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Blackjack Strategy – Basic Charts and Card Counting Explained

One of the main reasons that Blackjack has become such a popular card game is that it is possible to reduce the house edge significantly by using a mathematical strategy. While it is not possible to overcome the house edge entirely, it is possible for players to improve their returns. 

The reason for this is very simple. At any given time, players have a good idea of what cards are left in the shoe, this is true whether you are playing a game that uses one deck or multiple decks, and players are given a choice of decisions. Therefore, by looking at the two cards dealt to players and the dealer’s face up card, it is possible to work out what the best course of action is. 

Basic Blackjack Strategy Charts 

The mathematics behind what a player should do in each situation can become fairly complicated. However, there is no need to understand the maths in order to make use of the strategy. The strategy is best displayed in a chart and it is possible to look up whether the best move is to Hit, Stand, Double Down, Split, and so on.  

However, there are many forms of Blackjack with many different rule variants. Therefore, there is no single strategy chart that is ideal for all games. In addition to being played with different amounts of decks of cards, some games will allow Double Down on all hands, others only on certain totals. Some games will allow Early Surrender or Late Surrender, while others may not allow Surrendering at all. Other variants may include what occurs after a Split, how many times a hand may be Split, differences in the payouts for Blackjack, and more.  

All of these Blackjack variants have different names and it is very easy to find the exact rules for the variant you are playing by looking at the rules contained within a game. Once you have a firm grasp of the exact rules, then you can easily look up a strategy chart online. This will show you what is known as Basic Blackjack Strategy. The chart may look a little confusing at first, but they are actually very simple.  

Here is a sample strategy chart for a game that is played with four decks shuffled into the shoe and requires the dealer to stand on all 17s.  

  

Dealer’s Card 

Player Hard 

10 

4-8 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

10 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

11 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

12 

13 

14 

15 

Rh 

16 

Rh 

Rh 

Rh 

17+ 

  

Dealer’s Card 

Player Soft 

10 

13 

Dh 

Dh 

14 

Dh 

Dh 

15 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

16 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

17 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

Dh 

18 

Ds 

Ds 

Ds 

Ds 

19+ 

  

Dealer’s Card 

Splits 

10 

2-2 

Ph 

Ph 

3-3 

Ph 

Ph 

4-4 

Ph 

Ph 

6-6 

Ph 

7-7 

8-8 

9-9 

A-A 

Key 

Hit 

Stand 

Dh 

Double if allowed, otherwise hit 

Ds 

Split if allowed, otherwise stand 

Split 

Ph 

Split if double after split is allowed, otherwise hit 

Rh 

Surrender if allowed, otherwise hit 

There is a lot of information to take in but the first thing to notice is that it is split into three sections, Hard Hands (hands without an Ace), Soft Hands (hands with an Ace that is worth 1) and Pairs (hands of two same value cards).  

This makes the chart very easy to use. For instance, imagine you are dealt 3-6. This is a Hard 9 (as it does not contain an Ace). You then look across to find the appropriate dealer up card, and you find the action where the two meet. For instance, if the dealer has a 3 then you see Dh, which in the Key tells you to double if it is allowed, otherwise you should Hit. Alternatively, if the dealer is showing a 7 or above, then your only option is to Hit.  

As mentioned, you can find strategy charts for any Blackjack variant and the great thing about them is that they are entirely legal to use. Many casinos will even hand out miniature versions of them printed on laminated cards that players may bring to the table. If you are playing at home, then you can take all the time you need to look them up before deciding what to do. Even when playing Live Dealer games at home, while there may be some time restrictions, you can still have a chart open on the computer and quickly look up the best course of action.  

Some people will commit these strategy charts to memory, but this does take a fair amount of time and effort. If you do look at a lot of these charts, you will see that they share a lot and the same course of action is recommended in many games. As a result, you can easily pick up some basics. However, the point remains, that you are free to refer to the charts at any time, so unless you wish to become a professional player, then you can save yourself the effort of memorising the charts.  

Card Counting – An Advanced Strategy 

Blackjack is famous for card counting, which is essentially a system that gives players the chance to take advantage of situations when the house edge is tilted in their favour. There have been films made about famous card counters, and many have enjoyed great success. However, while card counting is not illegal, casinos will often ban players who they suspect of using the system.  

Card Counting Explained 

Card counting is a way of keeping track of the cards that have already been dealt in a Blackjack game. As discussed above, at the start of a new shoe of cards, it is known exactly what cards are left available to be dealt, so players are able to keep track of this at all times and adjust their bets accordingly.  

The majority of card counting systems use a -1, 0 and +1 method that assigns each card in the deck a value. Generally speaking, the cards 2 to 6 are +1, the card 7 to 9 are 0, and the face cards and Aces are -1.  

Players keep a running total going in their head as the cards are dealt and this gives them an overview of what cards are left in the shoe. When it comes to multi-deck games, players need to divide the running count (which is the number in their head), but the number of decks that are left in the shoe to give them what is termed the True Count.  

By using the True Count value, players can adjust their bet. When the True Count is a high positive number players bet more and when it is lower players bet less. It takes a vast amount of practise to be able to use the system effortlessly, but when used correctly, it will give players an advantage. Furthermore, while it does take practise, one does not need to be a mathematical genius to make use of card counting systems, nor does one need a particularly good memory. In fact, the hardest thing is not being caught by the casino.  

When used correctly, a card counter may have an advantage over the casino for a considerable stretch of time, which means that they should win more than they lose. However, there are situations where it will not work at all, such as in games where the cards are shuffled between each round, as in most online RNG games, or in casino games that use a Continuous Shuffling Machine (CSM). A CSM takes the discarded cards and shuffles them back into the shoe after each round, essentially resetting the system to 0 and removing any advantage a player may have by card counting.  

How to Count Cards 

Before trying to count cards, it is essential that you are absolutely clear about the basic rules of Blackjack. Players take on the dealer and the basic aim of the game, regardless of which variant is being played, is for the player to build a hand of cards that has a value closer to 21 than the dealer’s hand, but without exceeding 21 and going bust. Cards are worth their face values, with all picture cards worth 10 and Aces worth 1 or 11, depending on the situation.  

At the start of a round, players receive two cards each while the dealer receives one card face up and the other face down. This is the point at which players have to make a decision. The basic options are Hit (receive another card), Stand (leave the hand as it is) or Double Down (double the initial bet and receive just one more card to the hand). It is also the first time that players can get an idea of what cards may be dealt next. If only low value cards have been dealt to players, then there is a good chance that picture cards will be dealt next and players can bet big. Of course, the opposite is also true and if many big cards have been shown, then betting small is a good option and players know that if they Hit, they are unlikely to receive a high value card.  

Understanding Why High Value Cards are Good  

It is clear that the cards left in the shoe will affect your chances of winning the hand. However, the chances of you winning increases if the shoe contains numerous high value cards, i.e. Aces, Jacks, Queens, Kings and 10s. If the shoe is full of low value cards, then the dealer has a better chance of winning.  

The reasoning behind this is quite straightforward. If there are many high value cards in the shoe, then the chances of being dealt Blackjack, an Ace and a 10 value card, are higher. Blackjack is not only the strongest hand, but it also offers a boosted payout, which means more winnings for the player.  

If the dealer has a hand worth anything from 12 to 16 it is known as a stiff hand. According to the rules of all variants, the dealer has to draw a card with a total less than 17. If there are many high value cards left in the deck, then there is a higher chance that the dealer will go bust. However, there is no rule stating that the player must draw if they have a stiff hand, which gives the player an advantage.  

That is why this is the perfect time to Double Down on the bet. Similarly, if the dealer is showing a weak up card, then it is a good opportunity to Split when players are dealt a pair. Of course, the converse is true; if the deck contains many low value cards and the dealer has to draw on a stiff hand, then the advantage is with the house.  

Therefore, it is important that players have an idea of whether there are more high value or low value cards left in the shoe, and this is where card counting techniques become very useful.  

Basic Card Counting Strategy 

In a game where used cards are placed in a discard tray and not shuffled until the cut card appears, it is common for between half and three-quarters of the cards in the shoe to be used between shuffling. Most card counting systems are based around working out the likelihood of a 10 value card being drawn. If a player is able to keep track of the cards, then this is quite easy to work out, and the best way of keeping track of the cards is by giving each one a tag.  

The Hi-Low Card Counting System 

The Hi-Low Card Counting system is by far the most popular and easy to use. Cards that are favourable to the dealer, i.e. the low value cards 2 to 6, are assigned a tag of +1. Cards that are favourable to the player, i.e. the high value cards 10 through A, are assigned a tag of -1. Finally, cards that are considered neutral, i.e. 7, 8 and 9, are given a tag of 0.  

All a player has to do is keep careful track of the cards that are dealt and discarded while adding and subtracting 1 as necessary. If the cards are shuffled, then the count resets to 0 and the process starts again. At any given time, the total is the running count. For example, if the count is at 0 and one player is dealt a 2 and a 4, then both cards will add +1 to the count, so its total will be 2.  

It is best to keep this process going for as long as possible, but of course, it should not be left so late that there is no time to join in the game. After a few rounds, the running count will be either negative or positive. If the count is negative, then it shows that more high value cards have been played and therefore, there are more low value cards left in the shoe. This means that the advantage is with the dealer so it is not a good time to place large bets. However, if the count is positive, it means that there are many high value cards left in the shoe and the advantage is with the player, so it is a good time to place larger bets. The higher the count, the greater the chances of a 10 value card being dealt, and the greater the player’s advantage.  

Understanding How to Bet 

Typically, a player using a card counting system will start by placing the minimum bet allowed when coming to the table and the deck is fresh. As the count goes up, then players should increase the bet and if it reaches the region of +4, then then this is when players are more likely to use the option to Double Down on hands. Of course, if the running count drops back to 0 or below, then players reduce their bets back down to the table minimum. It really is incredibly simple in theory, but when used it requires a great amount of focus from players as a mistake in the count can lead to serious betting errors.  

What you should be doing is combining card counting with the basic strategy charts described above. However, you then need to understand when to deviate from the strategy suggested by the chart. For example, if the count is particularly high, the chart may tell you to Hit whereas it may actually be best to Double Down to try to maximise your winnings.  

Practising the System 

It is possible to practise card counting before trying to use it in a real game. Simply take a deck of cards and after shuffling them, go through them one at a time and say each card’s tag aloud. For example, if the card is a 5 then say “plus 1” and if it is followed by a Queen say “minus 1”. At the same time, keep track of the running count, and continue this way through the entire deck.  

You will know that you have done it correctly if you reach the end of the deck with a running count of 0. If you do not, then it means you have made a mistake somewhere. It is worth repeating this exercise several times until you arrive at 0 every single time. Truly skilled card counters will be able to go through the entire deck of 52 cards in less than 30 seconds.  

Remember, if you are playing a multi-deck game then you will need to divide the running count by the number of decks remaining in the shoe to get the true count. This is absolutely essential, otherwise the system will not work.  

To Summarise 

The High-Low system described above is the most popular form of card counting; however, with a bit of research you will many more and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. If you truly want to improve your Blackjack strategy, then you should be focusing on the charts to begin with. They will give you the optimal way of playing and do the most to improve your returns. 

Card counting is a fun addition and when used correctly it will help to reduce the house edge further. However, it is easier to make mistakes with than the strategy charts, and mistakes can be extremely costly. Furthermore, card counting cannot be used for most online games, in which the cards are shuffled between each round, whereas strategy charts can be and there are no rules against doing so. Essentially, both are tools that will help to improve your returns when used correctly, and as a result, can help you have even more fun when playing Blackjack.  



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