Basics of blackjack strategy

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My recent column on blackjack was a basic introduction to the game for those who have never played and are not really familiar with the basic workings of the game.

Today, I will go into the basics of strategy of blackjack. Blackjack strategy is a little like video poker strategy. Cards are dealt and you potentially have a few choices based on these cards. Obviously, unlike video poker the decision is not which cards to hold/discard, but rather what action do you want to take.

The decision is not always binary — meaning one of two things. When you play Three Card Poker, you either play or you fold. In blackjack, you might hit, split, double down, stick or surrender.

Of course, some of these are not available all the time. You can’t split a 7 and an 8. You can only double down when you have two cards in a hand. Most hands only have two realistic options, but many do have three.

If you’re dealt a pair of 7’s, do you hit, stick or split? Obviously, we need to know the Dealer’s upcard to make the right decision. But how is the right decision determined? For the most part, using a method very similar to that used in video poker.

Basics of how to play blackjack

In order to know which is the best way to play the hand, we need to know all the possible outcomes of each choice. With a single deck in video poker, this is a simple finite number. With a six-deck shoe and a much larger possibility of cards drawn and where order matters, the combinations are considerably higher. One of two methods is generally used.

The first is a simulation of each way the hand can be played. A fairly large number of hands are drawn out using a computer program to determine if the player is better off hitting or sticking (or doubling or splitting when allowed).

The second method uses a math model to look at all the possible ways the hand can be drawn to and the probability of the player winning or losing each. In both cases, the results of the different ways the hand can be played are compared. Whichever play gives the player his greatest unit win or least unit loss is the proper strategy.

You’ll note that unlike video poker, I didn’t use the term expected value. In video poker all hands have the same sized wager, so if we look at expected value we are comparing apples to apples.

In blackjack, when you double or split, you are increasing your wager and if you use the formula for expected value as total units returned divided by total units wagered, you might do yourself a disservice. Would you rather risk 2 units and win back 3 or wager 1 unit and win back 1.75?

The former has an expected value of 1.5, while the latter’s is 1.75. But in blackjack, the former is the right choice because the net win is 1 unit vs. 0.75 for the second option.

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The other interesting part about strategy creation for Blackjack is that it is iterative. Unlike video poker, where one hand has nothing to do with another, in blackjack, in order to know what to do with a Hard 12, we have to know what to do with a Hard 13 to Hard 20. So, we determine what the right strategy for a Hard 20 is first using one of the methods described earlier.

From there, we determine the strategy for a Hard 19, knowing that if we draw an Ace, we follow the strategy for a Hard 20. We continue all the way down to a Hard 5, the lowest Hard hand that is not a pair. After the hard hands, we work on the soft hands and then the pairs.

When we are all done, we have a not so simple table of player hand and dealer up-card combinations that tells the player what to do at each point. So, while there are a few differences from video poker, the basic concepts are still the same.

In video poker, we need to scan the strategy table from top to bottom looking for a match. In blackjack, we know exactly what hand we have and simply need to find the right box on our table that matches the situation and follow what it tells you to do.

In the coming weeks, I’ll go over some of the finer points of the strategy itself for the most common offering of blackjack.

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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