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Basic Strategy Is the Only Way to Play

24 February 2006

Did you know that in blackjack there are 340 different starting hand situations? For example, if your initial two cards total 12, and the dealer has a 6 showing, that's a hand situation. And so is a 14 against a dealer's 10. That's what I mean by a starting hand.

Almost a third of these hands practically play themselves with almost no thought on your part, like when you've been dealt a 3 and a 4 against a dealer's 10, or a 19 against a 5. I think that most players, both experienced and beginning, would know what to do with these hands.

But the other two-thirds of all hands should not be played by the seat of your pants. For example, if you have a pair of 7s against a dealer's 4, do you know what to do? Most experienced players would know without having to think, but they forget that someone who has never played blackjack before would have not a clue. Do you split them, hit or just stand pat with a 14?

Or what if you have an ace and a 7 against a 3, what do you do? I've seen many people who think they know how to play blackjack play that hand incorrectly. What to do?

You guessed it. There's a mathematically best way to play every hand, and sometimes the math conflicts with what you would guess to be the best way to play. The mathematically correct way to play is called basic strategy. It takes into account your first two cards and the dealer's up card. Just those three cards. It doesn't consider which cards have been played before, or even which cards your fellow players currently have.

Perfect, flawless basic strategy has separate charts according to the number of decks and various table rules, but for right now we won't be going into that much detail. What follows is a set of nine rules, which I call "generic" basic strategy. These nine rules will get you to within a 1 percent house advantage, but remember they do not represent perfect basic strategy.

(Some definitions: A "soft" hand is a hand containing an ace that is counted as either a 1 or 11. A "hard" hand contains an ace that is counted as 1 or contains no ace at all. To "hit" is to ask for another card, and to "stand" is to not ask for another card.)

  1. If you have a hard 12 through 16, stand against a dealer's 2 through 6; hit against a 7 through ace.
  2. If you have a 17 through 21, stand against anything a dealer has.
  3. If you have a 10 or 11, double against a dealer's 2 through 9; otherwise hit.
  4. If you have a soft 13 (ace/2) through a soft 17 (ace/6), double against either a dealer's 5 or 6; otherwise hit.
  5. If you have a soft 18 (ace/7) through soft 21 (ace/10), stand, except double a soft 18 against a dealer's 3 through 6.
  6. If you have a pair of 2s, 3s, 6s, 7s or 9s, split them against a dealer's 2 through 7; otherwise hit, except stand with a pair of 9s against a dealer's 7, 10 or ace.
  7. If you have a pair of either 5s or 10s, never split them.
  8. If you have a pair of either 8s or aces, always split them.
  9. Never take insurance.

Next week, we'll discuss how various table rules can affect the house edge. Until then, aces and faces to you.

Linda Mabry

Low Roller Linda Mabry lives and gambles on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She writes a weekly, general gambling advice column for the Biloxi Sun Herald, and may be contacted through her e-mail address, lnmabry@cableone.net or her web site www.thelowroller.com
Linda Mabry
Low Roller Linda Mabry lives and gambles on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She writes a weekly, general gambling advice column for the Biloxi Sun Herald, and may be contacted through her e-mail address, lnmabry@cableone.net or her web site www.thelowroller.com