Blackjack strategy for the past 15 years, since not long after computers became reasonably priced and accessible, has revolved around one phenomenon: basic strategy.
Basic strategy is a set of rules, which literally tell you if you should hit or stand, for every possible situation you may come across in a blackjack game. These pre-made decisions were determined by computer simulations run in the mid-80s. Each situation one could be presented with was fed into the computer simulation, and the program mapped out each decision the player could make, and each of the statistical paths that could happen, and then presented the decision that made the most money for the player. These 'most fruitful' decisions are considered the basic strategy suggestion for each situation. Now, you may be thinking, 'oh, I have to memorize a million different things?' - no, not really. The basic strategy decisions can be viewed rather painlessly by referencing a chart like the one below, and you'll soon see the majority of them are logically sound.
To use this chart you compare the dealers up-card (which corresponds to each column) with what you have in your hand (which corresponds to each row). Where a column meets a row there is a decision, either hit (H), stand (S), double (D), or decisions to either split or not split. Say your hand was a hard 15 and the dealers up-card was a six. You find the table for hard totals, search across the top row for the column corresponding to a dealers up-card of 6, and then follow that column down from the top until you hit the row that lines up with your total of 15. You'll find a (S) in the box, indicating that you should stand (which is a logical choice, since the dealer most likely has 16 and will have to hit, so therefore has a good chance of busting).
Our charts, like most you will find, highlight the decision structures for soft totals, hard totals, and splitting. The table above represents a six-deck game where the dealer must stand on soft 17s, where you can double down on any initial total, doubling after splitting is allowed, and there is no surrender offered. Different charts can be created for rule variations.
Different rules can have a defined effect on the house edge (relatively of course, since the edge is defined by a number of variables, not the least of which is playing strategy). To see how common rule changes affect your chances of winning, look at the house edge numbers in the chart below.
Most blackjack strategy pages will follow one of two veins. Either they will tell you to adhere strictly to basic strategy, or they will tell you to run on your gut. I wouldn't say my opinion falls into either of those two camps, perhaps a combination. I'm not a card counter, there isn't much point anymore in 99.9% of the casinos in existence. So discounting the benefits of keeping track of cards, basic strategy truly is your best guide to decision making strategy in blackjack, I can't argue with that. But anyone who's ever spent some serious time in a casino knows there is more going on than meets the eye. You can't ignore the fact that a hot craps table is a hot craps table anymore than you can ignore the cut off point on the cocktail waitresses miniskirts. In blackjack it's much the same. When you're winning and feeling good, surprisingly enough, you tend to keep winning. I wouldn't normally say this, but I find I win the most when I'm playing and things are going good, and I keep playing. I win a lot more from streaks than I do from sitting down to small sessions. Maybe its simply the fact that if you play for longer eventually you will hit a sort-of streak, and that streak will probably even you up for the session, and so if you're smart you'll walk away then and there. That would leave you with the impression that it's all about the streak, when in actual fact it was more so the fact that statistics have caught up with themselves.
This site is more about the no-bull approach than anything else, so in that spirit I should really stick with the advice that pure basic strategy play is the only way to go. Misplayed hands are the biggest mistake new players make. It may be logical to think that standing on a 12 when the dealer has a 7 to an Ace showing could cost you (as much as 25% of the hands you play), it's not often considered that hitting a 15 against a dealers 5 or 6 up-card will cost you just as much money.
The cause of this is often players simply forgetting the point of the game. As I mentioned earlier on this site, the goal of blackjack is to beat the dealer, not simply to get as close to 21 as you can without busting. Since we know the dealer must hit up to a certain total an cannot hit beyond that, we must take advantage of that fact. When a dealer has an up-card of 6, we must hope their hole-card is a 10, and that they are going to have to hit. We must further hope that when they hit they will be hit with something more than 5, and will therefore bust. Because of this it's actually a good idea for us to stand and take no more cards even if our total is as low as 12.
Splitting your initial cards is another area where novices often fail to follow basic strategy. The golden rule for splitting is, always on aces and eights. Meaning, if you are dealt two 8's as your initial cards, split them. Same goes if you get two aces off the bat. You are always further ahead splitting those hands. The logical counterpart to that rule is, never split fours, fives, or tens (you already have a good hand or a good chance at one!). If the dealer is showing busting cards (the up-card is 3 through 6) it's advantageous of you to split a pair of sixes or sevens, since even two sixteens will be strong hands against busting cards.
ęCopyright Ted Knuden 2020.
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