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Blackjack Strategy

Blackjack lessons

Last update: March 2022

If you haven't seen my Intro to Blackjack, I strongly suggest you read that first!

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Experts have analyzed blackjack mathematically and figured out the best way to play every possible hand.  That decision table is called basic strategy.  If you don't learn basic strategy, or at least a simplified version of it, you have virtually no hope of winning, and you'll almost certainly lose a lot more.  There's nothing more important in blackjack than learning and using basic strategy.

If this seems overwhelming, craps and baccarat also offer good odds without the daunting learning curve.  If you're undaunted, read on.


The secret sauce to make learning easier

Here at Easy Vegas (and only at Easy Vegas), we'll make learning basic strategy easier, with these features.

  1. We'll start with the logic behind most decisions for hitting or standing.  If you understand why we hit or stand, that makes the decisions way easier to remember.
  2. From there, we'll see both of the Wizard of Odds's simplified strategies (the first of which has never been on the web before).  That's actually enough for most players.
  3. For those who want to learn the full basic strategy, we'll build on what we learned above to flesh out the remaining details.  (And for those who want to skip straight to the basic strategy table, there's your link.)

Let's get started.


Why we hit and why we stand

What it means to bust

If you don't know what "bust" means, you really need to see my Intro to Blackjack right now, not just to learn about busting, but also about lots of other stuff.  If you can't wait and must continue this article right now, then at least know that busting means going over a total 21, which makes you automatically lose.  When you bust, you lose, even if the dealer also busts.


Soft vs. Hard Hands

A "soft hand" is any hand with an ace that can't bust by drawing one more card.  For example, A,9 (total of 20) can't bust.  If you draw a ten, for A,9,10, that's still 20.  The rule for aces is, an ace always counts as 11 unless that would bust your hand, in which case it counts as 1.

A "hard hand" is any hand that's not a soft hand, whether it contains an ace or not, and whether it can bust with one more card or not.  For example, 3,4 is a hard hand, as is 7,8, as well as A,5,6.

The reason to know the difference is that we're going to cover only hard hands for now, because soft hands are complicated.


When you can't bust, hit

If you can't bust by taking another card, then take one.  For hard hands, you can only improve your hand by getting another card.

If the total of your cards is 11 or less, then there's no way to bust.  The highest value card is an ace, which is 11 points, but if an ace would bust your hand, then it magically turns into 1 point.  So if you have a 5+6 (11), and draw an ace (11), you don't have 22, you have 12, because the ace changes to a value of 1.

If you have 11 and draw a 10, then you have 21, which is perfect.

There are some exceptions, which we'll learn later.  For now it's enough to just be aware of them:

  1. Sometimes instead of hitting, you'll double down.  That means you'll get exactly one more card and won't have the chance to hit again.  The idea is the same:  If we have 11 or less, we're always gonna take a card, the only question is whether we're gonna take more cards after that.  We'll learn those exceptions later.
  2. With some soft hands, you'll stand, even though you can't bust by taking another card.  For example, if you have A,9, that's a total of 20, which is really good.  You can't bust by taking another card, but you don't want to screw up your 20, so you stand.  We'll learn those exceptions later.

When your hand is pretty high, stand

When you've got a hard total of 17 or higher, then stand.  It's too easy to bust a 17 by hitting (69% chance).  Even a lowly 5 will bust it.  So we always stand on hard 17, no exceptions.  There are no details on this one to learn later:  If you've got a hard 17 or more, you will never, ever draw another card.

When you have a soft 17, you'll take another card, because 17 is a mediocre hand, and you can't bust it.  If your hand is A,6 (17), there's only a 38% chance of making it worse by drawing.  If you draw an ace, 2, 3, or 4, it got better.  If you draw a ten (including J, Q, K), then you've still got a 17, so it didn't get any worse.  (And at that point, you now have a hard 17, so you'd stand.)  As usual, we'll learn the strategies for soft hands later.


The stiff hands

As we learned above, we always draw to low hands (≤11), because we can't bust them.  And we always stand on hard totals of 17+, because they're too easy to bust.  That leaves only the hard totals between 12-16 to learn.  Those hands are called stiff hands, because you can bust them if you draw, but often we'll need to risk that and draw anyway.  In this section, we'll learn how to decide whether to hit or stand.

First, know that the way the dealer plays her her hand, she always hits until she has a hard total of 17 or higher.  That's the rule.  The dealer can't decide whether to hit or stand, she hits or stands until she's got at least hard 17.  So, the only possible outcomes for the dealer are 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and bust.  The dealer will never end her hand with 16 or lower, because if she has 16 or lower, she has to hit.

If the dealer doesn't bust, we say she's "made" her hand.  For example, she's made her hand if she shows an 8 and winds up with an 18.  So, the dealer will always either make her hand or go bust.

Whether we hit or stand on 12-16 depends on whether the dealer is strong or weak.  That means how likely the dealer is to make her hand versus going bust.  If the dealer has a big chance of making her hand, we consider the dealer to be strong.  If the dealer has a big chance of busting, we feel the dealer is weak.

The dealer is strong when her up card is 7 or higher.  In that case, she has about a 75% chance of making her hand.  (And it doesn't matter much whether she has a 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 or ace:  any of those cards gives her about a 75% chance of making her hand.)

When we're sitting on a stiff hand (12-16) and the dealer is strong, we'll fight.  We'll battle the dealer and hit.  Say we've got a 16, and the dealer is showing a 10.  Our 16 is likely to bust, but the dealer is even more likely to make her hand.  She's got a 75% chance of doing so.  So we're gonna draw.  Yes, we'll probably bust, but we're less likely to bust than the dealer is to make her hand.  So, when you've got a stiff hand, and the dealer is strong, hit it.  You will never, ever stand in this situation.

The dealer is weak when her up card is 6 or lower.  She's far more likely to bust with a 2-6 than with a 7-A.  That's because:

  1. The most common card in the deck is a 10, since J, Q, and K also count as 10.
  2. Her hole card is more likely to be a ten than any other card.  If it is, she'll have a total of 12-16 once she flips her hole card over.
  3. The dealer has to hit until she has at least 17.  So if she's got that 12-16, she has to hit it.
  4. When she hits, she's more likely to draw a ten than any other card.  And that ten will bust her 12-16.

Let's say the dealer shows a 6.  If her hole card is 10, she's got 16.  When she hits, if she draws another 10, that's 26.  Bust.  For all the weak up cards from 2 to 6:

  • 2 > 12 > 22:  BUST
  • 3 > 13 > 23:  BUST
  • 4 > 14 > 24:  BUST
  • 5 > 15 > 25:  BUST
  • 6 > 16 > 26:  BUST

When the dealer is weak, we don't want to risk busting our stiff hand, so we stand, hoping that the dealer will bust.  When you've got a stiff hand and the dealer is weak, think to yourself, "Let the dealer bust."

Because low-value up cards make the dealer weak, we call a low dealer up card a "bust card".  Remember, when you're stiff and the dealer shows a bust card, let the dealer bust.

There are a couple of rare exceptions to this which we'll learn later.

A common misconception, even among experienced players, even among card counters, is that when the dealer shows a bust card, she's likely to bust.  In fact, she's got only a 36-44% chance of busting, depending on the particular bust card.  Even with a "bust card", the dealer will actually probably make her hand.  We still consider the low cards to be bust cards because the dealer is far more likely to bust with a bust card than with a high card (7-A).


The Wizard's original simple strategy

Now that you've learned the basics of hitting and standing, let's expand on that, and learn our first complete strategy recipe.

In his book Gambling 102 (which I edited), the Wizard Of Odds introduced a super-simple strategy (reprinted by permission), which adds only about 0.5% points to the house edge.  That takes a 3:2 game from about 0.5% to 1.0%, and a 6:5 game from about 1.7% to 2.2%.  Here's that strategy, with my tweaks to make it easier to understand:

  1. Stand on hard 12-16 against dealer 2-6.
  2. Stand on hard 17 or more.
  3. Double on 10,11 against dealer 2-9.
  4. Split 8s, 9s, and aces.
  5. Stand on soft 18 or more.
  6. If 1-5 don't apply, then hit.

You already learned #1 and #2 in the previous section.  Now learn #3-6, are you're set to start playing!  (If you don't know what "double" and "split" are, see my Intro to Blackjack.)  If you want to stop here and not learn the more involved strategies, I certainly won't blame you.  You can get better odds with more study, but you might consider that this strategy is enough.

By the way, it's totally fine to print out this strategy and use your cheat sheet at the table.  The casinos totally don't care (unless you slow down the game to the point that it bothers the other players).


Wizard's revised simple strategy

While the house edge penalty in the original simple strategy was only about 0.5% points, the Wizard wanted to whittle that down even more.  To do so, he came up with the following second-generation simple strategy, which has a tiny penalty of only 0.14% points.  The tradeoff, of course, is that it's more complicated than the original simple strategy, but it's still pretty easy.  Here it is, with my visual improvements:

Your hand
Dealer's up card

2 to 6
7 to A
Hard

4 to 8
Hit
9
Double
Hit
10 or 11
Double if dealer has less
12 to 16
Stand
Hit
17 to 21
Stand
Soft

13 to 15
Hit
16 to 18
Double
Hit
19 to 21
Stand
Splits

22,33,66,77,99
Split
follow above
88, AA Split
44,55,10-10 follow above
follow above

Remember, casinos don't care if you print this out and use it while you play as a cheat sheet.

The first thing to notice about the table is that your decisions usually depend on whether the dealer is weak or strong, so our lesson about that above serves us well here.

Let me now walk you through the strategy table, line by line.

  1. When you've got 4-8, you'll hit, because you can't bust and can't make your hand any worse.
  2. When you've got 9 and the dealer is weak, you'll double, because you've got a good shot at winding up with 19, and the dealer is more likely to bust than if she's got a high card.
  3.  When you've got a 10 or 11, you'll usually double, because you've got a good shot of winding up with a 20 or 21.  The only time you don't double on 10 or 11 is if the dealer's up card matches your total.  For example, if you have a total of 10 and the dealer shows a 10, don't double.  Likewise, if you have a total of 11 and the dealer shows an ace, don't double.
  4. For the stiff hands (12-16), stand when the dealer is weak, and hit when the dealer is strong.  This is exactly as we learned in the "Why we hit and why we stand" section above.
  5. For hard 17 and higher, we always stand, because it's too easy to bust.  This is also exactly as we learned earlier.
  6. For soft 13 to 15, hit.  These are hands like A+2, A+3, and A+4.  You can't bust them, so you've got nothing to lose by hitting.  We don't double because turning a soft 13-15 into a hard 13-15 (which is what happens if you draw a ten) isn't good for us, and if that happens, we want to be able to hit again.
  7. For soft 16-18 when the dealer is weak, double.  If you've been paying attention, you might wonder why you'd double a soft 16, which can easily turn into hard 16, which can't even tie the dealer if she makes her hand.  Well, we wouldn't double if the dealer were strong, but when she's weak, this is the best play.  And certainly when you have soft 17 or 18, then doubling against a weak dealer is a no-brainer, since we can easily wind up with hard 17 or 18 while the dealer has a good chance of busting.
  8. For soft 19-21, stand.  These are hands like A+8, A+9, and A+3+7.  These are great totals so we'll never risk screwing them up by hitting.
  9. Split 2s, 3s, 6s, 7s, and 9s, when the dealer is weak.  When the dealer is weak, in these cases we want to get more money on the table, because we'll win double if the dealer busts.  While turning 2s, 3s, and 6s into 12, 13, and 16 isn't wonderful, we're just hoping the dealer will bust.  Turning 7s into 17 is a much better prospect, so we definitely double 7s.  With 9s, turning our 18 into possible 19s is an even better prospect.
  10. Don't split 2s, 3s, 6s, 7s, and 9s when the dealer is strong.  If the dealer is strong, we're not going to split because if the dealer makes her hand, we lose double.  In these cases we'll follow the normal hit/stand decisions.  (e.g., For 2+2, we'll hit, and for 9+9, we'll stand.)
  11. Always split eights and aces.  This is one of the easiest blackjack rules to remember, and as a bonus, it's the same in the real, full basic strategy.  Two eights is 16, which is horrible, but splitting them gives you a good shot of winding up with two hands of 18, which is much better.  Similarly, two aces is a pathetic total of 12 (11+1), but splitting them means you could easily get 21 on each hand.  (You don't get the 3:2 or 6:5 bonus in that case, that happens only if you get A+10 on the original two cards before splitting.)
  12. Never split 4s, 5s, and 10s.  Two 4s is 8, which could turn into 18, but splitting them could mean you get two hands of 14, which is bad, what were you thinking?  Similarly, two 5s is 10, which could easily turn into 20, but if you split them, you could be looking at two hands of 15, ouch.  Finally while 10+10 (20) could turn into two hands of 20 each, it's just too risky, we're not gonna screw up a fantastic 20 by splitting.  By the way, "Never split tens" is also the rule in the real, full basic strategy.

The real, full basic strategy

Is it worth it?

The Wizard's revised simple strategy above has only a 0.14%-point penalty, and is way easier to learn than full basic strategy.  Many casual players will conclude that that's good enough, and I certainly don't blame them.  You can learn the full basic strategy, but it'll take a while, for only a small decrease in the house edge.  Of course, if you plan to count cards, you absolutely have to learn it.


You can use it at the table

Casinos don't mind if you use the strategy card at the table.  After all, the odds are still against you.  Click the table for a printer-friendly version.  You can also buy a strategy card in the gift shop for a couple bucks.


Most players don't know basic strategy

If you go to the trouble to learn the table, you'll be in a very elite group.  I have rarely seen anyone playing proper basic strategy.  When I have, they've usually been other card counters.


There's not a single basic strategy

This table is for traditional rules (multiple decks, dealer stands on Soft 17).  There are different strategy tables for different rules, but in practice, the difference in house edge is so small that you can use this table for just about any blackjack game with confidence.  If you want the precise table for a particular set of rules, you can get it at Blackjack Info.  (By the way, Vegas Reference was the name of this site before it was Easy Vegas.  I'll update the table someday.)

Note, there are no strategy differences between 3:2 and 6:5 blackjack.  The differences pop up for things like number of decks, whether dealer hits soft 17, and whether you can double after splitting.


How to read the table

The dealer's up card is shown on the top row (2-A). Your hand is shown in the left-hand column.  For any given combination of your hand plus the dealer's up card, the cells tell you how to play your hand:

= Stand
= Hit
= Double Down
= Double if allowed, otherwise Stand
= Double if allowed, otherwise Hit
= Split
= Split if you can double down after split, otherwise Hit
= Surrender if allowed, otherwise Hit

Surrender is no longer offered in most casinos.  With Surrender, you give up half your bet and end your hand immediately.  As you can see from the table, it's useful only in situations where you have a 15 or 16 facing a high card, in which you'd probably lose whether you hit or stand.  Of course, this is mostly irrelevant, since you're unlikely to find Surrender at the casinos anyway.


What's the same in full basic strategy vs. simple strategies

Lots of thing you already learned with the simple strategies above apply here.

  1. Always stand on hard hands of 17-21.  No exceptions.  That didn't change from the simple strategies.
  2. Always take a card when you have 11 or less, because you can't bust your hand.  The only difference from the simple strategy is whether you'll be hitting or doubling when you take your card.
  3. Always stand on 13-16 when the dealer is weak.  Let the dealer bust.
  4. Always stand on soft 19 and soft 20.  These are great hands, don't risk messing them up.
  5. Always split eights and aces.  One of the easiest blackjack rules to remember.

What's different between simple strategy and the full basic strategy

  1. In certain cases, you'll surrender, if it's an option.  But it's probably not an option, because most casinos don't offer surrender.  (See above for an explanation of surrender.)
  2. Hit 12 vs. dealer 2 or 3.  In the simple strategy, we learned to stand in these cases, hoping the dealer will bust.  The reason we hit is two-fold:  Of all the stiff hands (12-16), our 12 is the least bustable.  A 16 would bust with a 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10, but our 12 will bust only if we draw 10.  So we have a much better chance of not busting by hitting our 12 vs. hitting a 16.  Second, among the dealer bust cards, the lower cards are less likely to bust than the higher ones.  Dealer 2 or 3 won't bust as often as 5 or 6.  So, the combination of fewer busting chances for us, and fewer busting chances for the dealer, means we're going into battle and hitting.
  3. Doubles on soft hands.  This is one of the hardest parts of basic strategy to memorize.  And there's no way to easily rationalize each choice.  Just hunker down and commit it to memory.
  4. Splits.  As with simple strategy, we always split aces and eights, and we never split tens.  As for the other card pairs, this is certainly the very hardest part of basic strategy to memorize.  Now that I no longer play professionally I've forgotten some of them myself.  Good luck!


More blackjack stuff

My other blackjack articles

  1. Intro to Blackjack
  2. Counting Cards
  3. Blackjack Trends
  4. Silly blackjack humor.  It's not worth reading.

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