Since the 18th century, blackjack tables have been a fixture on casino floors worldwide. Skilled gamblers revel in the game as it offers a minimal house edge and in some select circumstances, the player is actually the one with the advantage. If you want to delve into the intricacies of a game and play for long periods of time with low volatility, blackjack is for you.
How does the player make blackjack work for them? As mentioned, playing with expert strategy reduces the house edge to a miniscule amount–the smallest in the casino for a wager that is consistently available. Playing with perfect strategy can be enough to tip the odds in your favor if the right comps, rebates, and/or rewards are offered. If you're willing to explore the world of card counting and live games, you can also play at an advantage anywhere you go.
The Ultimate Player's Guide to Blackjack
Even if you have no prior experience, this guide will help you begin your booming blackjack career. We'll cover the basics in a concise way that is easy to understand, then move on to a detailed section covering how to beat the house. We'll also discuss the particular advantages of live-streaming tables and blackjack tournaments.
The Basics of Blackjack
Blackjack is a game that is simple to learn but complicated to master. At the highest levels of play, experts have memorized the best possible move in every situation for a variety of different table rules. Players simultaneously keep a running count of the cards that have already been dealt while trying to convince the casino that they're just an average schlub on a lucky hot streak!
So how on earth do you get to that level? It starts with understanding basic rules and strategy.
The object of the game is to beat the dealer. You want your hand to be as close in value to the number 21 as possible, but that's not the sole objective. Optimal blackjack strategies are equally concerned with getting the dealer to bust when you have a hand of lower-value cards.
The game is fairly self-explanatory. You are dealt two cards, and the value of your hand is the combined value of your cards. The dealer is dealt one card that is visible to you and one “hole card” that you cannot see. You can then opt to add more cards to improve the value of your hand at the risk of “busting” and losing automatically if your hand exceeds 21 in value.
The numbered cards retain their face value, and the “face” cards (jack, queen, and king) are worth 10. The ace can be worth either 1 or 11, and its value is automatically determined by what is best for the current hand. If you're dealt a ten and an ace, it automatically becomes 21 (not 11).
The most important twist to the game is, of course, the blackjack. This happens when you're dealt a face card (worth 10 points) and an ace (worth 1 or 11) with your first two cards. At most tables, not only do you automatically win regardless of what the dealer has, but you also win a larger amount than you would normally get for a regular winning hand. Some tables exist where a “push” (no bet) can happen if the dealer also holds a blackjack.
The way a bonus is handled is key to whether or not a blackjack table is a good one. The bonus payout when you hit a blackjack is crucial to making the game beatable over a long sequence of hands.
Traditionally, blackjack tables allow six people to play at a time. When you play online blackjack, however, you'll usually only see your own hand. If other players are involved, their play has no effect on the outcome of your hand unless they are somehow distracting you.
When you're playing online, you don't have to worry about learning the hand signals used at live tables. Everything is done with buttons that are labeled and easily understood. You simply have to know each of the basic moves:
- Hit: Add a card to your hand.
- Stand: Hold pat with your current hand and let the dealer begin their turn.
- Split: If you receive two of the same type of card, you can create two hands out of them.
- Double or Double Down: Double your bet but draw only one more card.
- Surrender: Forfeit your hand in return for losing only half your wager.
- Insurance: A side bet available when the dealer shows an ace. If the dealer has blackjack, you end up not losing any money.
You should also be aware of the rules the dealer is required to abide by. Blackjack dealers aren't allowed to improvise; the house has rules they have to follow in every situation. They are as follows (at most games):
- Stand on 17 or better, unless it is a “soft 17” (a hand containing an ace)
- Dealer cannot split, double or surrender
- Dealer must announce blackjack immediately if they have it (“peeking” at their hole card)
Of course, there are exceptions. You will find some “no hole card” blackjack tables, most commonly in Europe. These favor the dealer slightly as they can potentially draw a blackjack after the player has committed more money to the hand.
House rules require the dealer to take the same action on a soft 17 every time. It is considered more favorable to the player if the dealer is forced to stand on a soft 17.
The House Edge
So, how do casinos make their money at blackjack?
The fundamental house edge comes from the fact that the player has to act before the dealer. The player can bust before the dealer even has to make a move.
In traditional blackjack, played prior to the 1960s, the house was content with that edge. Though small, it was enough to be consistently profitable, especially given that most players did not use good strategy when playing.
Things began to change in the 1960s. Mathematicians stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground “cracked” the game in the late 1950s by creating the first strategy-based approach to making game decisions as well as the first rudimentary card-counting system. This information began to trickle out to gamblers through books and magazines, and even more effective systems were developed. The break in the dam for casinos was the widespread availability of internet access starting in the 1990s, which eventually made it virtually effortless for any blackjack player to learn how the game could be beaten.
Casinos responded by increasing the number of decks used in games to thwart card counters and tweaking the rules and payout amounts to increase their expected house edge. As of late, land-based casinos have also started incorporating advanced technology into their tables, such as tracking devices embedded in the shoe and even in each card. These devices record player patterns and alert the “eye in the sky” when a player’s actions indicate that they may be a skilled card counter.
As things stand now, a good card counter who plays with perfect strategy can still reliably beat the house at blackjack. Casinos are free to 86 players they suspect of doing this and often share information about such players among themselves.
So How Do You Beat The House?
There are four main elements to becoming a proficient blackjack player:
- Learn how to play with optimal strategy
- Learn which table rules are the most favorable
- Learn which casinos give blackjack players the best comps and offers
- Learn how to count cards
We'll look at each of these elements in more detail below.
How to Learn Blackjack Strategy
Learning the mathematically best play in any given situation is crucial, but fortunately this is also the easiest part. You can simply use a strategy card, which is essentially a compact “cheat sheet” that tells you what play you should make based on what you're currently holding and what the dealer is showing.
It's important to know that strategy cards change based on the rules of the table and how much is paid out for blackjack. There is a “basic strategy” that will whittle most tables down to about a 0.5% advantage for the house, but if you want to get things lower than that, you'll have to find a card tailored to the specific table you want to play.
How to Find the Best Blackjack Tables
The most important factor in a favorable blackjack table is its rules.
As mentioned previously, casinos have made all sorts of tweaks to rules and payouts in an attempt to deter skilled players and preserve the casino’s advantage. These sets of rules aren’t standardized. Casinos mix and match terms that are favorable to them and terms that are favorable to the player, hoping to find a magic combination that entices players while giving the casino a profitable edge.
These are the rules you should be looking for, in order of importance:
1) A push should always be a push. In other words, if you and the dealer finish with hands of the same value, it's “no action” and you get your wager back. The house gets a huge advantage when dealers win any kind of push.
2) Blackjacks should pay out at least 3:2. When in doubt, remember: smaller numbers are better when it comes to payouts. Casinos add full percentage points to their house advantage by making the payout for a blackjack 1:1 or 6:5.
3) Ideally, the dealer stands on soft 17. When they hit on soft 17, they get almost a quarter of a percentage point advantage.
4) Players should be allowed to double with any card value. Some tables only allow players to double when they're holding 10 or 11, which gives the house almost a fifth of a percentage point advantage.
5) Players should also be allowed to double after splitting.
6) The best possible table would allow players to split aces, resplit them and draw to them after splitting, but in reality, tables will generally only allow players to split them once.
7) Players should be able to split more than once. You'll find most tables have a three-hand limit, which is OK as the added house advantage is trivial at that limit.
8) Players should be able to surrender. Early surrender is best–this allows the player to surrender immediately before the dealer even checks for a blackjack. This also gives the player a whopping advantage, so hardly any tables offer it. Late surrender is easier to come across and is still advantageous to the player when offered.
9) In general, having less decks favors the player, but the advantage here is trivial unless you're a good card counter.
How to Find the Best Blackjack Comps and Offers
Since blackjack is technically a “beatable” game, or at least one in which the house has only a very small advantage against a good player, it tends not to be comped very well. That doesn't mean good comps aren’t available. It just takes a bit more hunting to find the better offers.
The biggest factor in being comped well at blackjack is your bankroll. There are two elements to the bankroll:
1) The larger your bankroll is, the greater your ability to absorb variance and have a statistical expectation of coming close to even. This means that even if the comps are small you can rack up a significant amount just through sheer volume of play.
2) High rollers are comped well for their blackjack play even when they tend to play well. Blackjack is a case of “the rich get richer,” as players with a lot of clout can negotiate favorable terms that no one else gets–primarily large rebate percentages on all of their hands. They'll also enjoy better ongoing offers that help to cut into the house edge.
Still building your bankroll? No problem. There are good offers to be found that will help you beat the house and work your way up to VIP status.
One of the most potent coupons to look for is the “free ace.” This acts like an ace up your sleeve that you can substitute at any time for one of your current cards. Ask around or read forums to see which casinos are in the habit of offering these to entice their regular players back to the table.
Also look for casinos that allow you to apply their “welcome bonus” to blackjack. “Welcome” or “signup” bonuses aren't typically as good as they initially appear because you'll have to wager a large amount of real money before you're allowed to cash out your winnings from them. However, if the wagering requirements can be met by playing blackjack and you have the bankroll to absorb swings of volatility, you can potentially meet the requirement while losing next to nothing. The only caveat is to check how much of each blackjack wager counts towards the wagering requirements: at some casinos it is as little as 5%.
Finally, if you're a high roller with a big bankroll, always ask to speak to a casino host and try to negotiate a good rebate amount for yourself and better terms for playing through any bonus wagering requirements. If you're new to a casino it always helps to have high status with another property to use as leverage.
How to Count Cards
Counting cards takes some practice and skill, but it's less complicated than you might think.
You don't need to memorize every card that comes out. With the six to eight decks that blackjack games commonly use these days, that would be nearly impossible. Instead, you just keep one number in your head called the “running count.”
The most basic count has you adding one unit to the running count for every low card that comes out (a value of six or under) and subtracting one for each high card (an ace or anything with a value of 10). The underlying mathematical theory is that the house edge shrinks (and eventually reverses to the player's favor) as more low cards come out and more high cards stay in the shoe. Therefore, players adjust their bet amounts based on where the house advantage currently stands.
Of course, this is the most rudimentary form of card counting. More advanced systems factor in the specific number of decks, and some of the most effective systems in history have employed multiple players working in a team.
If you're planning on playing standard video blackjack, this is a moot point. Since the virtual deck is shuffled with every new hand at these games, there's no advantage to be gained by counting. You can still gain a virtual advantage by finding a favorable set of rules, playing with perfect strategy, and getting some comp offers or rebates in place. Card counting won't help you at any virtual blackjack game that isn't dealt from an actual shoe.
Live Tables or Video Blackjack?
As mentioned, you can't count cards at video blackjack. Live video streamed blackjack is a different story though.
These games feature a live dealer who deals to the table from an actual shoe. You watch the dealer in a video screen and can interact with them using a text chat window, but they don't see you or any other players at the table.
At first, this might seem like a card counter’s dream. You can count against an actual shoe but can't be observed by casino personnel. Of course, most casinos have thought of this and take various precautions to protect themselves against card counters. The most frequent one is simply to use eight decks and shuffle more frequently than a brick-and-mortar blackjack table. Card counting is still possible, but this shuffle frequency (called “penetration” by avid card counters) tends to cut deeply into expected profits.
You can find live streaming blackjack games, but you'll really have to hunt around for them. You'll also need a better internet connection and hardware to handle video streaming. (In comparison, you can run standard video blackjack on just about anything.)
If you're interested in playing blackjack for fun and enjoyment, it's all down to personal preference. Some enjoy the added ambience of having a live dealer, while others like the faster pace of video blackjack.
A Word on Blackjack Tournaments
The main reason that gamblers avoid blackjack is because it doesn't contain the possibility of that huge, life-changing win. Though a skilled player can grind out some nice money for themselves over time, there's nothing like the million-dollar jackpots you see at some video slots.
If you want to mix big jackpots with blackjack, take a look at blackjack tournaments. These tournaments will either offer free entry or charge players a small one-time fee. Players get a fixed amount of chips and simply try to have the biggest stack when the game comes to an end. The winner gets a fixed prize amount, usually somewhere from $500 in the smaller tournaments to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the larger tournaments.
Most blackjack tournaments work like poker tournaments. You sit at a table with five other players and play a fixed series of hands. The winner of each table moves on to another table with other winners until only one player is left standing.
Basic strategy doesn't change for a tournament, but there is a whole new layer of situational betting strategies you have to learn in order to be effective.
Blackjack is Beatable–Now You've Got The Edge
It takes some work and a good bankroll, but blackjack is the only game where you can reliably beat the house with the right circumstances. If you simply want to play blackjack for fun and don't plan on becoming a card-counting professional, it's still a great idea to get strategy cards and do your homework to make the good times last longer. Lastly, keep an eye out for good tournaments that can give your bankroll a major boost.