An Introduction to Blackjack Strategy

Guide to Blackjack

The purpose of this page is to provide an introduction to blackjack strategy. It's aimed at beginners who are intimidated by those bizarrely colored strategy cards. The simple strategy suggested on this page isn't perfect. But it provides you with better odds against the casino than just playing your hunches.

Use the strategy on this page, and the house edge will average about 1.5%. That's way better than the 4% you'd face if you just winged it. Playing your hunches is a terrible blackjack strategy.

Get comfortable with the simple strategy on this page. Then move on to memorize the full basic strategy. You'll cut the house edge by an additional 0.5%-1%.

What is Basic Strategy

First, let's talk about what blackjack players mean by "basic strategy". This is simply a phrase that refers to the mathematically correct way to play every situation.

That sounds like a really big and scary undertaking, but there are fewer possible situations than you might think in blackjack.

For one thing, the dealer is only going to have one of ten possible up cards.

Your hands can be divided into one of the following three categories:

  • Ten possible hard hands
  • Seven possible soft hands
  • Nine possible pairs

Once you know how to play each and every hand versus the dealer's ten possible up cards, you've mastered basic strategy.

Splitting Hands

The first decision you'll look at is whether or not you can split your cards. You can only split your hand if you're holding a pair. If you're not holding a pair, you move on to the decisions for hard or soft hands.

If you are holding a pair, you want to remember these rules for whether or not to split,

  • Never split fours, fives, or tens.
  • Always split aces and eights.
  • Split any other pair if the dealer has a 2 – 6 showing.

That's it. Memorize those three rules for splitting, and you're 1/3 of the way finished with learning a simplified version of basic strategy.

Hard Hands Versus Soft Hands

Your next step is to decide whether you have a hard hand or a soft hand. A hard hand is a hand with no aces. Hands where aces must count as one in order to avoid going bust are also considered hard hands.

Here are some examples of hard hands.

Hard Hand Blackjack

Soft hands are those in which the ace might count as a one or it might count as an 11. Here are some examples of soft hands.

Soft Hand Blackjack

In general, you'll play your soft hands a little more aggressively than your hard hands. After all, you have a lower chance of busting a soft hand.

Here's how to play the specific totals.

Hard Totals

You'll play your hard totals according to the following strategy.

  • You'll always stand on any hard total of 17+.
  • You'll always hit any hard total of 8 or less.
  • If you have a hard total of between 12 and 16:
    • You'll stand if the dealer has a 2-6 showing
    • Otherwise, you'll hit.
  • If you have a hard total of 10 or 11, you'll always double down.
  • If you have a hard total of 9:
    • You'll double down if the dealer has a 2-6.
    • Otherwise, you'll just hit.

If you assume the dealer has a 10 in the hole, these decisions will make a lot of sense. Here are some examples.

Example 1

If the dealer has a 3 or 4 showing with a 10 in the hole, she's got a hard total of 13 or 14. She'll have to take a hit, and a large percentage of the time, she'll bust. There's no point in hitting a hard total of between 12 and 16 in a situation where you are likely to win by default when the dealer busts.

Example 2

If the dealer has a 9 showing, and you assume a 10 in the hole, then the dealer has a total of 19. You'd be crazy to not try to improve your hand if you have a total lower than 16.

Example 3

On the other hand, any hard total of 17 is almost certain to bust you, so at some point, you have to just go with the total you have.

Soft Hands

You'll pay soft hands with the following strategy.

  • You'll always hit any soft hand totaling 15 or less.
  • You'll always stand on any soft hand totaling 19 or more.
  • With any soft total of 17 to 18 you'll:
    • Double down versus a dealer 2-6
    • Just hit if the dealer is showing a seven or higher.

Again, think about what the dealer is likely to have in the hole. If the dealer has a 2 through 6, the chances she'll bust are pretty good. That's why you'll double down on that soft 16 to 18.

Also, since you're less likely to go bust, you'll notice that you'll hit more soft totals than you would hard totals. That's because you can't bust in these situations.

Other Considerations

Insurance

You should never take insurance. It's a sucker bet. Even when you're using the full basic strategy, you won't take insurance, ever.

The only time to take insurance is if you're counting cards and the count indicates that it's a profitable play. Even most card counters don't take insurance, though, as it's a clue to the casino that you might be counting cards. Casinos hate card counters.

At any rate, since you're a beginner, the simplest thing to remember about taking insurance can be summed up in one word:

Don't

Surrender

You'll only surrender in one situation. If you have a hard total of 16 and the dealer has a 10 showing, you'll surrender.

Here's why:

The dealer almost certainly has an ace or a ten in the hole, giving her a likely total of 20 or 21. Even if she doesn't, she has a good chance of having a 7 or higher in the hole, in which case you're beat.

But hitting a hard total of 16 is almost always going to turn into a bust. It's not worth the risk if you can help it.

And you can.

If you're not sure what surrendering means, it's actually pretty simple. When you surrender, it's like folding a hand in poker. You give up half your bet, but you get to keep half of it. In return, you agree that you have no claim to any winnings. You basically just give up your hand.

It's a shame the casinos don't allow you to wave a white flag in these situations, in fact.

Where Do You Go From Here?

At this point, you can just play, confident in the knowledge that you're almost playing the game with the best odds in the casino. The rules I've outlined above are all summarized in the following chart, which makes it even easier to know what to do and when.

Super simple basic strategy
Hard Hands 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 A
4 - 8 H H H H H H H H H H
9 D D D D D H H H H H
10 - 11 D D D D D D D D D D
12 - 16 S S S S S H H H H* H
17 - 21 S S S S S S S S S S
Soft hands
12 - 15 H H H H H H H H H H
16 - 18 D D D D D H H H H H
19 - 21 S S S S S S S S S S
Pair
22 , 23 P P P P P H H H H H
44 - 55 H H H H H H H H H H
66 , 77 P P P P P H H H H H
88 P P P P P P P P P P
66 , 77 P P P P P S S S S S
T T S S S S S S S S S S
A A P P P P P P P P P P
H = Hit S = Stand P = Split D = Double Down
* if you have a hard total of 16 versus a dealer 10. Surrender.

If you learn the exceptions to the strategy rules above, you WILL be playing the game with the lowest house edge in the casino.In fact, that's my recommendation for your next step. Memorize the correct basic strategy for the game you'll be playing. You'll find a handful of differences in how you play certain hands.

Example

When you have a 12, the correct strategy is to hit if the dealer has a 2 or a 3 showing. But for the sake of simplifying the strategy, I've just included instructions to always stand on this hand.

The rules variations and conditions under which you're playing will determine which strategy card you use. You can find accurate strategy charts here on our site, or on several sites on the Internet. You can even buy some excellent strategy cards from Ken Smith on Amazon.

You can even find a basic strategy card in the gift shop of the casino, but I'm not as confident in the accuracy of those cards as I am the ones you can find online. I've never looked at them that closely, but I never trust gambling strategy advice from a casino.

Further Information

You can find more detailed information on basic strategy in the intermediate section of our blackjack guide.

Summary

Basic strategy seems hard. In fact, it is hard. You have to memorize the correct play in almost 250 different situations.

But you can learn this introductory strategy with just a little bit of effort. It only consists of 11 different guidelines covering every possible hand you can get versus every possible dealer up card.

Once you've memorized this simple strategy, you'll be facing an extremely low house edge at blackjack. The difference between this strategy and the full basic strategy is less than 0.5%.

And you can always move on to memorizing the exceptions to this simple strategy as your next step in learning blackjack strategy.

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