Blackjack players are taught that playing basic strategy is the only way to go. Throw in card counting and you can cut the house edge down to as little as 0.14%. But, is it ever a good idea to not follow basic strategy? Let’s find out!
The basics of basic strategy
To play basic strategy, you make the move which gives the highest probability of winning based on your cards and the dealer’s card. The best blackjack players memorize the move that should be made in every situation, or you can print out a chart or use a blackjack hand calculator to do that or you.
If you follow basic strategy, you can cut the house edge down to around 1.5%,depending on the table rules. But, there are other strategies, such as card counting, that you can play at the same time to cut this edge down to 0.5% and help you increase your expected value (EV). This is for 8 decks which is the standard for online casinos. Some casinos offer a 1 deck game, where playing the best strategies can cut the house edge down to 0.014%.
However, when you add card counting there are times when following basic strategy can be detrimental to your EV. These moves are called deviations and are the moments when you should not follow basic strategy.
This is a basic strategy chart that you can use when playing blackjack.
|Player hand||Dealer’s face-up card|
|Hard totals (excluding pairs)|
- S = Stand
- H = Hit
- Dh = Double (if not allowed, then hit)
- Ds = Double (if not allowed, then stand)
- SP = Split
- Uh = Surrender (if not allowed, then hit)
- Us = Surrender (if not allowed, then stand)
- Usp = Surrender (if not allowed, then split)
There is a live blackjack table from Evolution Gaming called Power Blackjack that allows you to triple and quadruple down. You should make these moves in place of a double down if available.
Counting cards makes all the difference
If you’re serious about beating the house and walking away with a positive EV, you need to be using a counting system with your basic strategy. When you have the true count of the shoe, you’ll be able to see that the composition of the shoe has changed, and suddenly basic strategy is no longer the most valuable way to play a certain hand. As a result, learning how and when to play these deviations will increase your EV.
The hi-lo card counting system is one of the most popular thanks to its simplicity. In this card counting strategy, each card is assigned a value. You then use these values to increase or decrease the running count. The running count gives you a better indication of whether there are more high or low cards in the deck, allowing you to make a smarter decision on your next move.
Card values are as follows:
|Card rank||Count value|
|2, 3, 4, 5, 6||+1|
|7, 8, 9||0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||-1|
At the end of every deck in the shoe, you divide the running count by the number of decks remaining. This doesn’t have to be exact and can be a rough figure, so don’t worry if you’re terrible at math. For example, if the running count if +6 and there are 4 decks left, you do 6÷4=1.5. Round that up to 2 and this is known as the true count. The higher the true count, the more you should bet.
Let’s use an example of when this count is useful. Every blackjack training guide says that insurance is a suckers bet, and that’s true, for the most part. The chance of the dealer having a blackjack with an Ace up is 31%, because 4 out of every 13 cards will be a 10-value card. At a 31% chance, taking insurance is a negative EV bet.
However, if you’re keeping count of the deck composition and the count becomes high, meaning more high cards remain in the deck than small cards, there’s a greater chance of the dealer having a 10-value card and therefore a blackjack. When the count is +4 or higher, it’s better to take insurance.
Learn the deviations
If you’re using the hi-lo card counting system, you should be calculating the true count at the end of every round. This gives you a more accurate count on the shoe, allowing you to make better EV plays.
There are hundreds of deviations that you can learn, but there are 18 deviations known as the “Illustrious 18” that offer you the most bang for your buck. These are 18 times that you should change your basic strategy and make a move based on the count of the deck. If the running count is lower than the target count, make the move in the “lower” column. If the count is equal to or higher than the target count, make the move in the “higher” column. The moves are as follows:
|16 vs T||0||Hit||Stand|
|15 vs T||4||Hit||Stand|
|T-T vs 5||5||Stand||Split|
|T-T vs 6||4||Stand||Split|
|10 vs T||4||Hit||Double|
|12 vs 3||2||Hit||Stand|
|12 vs 4||3||Hit||Stand|
|11 vs A||1||Hit||Double|
|9 vs 2||1||Hit||Double|
|10 vs A||4||Hit||Double|
|9 vs 7||3||Hit||Double|
|16 vs 9||5||Hit||Stand|
|13 vs 2||-1||Hit||Stand|
|12 vs 4||0||Hit||Stand|
|12 vs 5||-2||Hit||Stand|
|12 vs 6||-1||Hit||Stand|
|13 vs 3||-2||Hit||Stand|
When there are 2 optional moves available, you should play the hand based on the count. For example, if you’ve got 16 vs T and the count is 0 or lower, then you should hit. If the count is +1 or above then you should stand. The same goes for the other end of the scale. If you’ve got 13 vs a dealer’s 3, you will hit on -2 or lower, but stand should the count be -1 or higher.
Depending on the table rules, number of decks and bet spread values, you can increase your EV by 10-40%. There are many more deviations that you can learn and add to your strategy, but there’s no real benefit to learning more than 18. While you will make more, the EV change between 20 deviations and 40 deviations is only around 4%.
Other variables to consider
Using basic strategy, card counting and deviations will give you the best probability against the house. However many people believe that there are other variables that impact your performance and chances of winning. In fact most of these are personal preference and superstition. Let’s take a look at a couple.
A lot of blackjack players have a preferred seat and believe that it impacts their performance, but at the end of the day, seat position makes no mathematical difference in the long-term. A lot of card counters like to sit in first base, which is the first seat, as they get the first action on the table and the true count is more valid. Also no other players decisions can interfere with the cards they get.
The other favorite spot for card counters is the last seat. These players like the extra time they have to do the math and follow the action around the table. They also believe that their decisions can impact the dealer’s cards, giving them a sense of power over the table.
These are all superstitions and personal preference. They may help or not in a particular hand but not universally and not in the long-term. If this still worries you, play a blackjack game where everyone sits in the same seat, such as Infinite Blackjack.
Other people playing badly
If you’ve ever played blackjack either online, or at a casino, you will likely have heard players scolding table mates for poor decisions, saying things like “That’s not the right move” or “You cost me that hand”. So does other people playing badly make any difference to you? The short answer is no, especially if you’re counting cards properly.
On a single hand others play might impact what card the dealer picks up, but this swings both ways. Sometimes it will work in your favor and sometimes it will work against you. In the long-term, you’ll end up with the same win/loss percentage.
What you should worry about is playing basic strategy, count cards well and using the optimum deviations, no matter what anyone else at the table does.
Are you ready to add deviations to basic strategy?
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You can also use these deviations on certain computer generated blackjack tables, but do check how many decks the game uses and when the deck gets shuffled. These strategies do not work if the decks are shuffled after every single hand.
Good luck and have fun!