Blackjack by Michael Shackleford aka Wizard of Odds
Blackjack should need no introduction. I would hazard to say that it is the most popular casino table game in the world measured by number of players. I won't get into the rules because they are so widely known. If you need to review them, please see an explanation here.
One of the most frequent questions I get is "What casino table games have the best odds?" The answer is blackjack and craps. No other popular table games come close. With both of these games, it is easy to get the house edge under 1% and often under 0.5%, depending on the rules. However, few players enjoy that low house edge on blackjack because most of them play awful strategy. Studies have shown that for the average player, strategy errors increase the house edge by 2%. This article was created to help you easily become a sharp player and save you losing that extra 2% above the house edge at the tables. With just some simple rules of thumb in this article, you can cut the cost of errors by 93%.
As with many casino games, there are two parts to getting the best possible odds:
- Game selection
- Playing proper strategy
Regarding game selection, here are some things to look for and to avoid:
- Always insist on a full 3 to 2 win for a blackjack. It doesn't matter how good the rest of the rules are, they pale in comparison to getting a full pay on a blackjack. The most common alternative is odds of 6 to 5 on a blackjack. Have absolutely nothing to do with that. Lowering the win on a blackjack from 1.5 to 1.2 increases the house edge by 1.35%.
- The fewer the decks, the better. However, other rules often are better at games with six or eight decks. Some casinos will offer the exact same rules in their double-deck and six-deck games. In that case, play the double deck.
- Look for games where the player can double after a split.
- Look for surrender as an option.
- Look for the American "peek" rule at the hole card. In a land casino, you probably won't have a choice, but many Internet casinos offer both the liberal American peeking rule and stingy European no-hole card version. Online blackjack rules tend to be awfully written, but if the dealer takes a hole card, the software probably will expose a blackjack immediately. If it doesn't take a hole card, then you probably will lose everything if you double or split.
If you're not sure, you can input almost any set of blackjack rules into my house edge calculator and it will give you the house edge.
Playing Proper Strategy
Once you've settled on a game, the next part is playing your cards right. For years I pushed what is known as the "basic strategy," which is the best way mathematically to play any combination of the player's hand and the dealer's up card. However, with about 400 different situations, I found most recreational players didn't have the time or patience to memorize it. To address those players who wanted to improve their game at a minimum of effort, I created what I call the "Wizard's Simple Blackjack Strategy."
If you look at the full basic strategy you can see that there are clusters of types of hands that are played the same way. It also makes a huge difference whether the dealer's card is low (2 to 6) or high (7 to ace). In my Wizard's simple strategy I group the player hand into ten different kinds and just two types of dealer up cards. That makes only 20 different situations to remember. Let me explain each one:
Player hard totals
This strategy is for hands that don't include an ace and can't be split. If the strategy says to double, but you can't, probably because you have more than two cards, then hit.
- With 8 or less total points, always hit. Pretty obvious.
- With 9 total points, double against a dealer small card and hit against a high one.
- With 10 or 11 total points, double if your total is more than the dealer's up card. Treat a dealer ace up as 11 points.
- With 12 to 16 points (known as a "stiff" hand), stand against a small card and hit against a large one.
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- As an exception to rule 4, surrender a total of 16 against a 10, if allowed to.
- With 17 or more total points, always stand. Again, that one is obvious.
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Player soft totals
This strategy is for hands that have exactly one ace, known as "soft hands." The way they are described is to count the ace as 11 points and then take the total. For example, an ace and a seven would be a "soft 18." Doubling is usually restricted to the first two cards only. If you have a soft hand composed of three or more cards, and the strategy says to double, then hit instead, except stand with soft 18.
- With soft 13 to 15, always hit.
- With soft 16 to 18, double against a low card and hit against a high one.
- With soft 19 or more, always stand.
This strategy is for pairs or hands that can be split. If the strategy calls for not splitting, then use the strategy for hard totals above.
- Always split eights and aces.
- With a pair of 2s, 3s, 6s, 7s, or 9s, split against a small card.
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- Never split a pair of 4s, 5s, or 10s. A good memory device is not to split the F pairs (Fours, Fives, and Faces).
I hope you can see the logic to most of these situations. A common theme is that you want to be more aggressive with doubling and splitting against a dealer low card, often called a "bust card." However, against a high card, you have to be more conservative with any action that puts more money on the table but more aggressive about hitting to a higher total, or go bust trying.
Here is the whole strategy in a handy chart
You may be wondering, "What is the cost of errors using this simple strategy compared to the full blown basic strategy?" The answer is amazing -- only 0.14%. That is about one hand for every 12 hours of play.
While I think this strategy is excellent for beginners, I do recommend that after you master this strategy you take up the full basic strategy. If for no other reason, do it for the love of the game.
I hope this strategy saves you a lot of money at the tables.
Know Your Hands Series by Jeff Oxley, author of 'Winning Blackjack
For the Average Joe'
Hands in Blackjack are more than just a cell in a cheat sheet, they all have their own "personality". This series of articles by Jeff teaches you in-depth how to treat the most important ones.
Other Blackjack Bets
Excerpt from the book: "Professional Blackjack", by Stanford Wong
This chapter discusses blackjack bets that did not fit into one of the other chapters:
- Super Fun 21
- Blackjack Switch
- Spanish 21
- Double Attack Blackjack
- Extreme Blackjack
- Lucky Ladies
- Royal Match
For blackjack bets not covered in this book, the best source of analysis and strategy generally is Michael Shackleford’s wizardofodds.com. Another good source of rules and strategy for playing new blackjack rules and games is blackjackinfo.com.
Super Fun 21
Super Fun 21 is the invention of former blackjack pro Howard Grossman.
Most naturals win even money, but the player has lots of playing options, including unusual ones such as hitting or doubling down after splitting aces. The casino’s edge over basic strategy is in excess of 1%. For basic strategy and analysis, see wizardofodds.com.
In Blackjack Switch, you must make two equalsized bets. Then you are dealt two hands.
If you want, you may switch the two second cards. For example, suppose your first cards are 9 to your first hand and 4 to your second hand. Suppose your second cards are 3 and K. It’s your choice whether you play 9-3 and 4-K or 9-K and 4-3.
Basic strategy for Blackjack Switch is complicated. The casino edge over basic strategy varies with the number of decks used and the details of the rules. Typical rules give the house an edge of 0.6%. For basic strategy and analysis, see wizardofodds.com.
Spanish 21 is played with a short pack — 10s are removed from each regular deck, leaving aces though 9s and face cards. The resulting 48-card pack has become known as a “Spanish deck.” Removing four 10s is equivalent to starting a shoe with a count per deck of -4, and costs you 2.3% compared to the use of full decks. Spanish 21 has liberal rules, but they make up only part of the cost of removing all the 10s.
The casino edge when the dealer hits soft seventeen is 0.76% for six decks or 0.78% for eight decks. When the dealer stands on soft seventeen, the casino edge is 0.40% for six decks or 0.42% for eight decks.
Among the more interesting options allowed on Spanish 21 are:
your 21 beats the dealer’s 21, doubling on two or more cards, hitting or doubling after splitting aces, and surrender after doubling down (called doubledown rescue). Redoubling, when allowed, is worth 0.34 %.
These are the numbers reported by The Wizard of Odds, Mike Shackleford (wizardofodds.com). A great book on beating Spanish 21 is Katarina Walker’s The Pro’s Guide to Spanish 21 and Australian Pontoon. Double Attack Blackjack Double Attack Blackjack uses the 48-card Spanish deck.
Naturals pay even money. The first card dealt is the dealer’s upcard; and you may double your bet after seeing it, before receiving your own cards. The Wizard of Odds has calculated basic strategy for Double Attack Blackjack, and says the house edge over basic strategy is 0.62%. For the details of the rules and basic strategy, see wizardofodds.com.
Extreme Blackjack is distinguished by the dealer hitting until beating the player or busting out, instead of hitting until attaining seventeen or more. The Wizard of Odds has calculated basic strategy for Extreme Blackjack, and says the house edge over basic strategy is 0.63%. For the details of the rules and basic strategy, see wizardofodds.com.
Several casinos have blackjack layouts that offer field bets, which are side bets that your first two cards will total twelve through sixteen. Ace-ace and 8-8 pay double. The casino edge on field bets is 8.9%.
This bet started at Four Queens in Las Vegas in 1992. You bet on the color of the dealer’s first card. If the dealer’s first card is a 2 of the color you bet, you have a push; that gives the casino its edge: 3.8%. You have an edge if there is a surplus of one color of two or more cards per deck. Cowboys and Cowgirls is a variation of red/black.
If the dealer’s first card is a 2 of the color you bet, you lose. If you bet black, a black king pays 3:2; and if you bet red, a red queen pays 3:2. The casino’s edge is 5.8%. You have an edge if there is a surplus of one color of three or more cards per deck.
Lucky Ladies is a side bet that pays something back if you end up with twenty. The biggest payouts come if you get a pair of queens. The house edge is huge right after a shuffle, but counting queens can yield an edge. See wizardofodds.com for more details. Multiple Action In multiple-action blackjack, also called triple-action blackjack, you may make up to three bets, each of which has action against a different dealer hand. Your hand is the same for all three of your bets. The dealer’s first card is the same for all three of your bets. The dealer’s hand is finished out once, and then the first bet for each player is settled.
Then all dealer cards are discarded except the first one, and the dealer’s hand is played out again. The result of this hand is used to settle each player’s second bet. Then once again all dealer cards except the first one are discarded, the hand is played out again, and each player’s third bet is settled.
There are no changes in suggested playing strategy. A play that is correct against the dealer finishing a hand one time is also correct against a dealer finishing a hand three times. Four Queens introduced this new variation of blackjack in December of 1991.
You should use the same playing strategy at multiple action as at regular blackjack. The fact that the dealer will be playing out a hand three times does not affect basic strategy. Even if you know you should hit your hand, sometimes you will be tempted to stand. The excitement of remaining alive to play against the dealer is sufficiently strong an incentive to induce some players to intentionally go against basic strategy. That is a mistake.
From a risk standpoint, multiple action is slightly more risky than regular blackjack. Of course one bet of multiple action has the same risk as one hand of regular blackjack. However, making two bets on one hand at multiple action is slightly more risky than playing two simultaneous hands of regular blackjack. Likewise, playing three hands of multiple action is slightly more risky than playing three simultaneous hands of regular blackjack. Your optimal bet size as a proportion of your bankroll depends on the number of simultaneous bets you are making.
For one bet, it is your edge divided by the variance of possible outcomes. For each of two simultaneous bets (or two simultaneous hands), it is your edge divided by the sum of the variance and the covariance. For each of three simultaneous bets or hands, it is your edge divided by the sum of the variance plus twice the covariance.
Typically the variance is around 1.3 and the covariance is around 0.5. Simulation shows that the covariance between multiple-action bets is about 10% higher than the covariance between simultaneous hands in a regular blackjack game.
Your optimal bet size if you are making two bets at multiple action is 97% of your optimal bet size if you were playing two simultaneous hands at regular blackjack. Your optimal bet size if you are making three bets at multiple action is 96% of your optimal bet size if you were playing three simultaneous hands at regular blackjack. An easy-to-remember rule is 14/16. For two hands, bet a total of 140% of what you would bet on one hand (70% per hand). For three hands, bet a total of 160% of what you would bet on one hand (53% per hand).
Royal Match is a side bet at blackjack — you are wagering that your first two cards will be of the same suit. If your first two cards are K-Q of the same suit, you win extra. This bet was first introduced in 1992.
If your first two cards are K-Q of the same suit, you win ten to one on your “royal” bet. At single deck, you will be dealt K-Q of the same suit one hand out of 331.5. If your first two cards are of the same suit but not K-Q, you win three to one on your royal bet. The casino edge is 3.8%. In January of 1993 Santa Fe in Las Vegas offered the Royal Match side bet with these 3:1 and 10:1 payoffs at six decks. Whereas at single deck the casino has an edge, at six decks you have an edge of 1.1%.
Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions and answers to use as a reference guide to understanding the basics of Blackjack.
- What is the object of Blackjack?
- How much does a Blackjack hand pay?
- What happens when there is a tie between the dealer and the player?
- Why is Blackjack one of the most popular card games?
- Why does Blackjack have the best odds?
- What is the House Edge?
- What is Classic Blackjack?
- Are there more than one Blackjack variation?
- What are among the most common Blackjack variations?
- When should a player not take insurance?
- Is Double Down a good bet?
- Single deck vs. multi-deck games –which is better?
- What is the 'Shoe' in Blackjack?
- What is a 'Split'?
- When is it wise not to Split?
- What is the worst Blackjack play?
- Is Card Counting illegal?
- What is the overall advantage of Card Counting?
- What is the winning formula for Blackjack?
- Where is the best place to start to learn how to play Blackjack?
1. What is the object of Blackjack?
Blackjack is a card game that is played one on one with the dealer. The object of the game is to get 21 or as close to it as possible without going over while beating the dealer's hand. A perfect Blackjack hand is Ace with K,Q,J or 10.
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2. How much does a Blackjack hand pay?
The typical payout on a Blackjack hand is 3:2. In some circumstances, the casino pays only 6:5 or 1:1 which can be found at lower minimum tables.
3. What happens when there is a tie between dealer and player?
When there is a tie that is called a 'push' and the player get his bet returned.
4. Why is Blackjack one of the most popular card games?
It is a game that can quickly be learned and at the same time requires a bit of skill. It is a challenge between the player and the dealer. It offers one of the most favorable odds to win.
5. Why Blackjack have the best odds?
Blackjack can have one of the best odds for the player to win. But what must be taken into consideration is the type of game played and the number of decks used. A single deck game with Classic Blackjack rules that allow splitting give a player a +0.1% advantage.
6. What is the House Edge?
It is the theoretical number that the casino would keep in the overall amount of a bet statistically. The house edge varies depending on the certain variables including how long a player bets, buy-ins, bet size etc.
7. What is Classic Blackjack?
It is the most basic form of the game, although depending on the software the rules may slightly differ. Basically the dealer must stand on 17, split and double down are permitted on the first two cards. Insurance is allowed only when the dealer shows an ace.
8. Are there more than one Blackjack variations?
Yes – there is a diverse selection to choose from and it varies between software suppliers. Microgaming is among one of the largest leading supplier of Blackjack variations.
9. What are among the most common Blackjack variations?
10. When should a player not take insurance?
In the Classic variation of Blackjack, a player should not take insurance. Once a dealer shows an ace a player should say 'no' to insurance with a chance of winning 3:2 then even money.
11. Is Double Down a good bet?
Double down will give the player an edge over the Casino house. However, it is important to know the strategy when to exercise the double down option. It can be profitable in turning around a losing hand.
12. Single deck vs. multi-deck games –which is better?
The multi-hand deck has around a 0.5% disadvantage over the single deck game.
13. What is the 'Shoe' in Blackjack?
The shoe is a card game device found used in casinos that hold multiple decks of playing cards. It allows more games to be played requiring fewer shuffles.
14. What is a 'Split'?
This is when the first two cards are dealt and they have the same value amount. A player may split the cards and play two hands.
15. When is it wise not to Split?
It is best not to split a hand that is dealt 88 and stand.
16. What is the worst Blackjack play?
Hitting with a hand showing 19 or 20 is one of the worst moves a player can make.
17. Is Card Counting illegal?
Contrary to popular belief card counting is not illegal. However, because it does give the player an advantage most casinos do not allow it.
18. What is the overall advantage to Card Counting?
A skilled player who counts cards can have about a 0.5% and 1.5% advantage.
19. What is the winning formula to Blackjack?
There are three key factors to consider: skill, bankroll and risk.
20. Where is the best place to start to learn how to play Blackjack?
Also, read our exclusive Interview with Pro Blackjack Master: Standford Wong.
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