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.

Example

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.

Bonus Hunting

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.

Online casinos aren’t in the business of allowing their
customers opportunities to get an edge.

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.

Real money blackjack players from the United States have
fewer choices, though.

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:

  1. Finding the best blackjack games—the ones with the lowest
    house edge.
  2. Learning the appropriate basic strategy for that variation.
  3. Comparing the bonuses and wagering requirements with the
    house edge to determine if you can get an even better deal at a
    casino even if the house edge is a little higher.

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.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on finding a reputable casino
with great customer service and a software interface that you
enjoy?

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.

Summary

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.