Blackjack 101

Blackjack 101

Well, you’ve reached the Blackjack 101 page. Have you ever gone into the casino thinking that you’ll break the bank? Well, you’re dreaming. Very few people walk out with more money than they walked in with. Why? Because every game in a casino is designed to take your money. Period. There is no game that is in your favor. So why play? Well, most people do it to have fun with the hopes of winning big. They heard about a friend of a friend of a friend’s husband/wife that walked in with $20 and came out with $10,000. How many people do that? Maybe one out of a thousand. The other 999 people lost most of the money they came with. How can you walk out a winner? Well, I’ll tell ya. The best way is to never go.

OK, so you don’t like that option. Here’s the other. Listen to Uncle Marz, and he’ll tell you how you can walk out a winner most of the time. That’s right, most of the time. Not every time. Why? Because “ya gotta lose some money ta make some money.” Seriously, a good Blackjack player should walk out ahead about 8 out of 10 times. The hardest thing is to know when to walk out.

There are four keys to winning any gambling game as described by John Patrick:

  1. Knowledge of the Game
  2. Bankroll
  3. Money Management
  4. Discipline

You know which one is the most important? Well, think about it for a while, and I’ll tell you later. How much money do you bring to the casino? $100? What game(s) do you play? Slots, Roulette, Keno, Big 6, Carribean Stud, Let it Ride? Forget all of those games. There are only two games to play in a casino where your odds are close to 50/50. Blackjack, and Craps. I’ll cover Blackjack as that is the game I know. I have a basic understanding of Craps, but I really don’t know how to really play it to win. OK, so Roulette can be close to 50/50 if you bet Red/Black or Odd/Even. But still, it’s like flipping a weighted 3 or 4 sided coin.

But wait, how could a coin have that many sides? Well, let’s say that Heads is Red, and Black is Tails. The 0 and 00 are the other two sides. Or they both are the edge and the chance of the coin landing on its edge is the chance of hitting 0/00. That’s not quite correct odds-wise, but it’s close enough for government work;) Roulette is basically the same as that if you play the best odds bets. Otherwise you’re throwing away your money unless you bet a proper system to make the odds more even. And I won’t go into that.

And you’re bringing $100 or less. Well, unless you’re there for the fun aspect, or for research as I like to call it;) then you’re wasting your time playing. Even at a $5 table, you only have 20 units to bet, and you should leave when are up $20, or down $40. Not much money, eh? Well, that’s why most people walk out losers with a capital “L.” To be effective and make it seem worth going when you are winning, you need 40 units of at least $25. When you win $200 or lose $400 you walk out. That means you need $1000 when you walk in to the casino. Anything less is “mad money.”

OK, back to Blackjack. Blackjack is the only game in the casino where you control your own destiny, and the odds of the game. Don’t believe me? Try hitting a hard 13 against a dealer’s 6 twenty times and then stay twenty times and see which way is better. More than likely in that short period, staying will net you more money than hitting. The House’s advantage in Blackjack is that you have to make your decision first. And that, my friend, is how you control the odds. Your decisions on how to play affect the odds on the succeeding hands. You have total control of the game. The House has no say in how the dealer plays the hand. If you bust, and the dealer busts, you don’t get your money back. There are no refunds in Blackjack.

As the cards are dealt, the odds of what the next card is going to be changes. This is because as each card is removed from the shoe (the thing that holds the cards), the odds of that particular card value coming up again reduce. In a six-deck shoe there are only 24 of any individual card. There is a 1 in 13 chance of any particular card coming out at the beginning of the shoe. If four 9’s have been dealt off the top, then the odds of the next card being a 9 have been reduced while the odds of any other value reamins in essence the same. The actually have increased slightly, but not because four 9’s have come out in a row. It’s because there are more of any particular valued card available to draw than there are 9’s.

This is where card counting came from. By using various systems, a card counter can know the likelihood of the next card. Usually it’s a range of cards. Card counters don’t count each individual card as it comes out. They assign a point value to a card depening on the complexity of the system. They then keeping a running total by adding positive and negative values depending on the cards that come out. All this does is give the card counter an idea of what the next card could be. Nothing is guaranteed. That is the one thing that every card counter needs to remember. Just because “the count” tells you than a 10 value card is coming, doesn’t meant that the next card has to be a 10 or face card. It just means that it will most likely be one.

The constantly changing odds of the game is also where Basic Strategy came from. Back in the 60’s, Ed Thorpe ran over 3 billion simulated Blackjack hands through a computer. After all was said and done, it spit out the best way to play. This is based on what the dealer has showing as the up card, and what the player has. Basically, the player should assume that the dealer has a 10 valued card “in the hole” (the down card) at all times. Plus, every card to be dealt should be considered a 10 valued card. Here’s a what I call Basic Strategy 101:

  • If the dealer has a 2-6 showing, and you have a 12 or higher, you should stay.
  • If the dealer has a 7-Ace showing, and you don’t have a hard 17 or better, you should hit.

Sounds easy, huh? Well it is. 99% of all Basic Strategy books and cards that casinos give you will tell you the same thing. Exception to the above rule is when the player has 12 and the dealer has a 2 or 3 showing. The player should either always hit, or always stay. Be consistant. You should decide right here and now how you will play that hand for the rest of your life. What is the advantage of staying? Well, you’ll never bust and lose the hand outright. The advantage of hitting? Well, you only have an overall 30% chance of busting with the next card, the possibility of improving your hand, and the ability of taking the card the dealer needs to improve his hand also. The only card in the hole that can hurt a dealer with a 2 showing is a 10 valued card. With a 3 only the 9 and the 10 valued cards hurt the dealer. Every other card helps the dealer. The 2 is called “the dealer’s Ace” for that reason. It is the most dangerous card next to an Ace for the dealer. What do I personally do? I hit it. I’m an aggressive player.

What about those things called Double Downs and Splits? Well, that’s where the money is. Let me just define the difference between the two as most people switch the terms around.

– Double Down: When a player puts up to equal his original bet next to or behind his original bet and receives only one card added to his total.

– Split: When a player has two cards of the same value, and puts out equal his bet to play two separate and indepenent hands. Most casinos allow a player to Double Down after splitting, and usually only allow a player to split 3 times for a total of 4 active hands.

As a player, you should only double down when you have hard totals of 9, 10, or 11. But not every time you have those totals. So when? See below:

  • Double an 11 when the dealer has a 2-10/Face showing.
  • Double a 10 when the dealer has a 2-9 showing.
  • Double a 9 when the dealer has a 3-6 showing.

There are rules for doubling “soft totals” (see below for a definition of soft totals), but I won’t go into that right now. Why these rules for doubling down? Well, doubling an 11 against an Ace, in theory, is doubling for a push. Even though the dealer doesn’t have Blackjack if you’ve gotten to the point of being able to double down, he has the best chance of pulling 21. Doubling a 10 against a dealer’s 10/Face Card is the same. In theory, the dealer has a total of 20 if he has a 10 valued card showing, so doubling has no advantage for the player. You’re just risking money. OK, so why not double a 9 against a dealer’s 8? Well, when you have a 9 as a total, your odds start dropping enough to make it risky to double against a dealer’s 7 or 8. Too many cards don’t give you a good hand compared to the dealer. The average winning hand is 18 1/2. Since the 1/2 cards have been removed from the deck usually 😉 you really need to get 19. Only 5 out of 13 cards (less than 50%) give you a 19 or better.

What’s the difference between “soft” and “hard” totals? Well, a soft total is where the hand can be counted as one of two different totals. For example, you have an Ace and a 5. That can be either a 6 or a 16. An Ace, Ace, and a 4 is the same thing. Put a 10 with that Ace and 5, and now the total can only be 16. Same as a 10 and a 6. OK, so the 10, Ace, 5 could be 26, but let’s not get technical. Back to how to play.

What about splitting? Well there are some really easy rules concerning splits, and some a little more complicated. Here they are in a nutshell:

  • Always split 8’s and Ace’s.
  • Never split 10 valued cards or 5’s.
  • Split 9’s against a dealer’s 2-9, except against a dealer’s 7.
  • Only split 4’s against a dealer’s 5 or 6 if doubling after the split is allowed, otherwise just hit.
  • Split everything else against a dealer’s 2-7.

A little more complicated than doubling. Well here’s the reasoning behind it. Two 8’s equals 16. A really bad hand no matter what the dealer has, especially when the dealer has a 7 or greater. By splitting them, you now have a chance to turn each 8 into an 18. Remember the average winning hand is 18 1/2, so an 18 is pretty close to that. In theory, you should draw a 10 valued card on each 8. But what about a dealer’s 9-Ace? Well, true, in theory you are going to lose. But, in the long run, you will come out better by splitting those 8’s than by leaving them together and hitting. In many cases, you will turn one 8 into a 19 or better,and the other will be an 18 or less for a net push. This is a defensive split rather than an offensive split. The same holds true for Aces explained next.

Splitting Aces though is a way to get two 21’s. Again, in theory, you should draw a 10 valued card on each Ace giving you 21. Here’s the kicker on Ace’s. The player can only get one card on each Ace in most casinos. Plus, if the player gets an Ace dealt on one of those Ace’s, he must stay on a 12. No re-splitting of Aces is allowed in most casinos. Why? Because the Ace is the most powerful card in the deck. That’s why you’re splitting them to begin with. Remember, the casino doesn’t want you to have an advantage over them.

10’s. Why never split them? If I’m supposed to get a 10 on each, isn’t that good? Yes it is. However, you have a 84% chance of winning with a 20 (no matter how the hand adds up to 20). By splitting those 10’s you’ve just now reduced your chances for winning. Why mess with a “winning hand.” 18 1/2, baby.

5’s. why not split them? Well, you have a total of 10, it is better to double down then split in the long run. Splitting 10’s and 5’s is what I consider an advanced style of play that should only be done by people who are card counting or know what they are doing.

9’s. Why not against a 7, but against an 8 or 9? Well, you’ve got 18, right? The dealer is showing a 7, and, in theory, has 17. Why risk a loss, when you have a win? OK, the dealer has an 8, I have a push. Correct, here’s where the every card you can’t see is a 10 comes into play. In theory, you’ll pull a 10 on each and get two 19’s for the win. The same holds true against a dealer’s 9. except that you’re getting a push to save your hand. I know it’s seems wierd to stay against the 7 and split against the 8. You have a push against the 8 and a “push is better than a loss.” Believe me, it works more than it doesn’t.

4’s. Why only against the dealer’s 5 and 6, and only when you can double after the push? Well, when a dealer has a 5 or a 6, you have him bent over a barrel in essence. Take full advantage while you can. You do everything against a dealer’s 5 or 6 except for a few things. And those are when you have a great chance of winning by doing nothing. 4’s are a fairly good card. A good amount of cards help you. Some don’t really help, but you are banking on the dealer busting, so that’s why you’re putting out more money on the table. Plus with the possibility of doubling down, you could potentially win 4X your money.

The rest. These are done against the dealer’s bust cards (2-6), and the 7. The 7 for the dealer isn’t really a good card. Only 5 out of 13 cards help him (10-Ace). The rest cause him to hit. While splitting, any time you have a double down hand, take advantage of it. That’s if the casino allows it. Most do.

When I teach someone how to play, I cover when to hit and stay first. These are the most important concepts to understand. That is where the vast majority of people lose there money. Doubling is the next thing as it is easy for the player to understand. Then I cover splitting. That is the hardest of the three as there are more exceptions. Hitting and doubling soft totals are more difficult for the player to understand and is considered by me to be an intermediate level of play.

The whole purpose of doubling and splitting for the player is to put more money out on the table to win, not to lose. Most players do not understand the how’s and why’s of those two things. As such, they lose even faster. That’s why I think it’s funny to see people double on a hard 12. Their thinking is that they have a low chance of busting. That’s correct, but it’s a high enough chance to matter. Plus, they usually do it either when they should stay anyway, or when by taking only one card could hurt them if they don’t get a total greater than 17 when the dealer has a 7-Ace.

Most people don’t even know when to hit and stay. That’s what the casino counts on. Look at the number of Blackjack tables in a casino next time you go. Then compare the number of other table games. What is the most prolific? Blackjack. Why if that’s one of the best games for the player? Because the game is so deceptively simple. Most people think of it as whoever gets closest to 21 wins. Most people think they know how to play because of that type of thinking. That’s only partially correct. It really should be called “Beat the Dealer.”

Two excellent books to read on the subject are So You Wanna Be a Gambler, John’s Patrick’s Blackjack by John Patrick, and Million Dollar Blackjack by Ken Uston. John Patrick’s book is a riot. He covers the reasons why you do certain things in a humorous way that helps you remember. He does have a couple of variations of how to play that are considered almost controversial to die hard Basic Strategy players, but he backs it up with logic. Plus he’s looking at the fact that no player will play 3 billion hands in one sitting.

Ken Uston’s book is great for the card counter. He covers various card counting methods that he designed back in the 70’s. Even his simple Plus/Minus method is very powerful and can be learned fairly easily. He also tells of the trials and tribulations of his teams over the years. If you pay attention, he tells you that even the best card counters can lose.

One more thing. Never, ever, take Insurance. It’s a sucker’s bet. You are making a side bet with the House that the dealer has a Blackjack. At any given time the dealer will only have about a 30% chance of getting Blackjack. The rest of the time he won’t. By taking Insurance you risk up to half of your original bet. If the dealer does have Blackjack, then you lose your original bet, but get paid 2 to 1 on the Insurance bet. In essence you push, or break even. If the dealer doesn’t have Blackjack, then you lose the Insurance bet and now have the possibility of losing your original bet. Those two bets equal a Blackjack payout.

For example, you have $10 bet. You take Insurance, and the dealer doesn’t have Blackjack. You lose the Insurance bet of $5. You then lose you original bet because the dealer beat you (very likely when the dealer has an Ace). $5 + $10 = $15. You had a Blackjack a couple of hands ago on a $10 bet. The dealer paid you 3 to 2, or 1.5 to 1, or “time and a half.” That payout equalled $15. There goes your Blackjack payout.

What about Insuring a 19 or 20? Most likely you’ll not lose the hand, but why bet $10 only to win $5 70% of the time. That’s a 1 to 2 payout or 0.5 to 1. You’re only winning $350 over 100 hands rather than $700 over the same amount of hands. See, that’s how they get you! Numbers don’t lie.

What about “even money” when you have a Blackjack yourself? I’m guaranteed to get paid every time. True. Remember that the dealer only has Blackjack 30% of the time on average. So 70% of the time you’ll get paid $15 , while 30% of the time you’ll get paid $0 by not taking even money. By taking even money, you’ll only get $10 100% of the time. Over 100 hands you’ll win $1050 by not taking even money, and only $1000 by taking even money. Numbers don’t lie. You’re not winning your full potential, and the casino is playing upon your fears. Also even money is the same as Insurance anyway.

For example. You have $10 bet. You take even money and get paid $10. Simple. Same situation, you take insurance on your $10 by betting $5. The dealer’s Blackjack ties your hand, and you don’t lose. However, he pays you 2 to 1 on the Insurance bet for a total payout of $10. The same payout as even money.

Insurance is one of the most misunderstood bets in the game, and that’s why the Casino has it. Everything in Blackjack, or any other game for that matter, is designed to take your money if you don’t know how to play. The Monte Carlo in Vegas wasn’t built with their money, it was built with yours. Remember that.

Look for more info and links on this page in the coming weeks. I will put the standard “Basic Strategy” in table format. Plus include variations for more “advanced” play.

Oh, yeah. The most important part of winning is Discipline. Without Discipline, Greed takes over and kills you. Every time.

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