In order to deliver a thorough blackjack overview, it’s important to look at the rules of the game and the possible factors that affect the odds. Before you start memorizing basic strategy or committing to a specific card counting system, it’s vital to understand the basic mechanics of the game. Once this has been accomplished, you can move on to more advanced concepts.
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Rules of Blackjack
Blackjack can be played with one to eight decks. Aces are worth one or 11, face cards are worth 10, and all others are worth their printed value. The goal of the player is to get closer to 21 than the dealer without exceeding this total.
The players begin by making their wagers. Once this has occurred, the dealer starts on his left and gives each player two face-up cards. The dealer then receives two cards, one facing up and another facing down (the “hole card”). In Europe and Australia, the dealer’s second card may not be drawn until just before the conclusion of the game.
If the player’s first two cards equal 21, then he has a true blackjack and receives a payout. If the dealer also has a blackjack, then it is considered a tie (and the player gets their wager back).
Once the cards have been dealt and any blackjacks have been resolved, each player has a number of options. These include:
- Hit – The player receives an additional card.
- Stand – The player takes no additional cards.
- Surrender – If this option is available, the player can give up their hand and get back half their initial bet.
- Doubling Down – Player receives one additional card and can increase their bet up to double the initial amount.
- Split – When the first two cards are the same value, the player has the option of splitting them into two individual hands. Each receives an additional card, and the player must also place a wager on the extra hand. From there, the hands are played out as usual.
- Resplit – The player may split cards more than once. This isn’t always allowed, so be sure to check the house rules.
- Insurance – The player may purchase insurance if the dealer’s card is an ace. In the case of a dealer blackjack, the player’s insurance wager (up to half their initial bet) pays 2:1. Most experts advise passing on this option.
Once all players have completed their hands, the dealer reveals their hole card and adds up the totals. Payouts are issued for anyone who beats the dealer’s total without going over 21. The house keeps all losing bets.
When most players talk about blackjack strategy, the term is synonymous with basic strategy. This is a fixed method of play that examines the player’s current hand total, compares it to the up-card of the dealer, and then arrives at a prescribed course of action.
While Lady Luck can still come along and cause you to lose, using this strategy normally reduces the house edge down to a manageable 0.5%. When you consider the initial low cost of most blackjack hands, this makes the game well worth seeking out.
How to Read a Blackjack Strategy Chart
A blackjack strategy chart shows you the optimal play based on your hand and the dealer’s face-up card. But before you can begin to use this handy tool, you need to be able to properly read it. Fortunately, it’s just a matter of understanding a few simple abbreviations, and that’s what we’ll be covering in this section.
- H – Hit
- S – Stand
- SP – Split
- SU – Surrender (if this isn’t an option in your game, the player should hit)
- Dh – Double (if this isn’t an option, the player is advised to hit)
- Ds – Double (if this isn’t available, the player is advised to stand)
Simple Blackjack Strategy
In order to provide you with an example of basic strategy, here’s an easy-to-understand chart that works if the player is allowed to double after splitting, and four, six, or eight decks of cards are being used. The hand total of the player is listed first, followed by the suggested course of action.
Basic Blackjack Strategy
- 5 through 8 – Always hit
- 9 – If the dealer has a 3 through 6, double down. Otherwise, the best option is to hit.
- 10 – Double down on a dealer 2 through 9. Hit on any other dealer total.
- 11 – Double down on a dealer 2 through 10. Hit if the dealer shows an ace.
- 12 – Stand on a dealer 4 through 6. Otherwise, the player should hit.
- 13 through 16 – Hit on anything other than a dealer 2 through 6. In the case of these totals, the player should stand.
- 17 through 20 – Always stand
- 2/2 or 3/3 – If the dealer has a 2 through 7, then the player should split. In any other case, the player should hit.
- 4/4 – Split if the dealer has a 5 or 6. Otherwise, you should hit.
- 5/5 – Don’t split a pair of fives under any circumstances. Double down on a dealer 2 through 9. Hit on a dealer ace or 10.
- 6/6 – Hit if the dealer has anything other than a 2 through 6. In the case of those cards, the player should split.
- 7/7 – Hit unless the dealer has a 2 through 7, in which case the player should split.
- 8/8 – Always split. It doesn’t matter what card the dealer is showing.
- 9/9 – The player is advised to split on a dealer 2 through 6 or 8 through 9. Stand if the dealer’s up-card is an ace, 7, or 10.
- 10/10 – Always stand, regardless of what the dealer is showing.
- A/A – No matter what card the dealer shows, always split a pair of aces.
- A/8 through A/10 – Stand when you have one of these two-card hands.
- A/7 – Double down if the dealer has a 3 through 6. Stand if he’s showing a 2, 7, or 8. If an ace, 9, or 10 is visible, always choose to hit.
- A/6 – Hit on anything but a 3 through 6. If the dealer has one of those cards, the best play is to double down.
- A/5 and A/4 – Double down if a 4 through 6 is showing. Otherwise, hit on anything else.
- A/2 and A/3 – Hit on anything except a dealer 5 or 6. In those cases, go ahead and double down.
One you’ve selected the basic strategy that works for you, do your best to commit it to memory. I suggest starting with flashcards as they work for almost anyone who’s attempting rote memorization. And once you start getting the hang of it, there are plenty of free online programs that present you with hypothetical blackjack hands and then grade your decision-making skills.
Avoid Betting Systems
In addition to learning basic strategy, some players are tempted to invest time (and possibly money) in betting systems. These methods guarantee big wins, but they’re nothing but superstitious nonsense designed to prey on desperation and greed. Systems such as the Martingale are inherently flawed, and anyone who says different is fooling themselves.
Blackjack strategy takes some time to learn, but it’s your best bet for reducing the house edge. The more you practice, the easier it should become, and committing it to memory allows you to make fast decisions at the table without holding up the play of everyone else. Strategy cards are available from multiple sources online, so find the one that fits your favorite version of blackjack and start studying.
While the rules of blackjack are similar from one casino to the next, the odds can change based on the payouts, number of decks being used, and several other factors. Before you can determine accurate blackjack odds for a game, you need to take the following into consideration:
Rules to Consider
- On a soft 17, does the dealer hit or stand?
- How many decks are used? This usually ranges from one to eight.
- In the case of a player blackjack, what payout is offered by the house? The most common are 6 to 5 or 3 to 2.
- If the dealer gets a blackjack, does the player lose their entire wager or just the initial bet?
- What’s the resplit limit for a player?
- After splitting cards, is the player allowed to double down?
- Is the surrender option offered?
- If the player splits aces, can they choose to hit afterwards?
- Are aces eligible to be resplit?
- Is the player using basic strategy or just winging it?
As for how the number of decks affects the game, here’s a breakdown of how the house edge increases with each new deck that’s added. If the house uses fewer decks, expect them to alter certain rules to compensate.
House Edge Per Deck Used
- One Deck – 0.17%
- Two Decks – 0.46%
- Four Decks – 0.60%
- Six Decks – 0.64%
- Eight Decks – 0.65%
In a perfect world, the available rules can be so favorable that they give the player an actual edge over the house. Before you get too excited, however, keep in mind that no sane casino on the planet is going to offer blackjack odds that favor the customer. If they did, it wouldn’t be long before they were out of business.
Even if the worst possible rules are used, the house edge usually maxes out at just over 2%. While this percentage might not be good enough for advantage players, it’s still far superior to the odds offered by most slot machines.
I hope this blackjack overview has proven useful, especially when it comes to understanding the basic rules and how the odds can fluctuate. The game of 21 can be an immense amount of fun, but it’s important to establish a strong foundation before you lean about advanced techniques such as card counting.
Blackjack Card Counting
Blackjack card counting isn’t as simple as Hollywood makes it out to be. In order to master this skill, an aspiring card counter has to play thousands of hands and know his chosen system inside and out. And even if he or she does everything right, there’s still the risk of getting barred from the casino or suffering through a terrible streak of luck.
This article discusses the fundamentals of card counting, as well as methods used by casinos to counter successful advantage players. We’ll also include a few popular card counting systems, just in case you want to start practicing before your trip to Vegas.
Basics of Counting Cards
The goal of card counting is to keep track of all the cards that have been played, assign them numerical values, and arrive at an overall total. When this value favors the player, larger wagers should be made. When it favors the dealer, however, the player knows to be more conservative.
The general premise is that low cards favor the dealer, as common blackjack rules require the dealer to hit with less than 16. If they receive low cards, then they’re more likely to get near 21 without busting.
High cards, meanwhile, often favor the player. They can result in the dealer busting, as well as increasing the odds of a player blackjack. Tens and face cards are also useful when deciding to double down, which allows the initial wager to be increased by up to 100% in exchange for one additional card.
Notable Card Counting Teams
Blackjack card counting teams face all kinds of peril, from suspicious police officers to dishonest teammates. Their shelf life is often short because of these reasons, although a cold streak at the tables is often the biggest culprit.
There are, however, a few teams that have managed to hang around long enough to win millions from the casinos. While most prefer anonymity, the two groups listed below have become legendary and used their fame for financial gain outside the casinos.
The Church Team
Christian card counters who were active from 2005 until 2011. Based around Seattle and funded with $1.2 million in investor’s money, they managed to win over $3 million from the casinos. For more on their story, check out the documentary called “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.”
MIT Blackjack Team
This is the most famous card counting team in history, and likely the most successful. Active sporadically from 1979 until the early part of the 21st century, the team won millions and awarded investors with returns ranging from 4% to 350%.
The Amphibians – Offshoot of the MIT team led by Semyon Dukach.
The Reptiles – Another MIT splinter group, this time led by Mike Aponte.
Popular Card Counting Systems
There are dozens of card counting systems out there, but the following seven are the most popular. In addition to the required card counts, I’ve also included a percentage that ranks the system’s effectiveness at predicting valuable situations in betting (expressed as % BC).
Card Counting Systems
- Hi-Lo – Add +1 to the count for the two through six cards; 0 for seven through nine; -1 for aces and 10 value cards. 97% BC.
- K-O - +1 for one through seven cards; 0 for eight and nine; -1 for aces and ten value cards. 98% BC.
- Halves – +.5 for the two card; +1 for three, four, and six; +1.5 for five; +.5 for the seven card; 0 for eight; -.5 for nine; -1 for tens and aces. 99% BC.
- Omega II – +1 for two, three, and seven; +2 for four, five, and six; 0 for eight and ace; -1 for nine; -2 for tens. 92% BC.
- Zen – +1 for two, three, and seven; +2 for four, five, and six; 0 for eight and nine; -2 for tens; -1 for ace. 96% BC.
- Hi-Opt I – 0 for two, seven, eight, nine, and ace; +1 for three, four, five, and six; -1 for tens. 88% BC.
- Hi-Opt II – +1 for two, three, six, and seven; 0 for eight, nine, and ace; +2 for four and five; -2 for tens.
Casinos have developed a number of defensive techniques for when they run into a skilled card counter. Here are some of the most common:
Casino Defensive Techniques
- Distraction – An employee might be instructed to start a conversation with the player in order to distract them, or a pit boss might stand nearby and glare in their direction.
- Frequent Shuffling – Meant to interfere with a high count.
- Altering Stakes – By changing the stakes, the casino can make a table less appealing.
- Banning – If the player is too good, they may be asked to leave (which is perfectly legal on the part of the casino).
It might seem as though casinos hate blackjack card counting, but in most cases they don’t mind at all. That’s because card players often lack the skills to do it correctly on a consistent basis, which leads them to lose just as much as the novice sitting next to them. In the hands of a disciplined pro or determined team, however, the art of card counting can destroy the house edge and create millionaires.
History of Blackjack
Blackjack history is open to debate, especially when discussing the formative years of the game. Some argue that the gambling-obsessed Romans engaged in a version before BC gave way to AD. Most however, point to a number of games from the 15th to 17th centuries that likely evolved into the blackjack that we know today.
The Spanish game “Thirty-One” goes back to at least 1440, and the objective was to reach a total of 31 by using three or more cards. Over the next few centuries, games such as “Seven and a Half,” Chemin de Fer,” “Fifteen,” and “Twenty-One” popped up in Italy, France, and Spain.
The game known as “Venti-un” or “Twenty-One” dates all the way back to the early 17th century, when it was mentioned in a tale of gamblers penned by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The objective of this card game was to reach 21 points without going over, and the ace was valued at either 1 or 11 points.
As the years passed, 21 continued to grow in popularity across Europe thanks to the element of skill that was required. French colonists brought the game to America, although the rules at the time included a betting round between each card dealt to the player, as well as a dealer-only policy on doubling down.
Blackjack Comes to America
American players embraced the game and made it their own, altering some of the rules as they saw fit. The dealer’s up-card was now shown before a player made their decision, and the dealer could no longer hit or stand as he saw fit. Instead, he was forced to make decisions based on a strict set of rules.
While legal, house-banked games showed up in New Orleans in the 1820s, there were plenty of other less-than-legal games being conducted around the nation. Gambling houses sometimes offered special promotions to lure in customers, and one of these promised a 10 to 1 payout for a hand consisting of a black jack and the ace of spades. While the bonus didn’t last long, it did gain enough notoriety to result in a name change. From that point on, everyone referred to the game as “blackjack.”
In 1931, Nevada started offering games of house-banked blackjack. Now that it was legal, blackjack started the long process of becoming respectable and part of the mainstream gambling culture.
The Development of Card Counting
While there were certainly rudimentary forms of card counting in the early days, it wasn’t until Edward O. Thorp published Beat the Dealer in 1962 that John Q. Public realized the possibility of coming out ahead at the casino. The book had a major impact on the industry, and it even reached a spot on the New York Times Best Seller list.
Advances in technology soon led to men like Harvey Dubner utilizing computers to create new counting systems, and the influx of successful card counters into Vegas led to the creation of the reviled Griffin Agency. If a cheater or advantage player wound up in their black book, they usually found the doors of every Vegas casino closed to them.
The 1970s were a critical time for blackjack, as men like Al Francesco and Stanford Wong further defined the art of card counting. This was also the decade that the legendary MIT Blackjack Team got their start, winning millions through group play and beating casinos all the way into the 21st century
The Modern Age of Blackjack
Indian tribes got into the blackjack business in 1987 thanks to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This law allowed tribes to build and police their own casinos, and it wasn’t long before the money started rolling in. Around the same time, numerous states began skirting laws against land-based casinos by offering offshore riverboat gambling.
In the middle of the 1990s, the Internet began its meteoric rise and online casinos weren’t far behind. Players were given the ability to wager from the privacy of their own homes, and aspiring blackjack pros could try to beat the house with a basic strategy chart taped to their PC.
The Blackjack Hall of Fame was established in 2002, and the inaugural class consisted of the following: Al Francesco, Stanford Wong, Peter Griffin, Ken Uston, Edward O. Thorp, Tommy Hyland, and Arnold Snyder. The Barona Casino created a physical Hall of Fame the following year and offered lifetime comps to the members, with the only stipulation being that they never played blackjack at the establishment.
The American gambling industry fell on hard times with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006. This prevented banking institutions from accepting payments for the purposes of online gambling, and a series of arrests led to numerous sites pulling out of the U.S. market.
The trend has started to reverse in recent years, with various states exercising their rights to determine whether or not gambling should exist within their borders. Nevada and New Jersey are two notable examples of states that have voted to allow online gambling, as long as the site is licensed and the player is within their borders.
Blackjack history continues to be written, but one thing is certain: as long as the game exists, players are bound to find a way to wager on it.