If you love casino games, blackjack offers you the best odds of walking away from the table a winner. You measure how good or bad the odds are at a casino game by the house edge. The higher the house edge, the worse the game is for the player.
Roulette, for example, has a house edge of 5.26%. This means that in the long run, the casino expects to win $5.26 for every $100 you wager on the game.
The house edge in blackjack is only 0.5%. Over the long run, you’re expected to lose $0.50 for every $100 you wager.
That’s a huge difference.
But the house edge is also a quick way to decide how likely it is that you’ll walk away a winner. (This is a general rule, but it holds true more often than not.)
The problem with blackjack is that to achieve the 0.5% house edge, you have to know the rules and strategy for the game. If you make a lot of strategy mistakes, the house edge might be as high as 4% or 5%.
This post covers most of what you need to know to win at blackjack–even if you’re a beginner.
1- You can only win at blackjack if you understand the rules.
Not just some of them, either. You need to understand ALL the rules.
Here’s a quick overview. In a later post, I’ll include a detailed look at blackjack rules. But this will get you started:
You start a blackjack game by choosing a table. The most important thing to look for at the table is what stakes you’re playing for. You’d feel silly if you only had $100 to play with and sat down at a table with a $50 minimum bet.
The next thing you need to do is buy chips. You do this by laying your money on the table. The dealer will give you the chips. Do not hand your cash to the dealer. She can’t take anything out of your hands, for security reasons.
Then you place a bet. The dealer deals you and the other players at the table a 2 card hand. She also deals herself a hand.
You’re playing against the dealer, not the other players.
The cards are worth their face value. Face cards (the jack, queen, and king) are worth 10 points. And the ace is worth 1 OR 11 points, depending on your hand.
If you get a 10 and an ace, you have a “natural” or “blackjack”. That hand pays off at 3 to 2 at most decent games. It’s also an automatic winner–unless the dealer also has a blackjack.
If you don’t have a blackjack, you can decide how to play your hand. If you “stand”, you choose to take no more cards. If you “hit”, you choose to take an additional card. You can also “split” pairs or “double down”. (I’ll cover those options in more detail in my blackjack rules post.)
If at any time your total exceeds 21, you bust, which means you automatically lose.
If you’re still in the hand after standing, at the end of the round, you compare your hand total to the dealer’s. Whoever has a total closer to 21 wins. Most bets pay off at even money.
The dealer also might bust. She has prescribed rules to follow when it comes to hitting and standing. She doesn’t get to exercise her judgment at all.
If the dealer busts, and you’re still in the hand, you win by default–no matter how low your total point value is.
Those are the basics of blackjack play.
You can’t win at blackjack unless you understand the rules thoroughly.
2- The 2nd trick to winning at blackjack is mastering basic strategy.
You have a limited number of possible totals, which can be divided into soft totals or hard totals. A soft total is one in which you have an ace that can count as 1 or 11 without going bust.
You also can see one of the dealer’s cards. She deals herself a card face-up and a card face-down. Since she acts last, you have a limited amount of information about what she’s holding.
For every decision you can make at the blackjack table, only one has the highest expected value.
If you’ve memorized the mathematically correct play for every possible situation in blackjack, you’ve memorized basic strategy.
The house edge posted for each blackjack game on the various websites assumes you’ve mastered and are using perfect basic strategy.
Many decisions are obvious. For example, you’d be a fool to hit a hand totaling 20. After all, almost any card will result in a bust. You’d also be crazy to stand on a total of 8, as it’s impossible to do anything other than improve your hand in that situation.
The house gets its edge by acting last. If you bust before the dealer plays, you automatically lose your bet. The dealer might bust, too, but you’ve already lost your money by then.
To make basic strategy even more complicated, it varies based on which rules variations are in play. For example, in some casinos, the dealer hits a soft 17 total. In others, the dealer stands.
On some hands, you’ll need to make a different decision based on that rules set.
I’ll cover all this in more detail in my upcoming basic strategy post.
3- You can’t be a winner at blackjack if you don’t have a big enough bankroll.
Well, you can, but only if you play a hand or two, get lucky, and quit.
Most people don’t want to play one or two hands and quit.
You can win at blackjack in the long run in a couple of ways:
- You can play only the best blackjack games with the best rules. You then combine the tiny house edge with your mastery of basic strategy and the comps system to profit via the free stuff from the casino.
- You can learn one of various advantage play techniques like counting cards and get an edge over the casino. If you’re counting cards, you do NOT want to use the comps system.
I’ll go into more detail about the comps system in the next post, but let’s talk about bankroll requirements first.
Even if you have a mathematical edge over the casino, you can go broke. Anyone can run into a streak of bad luck.
That’s how the short run works in gambling.
If sit down at a table with $100, and the table minimum is $20, you can only lose 5 hands in a row before going broke. Even if you’re counting cards, you don’t stand a chance.
Also, your blackjack bankroll should be separate from all your other money. You can’t use your rent money to bankroll your card counting hobby/business. You’ll make mistakes based on needing that money for other things.
The most detailed recommendation I’ve seen is to have between 200 and 1000 bets in bankroll before launching your card counting career.
Your goal is to minimize your “risk of ruin”. That’s fancy math talk for the likelihood of going broke before your small edge kicks in.
4- You should take advantage of the comps system at the casino, but only if you’re not an advantage player.
Here’s how the comps system works:
You sign up for the loyalty club at the casino. They give you a plastic card. The casino uses that card to track how much money you put into action.
They don’t track your wins versus losses, by the way. They’re only interested in how much you play. The casino knows that if you play a lot, they’ll eventually profit.
They have a mathematical advantage, remember?
The casino then awards you free stuff based on a percentage (0.2% to 0.3%) of your action. This can come in the form of cash rebates, food and beverage, lodging, entertainment tickets, and travel tickets.
If you’re good enough at basic strategy, you might be able to combine these comps with your mastery of basic strategy to play a close to break-even game.
If you’re counting cards, though, you don’t want the casino tracking your play. They ban card counters, you know. (More about that soon.)
5- If you’re going to become an advantage player, start by learning how to count cards.
An advantage player is a gambler who uses trick and techniques to get an edge over the casino. That’s not the same thing as cheating, by the way. In blackjack, the most basic way to win consistently is by counting cards.
It’s easier than most people think, too. You don’t have to memorize the deck. You just keep a rough accounting of how many high cards and low cards have already been dealt.
If a lot of the low cards are gone from the deck, you have a better chance of getting a natural. That’s because most 10s and aces are still in the deck.
Since a natural pays off at 3 to 2, you want to bet more in that situation. If you raise the size of your bets when you have an edge, you can get a cumulative edge over the casino.
I’ll post details about how to get started counting cards later this week or next, but it’s easier than you think. I promise.
6- Practice constantly.
When you’re counting cards, you’re adding 1 or subtracting 1 from a count in your head. The low cards are the ones where you add 1. The high cards are when you subtract 1.
But you need to be able to do this without the casino dealers noticing. This means you need to practice–a lot.
It’s hard to concentrate this closely on what’s happening at the blackjack table. The game moves fast.
But it’s even harder when you want to do so invisibly. Remember, the casino can (and will) ban you from their blackjack games if they think you’re counting cards. You can’t win at blackjack in a casino that won’t let you play.
Also, the accuracy of your count makes a big difference to your profitability. If you think it’s time to raise your bet, and you’re wrong, you could wreck any edge you might have gained.
If you’re going to count cards, commit to getting good at it. That takes practice.
7- Consider other advantage play techniques.
Counting cards isn’t the only way to get an edge at blackjack. You can also specialize in spotting “deal tells”, for example.
Here’s how that works:
Some dealers have subtle but visible reactions to certain hole cards. If you can spot those reactions, you can adjust your playing strategy accordingly. You can get a small edge this way.
Hole carding is another advantage technique that’s worth learning. If you sit far enough to the right or to the left, you might be able to get a glimpse of the dealer’s down card when she checks for blackjack.
You can see what an advantage that would be, surely.
I’ll also write a future post explaining all the blackjack advantage techniques I know of.
I hope you enjoyed reading about these 7 ways to win at blackjack. I want to recap a couple of the points I made earlier here.
You cannot win at blackjack unless you understand the rules backwards, forward, and sideways. This means understanding all the variations and how they affect your odds. I’ll post details of all the future rules in a new post, soon.
Mastering basic strategy is the next most important step. You cannot expect to win at blackjack if you can’t make the correct decisions about how to play each hand. In every situation at the blackjack table, there’s only one correct move to make mathematically.
Finally, if you’re serious about winning at blackjack, you need to learn some kind of advantage technique. I recommend learning to count cards first. But you can learn other ways of getting an edge, too.
The trick after that is to practice at home so much that the casino doesn’t catch you. If they realize you’re counting cards, they’ll run you off in a heartbeat.