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Basic Strategy is Just That -- Basic!
Blackjack is considered by many gaming experts to be the very best table game in the casino, excepting poker. We gaming writers extol its virtues just about every chance we get. Many novice players believe blackjack is a great game as well and, as soon as they head into the casino for their first challenge of Lady Luck, they storm the blackjack tables and...discover that blackjack is deadly! They lose their shirts.
You see, blackjack is only a good game if you use the right strategy, boringly called “basic strategy,” otherwise players can face edges of from 2 to 6 percent or more, depending on how they play their hands. Blackjack can also be a very fast game, where the casino can get in anywhere from 60 to 100 decisions per hour. Bad strategy plus fast game equals disaster for the players.
One of the big blunders first-time blackjack players make is to figure that if the house has their dealers play a certain way, and the house has an edge, then that must be the best way to play for the players as well. It isn’t. It is one of the worst!
The house rules generally have the dealer standing on 17 (some casinos have dealers hit their “soft” 17s -- Ace:6, a bad option for the players) and hitting on any hand that is 16 or less until they get to 17 or more. Obviously, dealers do not double down (how can they, they don’t make any bets to double!), pair split (ditto), or surrender (if that option is offered). Players who mimic the dealer will face a house edge close to six percent.
If you are a ten-dollar player playing, say, 80 hands per hour, that means you can expect to lose about $48 per hour in the long run if you persist in playing like the dealer. Four hours of play will see you digging into Louella’s college fund to the tune of $192. Ouch!
Why is this “mimic the dealer” style so awful? Because the dealer plays his hand last. If a player goes over 21 and busts and, subsequently, the dealer goes over 21 and busts, the result is not a tie but a player loss! That is the big edge for the casino, the dealer can bust and still beat the player.
Some players play even worse strategies than “mimic the dealer.” You see them making all the wrong moves, hitting their 17s, splitting fives and tens, doubling on 12s, standing on 16 against a dealer’s seven, and standing on their eights and nines! We saw a guy at Biloxi do just this, stand on an eight. When asked why he didn’t hit it since it was impossible to bust, he said: “Stand on eight, lose a crate.” We know what this saying meant in terms of blackjack, the player was a ploppy (which is a moron with attitude), but what the saying actually meant, eludes us. (If any readers have heard of this saying and know what it means, we’d love to hear from you.) One thing is for sure; his style of play will see him losing a crateful of money to the casinos.
However, wise blackjack players, who learn basic strategy, will discover that blackjack does indeed deserve the plaudits it has received from the gambling experts. If you play correct basic strategy, which is the computer-derived play of every player hand against every dealer upcard, you will find yourself facing an approximately one-half percent casino edge and, sometimes, even less. Such a player playing ten dollars per hand for 80 hands per hour, would expect to lose only four dollars per hour in the long run. That is a far cry from the $48 dollars per hour of the “mimic the dealer” strategy.
Basic strategy tends to be logical, intuitive, and often obvious. If you have a blackjack, which is a 21 with two cards, you would not treat it as an eleven and double down. You’d happily take your three-to-two payout. If you have a 20, you’d stand against all dealer upcards; same with a 17, 18 or 19. Any time the dealer is strong and you are weak, you’d hit your hands of 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. That means hit these hands when the dealer has a 7, 8, 9, 10, face card, or Ace showing. When the dealer is weak and you are weak, you let the dealer take a hit. That means standing on your 13, 14, 15, 16 when the dealer shows a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.
However, some basic strategy moves are not “intuitive.” In fact, they feel wrong. For example, you always hit your 12 against a dealer’s upcard of 2 or 3. Many players will blanche at having to do this but the computers have shown, in analyzing billions of 12s against dealer upcards of 2 and 3, that you lose less money when you hit than when you stand. Another counter-intuitive move is the splitting of 8s against a dealer upcard of 10 or Ace. Very few players enjoy the prospect of taking their 16, a losing hand, splitting the 8s and facing a powerful dealer upcard with the resulting two hands and double the money on the table. Still, it is the right thing to do. A 16 is a loser against a 10, any way you slice it. But a split pair of 8s will lose you less money in the long run even though you are putting up twice the money! Strange but true. In this case you don’t follow your fears, you split the 8s and trust the math.
There are other counter-intuitive moves as well. No one likes to hit Ace:7 (soft 18) against a dealer’s 9, 10 or Ace. But in the long run 18 is a losing hand for a player. The average winning hand for a player is approximately 18.8. So even though it feels wrong to hit your soft 18s against a dealer 9, 10 or ace, you must do it.
Pair splitting strategies can also cause one pause. Who wants to split a pair of 2s or 3s against a dealer’s 2 in games where you can double after splits? Very few. The fear is that you’ll get a ten on each, hit each, get more tens and bust. The fact is, you’ll win more money if you split those low cards in such a situation.
Obviously, this article cannot teach you all the basics of basic strategy but picking up a good book can (my Best Blackjack is highly recommended). Once you have mastered basic strategy, you can head for the tables and play a really tight game against the casinos. In fact, with comps thrown in, basic strategy players lose very little money and some even have a “monetary edge” over the casino. A “monetary edge” just means that between what you lose in the game (that half percent) and what you get in dollar value for comps, you are taking more in then you are giving out.
For blackjack players, the rule is clear. Play basic strategy or don’t play at all.