Blackjack Basic Strategic Principles
Blackjack is one of the most popular card-based casino games in the world outside of Asia. One of the biggest reasons for its huge popularity is that there is so much strategy that goes into it, and this is to such a degree that, with certain conditions, players can get an advantage against the house.
The journey to becoming an expert player ends with being able to play a mathematically perfect strategy in any situation to maximize the chances of having the best odds against the casino, it begins with knowing the basic principles and why they work. Once these principles are understood on a deep level, they can be implemented in any style or variation of the game.
Two Ways to Win in Blackjack
Most people describe the goal of blackjack as trying to get a higher total than the dealer without trying to go over 21. While it’s true that this is one way to win, you can also take down the hand if the dealer goes bust. This may not seem like a huge distinction, but consider the following: If both you and the dealer go bust in a hand, it’s not a tie: You simply lose.
Because of this game mechanic, there are certain situations where it’s more important to try to get a higher total than the dealer, and there are others where it’s more important to let the dealer try to bust. The fundamental skill needed to start learning blackjack on a deep level is being able to identify which of these two ways to win is more important in a given situation.
Blackjack Dealer Card Values
There is a piece of information that the player receives that almost always determines which of the two ways to win is the most important: the value of the dealer’s up card. The reason for this is that certain up cards have a higher chance of forcing the dealer to go bust than others.
Generally speaking, we call the cards that have a high chance of causing the dealer to go bust “weak,” and we call the cards that tend to make good hands without going bust “strong.”
In almost all forms of blackjack, the weak cards are 2s through 6s, and the strong cards are 7s through As. In order from weakest to strongest, however, the order is anti-intuitive: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10 (including J, Q, K), and A. This means the dealer up card you want to see the most is the 6, and the card you want to see the least is the A.
The most basic set of strategic principles of blackjack are the following two ideas: Against weak dealer cards, our best strategy centers around being passive and minimizing our chances of busting, and against strong dealer cards, our best strategy centers around being aggressive and trying to make our own strong hands.
Play Against Weak Dealer Cards
If we’re facing a weak dealer card in most forms of blackjack, then there are three possible scenarios that do not include paired cards (which need their own strategic principles based around knowing when to split and when to treat the hand like a normal hard hand).
- The first scenario is that we have a hard hand that’s less than 12. In this case, we’ll almost always be doubling with a nine, ten or eleven (and sometimes with an eight depending on the game’s specific rules). If we have a hand we can’t double with, then we’ll be hitting.
- The second scenario is that we have a hard hand that’s 12 or higher, and this is the scenario where beginning players often make huge mistakes. Since we need to maximize the dealer’s chances of busting while minimizing our own, we will very rarely do anything other than stand. If we have exactly 12 against a dealer who is showing a two or a three, sometimes we will hit depending on the exact rules of the blackjack game we’re in, but it’s a fringe case.
- The third and final scenario is that we have a soft hand. When this comes up, we have to decide between hitting and doubling. The criteria for making this decision will vary from game to game, and in some games, we don’t be able to double at all with soft hands, and we’ll always be hitting as a result.
Play Against Strong Dealer Hands
Most of our hands will involve the dealer having a strong hand, which we’ll be identifying as a 7, 8, 9, 10 (including J, Q, K) or A. Again, we can break up this case into three key scenarios.
With a hard total of nine or lower, we’ll almost always be hitting. There need to be some pretty atypical rules for us to do anything but hit here.
A second scenario is that we have a total of 12 or higher. We’ll generally be hitting in these situations unless we have 17 or more, then it will be more appropriate to stand. However, if we have the option to surrender, then there will be a very limited number of situations where that’s a better option than hitting, but it depends completely on the game’s specific rules.
The third scenario, and the best we could hope for, is that we have a 10 or 11. We’ll usually be doubling in these situations since we still have the best of it, but we generally won’t double if we’re facing an ace or if we have a total of 10 and are facing a card with a value of 10.
In this breakdown of the basics of blackjack strategy, we’ve looked at how there are two ways to win in the game and how to decide which of these two ways to win are the most important in any given situation. We’ve also looked at the implications of these two cases in the most common, broad scenarios.
The point of this breakdown is to give a general idea of what players should think about in the different possible situations that come up. There are a number of special decisions, like when to double, surrender or split, that have to be evaluated using other types of criteria, but these guidelines we have covered here will guide you in more than half of the hands you face.