Basic Blackjack counting in 5 minutes
NOTE: I’m not a Blackjack expert. This is merely an educational piece and not intended to be used for profit.
This past weekend I found myself on a trip to Vegas with less than 24h of notice. I used to play Hold ’Em online and could hold my own, so I figured I could wing it at Blackjack, right? Needless to say, I lost almost my entire stack the first day. I turned it around, but not until the 2nd day and through lots of reading and tips from a friend.
Here how I would do it differently if I had a time machine.
Intro to Blackjack
If you know what Blackjack is, you can skip to “Basic Strategy”.
Black Jack is a common card game played all around the world. You’re initially dealt two cards face up, and the dealer has one face down and one face up. The goal of the game is to beat the dealer in being closest to 21. If you do, you get twice as much as you bet. If you tie, usually nothing happens. If you lose, you lose your bet. 10, Jack, Queen, King are worth 10 points, Ace is worth 1 or 11. When the “action” comes to you, you can decide whether to hit (by touching the felt of the table) or stand (usually with a horizontal wave of your hand). It’s one of the more fare games in the casino, plus it’s pretty fun. As a result, it’s quite popular and you can find a blackjack table at every casino.
In Black Jack there’s a thing called “Basic Strategy”. It represents the mathematically optimal strategy to get ~50/50 odds between the house and the player. The match-up sheet looks a little something like this.
This “simple” set of rules make Blackjack ~50/50. Your expected value over a long sample of plays is whatever you put in. It’s less complicated than it looks, but first lets go over some terms:
- “4–8 Decks”: Casinos in Vegas usually play 6–8 decks so that people can’t easily count cards over a single deck and to minimize shuffling. These rules will apply for any standard Casino in Vegas (Aria, MGM, etc).
- Soft vs Hard hands: A soft hand is any hand with an Ace, because an Ace can count for 1 or 11. A hard hand is therefore any hand which does not contain an ace.
- “Dealer stands on soft 17”: If the dealer has A-6, they will not hit. These are the tables you want, since if you consult the chart, you’re supposed to hit soft 17s. Advantage, you.
- “Pair/Split”: Two of any of the same card. Getting dealt two Aces means you get to play both hands individually.
- “Double”: This is the best tool in your arsenal. It allows you to double your bet AFTER you’ve seen the dealers cards. How broken is that?
Now, the standard set of rules is pretty intimidating, so I’ve distilled it into 7 basic tips. These tips won’t cover all the match-ups, but they should give you ~85%.
Tip #1 (Hard): Stand on 17+.
Why?: Anything 17 or greater is a solid hand.
Tip #2 (Hard): Stand on 13–16 unless dealer has 7+ showing.
Why? 13–16 isn’t a great hand; but the dealer has to hit below anything 17 so they might bust.
Tip #3 (Hard): 12 vs 6 is the WORST playable hand in blackjack.
Why? Alright, it’s not the worst, but it sucks because (mathematically) you should stand here.
Tip #4 (All): Always double up 9, 10, 11 if you’ve got the dealer beat.
Why? Your chances of winning that hand by hitting a 10 are 33% in a fresh deck.
Tip #5 (Soft): If your dealer has a 5,6 and you’ve got a soft hand, double up.
Why? With a 5,6 the dealer needs to hit another 6,5 to get to 11. They’re likely to miss that and bust on the 3rd card.
Tip #6: Split any hand where you have the dealer covered, except 5s, 10s.
Why? Splitting allows you hedge your bets. The more hands you play, the closer you get to your expected value.
Tip #7: Don’t split 5s, 10s.
Why? 5s give you 10, which you should double. 10s give you 20, which is hard to beat.
Note: ONLY GO INTO THE CASINO WITH WHAT YOU’RE WILLING TO LOSE. I cannot stress this enough. I know too many friends who don’t set limits and end up taking out money while they’re tilted (losing). Don’t be a moron; cap your loses. I also try and cap my gains at 3x.
A strategy with helps me is to divide up the amount I’m willing to lose between the days. e.g Let’s say I’m there for 3 days with $900. My bankroll looks like this:
- Day 1: $300
- Day 2: Day 1's balance + $300
- Day 3: Day 2's balance + $300
Likely I’ll round out the $900 to $1000 and drop it on Day 3 just to make the math pretty.
In The Casino
When you enter the casino, you’re looking for the following tables:
- $5–$10 minimum bet
- 2–3 people
- Dealer stands on soft 17
- Blackjack Bonus (Usually 20%)
The last two gives you a bit of an edge, which helps. There are tables with “Free Bet Blackjack”. What this means is that if you hit doubles, a 9, 10 (J, Q, K), or 11 (A), they’ll double your bet for free. This comes with the caveat that the dealer will “push” on a 22. I personally stick to the regular game.
Once you find a table, sit down, and buy in. Put $5 in the betting circle, and wait for your deal. Play some hands, order a coffee/water (Drinks are free but I don’t usually drink while I’m playing).
If you lose 50% of your stand, get up and leave. If you double your stack, get up and leave. If you finish a “shoe” (Deck of cards) get up and leave. The idea here is for you to move around tables so you don’t fry your brain, and allow you to consult the Basic Strategy chart in this article (No phones at the Poker Table). Make sure you’re playing the right moves, and start learning about some of the more nuanced plays, like standing on 9,9 vs a 7 showing.
NOTE: Only go over this section if you know Basic Strategy inside and out. You’ll shoot yourself in the foot and it’s a lot to keep track of in the beginning.
Once you’ve accomplished Basic Strategy, you can start to employ what’s called “Hi Lo”. Hi Lo is a way of calculating which cards the deck is likely to spew out when you tell the dealer to “hit”. It works something like this;
- Any card from 2–6 is +1.
- Any card from 7–9 is 0.
- Any card from 10-A is -1.
As the cards are coming out, add or subtract one based on the chart to get your “Running Count”. From here, you divide the Running Count by the number of remaining decks (Usually 6–8) to get the “True Count”. This true count allows you to approximate the number of high or low cards remaining in the deck. e.g if your True Count is +3, it’s likely there is a high card coming so you can use that when deciding your betting or hits.
In the above example, the running count is +1. Left to right players: -1, +2, -2, +1. Dealer is +1, so that’s +1 overall.
As a rule of thumb, you want to bet more if the True Count is higher, since the player gains an advantage when there are more high cards left in the deck.
This is why you’ll often see people join your table right after a shuffle/”Fresh Shoe”; they can start counting on a fresh deck where there are 0 unknowns. Additionally, you may see people watch the first couple hands after a shuffle to see if the True Count increases, at which point they’ll drop their chips and play, sometimes multiple hands at once to capitalize on this.
This is by no means an exhaustive guide, and I’m hardly a Blackjack Grand Master (In fact I still lost money this weekend). I just wanted to distill all my knowledge down to a bite sized chunk that I could come back to, and I figured it would be worth sharing.
Thanks for reading.