BlackJack is the most popular game in the casino, but shouldn't be played until some hard and fast rules are taken on board. Here, James Tye reveals those smart plays that the casino doesn't want you to know
Blackjack is a unique casino game. Unlike craps, roulette or baccarat, you can beat the house in blackjack. Not just with a good night at the tables - after all, that's what we play for - but by consistently taking home a profit. That's the good news.
The bad news is that Inside Poker can't guarantee you can win like that. Only the most dedicated of players, with accomplished arithmetic agility, hardened by years of practice can hope to accomplish that. Even then it's often a team effort; something that casinos don't take to favourably. If that's your goal, then you'll need to read both parts of our blackjack masterclass and get practising!
What we can give you is the info you'll need to make you a smarter blackjack player. The odds won't be in your favour, but you'll be able to make a return of around 99 per cent in the long run - the kind of return that will put you in the top one per cent of blackjack players in the country.
The blackjack player has a number of certainties to rely on. Firstly, the dealer must hit all hands of 16 and below, no matter what cards the rest of the table are showing. Secondly, you're in control of your bet. Thirdly, you decide whether to stand or hit at any point in your hand. You can't control the cards you receive, the cards the dealer receives or what the other players at the table receive. Don't worry about what you can't control. Concentrate on how you play your hand.
The player also has certain facts at their disposal. You can see, face up, one of the dealer's two cards - the upcard. This is absolutely critical. The more advanced player may also choose to count the cards they've seen, to give them a better idea of when the cards left in the deck will give them a greater chance of winning (see The basics of card counting).
Let's start with the upcard. There are 52 cards in a deck, and 16 of these (10, J, Q, K in all four suits) have a value of ten in blackjack. If you turn over cards randomly, you have a 30 per cent chance that the card you'll turn has a value of ten. So the dealer's card you can't see has an almost one in three chance of being a ten. Because of this, always consider the dealer's hand to be the upcard plus ten; it's the most likely option.
If the dealer is showing a 3, assume it's a 13. If the dealer is showing an 8, assume a final score of 18. The worst (for them at any rate) face card a dealer can show is a 6. Remember, dealers have to hit a 16, and hitting a 16 means they have more than a 60 per cent chance of busting. The best card they can show is an ace, giving the dealer almost a one in three chance of hitting a blackjack - a hand you have little hope of winning against.
With this in mind, you should always stand any hand of 12 or above (a breaking hand) if the dealer shows an upcard of 3, 4, 5 or 6. If the dealer shows a 2 then stand on any hand which totals 13 or more.
If the dealer shows a 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K or ace, you must hit every hand that totals 16 or below. Now this one is going to hurt. You will bust two out of three times here (especially at 16, but obviously less so at 12). But if you don't make this move, you'll lose three out of four times to the dealer's superior finishing hand.
Follow these simple rules and you'll instantly be a better player than the majority of blackjack punters sitting next to you in the casino.
Double downs and splits
So how do you improve your chances further and make it into that top one per cent of players mentioned earlier?
First up, the double down. I'm going to add a little complication here, as the rules for doubling down vary from country to country and casino to casino. In essence, UK casinos only allow you to double down on hands that total 9, 10 or 11. Vegas casinos allow you to double down at any point. In the table it's indicated where you should double down, but bear in mind that not all casinos will accept all of these bets. If in doubt, just ask the dealer, but don't be surprised if tight-fisted UK casinos limit your doubling down opportunities.
A double down is a specific bet that means you double the stake on your hand in return for one card and one card only. This is laid horizontally across your hand to indicate that it's your final card.
You should double down in the following circumstances. Against an upcard of 10 or less, double down on 11. Against an upcard of 9 or less, double down on a total 10. Only double down on 9 if the dealer shows a 3, 4, 5 or 6. Never double down if the dealer's upcard is an ace.
By doubling down in this way, you effectively increase your returns as the odds are in your favour. It won't always work, and you'll curse the time you hit an ace on a doubled-down 11. But you will win more in the long run.
Splits are another way of increasing your bet when the cards are with you. All you need are two cards of the same value. The rules on splitting are, as every other decision you make in blackjack, determined by the dealer's upcard. First up, always split aces and 8s. Never split two 10s, Js, Qs or Ks - why break up an excellent hand for a chance to make two mediocre ones? Also, never split 4s, because you now know that you have a one in three chance of adding a ten to the dealer's score of eight.
Remember that splits and double downs can all occur in the same hand. For instance, you could split two 8s only to hit another 8 on the first split and a 3 on the second. What do you do? Split the next 8 again and double down on the second. Always stick to the basic game rules. Sometimes you'll need four or five times your original stake to complete the hand. Don't bottle it. If you do, you're simply handing back the advantage to the house. Just make sure you manage your chip stack and try to keep something in reserve for exactly this type of situation.
There's another area in which you can grab a little more margin back off the casino - soft hands. A soft hand is any hand that contains an ace to make up the total. For example, an ace and a 6 total either 7 or 17. As you can't bust by drawing to a soft hand, your play will differ when faced with certain dealer upcards. Some, mainly Vegas casinos, will even let you double down on soft hands - an opportunity you shouldn't pass on. Even in your local casino, it's definitely worth asking.
In principle, you need to hit any soft total of 17 and below (except ace + ace, which you need to split). Against a dealer upcard of 9, 10 or ace, you should even hit ace + 7. Never do anything but stand with an ace + 8 or ace + 9.
Two other rules you should be aware of are insurance bets and surrenders. Insurance is a side bet that pays two to one on your stake if the dealer turns over a blackjack. This is offered when the dealer shows an upcard of an ace.
You'll certainly bump into the option of insurance against a dealer in your local casino; not surprising, as it gives the casino a 5.9 per cent advantage over you. In other words, don't touch this bet with a barge pole.
It's unlikely you'll need to use surrender as an option in a local casino, but travel to the US or even the Far East, and it may well be a possibility. Surrendering your bet involves losing half your stake to withdraw from the table. If you consider the odds, you should only surrender if you stand a greater than three in four chance of losing the hand. This will only be the case in four scenarios. These are: if you have a total of 16 against a dealer upcard of 9, 10 (J,Q,K) or ace. Also, if you have a total of 15 against a dealer upcard of 10 (J,Q,K). Any other hands that seem like tough draws, such as 15 against an upcard 9 or 14 against an upcard 10, you should still hit. Even though surrendering might seem like an easy option, you'll be giving the edge away to the house if you don't take a card.
Stake and chips
Managing your stack is a basic skill that all gamblers need to master. When you're playing the system as set out in this masterclass, you need to ensure that firstly, you have enough chips to stand a chance of winning, and secondly, you're at the tables long enough to enjoy yourself. You don't, for example, want to have a total stake of £150, bet £50 on the first hand, lose it, bet £50 on the second hand, double it down and then lose again. At that point, your night's over.
First thing's first. Unless you're counting the cards, there's no need to vary the stake you play. The only time your stake should increase is when you double down or split.
In the short term, that's how you approach your stack. To ensure you make an evening of it and have the funds to double down and split where necessary, we suggest you have at least 20 bets "in you" at the start of the evening. We prefer to have 30, or else a cold run of cards could wipe you out quickly. So if you like £5 tables, start with £100, or preferably £150.
Over the evening it's perfectly valid to change your bets, especially if you're winning. Through luck and skilful play, you could double your stack. Some players might pocket the original and continue to play the same stake. Others might start to double their bets in order to maximise their winnings. This is up to you and how you like to play.
The stake you play is absolutely critical in card counting, where you extend or reduce your bet in tandem with the estimated advantage you have. You'll find much more on stack management next month.
Before you rush to the table, take the time to practice these strategies online. You'll find numerous online casinos where you can practice for free. Take your time, use the tables provided and make the right plays. Every time you miss an opportunity to split, double down or hit a soft hand, you're giving margin back to the house. So don't do it! Make sure you know what the right plays are before you start gambling serious sums. Good players should know what the correct play is the instant they can see their hand and the dealer's upcard.
If you want to enjoy the thrill of a real (rather than virtual) casino, you need to know how to handle the tables.
First up, don't worry about what other players at the table are doing. They could be standing 16s against a 10, or worse still, hitting 15s against an upcard of 6. Just let them get on with it. Technically, they're affecting the cards you receive, but unless you know the exact order of the deck (chance would be a fi ne thing!) it doesn't matter. If it starts to bother you, you'll lose focus on your game. And that's when mistakes occur.
Other irritations include players who insist that you've taken their card. Or, especially if you're playing in the end box, claim you broke the table. Generally, this is because they foolishly stood on 15 against an upcard of 10. You could politely inform them that by doing that they'll lose three out of four hands or, alternatively and advisedly, just ignore them.
The other enemy at the blackjack table is you. Boredom and frustration at a run of poor cards can lead to you going 'on tilt'. In other words, making rash bets that are often combined with the wrong plays. It's this that the casino relies on to make its money. How often do you see a punter sticking on 16 one hand against a 10 and then hitting it the next? This is not smart play - the odds are either with you or against you. This is a fact. Unless they're card counters (highly, highly unlikely), then they're just playing badly.
Also, don't just double your bets because you've lost the last two hands. We've sat at a 'cold' table where we've lost six hands on the bounce. And we'd have lost a lot more if we'd subscribed to the above theory. If you don't like the cards you're getting, either sit out a few hands or simply get up and leave. We guarantee the casino will still have that table open later. In fact, if at any stage you feel the distractions of the casino or table you're on are detracting from your play, just collect your chips and move table. Or perhaps take a well-earned break. Don't sit at a table that's pissing you off - you're here to enjoy yourself, as well as win.
One final point - sometimes dealers make mistakes: they're only human after all. If the mistake is in your favour then it's a gift. Smile, make no fuss and accept it graciously. If it's against you, then it's an error - make a fuss and insist on it being corrected immediately! That's a golden rule when you're playing in any casino.
There you have it. Play using the real odds of blackjack and you won't give more than one per cent away to the greediest of casinos. Not ideal, but hardly like roulette where you could easily be conceding up to six per cent to the house.
To beat the house, you'll need to do three things. First, learn and master this system - it should form the basis of every decision you make at the blackjack table. Second, practice, practice, practice. You should know the right move in every situation at any table, no matter what the rules. Third, keep reading Inside Poker!
We are grateful for this article to Inside Poker Magazine.