There are several components to strategy in blackjack, but knowing when to use each of your betting options is a major component of playing correctly. Here we break down how to play in general and how to make adjustments for different types of blackjack games.
Blackjack is one of the casino games that has the deepest levels of strategy. What makes it even more complicated than that is the fact that there are so many different styles of blackjack available. While the overall strategy from one game to another may be similar overall, there can be enough differences that the house advantage will grow significantly if you play incorrectly in all of the situations that are different front one game to another.
Unfortunately, most people try to learn strategy for this game by memorizing a chart. There is definitely some value in that if you’re only playing one game and have a chart formulated especially for that game’s specific rules. However, this leaves players in a situation where they can’t adjust for other games at all. We would like to offer a better approach that’s more flexible and that gets to the core of how blackjack strategy actually works at a foundational level so that you can adjust as you need to for a variety of blackjack games.
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Identifying Dealer Up Cards
The very first thing that we want to start with is the idea of the two different types of dealer up cards (the dealer’s card that you can see when you’re making your decision):
- Strong Dealer Cards: 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A
- Weak Dealer Cards: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
We also want to point out that facing a 10, J, Q, K or A is going to be much worse for you than facing a 7, 8 or 9, but for our purposes, we’re going to call them all strong cards for the dealer.
The reason that you need to be able to identify these cards is that they break up strategy into two main groups, and you’re generally going to play differently against each of these groups along the following lines:
- Against strong dealer cards, you’ll typically hit repeatedly until you either get a total of 17 or higher or bust.
- Against weak dealer cards, you’ll typically avoid hitting in situations where you’re have a chance to bust.
You’ll note that these are general guidelines, and depending in the exact game you’re playing, there will be a handful of exceptions to how these play out. However, these are the basic tenets of the style of blackjack strategy that we’re breaking down here so that you can learn to adjust to most styles of the game.
Hard Hand Play vs. Soft Hand Play
When you have a soft hand, that means that there’s an ace in your hand that can count as an 11 without you going bust. Hard hands are everything else. When you have a soft hand against a weak dealer card, sometimes you’re going to want to double in order to take advantage of the fact that you can’t go bust by hitting once. In most games most of the time, you can decide if you should double or not by using what’s called the Rule of 23:
The Rule of 23: When you have a soft hand of 18 or lower against a weak dealer card, add your total to twice the value of the card that the dealer is showing. If this amount is 23 or higher, then you should double. If not, then you should typically hit with totals of 17 or lower and stand with totals of 18 or higher.
Here’s a lot of value to be had by learning when to double with soft hands, and this pretty much covers everything you need to know in the general sense. There will be some fringe cases here and there, but this will have you playing right more than 95 percent of the time in these situations without having to memorize game-specific charts.
Doubling With Hard Hands
There are times when you should double with hard hands, particularly if you have a total of 9, 10 or 11. Generally speaking, you should only double with a total of 9 if you’re up against a dealer who is showing a weak card. With a 10 or 11, you can double as long as your total is greater than the dealer’s card, and this assumes that a dealer ace counts as 11. What this means is that you can double with a 10 if you’re facing a 9 or lower, and you can double with an 11 if you’re facing anything but an ace.
Again, this is just a general rule, but it will have you playing correctly more than 95 percent of the time in most variations of blackjack, which is more along the lines of what we’re going after here.
When to Surrender
Some games will have the option to surrender. This option gives you back half your bet in exchange for giving up your cards and having no chance to win the hand. What’s so interesting about this option is that, on average, people use it entirely too often. We’re actually only going to recommend a very limited range of scenarios where you should surrender in most games that offer the option, and they’re centered around the two most difficult types of situations to play: hard totals of 15 or 16 against the strongest dealer cards.
- If you have a hard total of 15, then surrender when facing a 10 (any card with a value of 10) or an ace.
- If you have a hard total of 16, then surrender when facing a 9, 10 or ace.
This is all there is to surrendering, and you should take the time and effort to memorize this narrow set of cases. What we’ve been going for in this blackjack strategy guide as a whole is to show you how to play correctly 95 percent of time in most blackjack variations, and that’s exactly what you’ll get with this set of rules. Also, if you run into a fringe case other than the above five situation in some particular variation of blackjack that you’re not sure about, then it’s usually best not to surrender. You might give up a small edge if you hit or stand incorrectly in these spots, but you’ll give up a huge edge if you surrender incorrectly.
Playing Paired Hands and Splitting
Other than doubling or splitting, the other major atypical situation you have to learn is when to split with paired hands. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that requires a little bit of study for situations that don’t come up all that often, but when they do show up, you’ll play them almost the same in virtually all styles of blackjack. Because of this, it’s a good thing to learn.
Thankfully, we can start right away with a few general rules that are pretty easy to learn and then go from there:
- Never split fours, fives or tens (play them as normal hard totals).
- Always split aces and eights.
- Split against a 7 or lower with twos, threes, sixes and sevens.
If we look at the resulting strategy in chart form, then we get something like the following with the strategies for the pairings we haven’t discussed listed as “???” below:
|Strategy||Split against 7 or lower||Split against 7 or lower||Never split||Never split||Split against 7 or lower||Split against 7 or lower||Always split||???||Never split||Always split|
As you can see, it’s the play against the 9s that is not covered in the above rules, and that’s because they’re a little bit of an odd case. You should split with them with three exceptions: When you’re facing a 7, 10 or A, then you should always stand.
If you’re against a 10 or A and have a hard total of 18, then it’s pretty easy to understand why you should stand: You’re simply unlikely to end up with a better chance to win by splitting and doubling the total size of your bet against the strongest cards that the dealer can have. However, if you’re up against a 7, you actually have the edge with a hard 18 since it’s so likely the dealer will simply have a 10 in the hole for a total of 17, which means you instantly win.
Once you understand the logic behind how to play paired 9s in this way, it’s pretty easy to remember when it comes up in an actual game. However, if you remember the above three rules along with the exception of how to play a total of 9, then you’ll play perfectly more than 95 percent of the time without having to memorize any charts.
Insurance is an interesting bet in blackjack because it’s almost always a bad bet to take. Along these lines, we’re simply going to tell players to never take insurance. However, if you’re in a game where counting the cards in Blackjack is effective, then you can actually decide when to use insurance or not based on your count.
Aside from that fringe case, we’re going to suggest that you never take the insurance bet. It’s simply not worth it and increases the size of the house edge every single time you use it if you’re not counting cards to determine when it’s a profitable wager.
Adjusting to Specific Games and More Advanced Strategies
The way that we think players should approach blackjack strategy in general is the following. First, we think that you should learn all of the general rules that will have you playing correctly the vast majority of the time in most standard blackjack games. We’ve outlined those strategic guidelines in all of the above, and we’ve broken them up in clusters based on the situation so that they’re easier to learn and retain.
From there, we think that players should look into the exact, chart-based, mathematical strategies for specific games that they want to play. The goal of this should be to look for the exceptions to the rules they have learned so that they know how to tweak their strategies in the fringe cases to play closer to 98 or 99 percent perfectly instead of 95 percent perfectly. Once this is finished, it’s simply a matter of getting better and better at recognizing the fringe cases.
Strategy in blackjack is an extremely deep subject with a lot to keep up with. However, we have simplified the learning of overall strategies for the collection of blackjack games as best as we think it can be done while still remaining effective. Players who enjoy jumping around to different types of blackjack will get a lot out of this approach to learning strategy, but it still provides a means to get really good at one or two specific games as well.