Basic strategy provides the user with a matrix that indicates which option—hit or stay, double, split, or surrender—is the most advantageous to the player in any situation, based on the most likely outcome as determined by mathematical probability.
In plainer terms, the strategy provides charts that indicate which decisions the odds favor, removing the superstition and “gut instinct” that double players’ losses. It tells the player to hit when the dealer is likely to beat his hand, to stay when he’s likely to bust—and does so with an accuracy that trims the house advantage to virtually nothing, making the game almost fair.
How to Use It
In order to reap the benefits of basic strategy, it must be used consistently and correctly. The decisions that the strategy indicates are mathematically proven to be the best among all possible alternatives, and any deviation will, over time, decrease your winnings—even if, in isolated instances, a decision contrary to basic strategy works out for the better.
Consistency is important. The strategy is based on odds and probabilities—it does not guarantee the player will win every hand. There will be times that following strategy seems to produce consistent losses: if you stand on 14 against a dealer’s 6 and are beat three times in a row, it may be tempting to dismiss basic strategy as hokum. Instances like this will, in practice, occur. Over time, the likelihood will bear itself out: if you stand on that 14 against a dealer’s 6 a thousand times, you will win more hands than you lose. Too many players abandon basic strategy, in whole or in part, because of an unlikely sequence of events in the short run, and up losing more in the long run.
Correct usage is also important. For this, there are only two things to remember:
- Use the correct chart. This introductory section uses a master chart from a six-deck game in which the dealer stands on a soft 17. If you apply it to a single-deck game in which the dealer hits a soft 17, it will not be as effective—and since the margin is so thin (less that 1%), even a few incorrect plays can add to the house advantage. Granted, you’re still better off than the “gut instinct” player—but you are not maximizing the effectiveness of the strategy.
- Use the chart throughout the entire hand. A common misconception is that the basic strategy tells you what to do for your first hit, and you’re on your own afterward. Every decision should be evaluated according to the chart. If you’re dealt a soft 13 against a dealer’s eight, the chart indicates to hit. If you get a nine, you’ve a hard twelve against the same eight. Check the chart again—you’re supposed to hit twelve against an eight. You draw a five. Check the chart again. Stand on hard 17 against an eight. Follow the chart until play is over—when you stand, double, or surrender the hand.
Of course, not every casino will allow a player to carry a chart to the table—you’ll need to commit the strategy to memory, including the variations (unless you always seek a table with the same number of decks and the same rules). This will happen naturally over time—though with a bit of training, you’ll memorize the charts sooner, and stop losing sooner.
Using the Charts
Basic strategy is commonly shown in chart format. The numbers across the top represent the Dealer’s up-card, and the player’s hand along the side. The correct decision for a given situation can be found where the row and column intersect.
Most decisions are represented by a single letter: “H” for hit, “S” for stand,”D” for double, “S” for split, and “R” for surrender.
Is general, you should hit if doubling is not permitted. For example, doubling late is not permitted at most tables, so if you have a three-card eleven, you can’t double. In situations where you should stand if doubling is not allowed, “D*” is used.
Also, if you are not permitted to surrender where it is indicated to do so, always hit.
Master Chart: Hard Hands
This chart shows how to play hard hands. As a reminder, a “hard” hand does not contain an ace counted as eleven. An ace-six is a “soft” hand, but an ace-six-nine is a hard hand (because the ace has already reverted to one). A separate chart for “soft hands” is provided later.
An easier way to remember the decisions this chart prescribes:
- Always double an eleven, unless you’re against an ace.
- Always double a ten unless you’re against a ten or an ace.
- Double a nine if the dealer shows three through six—only.
- If you do not double:
- Always hit a hand of 11 or less—there’s no way you can bust with one more card.
- Always stand on a hand of 17 or greater—it’s unlikely you’ll do any better by hitting it.
- If the dealer’s card is six or less.
- If you have a 12 and the dealer is showing a deuce or a three, hit.
- Otherwise, stand.
- If the dealer is showing seven or higher.
- If you have 15 and the dealer has a ten, surrender.
- If you have 16 and the dealer has nine, ten, or eleven, surrender.
- If you cannot surrender, hit.
- Hit all other hands.
Master Chart: Soft Hands
A “soft” hand contains an ace that is counted as eleven, and will revert to one if the hand’s total exceeds 21. If all aces are counted as one, it is a hard hand, and you should follow the previous chart.
To remember how to play soft hands:
- Always stand on a soft hand of 19 or greater.
- Always double a soft hand against a five or a six.
- Double against a four if your hand is fifteen or greater.
- Double against a three if your hand is seventeen or greater.
- Double soft 18 against a deuce.
- If you do not double …
- Hit unless your hand is a soft eighteen and the dealer is showing eight or less.
Master Chart: Pairs
A hand may be split if it contains two hands of the same type: two deuces, two threes, etc. Though you should never split ten-value cards, it isn’t against the rules, so long as they are the same type (tens, jacks, queens, or kings—you can’t split a jack and a king).
An easier way to remember how to play pairs:
- Always split eights and aces.
- Split twos, threes, and sevens against any card less than eight.
- Split sixes against any card less than seven.
- Split nines against anything but an ace, ten, or seven.
- Split fours only against a five or a six.
- Never split fives—play the hand as a hard ten.
- Never split tens—stand firm on that 20.
Finally, it stands to note that basic strategy covers the game of blackjack, but not any of the side bets. The odds of winning side bets, including the “insurance” and “even money” bets offered when the dealer’s up-card is an ace, is discussed in greater detail in the “casino play” section of this site. (Preview: none of them are worth taking.)