Online Blackjack Strategy
If you want to discuss online blackjack strategy, you have to start with a discussion of the differences between "tactics" and "strategies".
A strategy is an approach based on your longer term goals.
Tactics are the short-term decisions you make in order to carry out that strategy.
How do these definitions apply to blackjack?
The first thing to understand Is that "basic strategy" is a collection of tactics—how to play an individual hand is a tactic. How to play all the possible hands you're going to receive in order to minimize the house edge is a strategy.
But there's an even longer-term thought process involved, and basic strategy can be considered a tactic of that.
And that thought process is what we're interested in when we discuss online blackjack strategy.
A Strategic Approach to Blackjack in Casinos
The first thing you should do when mapping out your strategic approach to the game is what your goals are. Different gamblers have different goals, and we don't judge which goals are superior to which other goals. These are individual choices and preferences.
Your goal might be to get an edge over the casino so that you can earn a living playing blackjack. You might employ a variety of tactics in order to achieve that goal—shuffle tracking, counting cards, and hole carding are all techniques which might enable you to achieve your goals.
On the other hand, your goal might be to just get as close as possible to breaking even while enjoying your time in the casino. Maybe you just like the sights and sounds. Maybe you're the guy who wants to do just enough card counting combined with basic strategy that you eliminate the house edge and just enjoy all the comps that your play entitles you to. (This is the Max Rubin strategy from Comp City.)
Or you might even be a player who doesn't really care about improving your chances of winning or reducing the house edge. Even blackjack players who ignore basic strategy only face a house of between 3% and 4%. That makes blackjack a better game than American roulette, with its house edge of 5.26%.
All of these are valid goals and valid strategic approaches.
How Strategies MUST Differ for Online Blackjack
The tactics you're able to use in a land-based casino are different from the tactics you're able to use in an Internet casino.
In many land-based casinos, you can get an edge (or at least minimize the house edge) by counting cards. That being said, some casinos use continuous shuffling machines, which eliminate that possibility entirely. Counting cards gets you and edge because you're tracking the changes in the deck's composition. If the cards get re-shuffled after every hand, the deck's composition never changes.
This is how ALL online casinos work. You can't count cards at an online casino because they shuffle the deck after every hand. They accomplish this via a computer program called a random number generator at most casinos. But even at live dealer casinos, where real dealers use real cards to play the game, you're going to face a continuous shuffling machine.
What does this mean for your strategy?
It means that if your goal is to get an edge over the casino, you can probably forget it. There used to be ways to get an edge over an online casino. This usually involved taking advantage of the casino's signup bonus and playing the minimum amount of wagers in order to maximize your chances of making a profit.
For the sake of discussion, let's look at how that would work, back when it was still possible. Then we'll discuss the changes that casinos have made to make that impossible.
Online casinos offer free money to potential customers in order to motivate them to sign up and make their first deposit. These free funds take the form of a matching amount when compared to a player's first deposit.
An early example of this was a $200 bonus on a $100 deposit. You deposit $100 at the casino, and they give you $200 extra to play with. So you'd start with a bankroll of $300.
They might have a restriction where you are required to wager that entire amount at least twice in order to withdraw any winnings. In other words, you'd have to place $600 in wagers before cashing out.
Now let's assume you're an advantage gambler. You've identified a blackjack game with a 1% edge and a minimum bet of $1 per hand. (This isn't as unusual at an online casino as it is at a brick and mortar casino.) Let's look at how you can use this bonus to make an expected profit.
- To achieve $600 in wagers, you'd have to play 600 hands.
- But if the house edge is only 1%, you only expect to lose $6 on that much wagering.
- You deposit $100. You get $200 in bonus money. You expect to lose $6.
- That's $100 + $200 -$6 = $294.
- That's a projected profit of $194.
The casinos caught on to this kind of thinking pretty fast, though. So they put together policies which eliminated this possibility.
One of those policies was to invalidate wagers on certain games (including blackjack) from their wagering requirements. In other words, if you had to wager $600 before cashing out, wagers on blackjack either didn't count toward achieving that requirement, or they invalidated your entire bonus amount entirely.
Another approach to this is to only allow a percentage of the wagers you make at blackjack to count toward achieving your wagering requirement. For example, some casinos only count blackjack wagers at 1% for purposes of achieving your wagering requirement. So a $1 bet on blackjack only counts as a penny bet for purposes of getting enough wagers in to cash out.
Another policy was to make a bonus "non-cashable". So after all that wagering, you'd only be able to cash out your winnings—which wouldn't include that $200 bonus. The bonus money can be used to wager, but it can never be cashed out or go into your pocket.
Finally, a lot of casinos have big wagering requirements. It's not unusual to see a casino require 30x or 45X your deposit plus bonus in wagers before cashing out. They almost always combine that requirement with a blackjack restriction.
What Is an Appropriate Strategy for Online Blackjack?
Several strategies are appropriate for online blackjack players.
The first is the easiest. You're there to play and have fun, so you don't have to worry about strategy at all. You just like blackjack, and you accept whatever the house edge is. You only play with money you can afford to lose, and you have as much fun as possible.
To a lot of blackjack players, this might sound like a bone-headed strategy. After all, the temperament that's usually attracted to blackjack in the first place is the kind that wants to make a difference using their brains.
But slot machine players are gamblers, too, and they don't worry about strategy—not if they're smart players, anyway.
Another approach is to find the casinos which offer the best bonuses with the most reasonable wagering requirements. You combine that with the casinos which offer the best rules options in order to maximize the amount of time you get to spend playing. With a house edge close to 0%, you stand a better chance of walking away a winner, although if you play long enough, the house edge will almost certainly whittle your bankroll down to nothing.
Most of your decisions will involve finding the best house edge at an online casino. Since almost all Internet casinos offer blackjack games from leased software, it's not too hard to find the information you're looking for. Any game where the house edge on blackjack is less than 1% is good, but if you can get it even lower than that (under 0.5%, for example), you're doing great.
Some of the most popular online casino software providers don't allow their licenses to offer real money gambling to players in the United States.
Microgaming, for example, offers one of the best blackjack games online. Their single deck version of Vegas blackjack, when played using perfect basic strategy, has a house edge of only 0.31%. But they don't accept United States players, so if you're a USA player, their game is irrelevant.
Playtech is another example. Their version of "Blackjack Switch" has a house edge of only 0.14%, making it one of the mathematically best gambling games on the Internet. But no players from the United States are allowed.
Realtime Gaming is one of the better known software providers that accept players from the United States. But even some casinos using their software are skittish about U.S. players. If you can find an RTG casino which allows real money play from the United States, you have a potentially good—but not great—game to play.
Here's one of the tricky things about RTG, though. They offer "configurable" games. So a blackjack game at one RTG casino might simulate a six deck game, while another might simulate an eight deck game. And they don't label these games with such information, so your best guess about the house edge is probably as good as ours.
If you're more mathematically inclined than we are, you could try to estimate the number of decks in use. You'd start by keeping a log of the total hands you've played and how often you see suited pairs. You'd then compare your results to this table on the Wizard of Odds' site. Even then, you're looking at 250 hands before you have any kind of statistical reliability.
Another approach would be to just ask the customer service department at the casino. At some of the larger and more reputable brands using RTG software, you'll probably get an accurate answer. The customer service team at Bovada, for example, seems to be on top of their game. On the other hand, some of the less well known casinos using RTG software might have customer service reps who are a little less well-educated regarding the nuances of the games there.
At any rate, this strategy involves 3 steps:
A third approach might be to try hard by using basic strategy to minimize the house edge, but not stressing out too much about finding the absolute best game mathematically. In fact, this approach might be the most valid one. After all, if the house has any edge at all, you'll eventually lose all your money. It's just a question of how long it will take.
We're not willing to trade good graphics and fast payouts for 1/10 of 1% on the house edge for a game. You probably shouldn't be, either.
In fact, when it comes to complaints about casinos online, the most common ones have to do with customer service issues like how long it takes to cash out winnings. Casinos don't have to "rig" their games, because they already have a mathematical edge. But they do have cash flow issues to think about, and many Internet gambling sites would like nothing better than to see you reverse your deposit during your waiting period and gamble away your winnings.
There's a big difference between strategies and tactics. It's impossible to discuss online blackjack strategy without addressing that difference right up front.
An example of a tactical decision is whether or not to hit a hard 16 if the dealer has a 3 showing as her upcard.
An example of a strategic decision is whether to play at a Playtech casino versus a Microgaming casino.
With blackjack online, you can forget about almost all advantage play techniques. The companies involved in the Internet gambling niche have figured out all the angles and eliminated your ability to take advantage of them.
Your best bet is to find a quality casino, use basic strategy to minimize the house edge, and only play with money you can afford to lose.
The rest are just details.