Blackjack Strategy: How to Improve Your EV

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When it comes to casino options there are few games that allow you to turn the tables in your favour quite like blackjack. Despite being a simple card game where the aim is to achieve a better total than the dealer without exceeding 21, blackjack offers opportunities for skillful play.

From a numerical perspective, the long-term expectation of a player in a standard game of blackjack is around 48%. Because of the conditions imposed on the player and the dealer, the house (i.e. the casino) has approximately a 2% advantage over an unskilled player.

Although there are some rule variations that help reduce the casino’s edge, such as late surrender reducing the house edge by 0.7%, the general flow of action has the player at a 2% disadvantage. In comparison to other games, this sort of deficit isn’t so bad.

In fact, if you check out the rules of roulette, you’ll see that house edge can range from 2.70% to 5.26% depending on whether you’re playing single zero or double zero games. However, as we’ve mentioned, blackjack offers a number of ways to reduce the house edge through skillful play and that’s what we’re going to focus on in the remainder of this article.

Using the game’s structure as a weapon, we’re going to outline some simple ways you can beat the house by splitting, doubling and standing at the right time. Indeed, in the same way we suggested you look at the rules of roulette, it’s wise to check out the basic mechanics of blackjack before you start thinking about tactics.

Once you’ve read through the rules of blackjack the first thing you’ll probably notice is that the game starts with you (the player) being dealt two cards face up and the dealer having their cards exposed. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a fundamental aspect of the game that actually forms the basis of all our strategy tips.

Essentially, if you want to become a better blackjack player then you need to pay attention to the dealer’s up card in much the same way you’d check out your opponent’s poker face. Think of it like this: to solve a blackjack problem you need both sides of the equation. On one side is your hand and on the other is the dealer’s and to solve the problem you need to consider both of these variables. If you choose to look at one side of the divide and nothing else, you’ll never be able to make the correct decision.

Once you’ve forced yourself to look at the dealer’s up card, you’ll not only be more informed in a general sense, but you’ll have a much better sense of how to use the game play options to your advantage in blackjack: hitting, standing, splitting and doubling down. Taking each of these points, let’s look at what you should do based on your hand and the dealer’s cards:

Hitting

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In general, you should hit any time you have a total equal to or less than 11 and any time the dealer is strong and you have a total less than 17. Why is this the case? If you look back at the rules of blackjack you’ll notice that the dealer has to draw to 17 so, in general, you won’t win on any totals less than this amount. Therefore, if you can’t possibly bust (when you have 11 or less) or you have a total less than 17 and the dealer is strong, you should always hit.

Standing

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We already said that if the dealer is strong, you should hit. Therefore, the reverse of this idea is to stand when the dealer is weak (similar to making a big lay down in poker).

However, what it meant by strong and weak? When you look at the dealer’s face card you can describe them as weak if they have any of the following cards: ace, 2, 3, 7, 8, and 10. The reason for this is that they either have a strong two-card total, or their chances of going bust after a single hit are low.

In contrast, a dealer is weak if they are showing a 4, 5 or 6. This is true because of the number of tens in the deck. When you look at the mathematics behind a standard game of blackjack, the odds suggest that the dealer will bust 40%, 42% and 42% of the time when they are showing the three cards mentioned. Essentially, it’s more likely the dealer will have a total that forces them to draw and bust when these cards are on show.

Therefore, it’s possible to state from this information that when the dealer is weak, you should be standing a lot more. Even if you have a low total, such as 14, you should be inclined to stand because the dealer will have to draw and, potentially, bust.

Splitting

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Depending on which strategy books you read, some people will say you should split a pair of sevens while some say you shouldn’t. This hand aside, the general consensus among blackjack players is that you should split eights, nines, tens and aces (if the conditions are right). However, as we’ve already stated, simply taking this advice would be to focus on one side of the equation.

To really know when to split you also need to look at the dealer’s hand. For example, you would always split tens when the dealer is weak, but you wouldn’t do it if they were showing a ten. Therefore, to ensure you get the correct answer, make sure you don’t focus on your own hand.

Doubling Down

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The final way to beat the dealer and get extra money on the table in an advantageous position is to double down. To help frame this in a way poker players will understand, think of doubling down a bit like calling when you’ve got pot odds to do so.

Because the rules of blackjack state that you only get one card when you double down, you should only do it when you have a starting total of 10 or 11. You can double on soft totals (when you hold an ace) or lower totals (such as 8 or 9); however, you should only do this when the dealer is weak.

In fact, as with splitting, you would never double down on a ten if the dealer was showing a ten. If you were to double and pull a two, the dealer would be at a huge advantage with their ten. So, as you can see, blackjack is about two things: your hand and the dealer’s. If you can remember to look at both before you act, then making the right decision should be easy.