Blackjack Basic strategy

ome people talk about propositions that are intuitively obvious. These are the stories — you only have to hear them once to you know, at a gut level, they must be true. For most, it seems, the idea that there is one Basic Strategy, a one-size-fits-all approach to playing blackjack, is not obvious at all. It is customary for these doubters to recall a recent hand they played at a casino as an example of why there cannot be a single “right” approach. They have you sit holding 8,6. The Dealer’s upcard is a 10. “What does the Basic Strategy say you should do?” they demand. You politely reply that you should always hit. Obviously, any card 8 through 10 busts you. They smile with triumph. They tell you that the next card out of the shoe was 9 so you bust. The Dealer in this hand they recall, turned over the downcard to show 5. The blackjack rules required a hit. If you had stood your ground, the Dealer would have drawn the 9 and you would have won.

The Basic Strategy is therefore a failure because, in this real world example, you did not win the hand. They assert that it cannot be right to follow a strategy that forces you to lose some of the time. Following this logic, the game of blackjack becomes a game of luck. If you guess what the next card will be out of the shoe, you can win or avoid losing.

This is a curious logic. It seems that the best blackjack strategy (or is strategy too grand a word — the best of all the blackjack tips) is, “When in doubt, guess.” We can only guess how many times that forces you to lose a hand.

To understand why following the Basic Strategy all the time is the best way to play, we have to explore the idea of probability. Suppose we have a jar of candy. We are told that there are exactly one hundred pieces of candy in the jar, but half of them are chocolate and half of them are peppermint. As in all good contests, we are invited to cover our eyes and reach in. There is a simple wager. Pick out a chocolate candy and we win $5. Pick out a peppermint and we pay out $5.

This is a straight 50/50 bet. There is no way we can know in advance which color we will pull out (unless we cheat, of course). If we win, this really is just our good luck.

But if we change the count to 80 chocolate and 20 peppermint, then it is more probable that we will pull out a winning chocolate candy. This is a game we can win more than we lose. We will, of course, lose 20% of the time, but that is more than an acceptable margin given the 80% winning rate. There is still an element of “guessing” when we make each random selection, but the odds favor us in this game.

So it is with blackjack. The odds favor taking a hit on 14 when the Dealer’s upcard is a ten. It is not a winning strategy in the sense that, by playing it, you will win every time. No such strategy could ever exist. All that happens is that, by playing that way every time, you even up the odds against the House. If you play your luck, then luck will decide whether you win or lose. Only those playing blackjack for fun would play that way. Anyone with a professional approach will ignore the individual hands, and play the long term game where the Basic Strategy gives you the optimal chance of winning.