Winning at BlackJack

©1992 Greg J. Badros - Aug. 16, 1992

All Rights Reserved

Of all Casino games, the best bet for the player is BlackJack. In some circumstances, the dealer can be at a substantial disadvantage. Through correct strategy, sound betting, and card counting, winning becomes easy. Through the methods outlined here I won over $200 playing over a four day period with a bankroll of less than $100-- that's more than tripling my money!!!

How to Play

BlackJack takes place at a table around which up to about eight players sit. In front of each player is a rectangular "betting box." It is here that the players place the chips they wish to bet. The dealer stands behind the table and deals cards out in front of each betting box where there is a player. Often times six or eight decks of cards are used and are dealt out of a "shoe," usually located to the dealer's left. Directly in front of the dealer are the betting chips. When you want to play, you lay your money on the table (don't hand it to the dealer, they must take it from the table) and the dealer will exchange your cash for chips. When you leave the table, you'll take the chips with you and convert them back into cash elsewhere.

After shuffling the decks, the dealer will ask a player to cut the deck; once cut, a marker is placed about one-half to three-fourths of the way through the deck, and the deck is placed in the shoe. This marker designates the "shuffle point;" when the deck reaches that point, it is reshuffled. Before dealing a card, the first card is "burned" meaning it is simply removed and put in the "hole" (the discard pile). After the players place their bets in the boxes in front of them, the dealer gives each bettor and himself two cards, one at a time, starting from the dealer's left moving to his right. All the cards, except the dealer's second drawn card, are dealt face-up. The dealer's face-up card is called the "upcard." Once all cards are dealt, the dealer starts around the table, again from his left to his right, giving each bettor the opportunity to play out his hand.

The goal of BlackJack is to have a hand valued as close to 21 points without exceeding 21. Most cards have point values equal to their numbers: a 2 is worth two points, an 8 worth eight, and so on. Kings (K), Queens (Q), Jacks (J), and 10s are all worth ten points. An Ace is unique in that it can be worth either 11 points or 1 point-- whichever results in a better total. Through the course of a play, an Ace can change its value from 11 to 1 as needed. The summed value of all of each player's cards is called that player's "total." If one of the cards is an Ace, that total is called either a "hard" total or a "soft" total; it is hard if the Ace is counting as a 1, and it is soft if the Ace is counting as an 11. For example, an Ace-6 is called a "soft 17" because the Ace is counting as 11 points and 11+6=17. An Ace-6-9 is called a "hard 16" because the Ace is counting as 1 point and 1+6+9=16. Note that all that matters in BlackJack is the point value of the cards-- suit is trivial and all ten-value cards (Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10) are equivalent.

When playing out a hand, a bettor's goal is to improve his hand. If dealt cards totalling 21 initially (eg. Ace-Jack), it is a "BlackJack" and the dealer goes to the next bettor since one can't improve upon a BlackJack. Any total of less than 21 presents the player with numerous options: he may "hit" his hand, requesting another card; he may "stand pat" (usually just "stand") meaning he is done playing that hand; if he has two cards, he can "double down" (usually just "double") meaning he'd like to draw only one more card (you can not hit again after doubling) and double his bet; or, if his two cards are identical, he may "split" the cards into two hands by putting out a bet equal to his original bet for the second hand (thus doubling his total bet)-- the two hands are then played out independently.

If the dealer's upcard is an Ace, each player has the additional option to make a side-bet called "insurance." When the dealer is "showing" an Ace (meaning he has an Ace upcard), he will, before anyone plays his hand, ask each player (often very casually and quickly) if they'd like insurance. If a player takes the insurance bet, he must put out an additional bet equal to one-half his original bet. He wins double his money on that bet if the dealer has a BlackJack-- the net effect is that the player will break even if the dealer has a BlackJack since he'll lose his original bet but win double money on his insurance bet (which equalled half of his original bet).

A player's hand is completed when he has either chosen to stand, or has drawn a card which makes his (hard) total greater than 21-- a "bust." After all players' hands are finished, the dealer turns over his face-down card and plays out his hand. The dealer, however, has only two options and is forced to play according to strict rules: he must hit on all totals less than 17, and must stand on all totals from 17 through 21. Some casinos require the dealer to hit a soft 17 (eg. Ace-6) also.

After the dealer has stood (on his total of 17 through 21) or has drawn a card forcing his total over 21--a bust--he pays the winners, and collects from the losers. If a player busts his hand, he immediately loses his bet (even if the dealer busts also when he later plays his hand). If the dealer busts, all players who didn't bust win even money on their bet. A winning ten dollar bet gets the player his original ten dollars plus ten dollars from the dealer. If the dealer doesn't bust, all players with totals higher than the dealer (without busting, of course) win even money on their bets; all players with totals lower than the dealer lose their bet; and all players with totals equal to the dealers get to keep their original bet-- they neither win nor lose (this is called a "push"). If the dealer has a BlackJack, the player loses his original bet (although he would win his insurance bet if he made that side-bet). If the player has a BlackJack, he wins his original bet plus one-half his original bet; for example, a ten dollar bet would win the player $15 in addition to getting back his original ten dollars. This is what is meant by the statement "BlackJack Pays 3:2," since your winnings are 3/2 your original bet.

Finally, the dealer collects the cards and puts them in the discard pile. The whole process repeats until the deck needs to be re-shuffled (when the shuffle point marker is reached).

General Strategy

The main disadvantage of BlackJack to the player is that if both he and the dealer bust, he still loses his bet. On the other hand, the player has so many more options than the dealer and is paid 3:2 on a BlackJack (while the dealer only collects the original bet if he gets BlackJack). These advantages make the game an almost even bet with the correct strategy and "flat" (unchanging) betting-- in the long run, you would neither win or lose money.

The first step to successful BlackJack play, therefore, is to learn the correct strategy. You need to know what you should do with every total against every possible upcard of the dealer. This involves decided whether to double, hit, stand, or split. The majority of these decisions are based on the 4/13 chance that the dealer's downcard is a ten-value card (four of the thirteen possible cards are worth 10 points). After you've mastered the correct basic strategy, you'll need to learn to count cards using the simple method outlined later. By counting cards, you'll know whether the deck is "favorable" (to the player) or unfavorable. A favorable deck means there are a lot of ten-value cards remaining in the shoe (few have been dealt). A deck that is "ten-rich" (lots of ten-value cards left) is beneficial because it increases the chances of being dealt a BlackJack and because it strengthens the likelihood of your suspicion that the dealer has a ten-value card face-down (remember, this prediction is on what most decisions are based). Probably most importantly, a favorable, ten-rich deck increases the chances the dealer will bust when he has a total of 1216.

The most common mistake that novices make when playing BlackJack is hitting too often; they won't stand on a thirteen no matter what the dealer's upcard is. Probability studies performed using computers show that when the dealer has an upcard of a 2 through 6 (26) it is to your advantage to stand on a thirteen-- you predict the dealer has a 16 total, on which he must hit, probably with another ten, thus busting. Again, notice how it is useful to pretend that each unknown card is worth ten points.

The Correct Strategy

The following paragraphs explain what the proper play is given every circumstance. Note that it is unadvisable to alter your play because of a hunch; you should always follow these guidelines. Later, I will present a chart that presents all this information in a more easily accessible manner. These paragraphs will be invaluable to you in understanding why each play is the best strategy-- that understanding will greatly simplify mastering the strategy. Each section will be titled according to your hand's total. At the end of the section, any exceptions will be listed for when you are aware of the count (see that section for more information). Note that most casino's will only let you double when drawing a third card (when you only have two cards thus far); if the strategy calls for doubling when you can't (eg. 2-4-5 totals eleven, which you'd like to double, but usually can't because you already have three cards) you should hit unless otherwise noted.

9 Total

Double on dealer's 26 (he'll probably bust and you want to make your bet as large as possible.

Hit on dealer's 7A (you can't bust by hitting, but your chances of losing are too great to want to increase your bet).

10 Total

Double on dealer's 29 (again, he'll probably bust, and you also have a good chance of ending up with 20 points-- a very strong total)

Hit on dealer's 10A (you can't bust by hitting, but your chances of losing are too great to want to increase your bet).

Exception: If the deck is highly unfavorable, hit instead of doubling on a dealer's 9 upcard.

Exception: If the deck is highly favorable, you should double instead of hitting on a dealer's Ace or 10 upcard.

11 Total

Double on everything (you've got a good chance of drawing a ten giving you an unbeatable 21 total so you want as large a bet as possible)

Exception: If the deck is highly unfavorable, hit instead of doubling on a dealer's 10 upcard.

12 Total

Stand on dealer's 46 (he'll probably bust, and hitting could make you bust first, thus losing your bet).

Hit on dealer's 23 (his chances of busting are slightly slimmer, and you have a very poor total).

Also Hit on dealer's 7A (he probably won't bust, so you've got to risk busting to improve your hand.)

Exception: If the deck is highly unfavorable, hit instead of standing on a dealer's 4 upcard.

Exception: If the deck is highly favorable, you should stand instead of hitting on a dealer's 23 upcard; in other words, with a favorable deck stand on a dealer's 26.

Hard 1316 Total

Stand on dealer's 26 (he'll probably bust, and you've got a good chance of busting if you draw).

Hit on dealer's 7A (he's probably got a 17 or better total which he will stand on thus beating your poor total, so you've got to risk busting to improve your hand).

Exception: If the deck is highly unfavorable, you should hit your hard 13 total against a dealer's 23 upcard. If your total is a hard 1416, you should still stand.

Hard 1721 Total

Stand on all dealer's upcards (the chance of you busting are too great to risk drawing another card).

Soft 1316 Total

Double down on dealer's 46 (he'll probably bust, and a soft total won't bust with a single hit, so your chances of winning the hand are good and you want to increase your bet).

Hit on dealer's 23 (his chances of busting are slimmer, and your total won't beat him if he doesn't bust so you don't want to increase your bet).

Also Hit on dealer's 7A (he's probably got a total on which he'll stand, and you'll lost unless you improve your hand; you can't bust, but his hand is too good to justify increasing your bet).

Soft 17 Total

Double down on dealer's 26 (he'll probably bust, and your soft total won't bust with a single hit, so your chances of winning the hand are good and you want to increase your bet.

Hit on dealer's 7A (17 isn't a strong enough total when the dealer has a high upcard; you can't bust on the next draw with a soft total, and a low card can greatly improve your hand)

Soft 18 Total

Double down on dealer's 36 (he'll probably bust, and even though you have a good total, doubling lets you increase your bet without the chance of busting). Note if doubling isn't an option (because you already have three or more cards) you should stand.

Hit on dealer's 910 (he's probably got a great total, and you can't bust by hitting, so you've got to hit hoping for a low card to improve your hand).

Stand on dealer's 2, 78, A. Also stand on dealer's 36 if doubling isn't an option.

Soft 1921 Total

Stand on everything (you've got a strong total that you aren't likely to improve).

Splitting Strategy

Note that splitting takes precedence over all other options; a pair of eights would be split, not played as a Hard 16 total.

Pair of 2s

Split on dealer's 37 (he'll probably bust, and splitting increases your bet).

Exception: Don't split 2s against a dealer's 3 if the deck is highly unfavorable.

Pair of 3s

Split on dealer's 47 (he'll probably bust, and splitting increases your bet).

Exception: If the deck is highly favorable, don't split 3s against a dealer's 7 upcard.

Pair of 4s or 5s

Never split (an eight or ten total is promising, yet a four or five could turn into a poor total of 14 or 15 if a ten-value card is drawn next.)

Pair of 6s

Split on dealer's 26 (he'll probably bust, and your 12 total could bust if you hit instead of split).

Exception: If the deck is highly unfavorable hit instead of splitting 6s on dealer's 2.

Pair of 7s

Split on dealer's 27 (he'll probably bust, and your hitting a hard 14 total is risky).

Pair of 8s

Always split (a hard 16 total is awful, but two eights could turn into two 18s-- a very respectable pair of hands).

Pair of 9s

Split on dealer's 29 (you have a good chance of getting two 19s, both good chances to be winners).

Pair of 10s

Never split (you have a hard 20 total-- very tough to beat).

Pair of Aces

Always split (a soft 12 total is not great, and you have a chance of getting two 21s, both almost definitely winners).

Splitting Shortcuts

For some players, it's easier to memorize the splitting strategy as follows:

Always split Aces and 8s

Never Split 4s, 5s, and 10s

For 2s and 3s, let n=2 or 3 and split on dealers n+17

For 6s, 7s, and 9s, let n=6, 7 or 9 and split on dealer's 2n


Take insurance only when the deck is superfavorable with a +3 true count or more.

Counting Cards-- The Key to Winning Big

Once you have the basic strategy down, you can play BlackJack knowing that you probably won't lose much money in the long run (occasional bad decks could set you back, however). To win consistently, you'll need to master counting cards. At the beginning of a new shoe, you assign the count the value of zero. As cards are dealt, you subtract 1 from the count for every ten-value card, and add one to the count for every 36 valued card. A favorable count is positive meaning that more 36 value cards have been dealt than 10-value cards (so more 10-value cards are left to be dealt); an unfavorable count is negative meaning that more 10-value cards have been dealt that 36 value cards (so fewer 10-value cards are left to be dealt).

As you can see, the idea behind counting is simple-- counting cards quickly and accurately does require much practice. One other thing to keep in mind: Although a +5 count after one hand means there are five more 10-value cards left to be dealt than 36 value cards, the strength of that +5 count depends on how many cards remain. If only one hand has been dealt, there are about five and one-half decks remaining over which that +5 count is spread. If we are near the shuffle point with a +5 count, there is probably only a little over a deck and a half left to be dealt, so the +5 count becomes much more favorable. In general, the count derived strictly by adding and subtracting is called the "running" count. To find the more telling "true" count, we should divide our running count by the number of half-decks remaining. For example, a +5 after one hand leaves about 11 half decks left yielding a true count of 5/11 or just under 0.5-- this is not as favorable as we'd hope; a +5 count with only a deck and one-half left gives a true count of 5/3, almost two, a pretty favorable deck.

Note that throughout the strategy guide, and in the table, I refer to highly favorable and highly unfavorable decks; these are decks with true counts of +2 or more, and decks with true counts of -2 or less, respectively. These decks are so skewed that the strategy for certain borderline decisions changes.


The most important thing to remember about betting is that, like Einstein said, "everything's relative!" The idea is to pick a betting unit that you are comfortable with, then gauge your bets in terms of that unit. For example, if you are playing at a $3 minimum table, your betting unit might be $3, but it could be $5, or even $10. Then, when you should be one unit, you'll be betting $3, $5, or $10, respectively; when you should bet two units, you'll be betting $6, $10, or $20, respectively. Also note that if you change your unit, the amount of money you stand to win (or lose) changes in direct proportion to your betting unit. For example, if you won $40 playing with a $3 unit, you would have won $80 if you were using a $6 unit. You should vary your bets according to the true count as per the following table.

True Count Units to Bet

0 1

+1 2

+2 3

+3 5

+4 7

+5 9

+5 10 or more

Note that it isn't just conservative to bet one unit on a true count of +2, it is wrong! You lost part of your advantage over the house by not betting properly! If you'd like to play without risking a lot of money, a good idea is to go to the table with the lowest minimum (often $3) and let your unit be one-half the minimum. Then you should sit out (don't place a bet) when the deck becomes neutral or unfavorable, and put the minimum bet down (which equals two of your betting units) when the deck reaches +1. For example, if your unit were $1.50, and the true count was +3 you would bet $1.50 × 5 = $7.50.

Playing in a Real Casino

There is one other, very important aspect of playing BlackJack at a real casino. Card-counting, although not illegal, is disliked strongly by casinos; they are operating to make a profit and they know that if you're counting cards, you can severely hurt their bankroll. Therefore, they are watching for card counters and will bar you from the casino if you appear to be counting cards-- that's all the reason they need because they are private clubs. Standing over a table and watching for a while, then jumping in when the deck gets highly favorable gives you a huge advantage over the house, but will almost definitely attract the attention of the pit bosses who are watching for BlackJack experts who might be counting cards. Many dealer's also count cards, and will be very aware of when you are playing and how you are varying your bets with the count-- they too could make your life difficult.

Here are some guidelines on how to avoid being barred from a casino.

Don't look too serious-- try to laugh a lot, talk to people, and don't go around telling other players when they played poorly.

Have a glass of ice-water with an olive at your side-- casino operators love to see intoxicated players, and if they think your water is a dry martini on the rocks, so be it.

Tip the dealer by placing bets for them; it is common practice to tip, but you should rarely just give the dealer a tip. You should instead put a small bet out at the top of your betting box (nearer the dealer). Then if you win the hand, the dealer gets a nice tip. She'll be rooting for you before you know it!

If you do attract the attention of a pit boss, and he's watching you, occasionally make a stupid play, acting like it's a hunch. Card counters wouldn't play on a hunch, so you can't be a card counter.

Don't change your bets too often. A highly varying bet is usually a sign that someone is counting cards-- all it takes is for the pit boss to be counting cards too to be sure you're counting, and then you're out of there!

Remember, you have lots of time to make money as long as you're still allowed to play. Don't get greedy and get caught counting cards!

Winning at BlackJack

Playing Strategy Summary

©1992, 1993 Greg J. Badros - All Rights Reserved

Hit-Stand-Double Strategy

A "-" in the leftmost column means the previous hand, only when deck has a negative true count.

A "+" in the leftmost column means the previous hand, only when the deck has a positive true count.

Splitting Strategy


Only when True Count + 2.5

Running Count:

36 +1

10s -1

True Count =

(RC = Running Count)

(HDR = # Half Decks Remaining) ---------------------------------------------------

Greg J. Badros / Google Inc. /