Contrary to what many gamblers may think, blackjack is not just a guessing
game. Most casino games are guessing games. But with any blackjack hand there is
a correct strategy and an incorrect strategy. Basic strategy is the correct
strategy. The correct strategy is the mathematically optimal strategy?that is,
it will maximize your wins and minimize your losses on each hand over time.
You may have noticed that many other popular card games have no basic
strategy. There is, for example, no basic strategy for poker. A poker player
plays his hands according to whether or not he thinks his opponent is actually
holding a strong hand or may be bluffing, and whether he himself is holding a
strong hand or may want to attempt a bluff.
A basic strategy cannot exist for any card game as long as your opponent can
make decisions, whether those decisions are good or bad, on how to play his
hand. For hundreds of years, there was no basic strategy for blackjack because
it was not a casino game where the dealer had to show one card and play his hand
according to house rules. Instead, it was more of a poker-style game where both
of the dealer?s cards were hidden, the dealer could play his hand however he
wanted, and players could attempt to bluff the dealer with their own play.
When the American casinos changed the rules of twenty-one to expose one of
the dealer?s cards and require the dealer to adhere to a strict hit/stand
strategy, an important thing happened. They fundamentally changed the game from
a poker-style game based more on psychology, to a purely mathematical game?as
far as the player?s strategy was concerned.
Why Basic Strategy Works … The “Odds”
For our purposes, we?re going to start with an assumption that today?s
dealers are dealing an honest game. No sleight-of-hand, no chicanery. We?re not
going to forget the First Rule of Professional Gamblers, but we?re going to
momentarily disregard it so that we can deal with the logic of the game, and
reveal the basic strategy that will kill most of the house?s mathematical edge.
The fact is that most of the games you find in casinos these days are dealt
honestly, and if you bump into a game that?s not on the level, you?re not even
going to try to beat it.
For the honestly dealt game, mathematicians?using high speed computers?have
analyzed every possible hand you might hold versus every possible dealer upcard
to devise the correct basic strategy for the game. One thing that likely shocked
some of the first mathematicians to do these computer analyses was that a nearly
perfect basic strategy had actually already been figured out and published by
four GIs who had desk jobs and a lot of time on their hands in the mid-1950s.
They had no computers, but they?d spent three years using old-fashioned
mechanical adding machines to run through all of the possible outcomes of the
hands dealt. This may have been the best value Uncle Sam ever obtained from four
We also know that some pretty good approximations of correct basic strategy
had been figured out by various professional gamblers in Nevada years before
computers came on the scene. These guys figured out the strategy by dealing
hands to themselves on their kitchen tables. Thousands, tens of thousands, even
hundreds of thousands of hands were required for some decisions. These guys,
like most professional gamblers ever since, never published their strategies
because they were pros. Blackjack was their livelihood, and they?d spent
hundreds of hours figuring it out. Why would they tell anyone else what they
One thing that is certain is that the casinos did not know the proper
strategy for the game, and neither did the players who had read the most highly
regarded books on the subject. Many of the old Hoyle?s guides advised players to
always stand on totals of 15 or 16, no matter what the dealer?s upcard, to split
tens and never split nines, and to stand on soft 17. The “smart” players of the
time, meaning those who had read one of these books on gambling by one of these
reputable authorities, typically made all kinds of plays that we know today to
be very costly.
Many people don?t get the logic of basic strategy. Let me give an example.
When my hand totals 14, and the dealer shows a 10 upcard, blackjack
strategy says to hit. That is the mathematically correct play. Sometimes you
will hit that 14 and draw an 8, 9, or 10 and bust. Then the dealer will turn
over his hole card, a 6, and you will realize that if you would have stood on
your 14, the dealer would have had to hit his total of 16, and he would have
busted with that 10. So, by making the “mathematically correct” play, you lost a
hand you would have won if you had violated basic strategy.
Some players will argue that there really isn?t a basic strategy that is
always correct. Blackjack, they insist, is a guessing game.
To understand basic strategy, you have to start thinking like a professional
gambler, and that means you have to understand the concept of “the blackjack
Let me explain the logic of basic strategy using a different example that
illustrates how the mathematics of probability and statistics works. Let?s say I
have a jar with one hundred marbles in it. Fifty of the marbles are white and
fifty are black. You must reach in blindfolded and pull out one marble, but
before you do so, you must place a $ 1 bet on whether that marble you pull out
will be white or black. If you pull out the color you guessed, you win $ 1; if
not, you lose $ 1.
Is this a guessing game?
Absolutely. How could you possibly know which color marble you?re going to
pull out in advance? If you win, it?s just good luck, and if you lose, it?s bad
But what if you know that ninety of those marbles are black, and only ten
marbles are white? Now, would you bet on black or white before you draw? Any
intelligent person would bet on black. It is possible, of course, to pull out a
white marble, but you?re much less likely to pull out a white marble than a
black one. This may be a guessing game, and you could still lose $1 if you do
happen to pull out a white marble, but if you bet on black, the odds are in your
A professional gambler makes his living by always thinking in terms of “the
odds”, and only betting when the odds are in his favor. With this bet, the
gambler would bet on black because the odds are 9 to 1 in his favor. If you bet
on white, the odds are 9 to 1 against you.
So, getting back to that total of 14 you had when the dealer showed a 10
upcard, you may lose if you take a hit, but the odds are against you if you
If you make your decisions by playing your hunches, you may win some hands,
but you will lose more hands in the long run. There is only one correct decision
for any given play, and that decision is based strictly on the math. Whether or
not you should hit or stand, or double down or split a pair, depends on what the
laws of probability show your expectation to be for each of these possibilities.
Depending on the rules and the number of decks in use, basic strategy will
usually cut the house edge to no more than about 0.5 percent over you. This
makes blackjack the least disadvantageous game in the casino, even if you are
not a card counter. It also worth mentioning that in online blackjack the card
counting argument completely fails, since decks are shuffled after each hand,
and the correct basic strategy becomes even more important.