The best book about gambling I ever read was called The Mensa Guide to Casino Gambling by Andrew Brisman.
But a book about blackjack strategy (Sklansky Talks Blackjack) by David SKlansky was the 2nd best book on the subject.
That treatment of basic strategy, where he explains the math behind every possible decision, is the inspiration for this blog post.
With any luck, the observations in this post will change what seems like an arbitrary chart with green and red cells into something that makes sense.
1. You always hit a hard total of 8 or less
It should be obvious why this is the case, but let’s talk about it.
What’s the highest card you could get in this situation?
You could get an ace, which would give you a soft total of 19. That’s an improvement.
You could get a 10, which would give you a hard total of 18. That’s also a strong hand.
In fact, it’s impossible to bust with a hard total of 8 or less.
It’s also almost impossible to win with a hard total of 8 or less. The dealer just isn’t going to bust often enough to ever stand with any total less than 8.
2. You should double down with a hard total of 9 if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6
Not all casinos allow you to double down in this situation. If that’s the case where you’re playing, then you’ll play a hard 9 the same way you’d play a hard 8.
But if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6, she’s likely to bust. Even if she doesn’t, by doubling down on that 9, you’re giving yourself a strong hand most of the time.
An 8, 9, 10, or ace is going to give you a total of 17 or higher in this situation. That’s 28 cards out of the deck, so that’s a greater than 50% chance of improving to a 17 or better.
Combine that with the dealer’s likelihood of going bust, and you have a situation where it makes a lot of sense to get more money into action.
3. You should almost always double down with a hard total of 10
If you have a hard total of 10, you have a great chance of winding up with a total of 20 or 21. The only exception is if the dealer has a 10 or an ace showing. In those cases, you should still hit, but the dealer has a lot better chance of winding up with a really strong hand.
4. You should also almost always double down with a hard total of 11
11 is a magic number in blackjack, because all you need is a 10 to get to a total of 21.
And there are more cards valued at 10 in the deck than any other value.
The 10s, jacks, queens, and kings all count as 10, and there are 4 of each of them in the deck.
Even if you don’t get a 10, you can’t go bust, and any card you get is going to improve your hand.
5. Those are the only hard hands you’ll ever double down on
You don’t have to worry about doubling down on any other hard total in the game.
6. If the dealer has 6 or lower, you’re more likely to stand. If she has 7 or higher, you’re more likely to hit
It’s inaccurate to say that you should always assume that the dealer has a 10 in the hole, but the reality is that there are more 10s in the deck than any other card. If you think about the kinds of hand you’d prefer to play, you’d probably rather not have to deal with a 16, a 15, a 14, or a 13.
That’s because those totals are too low to stand a good chance of winning.
They’re also high enough that you have a strong possibility of going bust.
The dealer has no choice, though—she has to hit any hard total of 16 or less. This means she has a high chance of going bust.
If you have a total of 16 versus a dealer 6, it makes sense to avoid the possibility of going bust. You’ve got a good chance of winning if and when the dealer busts.
On the other hand, if the dealer has a 7 or higher, and you assume she has a 10 in the hole, you’re dealing with a possible total of 17. You’re almost definitely going to have to improve your hand to beat a 17, and you’re also going to see the dealer bust less often.
If you have a hard total of between 12 and 18, all you have to do is memorize the weird exceptions. The crucial number, the one where things go from stand to hit, are the numbers 6 and 7.
Look at the predominant color on either side of the strategy chart to see what I mean.
And of course, you’ll always stand on a hard total of 17+. You’re almost certain to go bust if you hit that total.
7. The strategy for playing pairs isn’t hard
The first thing to remember about pairs is that all of them are hard totals except for a pair of aces. This means if you’re not splitting them, you treat them as their appropriate hard total. A pair of 5s is a hard 10, for example. A pair of 6s is a hard 12, and so on.
You have 2 pairs that you should always split—aces and 8s.
Splitting aces should be the obvious move, because you’re starting 2 new hands that have a pretty good chance of turning into naturals. These blackjacks would then earn you a 3 to 2 payout.
Splitting 8s is less obvious but still makes sense. You have a hard total of 16, which is likely to go bust.
But if you have 2 hands where the first card is an 8, you have a good chance of winding up with a hard 18 on the next card. That’s a hand with a solid chance of winning a showdown with a dealer.
You have 3 pairs that you should never splits—4s, 5s, and 10s.
You won’t split 4s because you’re better off trying to get a hard total of 18 by taking another card. If you split, you’ll wind up with 2 hands that are likely to turn into a total of 14, which is no fun to play.
You won’t split 5s because you’re probably going to double down. Since you’re probably going to get a 10 or an ace, you’re going to improve to a 20 or 21 a large percentage of the time. That’s a lot better than having 2 hands with a starting card of 5. (Those hands will probably total 15 when you get your extra card, which is another stiff hand.)
And you won’t split 10s because a hard total of 20 is such a great hand that it doesn’t need much improvement.
That leaves the following pairs to learn a strategy rule for:
The rule of thumb is that the higher the cards are, the more likely you are to want to split. For example, splitting 9s is correct unless the dealer has a 7, 10, or an ace showing.
You’ll split 7s unless the dealer has an 8 or higher showing.
You’ll split 6s unless the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
Most of the time, you won’t split your hand if the dealer has an 8 or higher showing. If you assume the dealer has a 10 in the hole, you’ll be assuming the dealer has an 18. You don’t want to put more money into action when the dealer has such a good hand.
8. Soft hands are the trickiest hands to play
You’ll double down with a soft total a lot more often than with a hard total. That’s because you stand a good chance of improving in a lot of situations without a lot of risk. It’s hard to go bust when you can change the value of one card (the ace) by 10 points.
You’ll always hit any soft 17 or less. But a lot of times, if the dealer has a 6 or less, you won’t just hit—you’ll double down. In fact, you’ll always double down with a soft 17 or less if the dealer has a 5 or 6 showing. Those are the worst possible cards for the dealer.
You’ll almost always stand with a soft 18 or higher. You’ll be more likely to hit if the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing, though.
And with a soft 18 versus a dealer 6 or less, you’ll almost always double down.
Also, not all casinos allow you to double down on soft totals. Some casinos have a house rule where you can only double down on a 9, 10,or 11, or some combination of those.
9. You don’t need a chart to learn basic strategy
In fact, trying to memorize a table is probably the hardest way to learn basic strategy. I much prefer to think about individual hands and how to play those.
If I were trying to learn basic strategy from scratch, I’d start by making a list of the possible hard totals.
I’d then memorize exactly how to play each of them in every situation.
The first item on the list would be “hard 8 or less”. The strategy for playing that hand is to always hit. Understanding why that’s the right play makes it easier to remember the strategy.
The 2nd item on the list would be “hard 9”. The correct way to play that is to double down against a dealer 3, 4, 5, or 6. In all other situations, hit. Since you can’t bust a total of hard 9, it’s easy to remember that you’re always going to hit or double down.
I’d just continue from there and move on to pairs and soft hands.
You’ll be surprised at how fast you can learn these guidelines.
Flash cards are a good idea, too. You can discard the cards for the hands you know how to play and focus on the ones you need to memorize.
This maximizes the amount of learning versus the amount of time you’re spending.
A lot of writers act like memorizing basic strategy is some kind of Herculean task, but it’s not really that hard—especially when you learn some of the thinking behind the decisions.
Assuming there’s a 10 in the hole is helpful, although that doesn’t always result in the right decision.