Blackjack is one of the most popular skill-based casino card games in the world. Its origins are still a subject to hot debates. A similar game was first mentioned at the beginning of the 17th century in a short story by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, where he relates the adventures of two striplings, Rinconete and Cortadillo, who earn their living by cheating at Veintiuna (which translates as 21 from Spanish). However, the prevalent theory is that blackjack borrowed its rules from a similar French game called Vingt-et-Un.
The game made it to North America, supposedly with the help of French settlers, but it was not until the early 1930s that it really took off. Gambling was decriminalised in the state of Nevada in 1931 and blackjack soon took over casino floors across Las Vegas. The card game was originally named 21 after the players’ objective to draw to a total that is close to 21 without going over.
Soon after the decriminalisation of casinos in Nevada, some gambling establishments introduced a promotion at their blackjack tables where hands consisting of an ace of spades and a Jack of a black suit (Clubs or Spades) offered an increased return of 10 to 1. The promotion was removed shortly after but the name blackjack caught on. The legalisation of casino gambling in New Jersey’s Atlantic City in 1976 brought about the introduction of one distinct blackjack variation which continues to enjoy a great popularity to this day.
- ✓ The Basics
- ✓ The Rules of Play
- ✓ Insurance in Blackjack
- ✓ The Dealer’s Rules
- ✓ The Table Etiquette
- ✓ House Edge
- ✓ Rule Variations
- ✓ Basic Strategy
- ✓ Blackjack Variations
- ✓ Single-Deck Blackjack
- ✓ Vegas Downtown Blackjack
- ✓ Vegas Strip Blackjack
- ✓ Atlantic City Blackjack
- ✓ Multi-Hand Blackjack
- ✓ Card Counting
- ✓ Other Advanced Techniques
But enough blackjack history for today, let’s now talk about what you can learn from this guide. Since the latter is aimed at complete rookies as well as at more experienced players, I shall start by acquainting you with the game’s rules, table etiquette, payouts, and odds. Then, I proceed by introducing readers to some of the most popular blackjack variations (including the above-mentioned Atlantic City Blackjack) to acquaint you with their peculiarities so that you are not caught off guard if you ever find yourself at one such blackjack table.
You will also be able to learn about basic strategy that increases your chances of turning a long-term profit at the blackjack tables before we proceed to explain how rule variations impact the house edge. If you stick with me to the end of the guide, you will read some information about different advantage play techniques, such as card counting and shuffle tracking.
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Blackjack is currently among the leading casino table games in the world.
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Standing a Hand
When playing blackjack, one of the two most common playing decisions players face is standing, hitting being the second one.
Splitting Hands in Blackjack
If exercised properly, splitting can be one of the most lucrative moves for blackjack players against certain dealer upcards.
Blackjack Double Down
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Surrender in Blackjack
The option of surrendering in blackjack is one of the newer rules that was added to give the players a little bit of a fighting chance, so to speak.
Insurance in Blackjack
In the game of blackjack, no one can ensure you will not lose your chips but players, nevertheless, have the option to buy insurance when the dealer’s upcard is an ace.
Blackjack Strategy for Playing Hands
Many people equate playing blackjack to gambling and treat it no differently than chance-based games like roulette, baccarat, and craps.
Blackjack is an age-old casino card game, with literally hundreds of intriguing and sometimes baffling variations (depending on where it is played).
Atlantic City Blackjack
Not all blackjack games are as generous and liberal as Atlantic City Blackjack.
Multi Hand Blackjack
It is no secret that conventional blackjack games are becoming less interesting.
Vegas Downtown Blackjack
There is an old American saying that goes ”What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”.
Vegas Strip Blackjack Rules
Vegas Strip Blackjack is what playing real blackjack is all about.
There are over 100 blackjack variations so it is a bit difficult to condense the game’s basics in a paragraph or two but I will do my best. Unlike poker, blackjack is played against the house that is represented by a dealer.
The number of decks in play differs depending on the blackjack variation and ranges between one and eight full decks. Games that utilise one or two 52-card decks are called pitch games and the players receive their cards face-down. Blackjack variations that use four to eight decks are dealt out of a device called a shoe and players’ cards are dealt face-up.
The semi-circled blackjack tables can support between five and seven players at the same time depending on which casino you play at. In jurisdictions where back betting is allowed, up to three players can make bets in a single betting circle but it is usually the person whose chips are at the front of the betting circle that plays out the hand while the other two players are “playing behind”.
The basic objective of a blackjack player is to get a hand total whose value is higher than the dealer’s and as close to 21 as possible but without going over. The decisions other players at the table make should be no concern of yours because you are competing only against the representative of the house, the dealer. The way other participants play out their hands has no impact on the odds of the game.
In blackjack, Aces assume the value of 1 or 11 depending on which one of the two will help you make the best hand. Face cards (Kings, Queens, and Jacks) have a value of 10. Cards 2 through 10 retain their pip value. Suits are generally not taken into consideration in this game. Hands containing an ace that can be counted either as 1 or as 11 without the player busting are called “soft”. It is impossible to exceed 21 on the next draw when your hand is soft.
There are typically three ways to win a hand and the first one is when you are dealt a blackjack right away. Blackjacks are starting hands that consist of an ace and a ten-value card (a 10, a Jack, a Queen or a King) and offer the highest payout in the game which normally is 3 to 2.
The second way to win at blackjack is to draw to a hand total that is higher than the dealer’s but does not exceed 21. And finally, the third way to collect a payout at a blackjack table is when the dealer’s hand busts (goes over 21) but yours does not. If both dealer and player have the same hand totals, they push, i.e. no one wins or loses.
The Rules of Play
The game is easy to understand and offers great odds. A player armed with a basic strategy chart for blackjack can reduce the house edge to about 0.50% through optimal play.
Rules vary between variants although traditional blackjack features between four and eight decks of 52 cards each. A blackjack coup starts with players placing their bets in the betting circles on the layout. Each participant in the game (including the dealer) is dealt two cards. In multiple-deck games, players’ cards are dealt face down. However, the dealer only reveals one card (their upcard) while the other (the hole card) is kept face-down.
In some blackjack variations, the dealer receives only one face-up card and draws their second card only after everyone else at the table has finished playing out their hands. In hole-card games, the dealer reveals their second card before the players have acted on their hands only when he or she has a blackjack.
Once everyone has been dealt two cards, players have a choice from several moves. They can hit their hand, stand, double down, split, surrender (if allowed), or accept insurance. These are all accompanied by hand signals in order to prevent confusion about what the player chooses as well as for the benefit of the casino’s surveillance employees.
When hitting a hand, the player is looking to improve its value by requesting additional cards. You can hit your hand as many times as you wish as long as its value does not go over 21. You indicate you want to hit by tapping your fingers on the felt.
When players are satisfied with their current total, they stand, i.e. they decline drawing additional cards and signal this choice with a sliding motion of their palms over their cards.
Doubling down is one of the most exciting and profitable player options in blackjack. This move is allowed only on starting hands consisting of two cards before you have drawn a third card. When doubling down, you post an additional bet into your betting circle, usually equal to your original wager, although some casinos would allow players to double down for less.
You will be dealt only one additional card to your starting hand and are not permitted to hit following a double down. The card is normally placed sideways as an indicator that you have doubled down. Doubling down can be very profitable in certain situations, for example, when your hand’s value is 11 or 10, and the dealer exposes a weak card like a 5 or a 6.
When a player is dealt two cards of the same rank on a starting hand, they have the option to split the pair into two individual hands and play them one after another. The signal for this player choice is splitting your index and middle finger so that they form a V shape and tapping the felt with both fingers. Also, splitting requires you to make an additional bet that matches your original bet in size. The dealer would then separate your two cards and draw a second card on each of the two. You play out your hands, starting with the first one, again having a choice from hitting and standing as well as from resplitting and doubling down (or at least, in some blackjack variations).
If you feel like your starting hand bears no improvement and is a sure loser, you may have the option to surrender it by forfeiting half of your original bet. In some casinos, surrendering is allowed on any two-card total while in others, you can give up on your hand only when the dealer’s upcard is an ace. To signal a surrender, you must verbally announce surrender and then draw a horizontal line under your hand, using your index finger. Surrendering is an especially good idea when you have a starting hand that totals 16 against a dealer’s ten-value card.
There are two varieties of the surrender rule, the most widespread of which is the late surrender (LS), where you are not allowed to fold your hand before the dealer has checked for a blackjack when showing an ace. Early surrender (ES) is more advantageous to players but is quite the rarity – it allows you to give up on your hand before the dealer has peeked for a blackjack.
Insurance in Blackjack
Insurance is offered only when the dealer’s upcard is an Ace. This is a proposition wager that gives you the chance to insure your starting hand against a potential dealer blackjack by posting a side bet that amounts to half of your original wager. The chips are placed in front of your corresponding betting circle in the insurance stripe on the layout.
After you have accepted (or declined) insurance, the dealer would take a peek on their hole card to check whether it is a face card or a 10 for a blackjack. Provided that it indeed is, your insurance bet will pay out 2 to 1 but you will lose your original bet. This also means you will break even on this coup, i.e. you will not record any net losses or net winnings. If the dealer does not have a blackjack, you lose your insurance wager and proceed to play your hand as you normally would. If both you and the dealer have blackjacks, you will push and will have your wager returned to you.
Insurance is a bet players are recommended to avoid because it gives the house a substantial advantage that can reach 7.40% in eight-deck games. Most inexperienced blackjack players fail to understand this because the very name of the bet is kind of misleading, causing them to subconsciously assume they protect their original wagers by “insuring” their hands against a dealer blackjack.
In reality, the insurance bet has no effect on the likelihood of you winning your hand. It does not offer you very good odds with its 2 to 1 payout, either. Insurance becomes a break-even wager if the dealer has a ten-value card in the hole 1 out of 3 times. In reality, the dealer will have a blackjack only once every 3.18 times.
That being said, insurance can be a profitable wager for advantage players who can track the ratio of small (2s through 9s) and high cards (10s, Kings, Jacks, Queens, and aces). Such players would accept insurance when the shoe is rich in ten-value cards because the chances of the dealer having a blackjack will be greater under these circumstances.
The Dealer’s Rules
Blackjack dealers have no say in how they play out their hands. Dealers are merely representatives of the house, and as such must abide by its rules. The drawing and standing rules for blackjack dealers are fixed and are printed on top of the tables’ felt.
As a general rule, the dealer is required to draw to 16 and stand on hand totals of 17 or above. However, sometimes there might be an exception to this rule, particularly when the dealer’s 17 is soft. When you approach a blackjack table, it is likely to be one the following two types (in terms of dealer rules):
The dealer is required to stand on all totals of 17, regardless of whether their hand is soft or hard. This dealer rule is considered more favourable to players because, in blackjack, you are still not in the safe zone with one such hand. A total of 17 is not good enough.
The dealer may be required to hit soft totals of 17, which gives them a chance to improve their hand and outdraw players. Soft 17s contain an ace so the hand’s total can be viewed either as 7 or as 17. This rule improves the house edge by 0.22% and makes it more difficult for players to win over the long run.
Nowadays, many casinos have adjusted their rules so that their blackjack dealers must hit soft 17s but this does not mean tables with the dealer standing on all 17s have completely sunken into oblivion. Finding them is more difficult but not impossible, especially if you play blackjack online.
The Table Etiquette
- Only buy in after everyone at the table has finished playing their hands
- Do not hand out currency to the dealer
- Do not place currency in the betting boxes
- Never touch your chips after you have been dealt your cards
- When using chips of different denominations make sure you put those of the smallest value on top of the stack when you are making a bet
- Do not remove your cards from the table in pitch games
- Never touch your cards in shoe games
- Use the hand signals to indicate your decisions
- Colour up after everyone has finished with their hands
- Never scold fellow players for their decisions during the game
When gambling at a blackjack table, you are normally expected to adhere to its etiquette for the benefit of fellow players and dealers. You can take a seat at a table only after everyone has finished playing their hands on the last coup and all bets have been settled. You can exchange money for chips at the cashier cage or at the table itself but you should never hand out the bills to the dealer when buying in.
The proper way to do it would be to place the money on the felt for the dealer to pick up and say “Change please”. No currency should ever be placed within a betting circle – in some jurisdictions, laws prohibit gambling establishments from accepting bets in the form of cash and only chips can be placed in the betting boxes.
After you buy in, you must place your chips in a betting box without them touching its outlines. Remember that once you have made a bet and cards have been dealt at the table, you are not permitted to touch your chips. If your bet consists of chips of different denominations, you must also put the chips of the lowest denomination on top of the stack. Otherwise, the dealer will be forced to rearrange your chips before the start of the round. The purpose of both these rules is to prevent players from cheating by adjusting their wagers after they have seen their cards.
In single and double-deck games (also known as pitch games) where players are dealt their cards face-down, you are allowed to touch your cards. However, you should never check the cards using both of your hands. Lift the cards with one hand only and never remove them from the table – they should always be in plain view as a precaution against cheating.
In multiple-deck games, (usually called shoe games) where your hands are dealt face-up, you should never touch the cards. Always use the correct hand gestures to signal your playing choices.
Be sure to colour up before you leave the table, which is to say you must exchange your small-denomination chips for chips of higher denominations. This is considered a common courtesy towards the dealer since it spares them from having to refill their tray when other players are betting small chips. It is recommended to colour up before the reshuffle but if you are in a hurry, you should at least wait for other players to finish their hands.
Last but not least, be kind to fellow players and your dealer. There is a tendency among some blackjack players to blame others for the bad outcome of the coup. It is usually the player sitting at third base (the last spot on the table) who gets it because they are the last one to act on their hand. Third-base players often must endure accusations of drawing the dealer’s bust card, disturbing “the flow of the cards”, and causing everyone at the table to lose. Remember no one can “cause” you to lose in blackjack – fellow players’ decisions are just as likely to help you win as they are likely to hurt you in the long term.
The House Edge in Blackjack
Each casino game is designed in such a way so as to give the house a statistical edge over the players. This advantage is expressed as a percentage figure, so if a gambling expert determines the edge of a given game is 5.26%, for example, this means players are expected to lose $5.26 for every $100 wagered at the table. It is mathematically impossible not to lose money to the house over the long run, hence the adage “The house always wins”.
It follows that if you make 60 bets of 1$ each at a table with a 5.26% edge every hour, you may incur losses of $3.15 per hour. It should be noted that one arrives at these figures only over the long run after placing a very large number of bets. It is possible for players to emerge winners over the short term due to variance.
One of the unique features of blackjack is that the house edge is not a constant as odds fluctuate each time a card leaves the deck or shoe. The more small cards remain to be played, the bigger the advantage of the dealer. Players hold an advantage over the house when more ten-value cards and aces remain to be dealt.
There are several ways the house extracts advantage from its blackjack tables, starting with the fact players are always the first ones to act on their hands. When a player busts, the dealer will collect their chips off the table – it does not matter whether the dealer busts afterwards. The number of decks in play also affects the house edge. The casino’s advantage increases the more decks are introduced into the game because then players will be less successful when doubling down and will hit fewer blackjacks.
Blackjack is one of the casino games that give the house the lowest edge possible but this advantage can further be reduced by incorporating perfect basic strategy which shows you the mathematically optimal way to play any hand depending on your total and the upcard of the dealer. It is essential to understand basic strategy before playing blackjack for real money as this will help you emerge a winner in the long term, reducing the house edge to about 0.50%, sometimes even less.
The house edge in blackjack is closely related to the rules and any changes to these rules may either harm the player or work to their advantage. I have outlined some of the most common rule variations and their impact on the house edge below.
Rule Variations and How They Impact the House Edge
Another trait of blackjack is that it has no fixed rules – different variations play according to different rules. I already spoke about how games where the dealer is obliged to stand on all totals of 17 are more advantageous to players, the reason being 17 is a relatively weak total. The house gains an additional edge of 0.22% when the dealer is allowed to improve his total by hitting soft 17s.
In some blackjack games, players are permitted to double down after a split further increasing their potential profits in advantageous situations. To give you an example of what I am talking about, let’s suppose you are dealt a pair of 8s, split them, and receive a 2 on the first 8 for a total of 10. It can be profitable to double down on your ten as you can potentially improve your total to hard 20 or 21. When doubling down after a split (abbreviated DAS) is allowed at a table, the house edge is decreased roughly by 0.12%. Some gambling venues would restrict players to doubling down only on two-card totals of 9 and 10 which adds about 0.09% to the casino’s advantage.
The same goes for the surrender option which can be very handy when you believe your hand is a sure loser. The availability of surrender reduces the advantage of the house by about 0.08%. Players should also pay close attention to the payout for blackjacks which should normally be 3 to 2. Some casinos offer tables where blackjacks pay at a rate of 6 to 5, which increases the house advantage by almost 1.40%.
As I explained earlier, the dealer is required to peek for blackjacks when having an ace in the hole after players have accepted or declined insurance. However, at some tables, the dealer would check for blackjacks even when they are showing a ten-value card. This is great for players because it takes away about 0.10% from the house’s advantage. The rule saves you lots of money from splitting pairs or doubling down on your hands only to have the dealer flip an ace next to their ten-value card.
It is a rarity to find tables where the five-card Charlie rule applies. This rule stipulates that if you draw five cards without busting, your hand automatically wins an even-money payout no matter what hand total the dealer has (unless it is a blackjack). Similarly, there are six-card and seven-card Charlies where you are a sure winner when drawing six or seven cards without going over 21. The presence of the seven-card Charlie rule gives you a very slight advantage of 0.01% but if you succeed in finding a table that pays on five-card Charlies, you will benefit from a house-edge reduction of 0.16%.
There are many more rule variations you can come across in blackjack, some more beneficial to players than others. I will further elaborate on those in the guide but for now, we shall move on to basic strategy and how it can improve your odds at the blackjack tables.
Basic Strategy in Blackjack
Basic strategy was devised in the 1950s by four US engineers called Herbert Maisel, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, and James McDermott who calculated the mathematically optimal way to play every hand in the game of blackjack, a contribution that earned them a belated induction into the Blackjack Hall of Fame in 2008. Edward Thorp, Professor of Mathematics at the MIT, tested the four engineers’ theory in the early 1960s on the university’s IBM computer and established their strategy is indeed accurate.
Today, basic strategy is widely available in the form of a chart players can either memorise or consult with while at the blackjack table. One can even obtain one such card from the dealer or purchase it from the casino’s gift shop (something I do not recommend since some cards bought at casinos have been found to contain mistakes). The chart comprises all possible two-card totals and shows you how you should play each one against different dealer upcards. Keep in mind basic strategy does not take into account the remaining deck’s (shoe’s) composition.
The accuracy of your playing decisions can further be improved if you are using a composition-dependent strategy where the exact constitution of your hand is taken into account. While this allows for a greater accuracy, it makes a minuscule difference to players’ long-term expected value (EV).
Note that the optimal play decisions may be affected by rule variations and deck number but for the most part the bulk of the strategy remains the same, with very few exceptions. However, it is always a good idea to use a basic strategy chart that corresponds to the specific rules of the game you are playing. You can easily obtain an accurate chart with the help of an online blackjack strategy engine where you can adjust the rules to generate all the optimal decisions for the game you are interested in.
I have outlined several key basic strategy decisions below to get you started.
- You should never hit hard totals of 17 or above no matter what the dealer’s upcard is
- Soft totals of 17 or less should be always hit
- Stand if the dealer shows a 4, a 5 or a 6 when you have hard totals 12 through 16
- Hard totals 12 through 16 should be hit when the dealer shows a 7 or above
- You should always double down on totals of 11 regardless of the dealer’s up card (but not in a game that plays with six decks where the dealer peeks, stands on all 17s, and DAS and LS are allowed; in one such game, you should not double on 11 only against a dealer’s ace)
- You always split pairs of 8s and pairs of aces
- Pairs of 5s or ten-value cards (eg. K, Q) should never be split
Unlike most other casino games such as craps, baccarat, and roulette, which pretty much play by the same rules, blackjack may have dramatic rule changes depending on which variation you play. The number of recorded blackjack variations exceeds 100. It would be impossible to cover all of them here, so I will concentrate on several of the most widespread and exciting varieties of the game. The house advantage I have listed for the different variations applies only when perfect basic strategy is guiding your play.
Single-deck blackjack is rare to find at landbased casinos, or at least if you are looking for decent rules. However, you can find single-deck games across a huge number of online casinos (where the deck is reshuffled by the software after every coup).
The game follows the standard rules of blackjack, with players being able to hit, stand, split pairs, and double down. I already explained that if you are playing pitch games in landbased casinos, you should never remove the cards from the table or use both of your hands when checking your cards, so keep that in mind.
Casinos resort to rule modifications to gain some edge and skew the favourable odds for players. Before you join a single-deck game, be sure to check whether it offers the standard 3-to-2 payout. Unfortunately, most single-deck games pay out at a rate of 6 to 5 nowadays, which greatly reduces players’ EV and causes the house edge to increase from the meagre 0.15% to 1.45%. I think you will agree this is a significant difference.
The house edge skyrockets in such games because you actually receive less money for your blackjacks. Just to demonstrate with an example, suppose you play at a 3-to-2 table and hit a natural with a $10 bet – your net profit would amount to $15, i.e. you get 1.5 times your original stake. Respectively, a 6-to-5 payout for a blackjack would yield a return of 1.2 times your $10 bet for a net profit of $12. Which one do you prefer?
Vegas Downtown Blackjack
There is no point in telling you where Vegas Downtown Blackjack first emerged as I think the variation’s name speaks for itself. This is a pitch game that plays with two full decks and the dealer hits soft totals of 17. Doubling down is allowed on all two-card totals and after splitting pairs. Resplitting is another favourable rule in Vegas Downtown Blackjack. The dealer peeks for a natural when showing an ace.
However, it is not possible for a player to bet on more than one hand at a time. The rules of Vegas Downtown Blackjack are favourable, yielding a house edge of 0.39% only. The game is especially great for card counters but most casinos offering it will reduce penetration to combat advantage play.
Vegas Strip Blackjack
Vegas Strip Blackjack is another popular variation of 21 that was birthed in Sin City. Unlike Vegas Downtown Blackjack, the Strip variation is dealt out of a shoe containing four full decks of cards. The rules are largely rather favourable to players since the dealer stands on all totals of 17 and blackjack pays out 3 to 2 in most Strip casinos although some venues do offer a reduced payout of 6 to 5.
The dealer checks for blackjacks when having an ace as their upcard. There is the option to double on any hand total as long as it consists of two cards. DAS and resplitting are also allowed, with the exception of pairs of aces which cannot be resplit. Also, when aces are split, the player receives only one card on each ace and cannot hit the hand. Ten-value cards can be split even if they are not identical, like K, Q or K, 10 for example. Surrender is not an option. The game yields a house edge of 0.35% only.
Atlantic City Blackjack
East Coast’s gambling hub is responsible for the introduction of one popular blackjack variation that borrows its name. The rules are good for the most part although many Atlantic City casinos pay out 6 to 5 on blackjack which takes away from the game’s appeal. However, some online variations (like the one developed by software supplier Microgaming) do offer the standard payout of 3 to 2.
Eight full decks are in play. The dealer is required to stand on all 17s and checks for naturals when showing an ace. You can double down on any two cards you like and split your pairs up to three times, with the exception of aces which can only be split once. Each split ace receives no more than one card. Face cards can also be split, even if they are not identical. Late Surrender is an option, i.e. you can forfeit your hard after the dealer has peeked for blackjack. The house edge for Atlantic City Blackjack is 0.36%.
Multi-hand blackjack plays like any other common variation of the popular game. The only difference here is that you can bet on several hands simultaneously and play them one after the other like you would usually do with split pairs, for instance.
Keep in mind that by playing multiple-hands at the same time, you expose your bankroll to a greater risk. You can lose the entire coup if the dealer outdraws you or flips over a ten-value card next to an ace. It is highly recommended for you to learn basic strategy to a tee before you join the multiple-hand action.
The pit bosses in landbased casinos frown upon players who spread to more than two betting positions at the blackjack tables. However, when you play the game online, there is no one to sulk when you are betting on multiple hands. I recommend you try the variations created by Microgaming and Playtech where you can bet on up to five positions at the same time and enjoy some quality graphics in the process.
Improving Your Odds through Card Counting
Blackjack is one of the very few casino games where what has happened in the past has a direct effect on what is to happen in the future. The composition of the remaining deck/shoe does matter. If more high cards (10s, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and Aces) remain to be dealt, the bigger the advantage of the player. When the deck/shoe is depleted of high cards so that more small cards remain to be dealt, the pendulum swings in favour of the house.
This fact renders it possible for advantage players to exploit the game, gaining a long-term edge over the house. Card counting involves assigning negative or positive values to the cards which makes it possible to track the ratio of high and small cards in the shoe. Many different counting systems have been devised over the years, but the Hi-Lo system remains the most broadly used one to this day.
Card counters who utilise the Hi-Lo system assign -1 value to each high card that leaves shoe. Small cards 2s through 6s are valued +1, giving the house a greater edge over players. Cards 7s, through 9s are considered neutral because they do not favour the house or the players. Neutrals have 0 value.
When counting multiple-deck games, the player starts by keeping track of the running count, which is updated with each card that is dealt on the table. The true count is derived by dividing the running count by the number of decks that remain to be dealt. The card counter capitalises on the game by placing larger bets when they have the advantage and reducing their bets or altogether quitting the game (wonging out) when the count becomes negative. Card counters would also scout for games with deep penetration, where the dealer cuts off a smaller section of the shoe with the cut card.
- A handy tip for aspiring card counters is to use the cancellation approach for the purpose of saving time and preventing errors. As you have probably noticed, sometimes cards can cancel each other out because some are assigned a +1 value while others are counted as -1. For example, if you are dealt a hand of K, 5, its net count will be 0 because you count the King as -1 and the 5 as +1. You save time since there is no need for you to adjust your running count by adding and subtracting these values.
There are several other things aspiring card counters should master before they test their skills in the actual casino environment. These include:
- Deck Estimation – Once you master keeping a correct running count, you must learn to visually determine the exact number of decks that remain to be dealt in order to derive a correct true count. You need discipline and tonnes of practice to get there. My advice would be to invest in a discard tray and visit a local casino where you can request them to give you some of their used decks. Most establishments will oblige you because used cards are practically useless for them.These old decks can no longer be utilised at the tables since they have holes punctured in them but will come in handy for practice purposes. It is recommended for you to use casino decks because often they are of a different thickness compared to the cardsavailable at your local drug store (these are usually thinner).Try to obtain as many decks as possible, divide them into stacks (for example, you can makestacks containing half a deck, one deck, one and a half decks and so on to until you reach four and a half decks), and scrutinize each stack until you are fully capable of recognising the number of decks each one contains.
- Index Play – Most advantage players resort to the so-called Index Charts which show them when the proper time to deviate from basic strategy is. One such chart contains different count values that warrant these deviations. This increases playing efficiency and allows you to play out your hands optimally depending on the current true count.Just to give you an example, let’s assume you are dealt a hand of Q, 6 for a stiff total of 16 whereas your dealer has a face upcard. The index number for a stiff 16 against a dealer ten-value card is 0. Basic strategy requires you to hit your stiff 16 but if you stick to the Index Chart, you must stand on this hand when your true count is 0 or higher.
- The Illustrious 18 Indices – Some seasoned card counters are accustomed to memorising a hundred or so indices but this may not be as easy to aspiring advantage players. Counting rookies have Blackjack Hall of Fame inductee Don Schlesinger to thank for the creation of the Illustrious 18 chart which includes 18 of the most important index plays you can make in blackjack. This condensed index chart first appeared in an issue of the Blackjack Forum magazine in the fall of 1986. You can check the Illustrious 18 in the table below.
|Hand||Index Number||Correct Play|
|Dealer shows an ace||3||Accept Insurance|
|16 vs. K, Q, J, or 10||0||Stand|
|15 vs. K, Q, J, or 10||4||Stand|
|20 (paired ten-value cards) vs. 5||5||Split|
|20 (paired ten-value cards) vs. 6||4||Split|
|10 vs. K, Q, J, or 10||4||Double|
|12 vs. 3||2||Stand|
|12 vs. 2||3||Stand|
|11 vs. an ace||1||Double|
|9 vs. 2||1||Double|
|10 vs. an ace||4||Double|
|9 vs. 7||3||Double|
|16 vs. 9||5||Stand|
|13 vs. 2||-1||Stand|
|12 vs. 4||0||Stand|
|12 vs. 5||-2||Stand|
|12 vs. 6||-1||Stand|
|13 vs. 3||-2||Stand|
- The Fab 4 Indices – In some scenarios, the best course of action is to forfeit half of your wager and surrender hands that are very likely to result in a loss. Many rookie players are averse to using the surrender option and insist on playing all their hands. However, using late surrender smartly can actually save you money in the long run, especially if you are a card counter. You can find 4 of the most important surrender index plays below.
|Hand||Surrender Index Number|
|14 vs. K, Q, J, or 10||3|
|15 vs. 9||2|
|15 vs. an ace||1|
|15 vs. K, Q, J, or 10||0|
- Expected Value and Standard Deviation – Prior to attacking the blackjack tables, rookie counters must ensure they understand two very important concepts, the first one being that of expected value. The term refers to the actual profits a blackjack player can expect to generate in the long term on the basis of the edge they gain over the house.A basic strategy player is doomed to suffer a negative expected value because the house always has an advantage over them, albeit smaller than 0.50% in some cases. One such person will inevitably lose money to the house in the long run. Advantage players, on the other hand, bet big when the odds are in their favour and therefore, will enjoy positive expected value in the long term.Standard deviation is an indicator of how far a player would deviate from their expected long-term results, giving them an idea of the fluctuations they can suffer. Standard deviation is not so difficult to calculate as it is equal to around 1.1x the square root of the number of hands you have played during a set period of time.
Other Advanced Techniques
The majority of advantage players resort to card counting to beat the house but there are a few more advanced techniques applicable to the game of blackjack. You can read about them below.
- Hole Carding – Sometimes the player can obtain information about the dealer’s hole card and use this intel to play out their hand. There are two distinct forms of hole carding, the first one being the so-called first-basing. This technique is possible only when you occupy the first spot at the table, known as the first base. If you are skilled enough, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the value of the dealer’s hole card when they peek for a blackjack.Another common form of hole carding is the front-loading method where you succeed in seeing the dealer’s hole card when they slide it under their upcard. Keep in mind both methods are legal but they are starting to grow obsolete because many casinos have introduced electronic scanners at their tables as a precaution.
- Card Steering – Card steering is an advanced technique where the player cuts the decks in such a way so as to allow for specific cards to appear during the first rounds after the reshuffle. This is usually done with favourable cards like aces. The player would wager larger amounts of money at the start of the next shoe since they know when the favourable card is to be dealt.
- Shuffle Tracking – Shuffle tracking is the practice of mapping certain cards (usually faces and aces) during the shuffle so that you can deduce said cards’ approximate location at the start of the next shoe. The player cuts the shoe in a way that ensures these favourable cards would get dealt during the first rounds of the fresh shoe. Needless to say, this information warrants an increase of your bet as it gives you an advantage.
- Ace Sequencing – Aces are easily the most important cards in the entire shoe since they help you form blackjacks, rewarding you with a higher payout. Because of this, proficient players would master the technique of ace sequencing, which enables them to deduce the approximate location of the aces in the shoe.This is achievable by knowing the dealer’s shuffling routine and closely observing where the dealt aces are placed in the discard tray. After the reshuffle, you place the cut card in such a location so as to ensure the important cards end up at the top of the shoe to be dealt during the first rounds. Knowing the first card you will be dealt is an ace gives you a massive advantage over the house of more than 50%.
- Exploiting Loss Rebates – Some advantage players increase their long-term expected value by taking advantage of casino promotions like loss rebates where the player has a set percentage of their losses returned to them as a compensation. This approach is mostly suitable for high rollers who wager huge amounts of money per hand and are able to negotiate a good rebate with their casino. You can determine whether a rebate is worth it by knowing the house edge of the game you are playing, its standard deviation, and the percentage of the loss rebate.Don Johnson is the most prominent blackjack player to have taken advantage of loss rebates. Johnson succeeded in accumulating over $15 million in profits after negotiating lucrative loss-rebate deals with three Atlantic City casinos (Caesars, Tropicana, and Borgata).Johnson negotiated very favourable rules for his game (6 decks, S17, DAS, LS, and resplitting of aces) which reduced the house edge to the meagre 0.26%. The player betted $100,000 per hand and was granted a 20% rebate on net losses of $500,000 and above. Curiously enough, the favourable rules and the huge rebate percentage yielded such a massive edge in favour of Johnson, he even did not have to resort to counting the cards.