Blackjack Series: Basic Strategy

Last time we talked about the importance of training yourself to get up and LEAVE when you’re winning at a blackjack table, instead of getting excited and continuing to play like most people do. Today we’re going to discuss the next aspect: exactly how to play.

First I’ll give you the results of my blackjack games so far in March. You may recall that at the end of February I was up with a net gain of $393. Here’s how I’ve done so far since then.

March 6th
Starting Pot: $500
Base Bet: $25
Time played: 30 minutes
Ending Pot: $650
Result: Won $150

March 10th
Starting Pot: $500
Base Bet: $25
Time played: 33 minutes
Ending Pot: $250
Result: Lost $250

March 12th
Starting Pot: $500
Base Bet: $25
Time played: 15 minutes
Ending Pot: $670
Result: Won $170

March 16th
Starting Pot: $500
Base Bet: $25
Time played: 27 minutes
Ending Pot: $625
Result: Won $125

If you do the math, I’m up with a net profit of $195 for March and net profit of $588 total this year so far (starting with Feb 1st). All of my blackjack profits go into my groceries budget, and this $588 has paid for all of my groceries for the last six weeks. Not too bad. There aren’t too many hobbies that pay for all of your food.

As you can see, I got murdered on March 10th. This was because I was experimenting with playing with two positions at once at the same table, something I rarely do since the casinos force you to place double minimum bets when you do this. I was alone at the table so I was able to do this at my usual $25 bet. Playing two positions instead of one doesn’t actually change the odds much, but your balance shoots up or down much faster than normal, and I was unaccustomed to this speed. I was down too far and too fast before I realized it and stopped.

As is usually the case, when I mess with what’s working, I usually lose. Next time I play two positions I’m going to have to be extra careful and take things slower.

Anyway, let’s get to how to play to minimize your odds of losing. It’s called basic strategy.

Basic Strategy

“Basic strategy,” otherwise known as “the book,” is essentially playing the game of blackjack based on these two core rules (which can vary slightly based on the specific table):

  • If the dealer’s up card is 2-6, keep hitting until you get to 12 or higher, then immediately stop.
  • If the dealer’s up card is 7 or higher, keep hitting until you get to 17 or higher, then immediately stop.

Those two rules are about 80% of your actual play in the basic strategy system. The other 20% involves things like doubling, splitting, and ace combinations. It revolves around the fact that the worst up card for the dealer is 6, followed by 5, then 4, then 3. Therefore, when you see this kind of up card, you should be more aggressive with doubling and splitting.

The best way to show you this is with a chart. Basic strategy varies a little based on the number of cards in play and the house rules of the table you’re playing. Table selection is an extremely important topic and I’ll be covering it in a future post, but today I’ll show you the chart I usually use for a table with double deck (two decks), with very liberal rules, including that the player can double on anything, double on splitting is allowed, and surrender is allowed.

Blackjack Matrix

A more complete version of this matrix, as well as other matrices, are located here.

Blackjack nerds like myself love to argue endlessly over the exact moves in a table like this, but it still gives you a good idea. When I play the above table, I play according to the chart, without exception, 100% of the time (unless I’m counting cards in some way). I never, ever, ever deviate, even when my emotions are screaming at me to do otherwise.

Here’s a classic example, one I see all the time at the blackjack tables. You get two cards, a 7 and a 9, for a total of 16. The dealer’s up card is 9.

So you sit there, pissed off, fretting about what to do. You know 16 is too low to stand on, but if you hit you’ll probably bust. You growl at yourself and pull your hair. Everyone at the table is waiting for you to make your move. So finally, you stand. You don’t want to take the chance.

And you’ve just played the exact wrong move. Emotionally, you played correctly, but mathematically, you just screwed yourself bigtime. (Math nerds can refer to this link for the mathematics behind what I’m saying.)

If that dealer has a 9, you need to hit, even if the odds are great you’ll bust. You’ve got to get to that 17 or bust, period. I know it feels terrible. Doesn’t matter. You still have to hit that thing and not worry about it. So much of blackjack is about emotional control.

Basic strategy has several moves like this; moves that emotionally seem wrong but mathematically are the best play. If you play 100% basic strategy and never deviate (again, unless you’re doing something odd like counting cards), you’ll have the lowest possible odds of losing you can get without actual card counting. In most cases, the casino still holds a slight edge over you even if you play 100% basic strategy all the time. But no worries; in future posts I’ll explain how to narrow this edge even further.

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1 Comment
  • joelsuf
    Posted at 12:42 pm, 24th July 2017

    Basic strats are really effective even in houses with more than 2 decks in play. I’ve been playing at a 4 deck house with basic strats and have made roughly $80 this month.

    But then I’ll lose some. I’ve been going to the casino with my mom just to give her some company and she always drags me to slot machines, where the odds of winning and losing are almost completely random, unless you are like her and you enjoy camping at a machine for hours before it cycles out to get winning rolls.

    I wonder if there is a system to playing slot machines? I doubt it. I’ll stick to blackjack.

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