Learning Blackjack: A 5 Step Tutorial

Crash Course in Online Casinos

Blackjack is the best bet in the casino 99% of the time. I've written tutorials for learning craps, roulette, and slot machines recently. But I'm most excited about this post on blackjack and my next post (about video poker).

In terms of adrenaline level, blackjack is more laid-back than craps, but it's not as sedate as roulette. And unlike craps, roulette, or slot machines, blackjack is a game where your decisions have a role to play in the odds you face.

In fact, blackjack is one of the only games in the casino where you can get an edge over the casino if you play well enough.

I like games of skill. And when I gamble, I like having good odds of winning.

That's why blackjack's my game.

Here's what you need to learn to get started as a blackjack player.


You Compare Your Totals to the Dealer in Blackjack

In most of the card games you're used to playing at home, you're facing other players as your opponent. This is not true in casino games like blackjack. Your only competitor is the dealer.

Card games where you compare your hand with someone else's hand to determine a winner is called, naturally enough, a "comparing" game. In games like poker, you have relatively complex means of determining who has a stronger hand.

But in blackjack, it's a matter of calculating a simple point total.

Every card in the deck has a point value. All the cards with numbers on them have a point value equal to their rank. The 7 of spades, for example, is worth 7 points. So is the 7 of diamonds.

The face cards are worth 10 points. Face cards are the cards with a picture of a jack, queen, or a king on them.

Finally, aces are worth either 1 point or 11 points.

To get the total value of the hand, you simply add up the points of the cards in the hands.

You compare your total to the dealer's, and the higher total wins the bet.

Of course, blackjack offers a few more wrinkles than that.

For one thing, you start with 2 cards, but you have the option of getting more cards, one at a time, by asking to "hit" your hand.

The dealer also starts with 2 cards, and she also has the option of hitting. But she only hits when the casino's rules say she should hit. Usually this means she stands on any total of 17 or higher and hits on any total of 16 or less.

Here's another wrinkle:

If your total (or the dealer's) is 22 or higher, the hand automatically loses. This is called a "bust".

At first glance, it might seem that you and the casino have even odds. After all, you're both playing from the same deck, so you're just as likely to get cards as good as the dealer's.

But here's how the casino gets its edge:

You must play your hand before the dealer plays hers. This means if you bust, you lose your bet. The dealer might subsequently bust, too, but at that point, you've already lost your bet.

The casino tries to make up for this by offering the player some additional options, but even with these perks, the casino maintains an edge over the player.

Here's an example:

If your first two cards consist of a 10 and an ace, you've been dealt a "natural" or a "blackjack". Not only does this hand instantly win, but you get 3 to 2 on your money.

Here's another example:

If your first two cards are of the same rank, like aces for example, you can choose to "split" your hand. You put up another bet, so that you'll have a bet on each hand. And the two cards from your original hand each become the first hand of two new hands.

Another option you have available is to "double down". This means to double the size of your bet while simultaneously taking one and exactly one more card.

The game-play basics are simple enough:

  1. You place a bet.
  2. The dealer deals you a hand.
  3. She also deals herself a hand. (One of her cards is face up.)
  4. You decide to "hit" or "stand".
  5. When all the players finish playing their hands, the dealer plays hers.
  6. Bets are paid off accordingly.

As far as that last point goes, bets being paid off accordingly-this means that bets are paid off when appropriate. If you're dealt a blackjack, your bet pays off immediately. Also, if your hand busts, you lose your bet immediately.

Finally, if you and the dealer have the same total, your bet is considered a "push". This means you don't lose your bet, but the you don't win anything, either.


Gameplay Details Vary from Casino to Casino and from Table to Table

You can divide blackjack games into two broad categories:

  1. Single deck games
  2. Multiple deck games

Single deck games are dealt by hand. Your cards are dealt face down. You signal if you want a hit by scraping the table with your cards. You signal you want to stand by putting your cards under the chips in your bet.

Multiple deck games are dealt by hand, too, but they're dealt from a shoe-a machine which shuffles and holds multiple decks of cards for card games. These games feature cards dealt face up. You're not allowed to touch your cards in one of these games. You signal that you want a hit by pointing with your index finger. You signal that you want to stand by waving your hand, palm-down, over your cards.

These are just differences in how you do things, though. The big difference between playing in a single deck game and a multiple deck is the house edge.

Earlier I pointed out that blackjack offers the best odds in the casino to the smart player.

But how exactly is that measured?

Gambling mathematicians use a probability term to describe the edge the house over a player. This term, "house edge," represents how much of each bet the player can expect to lose on average over a long period of time.

If, for example, you're playing a game with a 5% house edge, you can expect to lose $5 for every $100 you wager. This is an average over time.

I like to use roulette as an example of how to understand this concept. You have 38 numbers on a roulette wheel. Two of them are green, 18 of them are red, and 18 of them are black. If you bet on black, you have an almost (but not quite) 50% chance of winning.

You can calculate the house edge by assuming a perfect mathematical distribution of wins and losses on bets of $100 each. You'll win a bet on blackjack 18 times, but 20 times you'll lose. (You'll lose if red or green shows up.)

That's $1800 in winnings, but $2000 in losses. Your net loss is $200. Divide that 200 by the total number of bets (38), and you get an average loss per bet of $5.26.

And that's the house edge for roulette-5.26%.

In blackjack, the house edge varies based on which rules are in place. The house edge is higher if you play badly, but it's lower if you play well.

On average, though, if you're playing with "perfect basic strategy" (more about that shortly), the house edge is anywhere from 0.5% to 1%.

This means if you're playing for $100 a hand, you only expect to lose between 50 cents and $1 per hand. If you're at a busy table, this might mean losing only an average of $15 to $30 per hour.

And since in gambling, in the short run, you can expect deviation, you might even walk away a winner. In fact, the lower the house edge is, the better your chances of walking away a winner are.

But if you don't know what you're doing, and you don't have any idea of what kind of strategy to use, you might face an effective house edge of 4% or more.

That's why you should learn to use basic strategy.


Basic Strategy and Why Everyone Should Learn It

You have a finite number of situations in blackjack. You also have a finite number of ways of playing in each of those situations.

In each of those situations, only one of those playing decisions has the best "expected value".

What's expected value?

It's a mathematical expectation of what a decision is worth.

Here's a simple example:

You have a total of 20. You can hit, or you can stand. For purposes of keeping this simple, we'll assume you'll win if you stand, win if you have a total of 21, and you'll lose if you have a total of 22 or higher.

There are 50 cards left in the deck. 4 of them are aces. 46 of them are worth more than an ace, which will bust your hand.

If you bet $100 every time, you'll lose $4600 over 50 hands, but you'll win $400 over 50 hands-the 4 times you get the ace. Your expected value is $4200 in net losses divided by 50 hands, or -$84.

That's a low expected value. It's also a simplified situation with an absurd decision, but it illustrates that you can use math to decide what the best move is.

Computer scientists have run simulations of millions of hands and measured the expected value for each play in every possible situation to determine what the best move is.

When you see a house edge estimate for a blackjack game, you know that it's assuming you're playing with perfect basic strategy.

You'll find most basic strategy charts organized with the dealer's up card listed along the top. Along the left is a list of possible totals that you might have. Based on your total versus the dealer's up card, you'll have a single correct decision.

For example, if you have a "hard total" of 16, and the dealer has a 6 as her up card, you should stand.

But if the dealer has a 7 as her up card, you should hit.

Now would be a good time to distinguish between "hard hands" and "soft hands".

Remember how I mentioned that an ace can count as either 1 point or 11 points depending on the situation?

A soft hand is a total that's using the ace to count as 11 points.

Here's an example:

You have an ace and a 6. Your total is a soft 17.

You hit. You're dealt a 10.

You now have a hard 17. You must count the ace as 1 to avoid busting.

A hard total, on the other hand, has no aces in it, OR has an ace in it that's being counted as 1 to avoid going bust.

You need to recognize the difference between the two because the correct decisions in each situation are different.

Generally, you'll play soft totals more aggressively than you would hard totals. The reason is simple:

You can't bust a soft hand. The highest value card you can be dealt is a 10, and since the ace can be counted as 1, you won't go bust even if you're dealt the highest value card in the deck.

Basic strategy charts also include the correct decisions to make when you're dealt two cards of the same rank. In some cases, you'll always want to split such hands, such as when you have a pair of aces or a pair of 8s. In other cases, you'll never split-like when you're dealt 4s, 5s, or 10s.

How likely the dealer is to have a "stiff" hand is one of the situations considered by the math behind a basic strategy chart.

A stiff hand is one that's likely to bust if the dealer takes another card. And the dealer is required by the rules of the casino to hit any total of 16 or lower, regardless of what the player has done.

Here's an example:

You have a hard total of 15. The dealer has a 6 showing. Your basic strategy chart says you should stand, so you do.

The dealer flips over her face down card to expose a 10. She has a total of 16.

If she could stand, the dealer would win.

But that's not an option for her. She MUST take another card, because all the hands are played per the criteria set by the casino.

If the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 showing, she's likely to have a stiff hand. On the other hand, if she has a 7 or higher showing, she's likely to have to stand on a reasonably strong hand.

Playing your cards per basic strategy takes this into account.

In our earlier example, if you had a hard 15 total versus a face up 7 from the dealer, you'd hit instead of stand. There's too good a chance that the dealer has a 17 to do anything else. You're likely to go bust, but the odds of winning are better by taking a hit than by standing.

That criteria applies to every situation in the game.


Getting an Edge at Blackjack by Counting Cards

Once you've mastered basic strategy, your next step is to take things a little further by trying to get an edge over the casino. The easiest way to do this is by counting cards.

And the great news is that it's easier to do than you probably think.

First, though-let's be clear about something:

Counting cards is NOT illegal.

Casinos frown on it, though, and in most places, they reserve the right to ban you from playing if they think you're counting cards. This is important to know, because you'll need to camouflage what you're doing.

But you don't have to memorize which cards have and haven't been played to get an edge. You just need an estimate of how many high cards versus low cards have been dealt.

You see, unlike other games, blackjack has a memory. The composition of the deck changes every time a card is dealt. In a random situation, sometimes the deck will have more aces and tens in it compared to lower cards.

High cards are advantageous to the player because it increases your odds of being dealt a natural. Since that hand pays off at 3 to 2 instead of even money, you can get an edge by increasing the size of your bets when you're more likely to get a natural.

But how do you do that?

First, you assign a value to the high cards and another value to the low cards. In the most common method of counting cards, you'd break it down this way:

When the count is positive, you bet more. The higher the count, the more you bet. When the count is 0 or negative, you bet less-the table minimum, usually. Most counters add the count to 1 and multiply the table minimum by that to get the size of their bet.

Here's an example:

You're playing at a $5 minimum single deck table and the count is +3. 3+1 = 4, so you multiply $5 by 4 to get $20. That's how much you bet on the next hand.

Of course, it gets more complicated when you start playing at tables using multiple decks. The more decks in use, the less effect an individual card has on your outcome.

Think about it this way. If you're playing in a single deck game, and four aces have been dealt, you have a 0% chance of getting a blackjack, right?

But if you're playing in a game with eight decks, you still have 28 aces left in the deck after those four have been dealt. Your chances of getting a blackjack are lower, but they're far from eliminated.

To account for this dilution effect, you take the count and divide it by the number of decks left in the shoe. This converts the running count into a true count.

And you use the true count to size your bets.

Literally dozens of counting systems are in use. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Some are harder to use but more accurate.

Some card counters even specialize in adjusting their strategic decisions based on the count.

But if you want to get started, the counting system above will help you. It's effective and easy.

But it takes practice.

I suggest starting with a single deck of cards and counting through it at your kitchen table. You should wind up with a 0 when you finish. If you finish with any other number, you made a mistake.

After you can count through a single deck by going through it one card at a time, starting dealing the cards in pairs. You should be able to zip through a deck without any effort.

Once you can do this, start practicing with lots of background noise. Turn up the stereo and play the television at the same time. Encourage the kids to play in the room while you practice.

I suggest this because counting cards in a casino requires massive amounts of concentration. There are all kinds of sights and sounds happening in the casino. You need to be able to count cards without being distracted by any of them.

Also, you want to be able to count silently without looking like you're concentrating hard. Staying casual is an important part of that camouflage concept I mentioned earlier.

If the casino catches you counting cards, they will (at the very least) start shuffling every hand. And if they've shuffled the deck, it's like starting over again with a fresh deck.

But some casinos are less friendly. They'll ask you to stop playing blackjack. In some cases, they might evict you from the casino.

Finally, if you're going to get serious about counting cards, use some common sense. Don't play at the same casino with the same dealer at the same time every day. Visit the casino for an hour or less. Visit during different shifts. Sit with different dealers every time.


Getting Comps and Becoming a Comp Wizard

You might not be interested in becoming an advantage player and getting an edge over the casino. You might be satisfied by just breaking even and getting free stuff. If that's the case with you, think about reading the book Comp City by Max Rubin.

In it, he explains in detail how the system works for getting comps from the casino.

If you're a complete newbie to the casino business, you might be surprised to know that they love giving stuff away to their best players. This free stuff includes simple, small items like free meals in the coffee shop.

But big gamblers get all kinds of free stuff-free rooms, travel, and entertainment.

The casinos assume that the average blackjack player is going to lose about 4% of every bet. Most gamblers just aren't that good at basic strategy.

By using perfect basic strategy, you can reduce the house edge to 0.5% or 1%.

The casino awards comps using a formula that estimates how many hands per hour you're playing by how much you're betting per hand. They assume that their edge is 4%.

Since your actual disadvantage is much smaller than that, you'll be earning comps at 3X to 4X the rate they expect.

This is just free stuff to add to your vacation.

It makes the entertainment of hanging out in the casino and playing blackjack into something that doesn't cost you anything. You won't make a living at it, but it won't cost you anything either.


Blackjack is my favorite casino game. It's easy to play. The house edge is so small as to be almost nonexistent. And you get to make decisions which actually affect your outcome.

Dedicated players can even get an edge over the house by learning to count cards or take maximum advantage of the comps system.

I can think of no better game in the casino. Learn basic strategy even if you're not going to count cards, and you can enjoy hours of entertainment in the casino for next to nothing.