GAMBLER'S EDGE - BlackJack - Back to Basics



By Rob Wiser

Blackjack is the world’s most popular table game. 

With most other bets offered inside a casino—particularly slot machines, which casinos derive most of their revenue from—you’re wagering on an outcome you have no control over. The great appeal of blackjack is that it calls on you to make a decision with every hand, enabling you to control your own fate to a large degree. 

But every game, of course, has a built-in advantage for the casino. What gives blackjack its house edge is the fact that once the cards are dealt, you’re required to act first. If you hit and bust, you lose. It doesn’t matter how lousy the dealer’s cards are; if you bust, the house wins automatically. 

The house edge, however, can be dramatically reduced by playing according to the rules of Basic Strategy. By analyzing the mathematics of blackjack and running thousands of hands through computer simulations, experts were able to determine the correct play (that which gives you the greatest odds of winning) for every possible card combination. Based on the card the dealer is showing, and the two cards you’ve been dealt, Basic Strategy provides a definitive answer as to whether you should hit, stand, double down or split. Follow it correctly, and you’ll trim the casino’s edge to a bare minimum, about one half of one percent. These are the best odds you’ll find at any casino game. (Poker doesn’t count, since it pits you against your fellow players, not the house.) 

Basic Strategy, which can be memorized in a couple of hours, eliminates the guesswork. You’re holding 13 and the dealer is showing a 7?—Hit. You’re holding 17 and the dealer is showing an Ace?—Stand. You’ve got an Ace and a 7, and the dealer is showing 6?—Double down. For every possible scenario, Basic Strategy provides the correct play. 

The simplest way to learn is to do a search for “blackjack basic strategy” on the Internet. Dozens of websites display easy-to-read charts that show the correct play for any situation. Print one out and spend an hour studying it. Then, the next time you’re at a table, and you can’t recall whether you should hit or stand, don’t hesitate to ask your dealer. Remember, while it feels like you’re in heated heads-up competition against your dealer—especially when you’ve just gotten your ass kicked five hands in a row—he’s not out to take your money. The dealers don’t see a dime of your losses; they’re just hoping for tips. They’d rather help you to play smart and win, since winners tip, and losers usually just complain and stiff them.

The hard part is staying disciplined and adhering to Basic Strategy, especially when the cards aren’t falling your way. Even as a solid player, I sometimes find myself tempted to ignore the correct play and go with my “gut.” Once in a while I’ll stand on a 16 when the dealer is showing a 7, praying to the gambling gods that he busts instead of hitting as I should have. Or, I’ll pass up the opportunity to double down on an 11 because I’ve already got a large bet on the table and am nervous about risking twice that amount. In the long run, this is playing scared—not playing to win. Sure, you’ll win some hands when you defy Basic Strategy and go with a hunch. You’ll occasionally get lucky with even the stupidest play. But over time, deviating from Basic Strategy, means surrendering a significant edge to the house. Eventually, that edge will grind you down and you’ll be just another sucker donating to the casino power bill. 

Here are a few tips to always bear in mind at the Blackjack tables:

• Always assume that the dealer’s hidden card is a 10. If he’s showing a 6, assume he’s got a total of 16; if he’s showing a 10, assume he has 20; and so on. You should never stand when you’re holding less than 17 and the dealer’s card is 7 or higher. You’re just asking to get beat. 

• When your first two cards total 11, always double down (unless the dealer is showing an Ace). Make sure you’ve memorized all the correct times to split and double down, because these options are a major benefit for the player. It’s a way for you to capitalize when the dealer is showing a weak card, and hopefully win twice your original bet. 

• If you have a pair of aces or eights, always split. Don’t think twice, just do it. 

• If you have 17-21, always stand. Don’t blow a good thing. 

• If you have a pair of tens, always stand. Splitting tens is the surest sign that a player is either clueless, inebriated, or both. Not only is this type of gambler going to lose money, he’s also going to annoy his fellow players. 

• Take the time to learn the correct play for every combination, especially “soft totals” (when one of your cards is an Ace, which can be used as a 1 or an 11). Soft hands contain many opportunities for doubling down. 

• Never take “insurance”. The dealer will offer you this option when his first card (the card he’s showing) is an Ace. Buying insurance, which requires you to raise your bet by up to 1/2, is a way for you to protect yourself in case the dealer turns out to have a ten underneath for a total of 21. Without going into all the details, just know that it’s a lousy bet. More often than not, the dealer won’t have the ten underneath and you’ll lose your insurance bet. Decline this option. 

• Finally, casinos don’t dish out the free drinks out of the kindness of their hearts. Consider all the bonehead bets that are made under the influence, and this is actually the most expensive booze on the planet. Save the heavy partying for afterwards—when you’ve got a pocketful of winnings to blow. 

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