Blackjack has many wonderful qualities. It’s a game where your decisions matter. It’s also a game where you can get an edge over the casino (if you know how to count cards).
Most of all, it’s just plain fun.
But blackjack is more fun when you’re winning more often.
Luckily, it’s a game where the mathematically correct way to play each hand has already been figured out. Computer programmers have run millions of hands of blackjack through simulators to come up with the moves that have the highest expected value.
“Expected value” refers to how much a bet is worth. In some situations at the blackjack table, the expected value of a specific decision is positive. It might be more positive than other positive decisions.
In some other situations at the blackjack table, you must choose between the lesser of several evils. If you have a stiff hand, the best you can do is go with the decision that loses you the least amount of money in the long run.
As luck would have it, you only have a handful of totals to make decisions about. The highest possible total you can have without busting is 21. The lowest possible total with 2 cards is 4.
In the post below, I’ll look at each possible total and how it could occur. Then I’ll explain how to play that total based on which cards it’s made of and what the dealer has as her face-up card.
All these explanations are based on basic strategy.
A Total of 21
When you have a total of 21, you should always stand. It doesn’t matter what cards make up that total. It doesn’t matter what the dealer’s up-card is.
You always stand with 21. Any other choice costs money.
A Total of 20
You’ll always stand with a total of 20, too, no matter what the cards are. It also doesn’t matter what the dealer’s face-up card is.
The reasoning behind this is clear. There’s only one possible total the dealer could have which will beat a 20, which means you’ll win with it most of the time.
You might need to decide whether to split a hard total of 20. If you have 2 cards of the same rank, you can put up another bet and start 2 hands using the cards in your hand as the first card of the 2 subsequent hands.
It seems like this might not be a bad idea. After all, any hand with a 10 as its first card is probably going to turn out okay.
It’s a mistake, though. Most of the time, you’ll wind up with 2 hands that aren’t as strong as your total of 20. There are more cards in the deck that aren’t worth 10 or 11 than there are cards which are worth 10 or 11.
A Total of 19
You will ALMOST always stand on a total of 19, regardless of which cards make up the total.
But there’s one exception:
If you have a soft total of 19—an ace and an 8—you’ll double down. But only if the dealer has a 6 showing.
In some casinos, you’re not allowed to double down on a soft total of 19. If that’s the case, you’ll just stand.
On any other total of 19, though, you’ll stand. It’s such a strong hand that it will beat anything except a total of 20 or 21 from the dealer.
But even if you suspect that the dealer has one of those totals, your odds of winding up with a worse hand are too good for it to be a smart move to take another card.
The only reason you double down against a dealer’s face-up 6 is because the dealer is so likely to bust that it’s worth the risk.
A Total of 18
If you have a total of 18 that’s made up of two 9s, you must decide whether to split your hand or not. Most of the time, you will split your hand, but there are exceptions.
You’ll split a pair of 9s if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. You’ll also split 9s if the dealer has an 8 or 9.
If the dealer has a 7, 10, or ace showing, you’ll stand.
If you have a total of 18 that includes an ace that can be counted as 1 or 11, you have a “soft” 18. If the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, and if the casino allows it, you’ll double down on this hand.
If the casino doesn’t allow you to double down on a soft 18, you’ll stand instead.
If the dealer has a 7 or 8, you’ll stand on a soft 18.
If the dealer has a 9, 10, or ace showing, you’ll hit a soft 18.
Being able to count the ace as 1 or as 11 gives you some flexibility with how you play this hand. The combination of the possibility to improve your hand and the possibility that the dealer will bust results in the possible doubling down decisions.
Any other total of 18 will be a hard total, and you’ll always stand on a hard total of 18.
A Total of 17
If you have an ace that counts as 1 or 11, you have a soft total of 17. In that case, you should double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing. If the dealer has any other card showing, you should hit this total.
If you don’t have an ace, or if counting the ace as an 11 would bust you, you have a hard total of 17. It’s easy what to decide to do with a hard 17:
A Total of 16
Once you get down to the total of 16 or less, you’re getting into “stiff hand” territory. A stiff hand is one which is likely to bust.
It doesn’t matter, though.
There’s still only one correct way to play each stiff hand, too.
The first kind of total of 16 you should think about is a pair of 8s. You should always split a pair of 8s. The reasoning behind this should make sense. You’re trading a mediocre hand for 2 hands which are likely to improve. More cards in the deck will improve an 8 than will hurt it. Any ace, 10, or 9 will give you a better total than 16. (And there are 16 cards worth 10 in the deck, so that’s almost half the deck in total.)
The second kind of total of 16 to worry about is a soft 16. Again, this is a total where the ace can count as 1 or 11. You will NEVER stand on a soft 16.
You’ll double down on a soft 16 if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing. If the dealer has any other card showing, you’ll fold.
Finally, you need to know what to do with any other hard total of 16. You’ll stand if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. You’ll hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
If the dealer has a 6 or less showing, you’re hoping she’ll bust. Otherwise, you’re hoping to improve your hand so that you have a fighting chance.
A Total of 15
A soft total of 15 is easy to play. You’ll play it just like you would a soft total of 16, in fact. You’ll double down if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6 showing. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
A hard total of 15 isn’t hard to play, either, although it’s a bummer of a hand. Again, you’ll play a hard 15 just like you would a hard 16. Hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher. Otherwise stand.
A Total of 14
If you have a pair of 7s, you need to decide whether to split. You will split if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing. If you don’t split, you’ll treat the hand as any other hard 14.
If you have a soft 14, you will never stand. You’ll double down if the dealer has a 5 or 6 showing. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
If you have a hard 14, you’ll play it just like a hard 15 or 16. Stand if the dealer has a 6 or less showing. Hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
A Total of 13
A soft total of 13 is played just like a soft 14. You’ll double down if the dealer has a 5 or 6. Otherwise, you’ll hit.
A hard total of 13 is played just like a hard 14, 15, or 16. Stand if the dealer has a 6 or less. Otherwise, hit.
A Total of 12
The first kind of 12 total to worry about is a pair of 6s. (You always consider whether to split first.) You should double down if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. If not, you’ll treat the hand just like you would any other hard total of 12.
Next, you’ll think about a soft total of 12. This could mean you have a pair of aces. In that case, you always split. (Just remember—always split aces and 8s.)
There’s no other way to get a soft total of 12, so you’re left with the possibility of a hard 12. If that’s what you have, you stand against a dealer 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, you hit.
A Total of 11
If you have an ace and a 10, you COULD consider that a soft total of 11. But really, you have a blackjack. Just accept your winning with grace.
On any other total of 11, you’ll double down. That’s an easy decision, because you have lots of cards which will increase your total to 21. There’s no real downside to doubling down on an 11, because it’s impossible to bust such a hand.
A Total of 10
You never split 5s. They’re always treated as a hard total of 10.
If you have a soft total of 10, you really have a soft total of 20, and I’ve already covered that. (Think about it.)
With a hard 10, which is really the only way you’ll ever have a total of 10, you’ll almost always double down. The only time you won’t double down is if the dealer has an ace or 10 showing. In that case, you’ll just stand. (You don’t want to put extra money into play because of the increased likelihood that the dealer will have a 21.)
A Total of 9
A hard 9 is played ALMOST exactly like a hard 10. You should double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
A Total of 8
You never split a pair of 4s. (In fact, you can remember this rule—never spit 4s, 5s, or 10s.)
In fact, there’s only ONE way to correctly play a hard total of 8. Always hit.
A Total of 7
Always hit a hard total of 7.
A Total of 6
If you have a pair of 3s, split if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing. Otherwise, just hit.
If you have any other hard total of 6, just hit the hand.
A Total of 5
Always hit a hard total of 5.
A Total of 4
If you have a pair of deuces, play it just like a pair of 3s. Split if the dealer has a 7 or lower showing. Otherwise, just hit.
You only have 18 possible starting totals in blackjack. Once you’ve learned how to play each of those totals correctly, you’ve mastered basic strategy.
Why is that a good thing to do?
If you’ve mastered basic strategy, the house edge for most blackjack games is between 0.5% and 1%, making it one of the best games in the casino.
If you misplay these hands, the house edge goes up. Most players are bad at basic strategy, by the way. If you look at the casino’s numbers, the average blackjack player is so bad that he’s facing a house edge of between 4% and 5%.
With those kinds of numbers, you might as well play craps or roulette. You don’t have to make any playing decisions with those games.
memorize basic strategy in this way.