Blackjack is one of only a handful of gambling games where a smart player can get an edge over the casino. Not everyone is willing to put in the work, study, and effort required to become an advantage blackjack player.
But even blackjack players who are purely interested in recreation can improve their odds of walking away a winner. They just need to develop certain habits.
Most of the winning blackjack players I know do the following things repeatedly. You learn how to do these things repeatedly, and you too can become a winning blackjack player.
Let's pretend there are two blackjack players in a casino. One of them knows all about blackjack, but the other one knows all about blackjack except for one thing-he doesn't know how to split cards.
Which blackjack player is more likely to walk away a winner?
That might seem like an absurd example, but there are lots of rules that can vary from one casino to another. Those changes in the rules can have significant effects on your odds of walking away a winner.
One of the biggest examples is the payoff for a blackjack (aka a "natural"). Most casinos pay off at 3 to 2 when you get a 2-card hand totaling 21.
But some casinos pay off at 6 to 5 instead of 3 to 2.
Since 6 is bigger than 3, some people might think that this payoff is better.
If you bet $100 on a hand of blackjack, and you get paid off at 3 to 2, you get $150.
If you bet$100 on a hand of blackjack where the casino pays off at 6 to 5, you only get $120.
That difference in the rules results in a higher house edge for the casino.
In this case, it adds a whopping 1.39% to the casino's edge. Let's say you're a good player who knows the rules and has mastered basic strategy, and you're playing a game where the house edge is 0.5%. That one rules change increases the house edge to 1.89%, almost quadrupling the amount of money you expect to lose per hand on average.
Casinos have all kinds of rules variations that they can put into effect. Some of them decrease the house edge, though. 5-card Charlie is an example of a rule that improves the odds for the player-by 1.46%.
The number of decks in use, which totals you're allowed to double down on, and when you're able to surrender all affect the house edge.
Winning blackjack players know how the rules affect the house edge so that they can pick and choose which game to play. The game with the lowest house edge is the one in which they're most likely to win.
Novice blackjack players realize that their decisions affect how likely they are to win. It's obvious, in fact.
Here's an example:
You have a total of 19. If you hit that kind of total, you're almost certain to bust. The only cards that WON'T bust your hand in that situation are the ace and the 2. You know to stand on that hand.
Here's another example:
You have a total of 9. If you stand on that total, you're likely to lose. The only time you'll win is if the dealer busts.
But there's no downside to hitting a total of 9. The highest value card you can get is a 10, which gives you a total of 19. It's impossible to bust in this situation, and any card you get will improve your hand.
Most totals and decisions are less clear-cut, but every situation has a mathematically best way to play it. That decision is based on the expected value of what you choose to do. It's also based on your total versus the dealer's up card.
Blackjack mathematicians have put together tables indicating what the best choice is in every blackjack situation. That chart is called a "basic strategy" table.
Some people learn basic strategy by memorizing these colorful tables, while others prefer to memorize rules like "never split 4s, 5s, or 10s" and "always split aces or 8s".
Either way, if you want to be a winner at blackjack, your odds will improve dramatically if you memorize and habitually use blackjack basic strategy on every hand.
There's a saying among gamblers of all kinds:
"Scared money always loses."
Multiple reasons for this come into play, but the main one is that you'll make different decisions if you're playing with "scared money".
What is Scared Money?
It's money you're afraid to lose.
If you're playing with money that should otherwise be spent on bills, you don't have a gambling bankroll at all. You're just gambling the rent money. And that means you're probably a gambling addict and shouldn't be playing at all.
A gambling bankroll is an amount of money that you've set aside specifically for the purposes of gambling. It's money that you don't need for ANY other purpose.
Having a large bankroll is doubly important for advantage players like card counters. The rule of thumb with any edge-the house edge or your edge-is that it only starts showing up over a large number of hands.
If you don't have enough money to play enough hands to get into the long run, your edge will never kick in.
Don't play blackjack unless you have a reasonably sized bankroll.
Counting cards is easier than you might think. Contrary to popular misconceptions, you don't have to memorize every card that gets dealt. You just add and subtract a value to keep a rough estimate of how many high cards versus low cards are left in the deck.
A deck where most of the low value cards have been dealt has a higher percentage of 10s and aces left in it. This increases your chances of getting a blackjack, which pays off at 3 to 2. If you raise your bets when you're more likely to get a 3 to 2 payout, you increase your chances of walking away a winner.
Not everyone who can count cards puts that knowledge into action every time they play. I know how to count cards, but not every game is one where you can get an edge by counting.
The blackjack games at the Winstar Casino are a good example. They charge a 50-cent ante on every hand, which adds almost 10% to the house edge if you're playing for $5/hand. No matter how good your card counting skills are, you can't get an edge at this game. You can barely make a dent in the house edge.
In fact, you probably shouldn't even play in such a game.
But recreational players are out there. And sometimes that's the only game in town. I'd rather play a lousy game of blackjack than a slot machine, anyway.
Learning to count cards is easy enough that everyone who's mastered basic strategy should learn it.
Experienced blackjack players who are unfamiliar with online casinos and how their promotions work sometimes get excited by these companies' bonus offers.
Online casinos almost always match your deposit with a bonus amount to encourage you to play at their casino. For example, you might deposit $100 at a casino and get a 200% bonus. This means you get $200 in bonus chips to gamble with. It seems like it would be hard to lose with $300 in bankroll on a $100 deposit-especially if you're playing a low house edge game like blackjack.
But these offers come with a catch:
We'll assume the casino has a 95% payback percentage on their slots game, or a 5% house edge. That's generous, but online casinos often have loose slots.
If you make $9000 in wagers on a game with a house edge of 5%, your expected loss is $450.
Since you started with $300, you're likely to run out of money before hitting the wagering requirements. Which is, of course, the entire point of having wagering requirements.
If you could play blackjack, you wouldn't be able to count cards. The online casino shuffles the deck after each hand. You'd be facing a house edge of probably 1%.
That's an expected loss of just $90, which would mean you'd be left with $210 after fulfilling the wagering requirements. You'd show a profit of $110.
At one time, about 10 years ago, online casinos didn't restrict games from wagering requirements. Bonus players would often collect bonuses at multiple casinos and profit from the system in place.
Those days are long gone.
If you can find a casino which counts blackjack toward your wagering requirements, that casino probably discounts wagers on that game by 90%. Which means a $100 bet only counts as a $10 bet toward meeting your wagering requirements.
Now, instead of needing to place $9000 in wagers (with an expected loss of $90), you're required to place $90,000 in wagers. That's an expected loss of $900-which is, again, more than you had.
Most winning blackjack players eschew casino bonuses entirely.
Setting goals isn't just for people who've attended success seminars and read Zig Ziglar books. Gamblers set goals all the time. Successful blackjack players tend to set goals specific to their activities rather than goals related to their results.
Here's an example:
Successful card counters work backwards. $100,000 a year is $2000 a week. That's $400 a day if you play 5 days a week.
If you have a 1% edge over the casino as a card counter, you need to put $40,000 a day into action to average $400 a day.
Most blackjack players average about 70 hands per hour. If you play 4 hours a day, that's 280 hands per day. $40,000 divided by 280 hands is about $142 per hand.
The card counter with this goal now has an actionable goal-play blackjack 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, betting an average of $142 per hand.
She might achieve her $100,000 a year goal, or she might not, but she's done all she could to accomplish this.
The thing about counting cards is that casinos do their best to prevent you from getting an edge. This means you can get banned from playing at certain casinos. It's possible you'll eventually be unable to achieve your financial win goals by playing blackjack.
Also, you might find other gambling opportunities that offer a better expected return. For example, a progressive jackpot on a Jacks or Better game might offer a higher edge than blackjack. In that case, you might enjoy the change of pace and have a more profitable way to spend your time.
Or you might spot a profitable sports betting opportunity.
But if you're not open to other profitable gambling activities and opportunities, you'll make less money than you might have otherwise.
Winning blackjack players are more common than other kinds of winning gamblers. That's because blackjack offers some of the best odds in the casino. Also, the game offers the opportunity to get an edge over the house via advantage player techniques like counting cards and shuffle tracking.
Winning blackjack is a skill, but if you like to gamble, it's a skill worth developing.