January 4, 2011

Blackjack Primer

I've had a fairly successful time playing blackjack since I turned 18. I've spent a decent amount of time learning as much about the game as possible and ever so often, one of my friends will ask me how I play. Today, I've decided to explain as much of it as I can.

I'm not going to say this is a surefire way of winning, because frankly, it's probably not and there's a lot of room for error here. This is just how I play and it seems to work well. I'm not making any guarantees here. So I'm not going to take any responsibility for any losses, but I will accept praise (or donations!) for any winnings.

Basic Strategy

Learn basic strategy, it's your best friend when it comes to playing Blackjack.

Hard States
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 A
21 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
20 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
19 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
18 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
17 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND SURR
16 STND STND STND STND STND HIT HIT SURR SURR SURR
15 STND STND STND STND STND HIT HIT HIT SURR SURR
14 STND STND STND STND STND HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
13 STND STND STND STND STND HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
12 HIT HIT STND STND STND HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
11 DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL
10 DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL HIT HIT
9 HIT DBL DBL DBL DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
8 HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
7 HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
6 HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
5 HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
4 HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
Soft States
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 A
A, 10 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
A, 9 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
A, 8 STND STND STND STND DBL STND STND STND STND STND
A, 7 DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL STND STND HIT HIT HIT
A, 6 HIT DBL DBL DBL DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
A, 5 HIT HIT DBL DBL DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
A, 4 HIT HIT HIT DBL DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
A, 3 HIT HIT HIT DBL DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
A, 2 HIT HIT HIT DBL DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
A, 1 HIT HIT HIT HIT DBL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
Pairs
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 A
10, 10 STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND STND
9, 9 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL STND SPL SPL STND STND
8, 8 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SURR
7, 7 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL HIT HIT HIT HIT
6, 6 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
5, 5 DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL DBL HIT HIT
4, 4 HIT HIT HIT SPL SPL HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT
3, 3 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL HIT HIT HIT HIT
2, 2 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL HIT HIT HIT HIT
1, 1 SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL SPL

Note: If you are unable to surrender, if your hand is 17 or better, you should stay, otherwise you should hit.

Card Counting

When I play, I actually don't count card. I have a basic idea of where the count is going, but if you were to tie me to a chair and hit me with a sack of oranges, I would not be able to tell you what the card count was. It's not as glamorous as the movies make it out to be. It's going to increase your chances of winning, but it's only going to do so by about 2%, maybe 3%. That's enough to make the game favorable for you, but you're not going to be walking away with boat loads of money like movies tell you (I'm looking at you Rain Man, 21, The Hangover), but it will improve your long term chances of winning.

Almost all of the systems I have seen involve associating some value to each card. So each time you see a given card, you apply a certain number to "the count." The following table shows various strategies and their given card values.

Card Strategy 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 J Q K A
Wizard Ace/Five 0 0 0 +1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 −1
KO +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 0 0 −1 −1 −1 −1 −1
Hi-Lo +1 +1 +1 +1 +1 0 0 0 −1 −1 −1 −1 −1
Hi-Opt I 0 +1 +1 +1 +1 0 0 0 −1 −1 −1 −1 0
Hi-Opt II +1 +1 +2 +2 +1 +1 0 0 −2 −2 −2 −2 0
Zen Count +1 +1 +2 +2 +2 +1 0 0 −2 −2 −2 −2 −1
Omega II +1 +1 +2 +2 +2 +1 0 −1 −2 −2 −2 −2 0

As far as I know, the most popular strategy is the Hi-Lo strategy. This means that when you see a twenty dealt, you subtract two from the count. Once you have the count, you need to divide that number by the number of decks left in the shoe (since most shoes have more than one deck), this new value is called the "true count."

Once you have the true count, you can adjust your bet based on the following table:

True Count Betting Units
+1 1
+2 to +3 2
+4 to +5 3
+6 to +7 4
+8 or more 5

The basic idea here is that a betting unit should be the table minimum. So again, if you are at a $5 table, your betting unit is in increments of $5 (so $5, $10, $15, $20, $25).

Betting Strategy

Now that you understand the concept of what a betting unit is, I'm going to introduce the progressive strategy that I use (in terms of betting units). This strategy resets each time you lose and gives a decent feel of where the card count is based off of the run that you are on. The theory goes that if you are winning a large amount of hands in a row, the card count is likely in your favor (or you are very lucky). I adjust the betting units based on this table:

Streak (# of wins) Betting Units
0 1
1 2
2 3
3 5
4 9
5 17

The algorithm that I use is "double your bet, pull back the original bet." This allows you to play on the casinos money. For each hand that you play, your actual bet is your starting bet; the casino is paying for the rest. You increase your risk when the game is in your favor with your splits and double downs. This, in theory, allows you to maximize your earning potential while keeping your risk low. Some of my friends will adjust this strategy to be a little more conservative and just increase their bet by one for each win.

I will occasionally throw the Martingale system into the mix, especially when the card count is high or when I lost my second bet (where I double my bet, but cannot subtract the minimum because it would be the same value that I started with). The martingale system involves doubling your bet every time you lose, then once you win, you start your bet over again. With this strategy, you are guaranteed to make a profit, assuming you do not lose a double down, split, or hit table max; any of these situations that I just mentioned should be considered a catastrophic loss.

Money Management

This is, by far, the most important aspect to any form of gambling. There's a bunch of things to consider here.

First off, never sit down at a blackjack table with less than twenty times the table minimum. This means that if you want to play at a $5 table, you need to bring $100 to the table. My suggestion is to bring forty times the table minimum , because that will give you a little more leeway when you have a bad start to a table.

Secondly, never out bet your bankroll . If you can't cover at least a split or double down, don't make the bet. You're going to make your money by winning double downs and splits, so don't sell yourself short by betting less in those situations.

Finally, set goals on when to stop. If you do not do this before you play, you will not stop when you're winning. You will think you can keep winning. In the past, I've set the goals within ranges (e.g., I have a $600 profit, I will stop when that goes down to $500, but I didn't stop if the bet put me at $475); I'll say that the range strategy is fine as long as you are stopping when you fall below those goals, but hold yourself to that. It will help if you tell your friends those same goals because they will probably help you stop when you get to these stopping points.

Other Key Take Aways

I really think the only way you will make money by playing blackjack is by playing (and winning) your splits, double downs, and blackjacks. That means play tables that pay the best (3:2 at worst, never play a 6:5 table). Regardless of your bet, always play your splits and double downs according to basic strategy.

The entire game a grind and inevitability is not on your side. You will lose long term if you flat bet (bet the same amount every time) and you will not make money quickly. The key here is to keep your risk as low as possible while keeping your earning potential as high as possible. If you like math or stats, learn to appreciate the Kelly criterion.

With all that said, who's ready to play?

UPdate: John Saxton has provided another table with expected value (my original table is based off of his first one). Based off of 2,000,000 hands, based off of 500,00 hands