For all blackjack is a simple game to play, there’s so much more depth to the game if you want to improve. Blackjack strategy has been a focus of mathematicians and academics, with various theories and techniques emerging over the years in response to crunching the numbers. That, combined with countless millions of blackjack hands played through the years since the game’s inception, gives rise to a structured strategy every player can use to maximise their chances at the blackjack table.
For much of the game, there are some hard and fast rules, factoring in the odds of winning from each hand. Memorising these set-piece moves should be among the first steps taken by any serious player – by making the right call more often, you decrease the house edge in practice and give yourself a fighting chance of profiting from your blackjack. Beyond that, applying strategy to bet in the right measures at the right times is often the difference between average players and the most successful.
Modern blackjack players have it easy. They are able to stand on the shoulders of giants, capitalising on the mathematical work and probability calculations of those that have gone before them, unlike players of centuries gone by. The history of basic blackjack strategy is particularly interesting, and it continues to shape how players think about the game today.
A History of Blackjack Strategy
Blackjack was first devised in the 1700s, popularised in French casinos of the time. Some scholars argue that its origins span back much further in time, possibly even to the Romans, who were known to play similar numerical gambling games using inscribed wooden blocks in place of playing cards. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that blackjack strategy gained prominent mainstream appeal.
Edward O. Thorp was a professor of Mathematics at the University of Los Angeles, and in later life would go on to become a hedge fund manager, as well as a highly successful blackjack player. Fascinated by the game, and the interplay of odds and probabilities, he channeled his research into a book that would go on to become an international best-seller – Beat The Dealer. His ideas shaped how people thought about blackjack strategy for a generation, influencing betting decisions and strategies as players tried to put his techniques into practice.
Thorp put his theories to the test in the live casino environment before publishing his book, gaining the validation he needed that his theory was workable. He attempted to distill a basic card counting method into a format ordinary players could use, and was no doubt single-handedly responsible for revolutionising the strategic approach to the game.
Thorp’s strategy involved adding and subtracting a single point from a running total depending on the cards drawn in each hand. For every card drawn from a deck that was valued at 2-6, a point was added to the running total. Every card of value 10-A was assigned minus one point, while the cards 7-9 were a neutral, zero points. His theory suggests that when the aggregate point tally is positive, players should bet more aggressively on forthcoming hands. When the points total was negative, players should become more cagey, and avoid betting aggressively on upcoming hands.
The theory was that as more low value cards appear, the chances of higher cards appearing in the next hand are increased. Likewise, the opposite is true with lower cards appearing. His hypothesis that players are more likely to hit blackjack or otherwise win the hand when there are high cards remaining in the deck underpinned this theory, and players were able to use this strategy for informing their betting decisions.
His was the first blackjack strategy to reach a mass audience worldwide. As a result, casinos eventually adapter the structure of the game, to attempt to counteract the inherent advantage players could gain from replicating Thorp’s method. Now that much of blackjack gaming takes place online, with the help of random number generators rather than fixed decks of cards, the effectiveness of this strategy has been minimised. However, it still remains a helpful starting point for getting to grips with the basics of blackjack strategy.
Understanding Basic Blackjack Strategy
Before you start reading about basic strategy, you should read our how to play blackjack article first.
There are a maximum number of hands that can appear in any blackjack game – 340 to be precise. Of these hands, around 100 of them play themselves – i.e they are too low to stick, or far too high to hit. It’s the combination of hands in the middle that should draw the bulk of your attention.
Fortunately, blackjack has a defined basic strategy which can allow you to make snap judgements about when and how to play these hands. The starting point for any successful player is to memorise the strategy, expressed in the strategy chart below, to reduce the house edge down to 0.5% and create a fighting chance of winning decent money playing blackjack.
The strategy is based on the value of your starting hands and the dealer’s upcard. The interplay between your hand and the dealer’s card gives enough information to make statistical projections about the outcome of each hand. Players who play with these statistical outcomes reduce the house edge in the process, which is the starting point for success.
The starting point in any hand from a strategic perspective should be ‘should I play this hand?’. There is no obligation to play any hand in blackjack, and if you are unlikely to win, it’s better to cut your losses, than chase it any further down the road. Where this is possible, it’s often only possible with your starting hand. Based on the value of your hand and its corresponding position on the strategy chart, you should firstly make a conscious decision to play or not.
If you decide to play, the next consideration is whether you can split. This is only available for pairs, and only recommended for some pairs in particular. If your hand qualifies, do it. If not, move on to the next consideration – should you double down? Double down is reserved for hands where you’re in a strong winning position already, so if the charts say double down, you should already have an inkling that you’re on the right tracks.
Only once you’ve eliminated these considerations should you start to think about whether to stand or hit. Again, according to the basic strategy charts (which you should be memorising), it should be obvious to you whether to hit or stand, depending on the value of your hand and the dealer’s upcard.
By playing in line with basic strategy, you’re playing with the wind at your back. It won’t guarantee you will win every hand, but it reduces the house edge as much as possible, so you can start to exploit opportunities to profit when your cards permit.