Blackjack Basic Strategy: Optimizing Your Winning Percentages

blackjack rulesIs there a certain way you should play blackjack to increase your chances of winning?  You bet there is!  Although this card game is considered gambling, or a game of luck, there is basic blackjack strategy that someone can follow to get the best odds possible of beating the dealer.  If you had the decision of taking option A with a 50% chance of winning. or option B with a 55% chance of winning, which would you choose? There’s always the other route which is card counting, but that requires you to have very good memory and some places look down upon it.  Plus, every card counter knows basic blackjack strategy in the first place, so let’s get started with why you should learn it.

Why Use Basic Blackjack Strategy?

Any player is allowed to make any decision he or she chooses to desire, as long as it abides by the casino’s rules.  Someone might choose to hit or stand based on how they are feeling at that moment, or they may have their own strategy that works for them.  There’s technically nothing wrong with these options, but they are basically giving themselves a lesser chance of winning.

By following basic strategy, the house advantage is about 0.5 percent.  That means if you are playing for $100 per hand, you can expect to lose about 50 cents each hand.  It might not sound like a lot initially, but if you end up playing hundreds or even thousands of hands, it can add up!  And nowadays with multiple decks being used in casinos, the odds shift a little more in favor towards the house.

If you do not follow basic blackjack strategy, your odds drop even lower.  So assuming you are playing the game to win, why wouldn’t you use basic blackjack strategy?  It may seem like a huge risk to hit when you have 16 and the dealer is showing a 10, but sticking to the strategy consistently will give you the best odds.

The players around you will appreciate the fact that you are using basic blackjack strategy as well.  Even though you cannot affect the players bet directly, your decisions at the table can influence their hand, as well as the dealer’s hand.  If you stay on a hand that you are supposed to hit according to basic strategy, that means someone else is most likely going to get that next card.  Some players are visibly upset by this since it can change the cards that come out for the rest of the deck.  Ideally, if everyone at the table players using the correct basic strategy, they will all have the best chances of winning in blackjack.

Hard Hands

A hard hand is when you have a hand that doesn’t contain an ace.  If you have a hand with an ace in it that would bust if you counted the ace as eleven, then you’re still facing a decision with a hard hand.

Always hit a hard hand that equals a number between 4 and 11.  The reason for this is you cannot bust if you hit a hard hand between those numbers.  You should also always stand on any hard hand between 17 and 21.  Hitting a hand 17 or higher is extremely risky because you can bust pretty easily.  The object of the game is not to get to 21, but to beat the dealer.

For hard hands that equal 12 and 16, your decision will be based on what card the dealer is showing:

  • Cards equaling 13 to 16 – You will want to take a hit if the dealer shows a 7 or higher as the up card (including Ace).  We are assuming that the dealer has a 10 underneath, meaning the dealer will have 17 or higher. Since that is the case, we want to hit to try and make a hand of 17 or higher.
  • Cards equaling 12 – You will want to take a hit if the dealer is shows a 7 or higher as the up card, AND if the dealer is showing a 2 or a 3.  Otherwise, you will want to stand.  The dealer usually makes a good hand when showing a 2 or 3, therefore we want to try and beat the dealer with a better hand.

This is the basic way to play hard hands as we will get into splitting and double downs later.

Soft Hands

A soft hand is when you have an ace in your hand and you can  use it as a value of 1 or 11.  For example, if you have an ace and a four, that is called a “soft 15”. This way you can hit and if you happen to get a 10, you can change the value of the ace to a one and have 15 again.  Basically, you cannot bust by hitting a soft hand.

Therefore you should always hit when you have a soft hand under 18, regardless of what card the dealer is showing.  There are exceptions to this though.  You will want to double down in certain situations but that will be addressed in the next topic.  When you have a soft 18 or higher, you always want to stand since you have a good hand already.

Doubling Down

To double down is to double up your bet and get one card, but you can only do this with a hand in which it’s impossible to bust.  This is the time to make some big money, which also means it’s a riskier play.  Basic strategy says to always double down when you have a total of 11 in your hand, in the hopes of getting a 10 or face card since there are more of those in the deck than any other card.

You should double down when you have a total of 10 in your hand, unless the dealer is showing ace or 10.  Also double down when you have a total of 9 in your hand, but only when the dealer is showing a 7 or lower.

When you have a soft hand, it’s a bit riskier to double down but you should still do it if the situation is right.  The best card the dealer can show is a 6 because it gives the dealer the highest percentage of busting.  The next best card is a 5, and the percentage of busting goes lower as the value goes lower.  Depending on what the dealer is showing, here is when you should double down with your soft hand:

  • Soft 13, 14 – Double down only if dealer is showing a 5 or 6.
  • Soft 15, 16 – Double down only if dealer is showing a 4, 5, or 6
  • Soft 17 – Double down only if dealer is showing a 3, 4, 5, or 6

Splitting

Keep in mind that you can only split your first two cards, unless you split and happen to get the same card again.  Again, this is a risky move since you will be doubling your bet.  Here is how you should be splitting your hands:

  • Always split aces and eights, regardless of what the dealer is showing
  • Never split fours, fives, and tens.  Just hit or double down when you have those
  • Split twos and threes if the dealer is showing a card 4 to 6.
  • Split sixes or sevens if a dealer is showing a 3 to 6.
  • Always split nines unless the dealer is showing 7 or 10

You will sometimes split, and then have a hand where you can double down also.  This way you can have three times your bet out there.  In these cases, refer to the Double Down section above to see when you should just hit or double down.  Splitting can win you some serious money as you can see, but you can also lose it all so be cautious of this!

Final Thoughts

That covers just about every situation possible you will face in blackjack.  Now that you have the strategy at your side, it’s time to start practicing and putting it to use.  It may sound complicated at first and you may be slow with your decisions, but you will eventually get comfortable with it.  Eventually you will know what you should do in a matter of seconds.

When it comes to betting, it’s all about money management.  If you are willing to lose up to $50 total at a table, you may want to avoid playing at the $15 and $25 tables since you won’t have too many bets to play with.  Allow your buy-in to give you at least 10 hands in case you run into a cold streak.

There will be times when you doubt the strategy, especially if you go on a losing streak.  Playing with consistency will help even out the odds, so it’s important that you don’t keep switching your strategy.  So good luck the next time you are at the table.  Winner, winner chicken dinner!