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Best of John Grochowski

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Blackjack Basic Strategy - Part 1

1 June 2004

Walking past the cashier's cage at Harrah's in Joliet, I was suddenly aware that someone wanted to talk to me. Something important apparently was on his mind, since he left his place in line, still carrying a stack of chips.

"You're John, right?" he asked. "I won't try to say the last name."

That's me.

"I have a question for you. When are you going to write about basic strategy for blackjack? I think I know it, but I get a little confused on a few hands."

Anything in particular I can help with?

"Twelve against 2, for one. Sometimes I stand, sometimes I hit. I can never remember. When I hit, the other players at the table don't seem to like it."

Hitting is the right play. Never mind the other players - not enough of them know the best plays anyway.

"What about Ace-7 when the dealer has a 10. Somebody told me I should hit, but I hate to mess up an 18."

That 18 doesn't win often enough against a 10. Since you can't bust the hand with a one-card draw, hit it. Anything else?

"Well, why don't you just write about the whole strategy in the paper? It would really help."

I've written about basic strategy a few times before, but after this conversation, and after a few e-mails from others looking for the information, I checked. It's been more than two years since I last gave the full basic strategy. So over the next few weeks, let's revisit basic strategy - both what it is, and what it is not.

What it is not is a cure for everything that ails you at the tables. It doesn't guarantee that you'll win at blackjack. Basic strategy is not enough to overcome the house's mathematical advantage.

Basic strategy does, however, drastically reduce the house edge. An average blackjack player faces a house edge of about 2 to 2.5 percent - the player loses an average of $2 to $2.50 over every $100 wagered.

When you use basic strategy, you cut the house edge into tenths of a percent. In an average six-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s and players may double down on any two-card total, including after splitting pairs, the house edge is about four-tenths of a percent. In the long run, the player will lose about 40 cents per $100 wagered.

That house edge can be cut even more given favorable rules, such as the casino using fewer decks, offering surrender or allowing players to resplit Aces - at most casinos, when players split a pair of Aces, if they then draw another Ace, they can't split again; they're stuck with a 12. The house edge also can be a few tenths of a percent higher if the dealer hits soft 17, double downs are restricted to two-card totals of 9, 10 or 11 or other negative rules.

Even without ideal rules, the player who know basic strategy is in better position to win more often, or to limit losses when things aren't going well.

Now, those 40 cents or so in expected losses per $100 wagered don't come in any steady pattern. Sometimes even a $5 bettor will go through a $100 bill faster than the cocktail waitress can get to the table. But sometimes your money will last a good long time, sometimes you'll have winning sessions, and in the long run it will all come a lot closer to balancing out than it does for someone who plays by instinct.

Basic strategy does take some practice. When I learned, I did it by dealing out hands of blackjack at home, and comparing my plays to a basic strategy chart. Nowadays, it's easy to learn with computer software that will warn you when you make a mistake. I like Stickysoft Corp.'s Blackjack 6-7-8, but there are many programs out there that will walk you through basic strategy.

I divide basic strategy into three parts - strategy for hard totals, strategy for soft totals, and strategy for splitting pairs. Hard totals are those that do not include an Ace being counted as 11 - for example, a 10 and a 7 make a hard 17, while an Ace and a 6 make soft 17. It's soft 17 because the Ace could be counted as 1, meaning you can't bust the hand with a one-card draw. Draw a 5 to the 10-7 and you bust with 22. Draw a 5 to Ace-6, and you just count it as 12, and play on.

In this series, I'll be using basic strategy for multiple-deck games, since they are far more common than single-deck blackjack.

The easiest segment to learn is basic strategy for hard hands, which can be summed up with a few simple rules:

  • Always stand on hard 17 to 21.
  • Stand on hard 13 to 16 if the dealer's face up card is 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.
  • Stand on hard 12 if the dealer's up card is 4, 5 or 6.
  • Hit hard 13 to 16 if the dealer's face up card is 7 or higher.
  • Hit hard 12 if the dealer's up card is 2 or 3, as well as 7 or higher.
  • Double down on 11 if the dealer's up card is anything but an Ace. Just hit against an Ace.
  • Double down on 10 if the dealer's up card is anything but an Ace or a 10-value card. Just hit against an Ace or 10-value.
  • Double down on 9 if the dealer's up card is 3, 4, 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit.
  • Hit totals of 8 or less.

That's easy enough, right? It gets a little trickier next week, when we tackle soft hands.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski