Playing Better Blackjack
The essential steps to becoming an expert player
by Henry Tamburin
The basic playing strategy tells you the correct way to play all of the 550 different possible hands that will arise when playing blackjack. You must memorize the basic strategy and be able to make the correct play with speed and accuracy.
If you’re a recreational blackjack player, you don’t need a Ph.D. to take your game to an expert level. You just need to know which games to play, and how to play them. Here’s a roadmap that will show you how to become a better player.
Nowadays, sitting at the first empty seat you spot at a blackjack table isn’t a smart thing to do. The reason is that not all blackjack games are the same anymore. Here are a few guidelines to help you pick the best game.
- Do NOT play at any table where a blackjack is paid at 6-5 (or worse, even money). You should only play a game where a blackjack is paid at 3-2. (Usually the playing rules, including the blackjack payoff, are posted somewhere on the table, or the payoff for a blackjack will be imprinted on the cloth layout. If you aren’t sure, ask the dealer.)
- Do NOT play on any table that uses a continuous shuffling machine (known as CSM). You’ll know if the automatic shuffling device is a CSM if the dealer places the discards from every round back into the CSM (another hint is the table usually doesn’t have a discard tray). Play blackjack on tables where the dealer manually shuffles the cards or the table has a traditional automatic shuffler.
- All else being equal, a blackjack game that uses a single deck or two decks of cards is better than one that uses six or eight decks. However, that is not always the case. You must check the mix of playing rules. Player-favorable rules include dealer standing on soft 17, double on any two cards and after pair splitting, surrender, resplit aces, and, of course, getting paid 3-2 for a blackjack. Rules that increase the house edge include using multiple decks of cards, dealer hitting soft 17, restrictions on what hands you can double down, and paying only 6-5 or even money for a blackjack. The house edge should be about 0.5% or lower for any game that you play. (If you are unsure what the house edge is, use the Blackjack House Edge Calculator located on the blackjack page at www.wizardofodds.com to compute the house edge for any game. Just key in the number of decks of cards and the playing rules and the calculator will compute the house edge).
If you want to become a better blackjack player, you must learn the basic playing strategy. There is essential.
The basic playing strategy tells you the correct way to play all of the 550 different possible hands that will arise when playing blackjack. You must memorize the basic strategy and be able to make the correct play with speed and accuracy. The basic playing strategy will vary slightly based on the rules and the number of decks of cards. You can get an accurate basic strategy for any game by using the Basic Strategy Calculator located on the blackjack page at www.wizardofodds.com. You simply key in the number of decks and the playing rules, and the computer prepares an accurate basic playing strategy.
An easy way to learn the basic strategy is to practice with the Blackjack Mentor software program, which is available for iPhone, Microsoft Windows, Palm OS, and Pocket PC (for details go to www.handheldblackjack.com). Playing mistakes will cost you money. To ensure that you always make the correct playing decision, bring a hand-held strategy card with you when you play (they are casino legal).
Using the basic playing strategy accurately when you play will make you a better player. However, if you do nothing else to enhance your skills, at the end of your playing career, you will lose more money than win. If you want to be a better blackjack player, you must take the next step and learn when to bet more.
When to Bet More
Many players use progressive betting systems when they play blackjack. However, as I explained in detail in my column in the August 2009 issue of Casino Player magazine, progressive betting systems don’t work and won’t make you a better, or more successful, player. To accomplish that, you’ll have to discipline yourself to increase your bets only when you have the edge on the next hand (rather than increase your bets based on whether you won or lost the previous hand). Here are some ways to do this.
1. Learn to scan the cards
You can use this technique in single- and double-deck games. After a shuffle, there is a balance (or equal number)) of small cards (2s though 6s) and large cards (10s, picture cards, and aces) in the deck(s) of cards. This balance can change depending upon the mix of cards dealt from one round to the next. By scanning all the cards that have been played on each round, you will be able to get some idea whether there were a greater number of small cards compared to high cards played in previous rounds. If your scanning indicates that more small cards have been dealt out compared to high cards, then the remaining unplayed cards must be richer in high cards (inverse relationship). When the latter occurs, the edge shifts to the player and you should bet more. Scanning is not an exact science and it takes a little practice; however, if you only increase your bets when the unplayed cards are richer in high cards, you will be taking a big step towards becoming a better player.
2. Use a simple card counting system
There are some very simple card counting systems for recreational players that are easy to learn and use, and allow a basic strategy player to play a break-even game or have a slight edge over the house. They include the Ace/10 Front Count (Blackjack Bluebook II by Fred Renzey), the Ace/Five Count (Appendix 17 on the blackjack page on www.wizardofodds.com), Rookie Knock-Out System (Knock-Out Blackjack by Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs), and Speed Count (Beat Blackjack Now! by Frank Scoblete). Any of these simple systems will help you be a better blackjack player.
I hope you will discipline yourself to incorporate some or all of the above tips when you play blackjack. You have the information…the ball is now in your court. Are you going to continue dribbling in circles, or score a basket?
Tamburin’s Tip of the Month
Here’s another way to get more from your blackjack play: get rated and start taking advantage of the comps that the casino will send your way to keep you as a customer. Comps have value (whether in the form of free meals, show tickets, a comped hotel room, etc.) that will either help you, the basic strategy player, reduce your cost of playing to virtually zero, or boost the edge you already have if you are card scanning or counting. Having a casino host will also increase your casino benefits even more. Even low-limit recreational players can benefit from the billions of dollars in comps that casinos give to players annually. To get the lowdown, read Section IV of Jean Scott’s classic book, More Frugal Gambling.
Henry Tamburin is the editor of Blackjack Insider Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com), Lead Instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack Course (www.goldentouchblackjack.com), and host of www.smartgaming.com. For a free three-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter, go to www.bjinsider.com/freetrial.com. To receive his free Casino Gambling Catalog, call 1-888-353-3234 or visit www.smartgaming.com.