Blackjack – what do we mean by “basic strategy”?

Through all the changes that we have seen in the casino world, especially when it comes to playing online, one fact has never changed. Blackjack remains by far the most popular casino game to play, among both new players and seasoned gamblers. Part of that is down to familiarity. After all, practically everyone knows the basics of blackjack. But the game also involves just the right blend of luck and skill.


Every casino game demands both to a certain extent, but most lie closer to one or other end of the luck / skill continuum. Trawl through the games at, for example and you will find no shortage of choice. But while the themes, bonus games and even payouts vary, you are predominantly trusting to luck, whichever slot game you play. At the other extreme, if you venture into an online poker room, you need plenty of experience and skill before you can compete with the pros at a game of Texas Holdem.


In a game of blackjack, there will always be a degree of luck involved in the turn of a card. But the strategic choices that you make will also have a significant impact on your chances of winning or losing. This is where the concept of basic strategy comes in. For every scenario you encounter at the blackjack table, it is possible to work out the decision that is more likely to win you the hand. This is all bound up in solid mathematics. The good news is that the statisticians have already done all the hard work – all you need to do is follow their rules.


Reducing the house edge

In many games, the house edge is clearly defined. For example, in European roulette it is 2.7 percent, while in slot games it is typically around five percent. In a game of blackjack, the house edge varies depending on your strategy. If you hit, stand, split pairs and double down completely at random, the house edge will be around eight percent. If you play with a perfect strategy, it comes all the way down to less than 0.5 percent.


The important point is that even a beginner can adopt a basic strategy that will have a significant impact and bring that house edge down to less than two percent. Once you have mastered basic strategy, you can move on to more advanced topics such as composition-dependent strategy and card counting to reduce it still further. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Basic strategy serves as a guide to those decisions we make in every hand of blackjack.


Hit or stand?

You can’t get much more basic than this. It is the fundamental decision in every hand of blackjack. In deciding what to do, it is important to be clear on your goal. It is not to “get as close to 21 as possible.” Instead it is to either score higher than the dealer or to avoid busting when the dealer busts.


In basic strategy, we work under the assumption that the dealer’s downcard is worth 10. This is for the simple reason that there is around a 30 percent chance of this being the case, whereas there is an eight percent chance for each other value. This means that the dealer’s upcard is just as important a factor in your decision-making as your own hand.


We don’t need to delve into the statistical analysis here. The mathematicians have done that for us, and we arrive at the following basic strategy.


Dealer’s upcard Your strategy


Hit on 16 or lower
Two Hit on 13 or lower
Three Hit on 13 or lower
Four Hit on 12 or lower
Five Hit on 12 or lower
Six Hit on 12 or lower
Seven Hit on 16 or lower
Eight Hit on 16 or lower
Nine Hit on 16 or lower
Ten or face card Hit on 16 or lower


Splitting pairs

Another choice you face is encountered even before you decide whether to hit or stand. If you are dealt two cards of the same value, you have the option of splitting them and playing each as an individual hand. Inexperienced players tend to take a random approach to this, but again, there is an optimum strategy and again, it depends as much on the dealer’s upcard as the pair you are holding.


Let’s look at the optimum strategy for every possible pair. In basic strategy, there are only three choices – always split, never split or split when dealer has 7 or lower. It doesn’t take long to memorize which applies to each pair:


Pair Your strategy
Aces Always split
Twos Split if dealer has 7 or lower
Threes Split if dealer has 7 or lower
Fours Never split
Fives Never split
Sixes Split if dealer has 7 or lower
Sevens Split if dealer has 7 or lower
Eights Always split
Nines Split if dealer has 7 or lower
Tens or face cards Never split


Doubling down

This is the third core decision you must make, and again, it comes before hitting or standing. The important thing to know about basic strategy here is that it states you should only even consider doubling down if the cards you have been dealt add up to nine, 10 or 11. This makes it even easier to remember than the other strategic tips. The rules are as follows:


Value of your hand Your strategy
9 Double down if dealer has 4 or 5
10 Double down if dealer has 4, 5 or 6
11 Always double down


Further developing your strategy

The above three tips strip even basic strategy to its very simplest form. Yet follow them and that house edge will tumble from eight percent to around two percent. Once basic strategy is second nature to you, the fun can really begin as you introduce subtle enhancements to bring your win rate up even higher. Blackjack is a game where you can keep things simple or go deeply into the strategy. Perhaps that’s the real reason it remains the casino favorite.