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Las Vegas Blackjack 101 (Part 5) – Basic Strategy

In our fifth installment of Blackjack 101, learn basic strategy to help you maximize your winnings while at the table.

In our fifth installment of Blackjack 101, learn basic strategy to help you maximize your winnings while at the table.

Importance / Why

Throughout this beginner’s blackjack series thus far, we’ve sporadically mentioned the importance of using basic strategy to make appropriate hand decisions and plays at the tables. These systems are the foundation of any and all efforts to beat the game for both novice and professional players. Strategies are based on the mathematical probabilities of outcomes that allow players to win the most or lose the least under a given set of specific hand and game rule circumstances in the casinos.

Basic strategy is based on literally billions of computer-simulated hands to arrive at the mathematically proper play decisions regarding standing, hitting, doubling, surrender, and/or splitting pairs against a specific dealer up card.

The initial groundwork for basic strategy was published in the 1956 issue of the Journal of the American Statistical Association. Since that time, these systems have been calculated, simulated, refined, and re-refined with the aid of computers which eventually provided blackjack players with a highly accurate decision-making tool. Learning the correct strategy plays for a given game and set of rules is mandatory for players interested in getting the most bang for their wagered bucks at the tables.

Players interested in becoming serious students or that have aspirations of becoming a pro will learn that further advancement in learning advantage play (eg card counting) is pointless without a solidly grasped knowledge of basic strategy.

Basic Strategy Variations

There are variations in basic strategy charts and playing decisions depending on the actual number of decks in play (1 – 8 decks) and the specific rules in force at a given table. We highlighted rule differences and their importance in Part 1 of this series, and also pointed out that Vegas blackjack games vary a bunch regarding player-favorability between casinos and even within the same casino.

Refer to this blackjack basic strategy engine tool at . This resource allows players to select varying game rules (refer to Part 1 in the series) and number of decks in play to arrive at a complete basic strategy play decision chart for a selected game. The derived strategy charts can be printed off for study and use.

Most common blackjack game rules in Las Vegas (@ most $5 – $25 minimum bet tables) :

  • D2 – double any two initial cards
  • H17 – dealer required to hit soft 17
  • DAS – doubling allowed after pair splits

The above are the most commonly found rules at most Vegas blackjack games with lower table minimums ( $5 – $25). Late surrender (LS) and re-splitting of aces (rsa) are desirable additional rules for players as discussed in Part 1 of this series. There are a few of these games at lower table minimums in Vegas casinos. In a subsequent entry in this series, we will provide a listing of the casinos that have these additional rules and offer some of the best overall lower-edge games for novice players.

For simplicity’s sake, Vegas blackjack players will need strategy charts for double-deck and multi-deck (usually 6 or 8 decks) games. There are only one or two playable single deck games with 3:2 payoffs in Las Vegas and there are none on the Strip. Players desiring to play these extremely rare games can print a chart for single deck games if desired. The most important rule differences will be the dealer’s rule regarding hitting (H17) or standing (S17) on soft 17 and players ability to double down after pair splits (DAS).

Below are some basic strategy standard plays, some of which are commonly misplayed. All of these plays are correct based on the math of the game (refer to strategy charts).

Basic Strategy Standard Plays :

  • Stand on hard 17 or more
  • Hit all soft 17’s
  • Double soft 17 against dealer 3 – 6 up card
  • Always split aces and eights
  • Stand with player stiff totals (12-16) vs dealer 4-6
  • Hit player 12 vs dealer 2 and 3
  • Never split 5’s or 10’s
  • Never take insurance, even with a blackjack
  • Double player 11 vs dealer 10
  • Hit player A/7 (soft 18) vs dealer 9,10, or Ace (multi-deck games only)
  • Split player 9,9 vs dealer 9

Learning strategies :

There are about 340 possible hands that a player can be dealt at a blackjack game. Novice players hearing that and then perusing an unfamiliar basic strategy chart that they’re encouraged to memorize can become intimidated. Beginning players need to accept and believe that use of accurate strategies is the best way to play when value is important to them. New players can rest assured that with practice at home and at live games, basic strategies are not that difficult to learn.

Learning the right play for every hand situation and dealer up card requires some study and practice. There are numerous online blackjack training sites that include printable blackjack strategy charts for specific games and number of decks. There are also online sources that include actual practice / simulation games where players can input varying rule options, make bets, play their hands, and generally simulate all the aspects of a live game besides alcohol consumption and smoke inhalation.

The previously mentioned and the Wizard of Odds websites are excellent sources to print color coded (makes visual reference and learning easier) strategy charts. Players can print these charts and then use them while playing simulated games on their home computers. Both game simulators will alert players when strategy errors are made for a given game. This is an excellent and efficient training method, partially because the only cost is time (both are free game / trainer sites). Further, these two online sites offer complete treatises on the game of blackjack.

For most beginning players, the most difficult plays to learn often include soft hand plays, pair splits, double downs, and surrender. Attempt to grasp hit and stand plays initially and then concentrate on these more difficult play groupings. Use of the color coded charts provides a good visual reference to efficiently locate individual plays and groupings of plays (enhances imprinting of correct plays).

At the casino : 

After some study and practice at home, players will be ready for live play at the casino. Inherently, players will have gained some understanding as to why certain strategy plays are made from a mathematical / logical standpoint.

We recommend novice players bring color coded strategy charts with them to Vegas blackjack tables, which are allowed at all of them. Even if players feel they have mastered the strategy plays at home, playing at a live table in Vegas is a world away from practicing / simulating on a computer under quiet conditions. With time at the tables, most players will find that they will need to refer to the strategy charts less and less frequently to make confident and correct plays.

Players at Vegas blackjack games will, over time, encounter the entire spectrum of humanity. New players should be prepared to receive the entire spectrum of advice regarding blackjack play including the right play for a specific hand decision. Players will discover that many Vegas blackjack dealers and most players do not know basic strategy of any depth. Early on, it’s fine to ask dealers or other players for assistance with decisions, but the key tools to rely on are those charts and yourselves. The latter is important because the advice you obtain from dealers and players could very well be wrong…and costly.

Even expert basic strategy players play with a negative expectation (mathematically expect to lose) at Vegas blackjack games. Rather than viewing that fact as a source for discouragement, it highlights that players failing to learn these strategies are in even worse shape from an expectation standpoint.

There are wild swings and volatility in outcomes at Vegas blackjack games. Math theory gives us standard deviation as the base measurement for these wild and varying outcomes. That term can be defined as the average deviation of all possible outcomes from the expected ones. This volatility and deviation stuff explain why gamblers occasionally experience both wins and losses that are NOT expected based on standard house edge figures. Some refer to these unexpected outcomes as “hot/cold streaks” or “lady luck”. Basic strategy players should remember these unexpected outcomes which actually fall under the laws of probability but appear and feel like good or terrible luck.

At times, players will make mathematically correct strategy plays or a series of plays…and continue to lose hand after hand. Those scenarios represent situations that force players to remember that there are over 2000 blackjack tables in Las Vegas. Savvy players know when to walk away.




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