Looking to beat the house on that next trip to Las Vegas? As every gambler knows, that may not always be possible. But having the ins and outs of how to play optimally may keep you from losing your shirt at the blackjack table.
The centuries-old game attracts players worldwide, hoping to get that perfect 21 and beat the dealer. The game has added allure thanks to the concept of counting cards, as seen in films like Rain Man and 21.
The game can also be one best in the casino regarding the odds. But having a strategy can go a long way. As James Bond author Ian Fleming once noted: “At gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck.”
Simply put, blackjack is a card game with the goal of getting as close to 21 without going over, known as “busting.” Several people can play simultaneously, but all compete against the dealer. A hand starts with each player receiving two cards.
In most games, all cards are dealt face up, except only one of the dealers is face up. Players determine their hand count and then decide to hit (take another card) or stand (not take another card). Players can hit as often as they like as long as they don’t bust. To determine your hand’s count, consider each card’s value:
Face cards – all Jacks, Queens, and Kings are worth 10
Aces – can be used as either 1 or 11
Numbered cards – retain those numbered values
A player who is dealt a 10-value card (10s, Jacks, Queens, Kings) and an Ace is an automatic winner. That’s called a blackjack and usually pays out at 3-to-2 (sometimes 6-to-5, depending on the casino).
As another example, a player dealt a Queen, a 3♠, and a 5♦ has an 18. If the dealer draws to a 19 or higher, that is a losing bet. If the dealer draws an 18 also, the bet is called a “push,” – meaning a tie, and no money is lost.
It’s important to note that the dealer acts last, giving the house the advantage. Beyond these basics, there are a few other things to keep in mind:
Doubling down – Some better hands may be worth doubling your bet, and you’ll often have that option on hands like 9, 10, or 11. Since there are many more 10-value cards in the deck (16), hitting a winning hand with these hands is more likely. When players double, however, they only receive one card.
Splitting hands – Players that receive two of the same hand, such as 5♣5♦. May split these hands for another bet and play two different hands. However, all hands aren’t worth splitting, and knowing basic strategy helps (more on that below).
Splitting Aces – A player lucky enough to receive two Aces can also split. This offers a player a chance at a blackjack and possibly two nice winners. Players splitting Aces will receive only a single card on each hand.
While that’s a quick rundown on how to play, a player armed with a bit more knowledge has a better chance of beating the house. A sound approach can reduce the house advantage to as little as 0.5%, depending on the casino and its rules.
A significant part of that should be learning Basic Strategy. This is a mathematical system devised to give players the best possible option versus any dealer’s up-card. There are even small cards a player can utilize to learn the system at the table. Any player using Basic Strategy has a better chance of turning the tables on the casinos.
A game with fewer decks always helps a gambler’s cause in beating the house. Most casinos utilize blackjack shoes with six to eight decks in play. If you can play a little higher stakes, you may find some games with only one or two decks. That can shave a bit off the house’s advantage as well.
Avoid one rookie mistake when jumping in the action – don’t split 10s. A 20 is the second-best hand in the game, and splitting can lead to two losing hands instead of a solid win. Also, along these lines, avoid splitting already-weak hands to make two weak hands. Learning Basic Strategy will help, and for a great guide, click here.
One last thing to remember: avoid those awful 6-to-5 payouts for blackjack. The traditional payout for the best hand has long been 3 to 2. However, some casinos have moved toward 6-to-5 payouts. Players already face an uphill fight against the house. Why give away even more of an edge? A bit of online homework will help find those casinos offering better payouts.
What attracts some people to the game of black is the idea that this is one of the few casino games where players can actually turn the tables on the casino and move the edge in their favor.
Edward Thorp, a mathematician, hedge fund manager, and blackjack player, is considered the father of card counting. His book Beat the Dealer was released in 1962 and became the first to detail how the strategy works.
Card counting doesn’t involve memorizing every card but generally consists in keeping a running count based on high and low cards that have come off the deck.
For the first time, players could walk into a casino and theoretically beat the house in the long run. But the key word there may be “theoretically,” as card counting involves plenty of practice and being able to keep a running count quickly under intense pressure. However, just the idea of beating the house, as the book’s name implied, fueled the game’s growth for years to come.
Casino pit bosses may be on the lookout as well. Counters tend to bet low when the count is bad and then raise their wagers considerably when the count is in their favor. Those found to be counting may be asked to leave or even banned from the property.
Some counters have resorted to costumes, fake beards, and working in teams to avoid heat from casino staff. Counting isn’t illegal, but casinos definitely don’t like it.
Thorp’s theory has been fine-tuned in the intervening years. Author Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, about a group of globetrotting MIT card-counting students (the inspiration for the film 21), only added to the draw of blackjack and card counting.
That next trip to Vegas may not include card counting, but having a sense of Basic Strategy and knowing how to play blackjack can give you a better shot at winning. Hopefully, plenty of blackjacks are heading your way!
If you’re a gambling kind of man, be sure to check out: How To Bet In A Sportsbook