Aces Guide to Gambling

Blackjack Strategy & Rules :

Blackjack pitfall - short-term gains

About The Author

John Grochowski is the author of four gaming books including The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Casino Answer Book.

Grochowski was recently named by Casino Player magazine as one of the 100 best gaming authors of the 20th century.

He also runs a gaming column in the Detroit News and the Chicago Sun-Times, which examines issues ranging from blackjack and video poker strategy to casino etiquette.


For many years, when asked what is the biggest mistake blackjack players make, I puzzled over individual hands.

Was it standing on 16 against a 7? (That gets my vote for the most common bad mistake players make.) Failure to split 8s against a 10? Taking insurance?

All are costly, but often such plays are symptoms of a larger problem: The biggest mistake players make is being swayed by short-term results.

I've had players tell me they stand on 16 vs. 7 because one night they busted several times in a row and would have won a few hands by standing. Others tell me of splitting 8s, getting a 10 on each for 18s, losing both to a dealer's 20. One fellow told me he always takes insurance for an even-money payoff when he has blackjack because he once had four blackjacks in a row push when the dealer also had blackjacks.

It happens. In the short term, anything can. In the short term, bad plays can be successful and good plays can be losers. It's the same in any game of chance. Long shots sometimes win.

That doesn't mean in your short term, bad plays will be successful. The opposite is more likely. Bad plays cost you money in the long run, despite any short-term winning streaks.

Good and bad plays in blackjack aren't determined by such streaks. Blackjack is a statistical game, a game of percentages and a game of the long run. We don't hit 16 when the dealer shows a 7 because we're guaranteed to win this time. The most likely outcome is that we lose the hand, regardless of whether we hit or stand. But we'll lose a little less often if we hit, and given thousands of trials, we'll find we lose less money in that situation by hitting rather than standing.

That's the way all of blackjack works. No play is a winner every time; no play is a loser every time. We double down on 11 against a 10 because in the long run we'll win more money that way, even though sometimes we'll lose hands we could have won. When we have blackjack, we'll win enough more on 3-2 payoffs when the dealer doesn't also have blackjack than we would by accepting insurance and taking even money every time. We split 8s against a 10 because even though we'll lose money overall, we'll lose less than by playing the hand as a 16.

All that comes under the heading of "basic strategy." Basic strategy for playing blackjack was developed in the 1950s by a team of U.S. Army mathematicians, then refined a few years later when Lawrence Revere did the first computer studies of the game.

Basic strategy does not tell us the decision that's going to win for us on every hand. It does tell us the decision that will either make the most money or save the most money for us if we make the same play every time we face the same situation.

Those who can discipline themselves to make the basic strategy plays on every hand trim the house advantage to the bone. An average blackjack player faces a house edge of 2 percent to 2.5 percent. In the long run, such a player loses $2 to $2.50 for every $100 he bets.

A basic strategy player trims that house edge to about 0.5 percent--a little more or a little less, depending on house rules. Such a player loses only about 50 cents per $100 in wagers. Results may be much worse, or much better, in one session, but in the long run the blackjack basic strategy player gets one of the best runs for the money casinos have to offer.

Basic strategy can be broken down into strategy for hard hands, strategy for soft hands and strategy for splitting pairs. (A soft hand is one in which an Ace is being used as an 11. It can't be busted with a one-card hit. Ace-2-4 is one example of a soft 17. Draw a 10, use the Ace as a 1 instead of 11, and the hand becomes a hard 17.)

Strategy for hard hands is the easiest to remember. It can be summarized in a few simple rules. Those listed below are for multiple-deck games. There are small differences in single-deck games, which are rare except in Nevada and Mississippi.

* Always stand on hard 17 to 21.

* Stand on hard 13 to 16 if the dealer's face up card is 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.

* Stand on hard 12 if the dealer's up card is 4, 5 or 6.

* Hit hard 13 to 16 if the dealer's face up card is 7 or higher.

* Hit hard 12 if the dealer's up card is 2 or 3, as well as 7 or higher.

* Double down on 11 if the dealer's up card is anything but an Ace. Just hit against an Ace.

* Double down on 10 if the dealer's up card is anything but an Ace or a 10-value card. Just hit against an Ace or 10-value.

* Double down on 9 if the dealer's up card is 3, 4, 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit.

* Hit totals of 8 or less.

Soft totals are a little trickier. Click here to read more.

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