You’ve probably seen writers claim that blackjack is the only game in the casino where the smart player can get an edge over the house. You’ve also probably seen more accurate writers discuss how the basic strategy player can get the house edge down to less than 1%.
What these writers are talking about is blackjack basic strategy.
Since you know what cards you have and one of the cards that the dealer has, you’re in a position where you can make decisions that will help or hurt your probability of winning.
Basic strategy represents the best possible plays you can make in every situation at the table.
What Is Blackjack Basic Strategy and Why Does It Matter?
When you analyze one decision in gambling versus another decision, you compare the expected value of each decision. You should always choose the decision with the best expected value.
In blackjack basic strategy, the optimal play in every situation is presented for the player to learn. Most sites teach basic strategy using a table or chart.
But I like to present it using text.
I think explaining the reasoning behind each decision makes it easier to memorize.
The house edge in blackjack is often quoted as between 0.25% and 1%. This depends on the rules in place at the casino.
But it also assumes you’re making the optimal decision in every situation.
If you’re making bad decisions and ignoring basic strategy, you’re probably facing a house edge closer to 4% or 5% because of your mistakes.
That house edge represents how much you’re mathematically expected to lose per bet on average over the long run. It’s expressed as a percentage.
If you face a house edge of 1%, you’re expected to lose $1 every time you bet $100. If you face a house edge of 5%, you’re expected to lose $5 every time you bet $100.
Getting the house edge as low as possible is a sensible goal.
Here’s how to play the various hands using perfect blackjack basic strategy:
Types of Blackjack Hands
Blackjack is a straightforward enough game that doesn’t pay attention to the suits. It’s only interested in your total.
But for purposes of making decisions, you can categorize these hands in 3 ways:
- Soft totals
- Hard totals
A pair is a hand made up of 2 cards of the same ranking. If you have 2 aces on your first 2 cards, for example, you have a pair. You have the option of splitting a pair.
When you split a pair, you play 2 hands. You put up a 2nd bet for this privilege. The starting card for each of those 2 hands is one of the 2 cards from your original hand.
A soft total is a total where the ace can count as 1 or 11. You can’t bust a soft total, because if you get a card high enough that it might bust your hand, you can count the ace as a 1 instead of an 11 and stay in the game.
Here’s an example:
You have an ace and a 7. That’s a soft total of 18.
You take a hit, and the dealer gives you a 9. You now have a hard total of 17. (You have no choice but to count the ace as 1.)
A hard total is a total with no flexibility. Any hand lacking an ace is automatically a hard total. But also, any hand where the ace must count as 1 to avoid busting is also considered a hard hand.
Blackjack Basic Strategy for Surrendering
In some casinos, surrendering isn’t an option at all. This makes your possible decisions easier.
But it’s better to have the option to surrender.
In most casinos, late surrender is the only option. You’re allowed to surrender, but only after the dealer checks for blackjack. In rare casinos with generous rules, you might be allowed to surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack. This is called early surrender.
Surrendering means you give up half your bet, but you’re out of the hand. You’ll only surrender if the odds are against you.
You’ll only surrender on 2 totals, and even then, you’ll only surrender if the dealer has certain cards face up:
- A hard total of 15 – You’ll only surrender if the dealer has a 10 showing. If the dealer has any other card showing, you’ll play the hand according to the blackjack basic strategy for hitting and standing below.
- A hard total of 16 – You’ll surrender if the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing. Otherwise, you’ll play the hand according to the blackjack basic strategy for hitting or standing below.
The hard totals of 15 and 16 are the worst possible hands you can have. Almost any total the dealer has is going to beat your hand if you stand. And if you hit, almost any card you get is going to make you bust.
With a total of 15, you have 24 cards in the deck which will improve your hand. That leaves 28 cards which will bust your hand.
With a total of 16, you only have 20 cards in the deck which will improve your hand. That leaves 32 cards which will bust your hand.
But even if your hand improves, if the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing, she probably has you beat.
Surrendering half your bet is 100% guaranteed to lose you money.
But it only loses half your bet.
Your expected loss if you continue to play the hand in these situations is greater than half your bet. So you should surrender if you can.
That should be easy enough to remember. You’ll only surrender if you have a hard total of 15 or 16, and only then if the dealer has a scary up-card.
Blackjack Basic Strategy for Splitting Pairs
Let’s start with 2 hands you’ll always split: aces and 8s.
Always split aces and 8s. The logic behind this isn’t crazy. If you have a 2 aces, you have a soft total of 12, which doesn’t count for much.
But any time the first card of your hand is an ace, you have the potential to get a natural, or blackjack. That hand pays off at 3 to 2, and the odds aren’t bad for getting that hand if you start with an ace.
There are 16 cards in the deck worth 10 points. You’ll miss the blackjack more often than not, but you’ll get paid off on it often enough to make it worthwile.
Also, when your first card is an ace, you’re guaranteed a soft total. You don’t have to worry about going bust.
Splitting aces is all upside.
Splitting 8s, on the other hand, has different reasoning. If you don’t split the 8s, you have a hard total of 16. Everyone knows that as far as stiff hand go, that’s one of the worst.
If you hit a hard 16, you have 32 cards which will bust your hand. If you stand on a hard 16, the dealer has a good shot at beating you.
But when you split those 8s, you get 2 new hand where the 8 is your first card. Most cards complement an 8 nicely.
If you get a 9, 10, or an ace (which make up 24 cards), you have a hard total of 17 or 18, or a soft total of 19. Those are all respectable totals with a reasonable chance of winning.
You’re not likely to get another 8, as most of the 8s are gone now.
If you get a 7 or less, you wind up with hands where you have clear decisions to make.
Splitting 8s isn’t as exciting or fun as splitting aces, but it’s still the right move.
Now let’s look at pairs you should never split: 4s, 5s, and 10s.
It’s probably obvious why you wouldn’t split 10s. Even though a first card of 10 is a pretty good hand, a total of 20 is excellent. The dealer will have a hard time beating that.
Most of the cards in the deck are going to give you a lower total and less of a chance of betting the dealer.
If you have a pair of 5s, you have a starting total of 10. That’s a great starting total, because you have 20 cards in the deck which will bring your total to 20 or 21. Few cards will give you a lousy hand, although a 6 would be a bummer. There are only 4 of those, though.
If you have a pair of 4s, you have a starting total of 8. You still have more 10s left in the deck than anything else, so you have a good shot at a respectable total of 18 or 19. (There are aces in the deck, still, too.)
There are only 10 possible pairs, and you now know how to play half of them. Always split aces and 8s. Never split 4s 5s or 10s.
Let’s look at the rest of the possible pairs:
Pairs of 2s and 3s are played exactly the same way. If the dealer has an 8 or higher, you won’t split those hands. If the dealer has a 7 or less, you will split them.
One of the ways to think about these strategies has to do with the large number of 10s in the deck. If you get a 10 on top of a 2 or 3, you’re dealing with a hard total of 12 or 13. That’s not thrilling, but it’s reasonable against a dealer’s possible stiff hand.
Pairs of 6s are similar to 2s or 3s. You’ll split if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. If the dealer has a 7 or higher, you won’t split.
A pair of 7s isn’t much different, either. You play a pair of 7s just like a pair of 2s or 3s, at least when deciding whether to split.
A pair of 9s is the only tricky one to remember. You’ll split 9s if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. You’ll also split 9s if the dealer has an 8 or 9. If the dealer has a 7, 10, or an ace, you’ll stand.
That’s all there is to splitting pairs. If you don’t split the pair, you’ll treat it as the corresponding hard total below.
For example, if you have a pair of 2s, and you don’t split the hand, you’ll play it as if it were a hard total of 4.
Blackjack Basic Strategy for Doubling Down
In blackjack, you can double down by putting up a 2nd bet. You must take one more card. You’re not allowed to take any additional cards after that first one, either.
You’ll always double down on a hard total of 11. The chances of getting a 10 and increasing your total to 21 is just too good to skip.
You’ll almost always double down on a hard total of 10, too. The only exceptions are if the dealer has an ace or a 10. In those cases, you’ll only hit.
You’ll sometimes double down on a hard total of 9. If the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6, you’ll double down on that 9. Otherwise, you’ll hit. (The dealer has a higher probability of going bust when one of her cards is a 3, 4, 5, or 6. This adds to your expected value in this situation, so you want to get more money into action.)
You’ll also double down on a lot of soft hands in various situations, as listed below:
- Double down on a soft 13 or 14 if the dealer has a 5 or 6 showing.
- Double down on a soft 15 or 16 if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing.
- If you have a soft 17, you should double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing.
- You’ll double down on a soft 18 if the dealer has a 6 or less showing.
Those are the only totals you’ll double down on:
- Hard 9, 10, or 11
- Soft 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, or 18
Blackjack Basic Strategy for Hitting or Standing
As a general rule, you’ll be more conservative when the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. You’ll be more aggressive if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
Standing is the conservative play.
Hitting is the aggressive play.
Here’s another general rule: you’ll play soft hands more aggressively than hard hands. This makes sense, too. Hard hands are easier to bust. Since you can change the value of an ace to 1, you can avoid busting.
Here are the soft hands you’ll stand on:
- If you have a soft 19 or 20, you’ll almost always stand. The only exception is if you have a soft 19 versus a dealer 6. In that instance, you’ll double down if it’s allowed.
- You’ll stand on a soft 18 if the dealer has a 7 or 8.
That’s it. You won’t stand on any other soft total. You’ll always hit or double down on any other soft total.
Here are the hard hands you’ll stand on:
- If you have a hard 17, 18, 19, 20, or 21, you’ll stand. The chances of going bust are too high to warrant trying to improve your hand.
- If you have a hard 13, 14, 15, or 16, you’ll stand if the dealer has 6 or lower showing. The dealer has a high enough chance of busting in this situation that conservative play is rewarded.
- If you have a hard 12, you’ll stand if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing.
Those are the only hard totals you’ll stand on. If you have any other hard total, you’ll either double down or hit.
If you can memorize all that, you’ve mastered basic strategy–without having to look at a chart or table.
Blackjack basic strategy is one of the best ways to get the best odds in the casino. I prefer learning how to play with perfect basic strategy by looking at explanation for how the hands work. If you’re a visual learner, you might be better off memorizing one of those colored charts or tables you’ll find on so many other sites.
Also, keep in mind that basic strategy might change slightly based on the table conditions where you’re playing. Different rules sometimes require slightly different strategies. Usually this will only change how you play one or 2 hands. The basic strategy engine at BlackjackInfo.com can generate a strategy table for any set of conditions you input.