Blackjack Basic Strategy

Blackjack is one of the few games in the casino where the players have an influence on the outcome of the game. It takes a great deal of knowledge of the game and a lot of skill to truly master the game of blackjack. Many people have tried, but only a small number of people have been able to acquire all the skills necessary to become a true blackjack expert.

If this sounds like you, the first thing you'll need to learn is the basic strategy of blackjack. While it may sound like something a beginner would use, basic strategy is the most optimal way to play blackjack without card counting. Using basic strategy alone won't make you a profitable player, but playing in an optimal way will cut the casino's edge significantly.

In this article, we'll outline everything you need to know about basic strategy, as well as some adjustments you should be making based on the game types you're playing. Once you've finished reading, you should have the knowledge to be able to play an almost breakeven blackjack game!

Table of contents

  1. Hitting, standing, and doubling down
  2. Splitting
  3. Surrendering
  4. Blackjack basic strategy order
  5. Deviations
  6. Blackjack basic strategy tips
  7. Summary

Hitting, standing, and doubling down

Let's start with the basics – when should you hit, and when should you stand. These are the decisions that you'll face at the blackjack table every single hand, so it's important that you master them.

Hard hands are played a lot more conservatively than soft hands due to the fact that their value is set throughout the hand. When the total of a hard hand is over 11, the correct action is to stand the majority of the time. Only 27 of the possible 60 hard hand combinations that total 12 and up are "hits", whereas the other 33 are "stands".

Soft hands have the potential to be two values depending on whether the ace is used as a one or eleven. This flexibility allows you to be a lot more aggressive in your hitting and doubling down strategies. 59 of the 80 possible soft hand combinations are either hit or doubled down, with only the highest values being played as "stands".

At the end of this section, we'll post a table that shows the optimal action for every single hand against every possible dealer up-card. Before we look at that, we'll highlight some of the tougher decisions that beginner players struggle with and run through the math so you can understand why one action is more profitable than another.

Player 13 vs. dealer 5

In this hand, we have an ok but not great total – 13. We're eight away from 21, so any Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 will improve our score, whereas a nine or a ten-valued card will make us bust. What should we do?

Many beginner players would want to take a card to try and improve their score; however, this is a suboptimal play.

If we take a card, we have a 39% chance of going bust, whereas when the dealer shows a 5, they have a 42% chance of busting. This means it's in our best interest to stick with 13 and hope the dealer busts. What helps the player in this situation is that the dealer cannot stand if they make 15; they have to continue to hit until they make 17 or higher.

Player 16 vs. dealer 7

Another hand that many beginner players misplay is 16, particularly against a dealer 7 or 8. The thinking is that 16 is a high total, and you're likely to bust if you take another card, so why take the risk? This is flawed thinking; instead, we should be asking ourselves how often will the dealer make a stronger hand than 16.

When the dealer is showing a 7, they will make a hand of 17 or better 74% of the time, whereas your chance of busting with 16 is only 62%. This means that the more profitable play is to take another card to try and get as close to 21 as possible to limit the dealer's chances to win.

Player soft 18 vs. dealer 5

When your hand is as strong as an 18, it can be tempting to automatically stand, knowing that you expect to win the majority of the time. While it is profitable to stand with a soft 18 against a dealer's 5, it's not the most profitable play. In fact, doubling a soft 18 is the optimal play in this scenario.

When the dealer holds a 5, they're going to bust 42% of the time, and when a player doubles on a soft 18, they're going to make a hand that's 17 or higher 38% of the time. All of this leads to doubling down being the far superior strategy. The EV (Expected Value) of doubling down in this scenario is 0.29, whereas the EV of standing is only 0.19 – that's 1/10 of a bet you're losing every time you stand instead of double!

Doubling down is profitable in scenarios where your hand is likely to improve to a very strong hand and/or the dealer has a hand that is likely to bust. By utilizing this option, you increase the EV of your strongest hands, making you more money in the long run. The best examples are when a player holds an 11 or a 10. These are hands that will make a very strong hand (20/21) close to half the time (38.4%), so we want to maximize the amount of money we can make with them.

Hitting and standing strategy table

Below, we've posted the strategy tables for hard and soft hands. This table does not cover splitting, which may be a more profitable action in certain scenarios. We'll look at that in the next section. This table is based on a 6-deck game where the dealer hits on soft 17, as that is one of the most common game types you'll see.

Key

  • S = Stand
  • H = Hit
  • D = Double down
  • SUR = Surrender if allowed
  • The first column represents the player's total, the first row represents the dealer's up-card.

Hard totals

Soft totals

Splitting

When you are dealt a pair in blackjack, you're given an additional strategic option – splitting. Splitting allows you to separate your hand into two separate blackjack hands, each receiving another card. These hands can then be played as normal blackjack hands – except for when you split aces, as most casinos only allow you to take one card when you do that.

This can be advantageous to the player to either mitigate the potential losses of a bad hand or maximize the profits of a good hand. As with hitting, standing, and doubling down, the dealer's upcard should influence whether or not you split certain hands. Generally, the lower the dealer's upcard, the more often you should split, and the higher the dealer's upcard, the less often you should split. Let's look at a couple of examples.

88 vs. dealer 7

Those of you who remember the 16 vs. dealer 7 scenario above may think that the best option is to hit to try and get as close to 21 as possible. However, as we've been dealt a pair of eights, we have the option to split, which is a lot more profitable. By splitting, we're giving ourselves the opportunity to hit 18 at no risk – a hand that is very likely to beat a dealer's 7.

Even if we don't hit 18, we have the potential to make other hands, such as a 10 or 11, that are also very profitable. Playing a 16 against a 7 or higher is a very unprofitable situation for a player, so we should do everything we can to avoid playing it. In this scenario, we're able to avoid it by splitting our 16 into two separate, higher EV hands.

AA vs. dealer A

A dealer ace is the worst upcard they can have from the player's point of view. It gives them a 30% chance of hitting blackjack immediately, and even if they don't, they get several chances to get close to 21 as they're guaranteed a soft hand. You may think, "why would we want to play two hands against such a strong upcard?" Especially as the majority of casinos will only allow you to take one card after splitting aces.

It comes down to how strong an ace is for the player compared to a soft 12. When you have an ace, you have that same 30% chance of making 21 (an ace and ten after splitting aces is not considered a blackjack). Even if you don't make 21, you have a 46% chance of making 19 or higher, and you still have the option to take another card if you make a low total, such as 14.

When you split, you also give yourself a better chance of breaking even in the hand. A soft 12 against a dealer's ace is a very unprofitable scenario, and you'll likely lose the hand. However, when you split your aces, you just need to win one of the hands against the dealer to break even. Sure, there will be times when you lose both bets, but in the long run, it's the more profitable play.

Splitting strategy table

To help you keep track of what hands you should be splitting and which ones you shouldn't, we've posted a hand table for you to reference. As with the above tables, it assumes a 6-deck game where the dealer hits on soft 17.

Key

  • Y = Split
  • N = Don't split
  • Y/N = Split if double after split is allowed
  • SUR = Surrender if allowed

Surrendering

Surrendering isn't an option you'll see in every casino, so it's important that you check the rules before you play to see if it is available to you. If it is, you should take advantage of it as surrendering at the right times will decrease the house edge. While there are two versions of surrendering (early and late), close to zero casinos allow early surrendering. The difference between the two is that in an early surrender game, you can surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack. In contrast, in a late surrender game, you must wait until the dealer has checked before you can surrender. If the dealer has blackjack, you do not have the option of surrendering.

The point of surrendering is to minimize the losses from your lowest EV hands. When you surrender, you give up half of your bet, which means that the EV of the hand has to be lower than 0.5 to make surrendering a profitable play. As such, there aren't many hands that fall into that category, but there are a couple that you will need to remember if you want to play perfect basic strategy.

Surrendering strategy table

Remembering the hands that you need to surrender is a lot simpler than it is for other strategic options, so memorizing this table should be the easiest of the lot! This table assumes a 6-deck game where the dealer hits on soft 17 and has the option of late surrender.

Key

  • SUR = Surrender

Blackjack basic strategy order

As you can see, there's quite a lot for you to remember when you're sitting at the tables! For beginner players, it can be hard to know where to start when considering basic strategy while playing. Experienced players will be able to tell you that there's a particular order in which you should consider your actions which makes it easier to manage. That order is:

  1. Surrender
  2. Splitting
  3. Doubling down
  4. Hitting and standing

We start with surrender as you forfeit the option once you've made any other decision (splitting, hitting, standing, etc.). As we mentioned, not all casinos will offer the option to surrender, but it should be considered if they do.

Next, we move on to splitting, as that is another option that is forfeited once you take another card. Not every hand you have will be able to be split, as that option only exists for pairs.

The next option you should consider is whether or not to double down. In most casinos, you have the option to double down on a hand after splitting, which is why we consider whether or not to split first. Only the hands with the highest EV should be doubled.

Once we've exhausted all other options, this is when we decide whether or not to hit or stand.

Deviations

However, not all basic strategy is the same. If you look at the first few results when you search for "blackjack basic strategy" online, you'll see that some of the charts are slightly different from one another. This is because games with different rules require different strategies to be played optimally.

Another reason you may want to deviate from basic strategy is if you're card counting. When you count cards, you get a reasonable idea of what cards are left in the deck, and this sometimes means you can make +EV adjustments to basic strategy that give you an edge over the casino.

Let's look at some of the standard adjustments you should make depending on the rules of the game you're playing.

Deck deviations

Most casinos will run blackjack games that use between 4 to 8 decks of cards. The basic strategy for these games is almost identical, regardless of whether it uses 4 or 8 decks. However, single-deck blackjack is another game you will sometimes see a casino run. As the name implies, it only uses one deck of cards, and basic strategy for this game does have a few differences from 4-8 deck blackjack. Let's look at some of those deviations, focusing on the changes you make for single-deck.

Single-deck blackjack deviations

  • Surrender 77 vs. dealer ten.
  • Surrender 16 only against ten or ace.
  • Split 77 vs. dealer 8.
  • Split 66 vs. dealer 8.
  • Split 44 vs. dealer 4.
  • Split 33 vs. dealer 8.
  • Double A6 vs. dealer 2.
  • Double A2 and A3 vs. dealer 4.
  • Stand A7 vs. dealer ace.
  • Stand 77 vs. dealer ten.

Dealer rule deviations

Different dealer rules will also have an impact on how the player should play. How the dealer is forced to play their hands is directly linked to the EV of each hand. The most common dealer rule difference that you'll see is whether or not the dealer has to hit or stand on a soft 17.

The strategy tables we've been using have assumed that the dealer must hit on soft 17, but what if they had to stand?

  • Always split 22 and 33 vs. dealer 2 or 3.
  • Always split 44 vs. dealer 5 or 6.
  • Always split 66 vs. dealer 2.
  • Hit 66 vs. dealer 7 (don't split).
  • Hit 11 vs. dealer ace (don't double).
  • Always stand A7 vs. dealer 2 (don't double).
  • Always stand A8 no matter the dealer upcard.

Blackjack basic strategy tips

After reading through all that, you must be wondering how on earth you're going to remember it all! If you want to reduce the house edge as much as possible, it's important that you play basic strategy perfectly, which means learning every single square of these strategy tables and knowing them off by heart. When someone asks you what to do with A7 against a 5, you should be able to answer them instantly with "Double, of course!".

While there's no substitute for good old-fashioned knuckling down and re-reading these tables until you've learned them by heart, we've come up with some helpful tips that will help you remember what to do at the tables. Remember, these tips apply to the tables above, which means a 6-deck blackjack game where the dealer hits on soft 17.

  • Always split aces and eights.
  • Stand when you have 13-16 vs. dealer's 2-6.
  • Always double down with 11.
  • Always hit with an unpaired hand of 8 or lower.
  • Never take insurance if offered.
  • Never split tens.
  • Always stand with A9.
  • Always double A2-A8 vs. dealer's 6.
  • Always surrender 16 against a dealer's 9, ten, or ace.
  • Never split 55.
  • Always stand on hard 17 or higher.

Remembering these simple rules will set you well on your way to mastering basic strategy!

Summary

If you didn't know anything about blackjack basic strategy before you started reading, you should now have a comprehensive knowledge of how it all works! We've covered everything from the basics of hitting and standing, to when you should split pairs, to when and why you should deviate from basic strategy.

However, if you're looking to become an expert blackjack player, this is just the beginning of your journey. You're still yet to learn card counting, count deviations, and betting strategies – all of which are needed to truly master the game of blackjack. Why not check out some of our other articles on these topics to learn more!

Before we wrap things up fully, here's a collection of all the tables we've used in the article – for quick reference.

Blackjack basic strategy chart
Blackjack basic strategy chart
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