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Blackjack Strategy - How to Play to Win

Shane C

Nov 19, 2022

An empty blackjack table at the casino

Blackjack is rightly regarded as the most popular casino game in the world. It is simple to learn, can be played relatively quickly, and most importantly, offers good odds of winning to players who know what they're doing.

This latter point is crucial; blackjack is often lumped in with other games of chance, such as roulette and slots, when it is much more a game of skill.

If you've never played blackjack before, don't let this put you off - the game is easy to pick up, and after a few hands, you'll have the rules down to a tee. You can then start implementing some of the strategies we discuss below.

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about blackjack, from how to play to blackjack strategies that narrow the house's edge and allow you to win more often.

How to Play Blackjack Step by Step

Chances are you already know how to play blackjack; even school kids play this card-counting game, though hopefully not for real money! If not, or you're a little rusty, here's a quick recap for you.

In this guide, we will assume that you are playing blackjack online. But really, it doesn't matter if you are playing at an online casino, a land-based establishment, or with a group of friends. The rules don't really change.

The main difference when playing at an online casino is that you'll be playing against a computer rather than a real person. That's, of course, if there isn't live dealer blackjack at your chosen online casino, in which case you'll be playing against a real human being who is dealing the cards out in front of you.

Blackjack is a game that is played against the dealer rather than your fellow players. The aim is to beat the dealer's hand by achieving a higher sum of your cards than them but without going over 21.

The winning and losing outcomes are:

  • You beat the dealer with a better hand without going over 21.

  • You go over 21 and 'bust,' which means the dealer wins regardless of their hand.

  • The dealer beats you with a better hand without going over 21.

  • The dealer goes over 21 and 'busts,' meaning you win regardless of your hand.

  • If both you and the dealer have the same score, this is known as a 'push,' and no one wins or loses, you simply receive your stake back.

  • A blackjack, sometimes called a natural, occurs when your first two cards are an ace and a ten or face card. This automatically wins you the hand unless the dealer also has a blackjack, in which case it's a push.

The value of each card in blackjack is pretty simple to remember:

  • Cards 2-10 are worth their face value.

  • Aces are worth 1 or 11, whichever is better for your hand.

  • Face cards (jacks, queens, and kings) are each worth 10.

How To Play BlackjackNow that we've got the blackjack rules out of the way, let's take a look at how to play blackjack step by step:

Step 1: Place Your Bet

You need to place a bet before the game can begin. At a physical casino, you simply put your chips down on the table in front of you. When playing online, you need to click on the relevant area of the table to indicate how much you want to bet. The great thing about online casinos is that you can start with very small bets if you like.

Step 2: The Dealer Deals the Cards

The dealer will then deal two cards to you and themselves. Your cards will be dealt face up. One of the dealer's cards will be face-up, and the other will be face-down. The face-down card is often referred to as the 'hole card.'

Step 3: Work Out Your Total Score

As we've discussed, each card has a value, and you will add up the total value of your cards to find your score. For instance, if you have a king and a six, your total score would be 16. Another example would be if you have an ace and a five, you can either count the ace as a 1 for a total score of 6 or as an 11 for a total score of 16. The suit of the cards doesn't matter.

Step 4: Blackjack or Hit?

Now you need to decide; do you have a good enough hand to beat the dealer? If you think so, you can 'stand,' which means you stay where you are with the cards you have. If not, you can 'hit' and take another card from the dealer. You can keep hitting until you either go over 21 and 'bust,' or you're happy with your score.

Step 5: The Dealer's Turn

Once all the players at the table have made their decisions, it's the dealer's turn. The dealer will play according to set rules that determine when they must hit and when they must stand. For instance, the rules at one particular table might dictate that the dealer must hit on a score of 16 or less and stand on a score of 17 or more.

The dealer will reveal their hole card and add up their total score.

Step 6: Who Won?

You win the hand if your score exceeds the dealer's and you haven't busted. If the dealer has a higher score than you or you've busted, the dealer wins. If both you and the dealer have the same score, it's a push, and no one wins or loses. If you won, you'd be paid out at odds of 1 to 1 on your bet. Or if you scored a blackjack or natural, you'll usually be paid out at odds of 3 to 2.

What is the Basic Strategy in Blackjack?

Blackjack's basic strategy involves a system of principles that instructs you how to play each hand of blackjack in the best manner possible and is founded on mathematical calculations proven to reduce the casino's edge over time substantially.

It considers all of the information available to you at the blackjack table. This includes the initial two cards you've been dealt, the dealer's face-up card, and how many decks of cards are in play.

Other considerations evaluated include whether a double after split is allowed and if the dealer hits or stands on soft 17 (an ace counted as an 11).

Blackjack Strategy Rules

An essential part of blackjack strategy is understanding whether to hit or stand with soft hands. A soft hand is any hand that contains an Ace since the Ace can be counted as either a one or an 11. In contrast, hard hands do not contain any Aces, or it is only counted as 1 point.

Typically we are at an advantage with a soft hand.

The following are seven basic strategy rules that you can use straight away:

  1. If you score 16, surrender if the dealer has a 9, 10, or Ace showing.

  2. If you have a score of 15, surrender if the dealer's upcard is a 10.

  3. Always split Aces but never split tens.

  4. Always split a pair of eights.

  5. 17 up (hard hand) always stands

  6. Ace & a 9 (soft 20) always stands

  7. 5 to 8 with a hard hand always hits

Blackjack Side Bets

You'll find additional side bets to wager on at some casinos while playing blackjack. While these bets don't follow the same rules as basic strategy, they can still be fun to play around with.

Blackjack Side BetsHere are a few of the more common side bets you'll find:

Insurance bet – This is offered when the dealer's upcard is an Ace. You're essentially betting that the dealer has a 10-value card in their hole card, giving them a blackjack. It pays 2 to 1 if the dealer does have blackjack. We suggest staying away from this bet; the odds are firmly stacked in the house's favor; any blackjack player who's been playing the game for a while will tell you the same.

Perfect pairs bet – This is a wager that the first two cards you're dealt will be a pair. There are different payouts for different types of pairs. For example, a perfect pair (two cards of the same rank and suit) pays 30 to 1. A colored pair (two cards of the same rank but different suits) pays 10 to 1. And a mixed pair (two cards of different rank and suit) pays 5 to 1.

21+3 - If you're a poker fan, this wager could be up your street. You're essentially betting on the first two cards you're dealt and the dealer's upcard making a flush, straight, three-of-a-kind, or straight flush. The odds and payouts vary depending on what hand is made and where you play.

Betting Systems for Blackjack

If we haven't already blown your mind with basic strategy charts and the different side bets, then get ready to have your blackjack world rocked with betting systems!

Are betting systems for blackjack worth using or not?

Firstly let's get this straight - we don't necessarily advocate using betting systems; we're pretty much on the fence about it. Some people swear by them, claiming they've won big using betting systems. Others say they're nothing but a waste of time and money.

Our answer is maybe; we'll provide you with the information on how they work, and you can decide for yourself if they are something you want to explore further.

So what's a betting system?

A betting system is any method used to determine how much you should bet and when you should bet it. Some systems are straightforward, like the Martingale system, which simply tells you to double your bet after every loss. Others are incredibly complicated, involving intricate mathematical formulas.

Many of these systems have been developed by mathematicians over the centuries and can be applied to other casino games as well, such as roulette and craps.

Most betting systems can be classified as either positive or negative progression systems.

A positive progression system has you increasing your bet after a win and decreasing it after a loss. A negative progression system, as you might guess, is the opposite. You increase your bet after a loss and decrease it after a win.

Betting Systems and Strategy in Blackjack

Martingale System

The easiest and most popular betting system is the Martingale. You probably don't want a history lesson, but we will impress you with our knowledge anyway. The Martingale system was devised in the 18th century by a French mathematician named Paul Pierre Levy. It became popular after it was used by casino owner John Henry Martindale, where it got its name (with a slight misspelling).

It's a simple system to get started with. When applied to blackjack, you simply double your bet after a loss. For example, if you're betting $5 and lose, the next hand, you bet $10. If you lose that hand, you bet $20 on the next. And so on.

The supposed idea behind this system is that eventually, you will win, and when you do, your winnings will cover all of your previous losses plus give you a little profit. Our issue with this narrative is that it doesn't factor in the reality of playing blackjack.

Most of us don't have an infinite bankroll; if you hit a long losing streak, you could be burning your cash rapidly.

D'Alembert System

The history lesson continues! This system was developed in the late 1700s by French mathematician Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. D'Alembert surmised (wrongly) that the odds of a coin landing heads increased each time it came up tails.

When used as a blackjack betting system, you increase your bet by one unit after a loss and decrease it by one unit after a win. So if your original bet was $5 and you lose the next hand, you'd bet $6. If you win that hand, your next bet would be $5 again.

Oscar's Grind

This strange-sounding system first appeared in the book The Casino Gambler's Guide in 1965. Named after the maybe fictional craps player Oscar, it's all about grinding with this betting system.

This system works cyclically. To start, you make a small bet, say $5. If you win the hand, you pocket your winnings and make the same small bet again.

If you lose the hand, you increase your next bet by one unit. So if you were betting $5 and lost the next hand, you'd bet $6 (or one unit). This continues until you have made a one-unit profit, and the cycle starts again. As you can see, this is why it's called a grind, small profits over multiple games.

Blackjack Terms and Glossary

Most blackjack games use standardized terms that all players should know.

  • Bankroll - The total sum of cash a player has to wager.

  • Blackjack - is when you're dealt an ace and a 10-value card, giving you a total of 21. It's the best hand you can have and automatically wins unless the dealer also has blackjack. It's also called a natural.

  • Bust - Going over 21 points in your hand results in a loss.

  • Double down - is when you double your original bet in exchange for receiving just one more card.

  • Hit - is when you ask the dealer for another card. You can hit as many times as you like, but if your total goes over 21, you bust and automatically lose the hand.

  • Hole card - is the dealer's hidden face-down card. The hole card is not revealed until all players have acted on their hands.

  • Insurance - is when the dealer offers you insurance against them having blackjack. You can choose to place an insurance bet, which will pay out if the dealer does have blackjack. Don't Take This Bet!!

  • Natural - See blackjack.

  • Push - a tie between you and the dealer, resulting in no win or loss. Your original bet is returned to you.

  • Stand - is when you tell the dealer you're happy with the cards you have and don't want any more. Once all players have stood, it's the dealer's turn to play.

  • Split - is when you're dealt two cards of the same value and can choose to split them into two separate hands. You'll need to place a second bet equal to your original one and then play each hand separately.

  • Surrender - is when you give up half of your original bet and end your hand early.

  • Upcard - is the dealer's card that is face up for all players to see.

Blackjack Variant Games

Something you'll find at online casinos that you don't experience in a real-world setting is the sheer number of blackjack variant games on offer.

There are now so many variants of blackjack available that it can be confusing for even experienced players.

Basic strategy isn't always an option with some of these games, and finding blackjack charts for even the most popular variants can be challenging.

Here's a quick rundown on a few of the most popular blackjack variants:

  • Spanish 21 - is played with Spanish decks, which have no 10-value cards in them. This somewhat changes the basic strategy as there are fewer 10s to make blackjacks.

  • Blackjack Switch - is a variant where you play two hands at once and can choose to switch the top card of each hand if it would be beneficial.

  • Free Bet Blackjack - The house pays for your doubles and splits in this variant. However, the push 22 rule is in effect, meaning that if the dealer busts with a total of 22, it's a push instead of a win for the player.

In Summary

Blackjack is a perfect marriage of luck and skill. You don't need to master basic blackjack strategy as plenty of free strategy charts are available online to download and print out.

However, memorizing as many strategy rules as possible will keep the game flowing, and you'll feel more confident as you play.

The key to winning at blackjack is always knowing the optimal move and having the discipline to stick to the mathematically proven strategies, even when you're on a losing streak.

Blackjack Strategy FAQs

Q: What casino games are similar to blackjack?

Blackjack has its own unique flavor, but there are plenty of other casino games to explore. Baccarat is another card game that pits you against the dealer. The object of the game is to get as close to nine as possible with your hand of two or three cards.

Poker is another popular casino game that combines skill and chance. In most poker games, you play against other players, not the house. The poker player's goal is to make the best hand possible and bet accordingly.

Q: What if I don't want to use the basic strategy?

You are free to do as you like, but why not minimize the house edge and win more often at the blackjack table? Employing the basic blackjack strategy seems like common sense to us.

Q: Can you beat blackjack?

No one has ever been able to achieve a perfect blackjack strategy, as there is always some element of luck involved, and the house will always have the edge, but it's by no means impossible to win at blackjack.

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