independent of the one that went before or comes after, and that is why betting progressions are fundamentally flawed.
When we first started talking about the best ways of winning, we mentioned the blend of chance and skill. These bogus strategies are attempting to leverage the chance side, and in the long run, they will be as effective as carrying a rabbit’s foot in your pocket or wearing your lucky socks.
CHAPTER SIX: BLACKJACK MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
The lucky socks theory might sound tongue-in-cheek, and that’s exactly what it is, but it is a comparatively sound strategic choice compared with some of the superstitions, myths and misconceptions I have had the dubious honour of encountering over the years. When I have told some of these anecdotes, the usual reaction is that I should “write a book.” Well, let’s settle for a chapter on ten of the most popular and highly held beliefs that also happen to be complete balderdash.
1) The aim of blackjack is to get as close to 21 as possible
After all that we have been through together over the past chapters, I hope you know that this is not just an over-simplification, it is actually a misconception. What is the aim again? That’s right, it is to finish with either a higher total than the dealer or to still be in the game when the dealer has gone bust. If it was simply a case of getting as close to 21 as you can, you would never think about standing on 12 or 13, but as we’ve discovered, this is sometimes the right strategy.
2) You must be due a win
One of the most common misconceptions is that if you have just lost five or six hands in a row, you will probably win the next one. This is a dangerous misconception, but from the previous chapter, we both know better. Let’s say the odds of a winning hand are 45 percent, remembering that famous house edge. If you have lost five games in succession, what are the odds that you will win the next one? That’s right, it’s still 45 percent because each individual game is an independent event. The cards neither know nor care what has happened beforehand.
3) A bad player can ruin it for everyone
Picture this: The dealer has dealt herself a 5, and you are mentally rubbing your hands together in glee. This looks good, play it safe and there’s a good chance she will go bust. You stand on a hard 13, just like the basic strategy tells you, and so do your fellow players. But hang on, that last guy, the loose cannon sitting at the end has been dealt a hard 16 and he’s hit. The dealer hands him a 10, so he’s out.
The dealer reveals her downcard, and it’s a jack. That gives her 15, so she has to hit. And it’s a six. She’s got 21, and if that fool had only stood like he should have done, that 10 would have been hers.
It’s a compelling argument, but it is fundamentally flawed. For every hand where that happens, there will be another where the cards are the other way round, and his bad strategy ruins the dealer’s hand instead of helping it. Ultimately, my earlier advice holds true – the actions, inactions or hands of the other players have no impact on you whatsoever.
4) A new player entering mid shoe will spoil everything
People love nothing better to spot patterns where they don’t exist and miss the ones that do. We mentioned earlier that some players are reluctant to let a new player join the table mid-shoe, particularly if they are enjoying a good run. They will come up with compelling reasons for this beyond mere superstition, citing the “flow of the cards” and other impressive sounding factors. Of course, we know that the number of players at the table, or the order in which the cards are dealt doesn’t make the slightest difference to the odds.
5) You can beat the house with the right system
I think we have well and truly put this myth to bed, but you will still get people desperately trying to convince you otherwise via the latest progressive betting strategy. Just remember, whatever anyone tries to tell you, the house always wins.
6) Win or lose, it’s all down to luck
This is the opposite extreme to No. 5, in that some are certain that as blackjack is dictated by the turn of a card, it is all down to chance. As we’ve discussed, it is far more complex than that, as there are mathematical probabilities that subtly change depending on the cards that have been dealt. Get to grips with those probabilities by way of the basic strategy tools, and you can seriously affect the odds of winning or losing.
7) Card counting is a black art / illegal / impossible
There is more misinformation on the subject of card counting than almost anything else. But these are the facts: It doesn’t need a photographic memory, it isn’t illegal and there’s nothing unethical about it. All it really involves is having a handy mental system to be aware of the overall trends in what cards have been dealt so that you know whether those remaining are predominantly high value, low value or somewhere in the middle. The fact that casinos do not actively encourage it as a strategy has everything to do with its effectiveness, and nothing to do with illegality. Why would they wax lyrical about a technique that can help reduce the house edge?
8) Always insure a good hand against a dealer’s ace
It seems like a long time ago that we discussed insurance, because we proved mathematically that not only is it not actually insuring anything, but it is a side bet with unfavourable odds that you are better off leaving alone. We even demonstrated that when you have a pair of tens, this side bet presents even worse odds. Yet this doesn’t prevent people from insisting that this is just the sort of hand that you should “protect.” Thank goodness we know better.
9) Choose a dealer who’s having a nightmare
Many players will prowl the tables looking for a dealer who is constantly busting, and will reason that they stand a better chance of success against her. Yet we know that the dealer doesn’t have the luxury of applying strategy, all she can do is hit or stand according to the rules of the table. Not wishing to do myself or my colleagues down, but the truth is, she could swap roles with the barman and it would not make the slightest difference to the turn of the cards.
10) One face brings another
Finally, a myth that is right up there with the lucky socks, but is a commonly held belief. Players are often reluctant to hit after a face card has been dealt, because they are sure another will follow. Of course, this is complete superstition. Mathematically, the converse is actually true, as the fact that a face car has just been laid means there is one less remaining in the shoe.
CHAPTER SEVEN: FAQs
I will finish by answering some of the more random questions that come up from time to time, which have not quite fitted into any of the foregoing chapters. Here are five that I am often asked:
Q1: Should I tip the dealer?
Absolutely you should, particularly if he is a devilishly handsome chap with a penchant for 1980s James Bond films! Seriously, though, most dealers rely on tips to make ends meet, so while there is no obligation to tip, it is conventional to do so.
The simplest way to tip the dealer is to simply slide a chip in her direction. However, if you want to be a little more sophisticated, you could place a bet for the dealer by putting a chip just outside the betting area. If you win your hand, the dealer will pay off your winnings and her own. Of course, if the hand loses, the tip is also lost, but you can be certain she will appreciate the gesture.
Q2: Should I play alone with a blackjack dealer or at a full table?
You should already know the answer to that one – the other players are completely irrelevant to your game, so it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. Except for one thing – if you are a novice, I would always recommend playing at a full table, for the simple reason that you will get through fewer hands per hour and your bankroll’s exposure to the house edge will be blunted a little.
Q3: Do the same rules apply for video / online blackjack?
There is a growing trend towards online and video blackjack games. In most respects, this is great news, as it brings blackjack to a wider audience, and encourages more people to try visiting a physical casino. However, you do have to study the rules and terms closely.
In particular, be aware that video blackjack games will often pay only 1-1 for a natural, and might have restrictions on when you can double down.
Q4: Why does the dealer always jettison the first card when playing blackjack?
This is a long-standing tradition, and the rationale behind it is to eliminate the possibility of anyone, either a player or dealer, to have tampered with or caught a glimpse of the top card. Realistically, this is highly unlikely when using a shoe, but it is part of the tradition, and it gives players added comfort that everything is above board, so why not?
Q5: If you’re such an expert at Blackjack, why aren’t you driving a Ferrari?
Yes, I have had this question, or variations of it plenty of times over the years. Anyone who asks me why I haven’t simply retired to the casino to use my skill and knowledge to become a millionaire has obviously not been listening to a word I have said. If you have been reading attentively, you will already know the answer – the house always wins!
The appeal of blackjack is something that has stood the test of time throughout the centuries, something that few other pastimes can claim. Its appeal stems from the fact that it is conceptually simple – a child of five can pick up the rules in no time – but contains the strategic potential to cause argument and debate among top mathematicians.
The casual player can take as much or as little of the strategic theory onboard, and make a genuine impact on their potential to win or lose, and all the while, enjoy a night out like no other in the very special atmosphere of a top casino.
I hope you have found the foregoing interesting, entertaining and informative and that it has inspired you to take up a pack of cards and try out some of my tips. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so give them a go, and remember, practice makes perfect, so consider investing in that smartphone app – the daily commute will never be boring again.
I also hope that I have inspired you will keep a look out for Licence to Kill next time it comes up on one of the television Freeview channels, and that you will download Martin Chuzzlewit onto your kindle, you won’t regret either.
Finally, I will leave you with three things that I want you to remember, if you remember nothing else:
- You are playing against the dealer, and nobody else
- Insurance is for mugs
- The house always wins
Keep those points in mind, and you can’t go wrong. Good luck!