The Road To Mastery
The step-by-step process of becoming an expert blackjack player
By Henry Tamburin
There is no magic bullet when it comes to winning at blackjack. It’s not like playing slots, where one lucky spin, no matter how long the odds, can result in a life-changing payout. It’s a slow grind and a journey that begins at what I call Stage 1.
A reader sent me an email the other day that contained this question:
“You always say that winning at blackjack is a process and a journey. Can you explain what you mean?”
I’m happy to explain why I chose those particular words, especially since this is an important topic.
There is no magic bullet when it comes to winning at blackjack. It’s not like playing slots, where one lucky spin, no matter how long the odds, can result in a life-changing payout. Blackjack isn’t like that. It’s a slow grind and a journey that begins at what I call Stage 1.
There are two types of players in this stage. The majority are novices that are new to the game, and the rest are experienced players who always depend on luck when they play. Players in this stage know only the rules of the game and nothing about the basic playing strategy. They use intuition when it comes to playing their hands. In addition, some experienced players, who might know something about basic strategy but insist on playing bad blackjack games (e.g., blackjacks paid at only 6-5, or worse, even money), fall into this category. Stage 1 players face a house advantage between 1.5% to 2.0%. This means they can expect to lose roughly $15 to $20 every hour they play blackjack. (For simplicity, I assumed a $10 bettor playing 100 hands per hour. If you bet more, you’ll lose more; if you play fewer than 100 hands per hour, you’ll lose less.)
Many players in Stage 1 will advance to Stage 2 at some point in their playing career. Stage 2 players have discovered the basic playing strategy but haven’t quite mastered the entire strategy. Therefore, they still use intuition to play some of their hands, even though they know that basic strategy says otherwise. For example, Stage 2 players may not split 8s against a dealer 10 or Ace, not hit 12 against a dealer 2 or 3, or not hit a soft 18 against dealer 9, 10, or Ace. Most use a progressive betting system, thinking that it will help them win (it won’t). Players in Stage 2 are smart enough to avoid playing any 6-5 games; therefore, they face a house edge of about 1%. This means a $10 bettor can expect to lose about $10 every hour he plays blackjack.
Most players in Stage 2, who eventually get tired of losing money, will finally buckle down, master the entire basic playing strategy, and become Stage 3 players. Players at this stage will only play games with good rules, so combined with their mastery of basic strategy, they’ve reduced the house edge to a minuscule 0.3% to 0.5% (rule dependent). This is a great start towards becoming a winning player but even at this stage, a player still has a negative expectation (meaning, over the long haul, he will lose more than he wins). Many players in this stage use a progressive betting system, but that does nothing to reduce the house edge against them. Facing a 0.3% to 0.5% house edge, players in Stage 3 can expect to lose about $3 to $5 per hour playing blackjack.
Let me pause for a moment, on our journey, to make two comments. Some players in Stage 3 can decrease, and quite possible wipe out, their monetary loss from playing by being rated when they play and then asking for comps (which have value). Some players will also use the services of a casino host, which can boost the amount of their comps even more. If you want to remain a Stage 3 player for the rest of your life, then you should consider being rated when you play blackjack. At the minimum, you may be able to play a dead-even game against the casino; however, it’s doubtful that you will be able to turn a negative expectation into a positive expectation every time you play. Therefore, you should consider moving up to the next stage.
Even though players in Stage 3 have mastered basic strategy and can play every hand perfectly, they are still gamblers because they have a negative expectation. To turn their fortunes around, they need to become an advantage player, which requires learning card counting. In the past, recreational players were reluctant to do this because they viewed popular card counting systems (e.g., Hi-Lo and K-O) as too complex and difficult to use. They want to have “fun” when they gamble and are willing to pay the price. However, nowadays, recreational players have another option and that’s to advance to Stage 4.
Players in Stage 4 follow the basic playing strategy, but instead of using a progressive betting system, they use a simple card-counting system that tells them when to bet more (e.g., Speed Count, Ace-Ten Front Count, Rookie K-O Count, or the Ace-5 count). This gives them a slight edge over the house of about 0.1% to 0.5% (rule and bet spread dependent). This means a player who averages $10 per hand stands to win roughly $1 to $5 every hour. (This doesn’t seem like much but it can amount to as much as a $10 increase per hour over the Stage 3 player.)
Let me make two comments about Stage 4 players. By learning and using these simple systems, many players in this stage realize that card counting isn’t as difficult as they first thought, and after some experience using these systems, they will advance to Stage 5. On the downside, some players will take a step back to Stage 3 because, emotionally, they can’t handle losing streaks. (All card counters, no matter how big an edge they have, will eventually experience a losing streak. It’s the nature of the game. My advice to Stage 4 players is this: If losing money leads to anxiety and sleepless nights, then you need to drop down in your bet size or find a different hobby than playing blackjack.)
Players in Stage 5 have mastered a traditional card counting system, such as Hi- Lo or K-O. They increase their bets only when they have the edge, and they deviate from basic strategy based on the count. They fully understand the risk of ruin and the importance of Kelly betting (betting a fraction of their bankroll in proportion to their edge). Stage 5 players understand that their advantage manifests itself in the long run and they don’t get overly upset when those inevitable short-term losing streaks occur. They know about the risk of ruin and they maintain a maximum bet to bankroll ratio so the chance of losing all their money is no more than about 5%. Stage 5 players have an edge over the casino of about 0.5% to 1.5% (The precise edge depends on how aggressive the bet spread is, among other factors.) Betting an average of $10 per hand, these players stand to earn about $10 per hour playing blackjack. (As they begin to win money, many Stage 5 players will gradually increase their betting level in order to increase their hourly profits.)
There you have it … a road map you can follow on your journey to becoming a winning player. It’s a process that has many rewards for players who advance to Stage 4 or 5.
Tamburin Tip’s of the Month
How would you play this hand?
Many players split the picture cards, figuring the dealer has a good chance of busting and they’ll win double their initial bet. Even though you will make money when you split — and please pay attention to this — you’ll make more money if you stand with 20. For example, in a typical six-deck game with the standing on soft 17 rule, you’ll win 70 cents, on average, for every dollar bet if you stand with 20, and win only 57 cents if you split. And get this … players who split, draw another 10-value card, and then resplit once or twice, will make even less money (only 49 cents per dollar bet for one resplit and 45 cents for two resplits). Bottom line: Forget about splitting 10s against a dealer’s 6; instead always stand with 20.
Henry Tamburin is the editor of Blackjack Insider Newsletter (www.bjinsider.com), the lead instructor for the Golden Touch Blackjack Course (www.goldentouchblackjack.com), and host of smartgaming.com. For a free three-month subscription to his blackjack newsletter, go to www.bjinsider.com/freetrial. To receive his free Casino Gambling Catalog, call 1-888-353-3234 or visit www.smartgaming.com.