Gambling was first legalised in Nevada in 1869. It was abolished in 1910 and then legalised once more in 1931 largely as a result of the Hoover Dam project. Since then Blackjack has been the most popular casino table game not only in the United States but in most other parts of the world.
The game first appeared in French casinos in the 1700’s and found its way to North America in the 1800’s. In France it was known as “vingt-et-un” meaning twenty and one. It later became referred to as “blackjack” because of a rule that was employed in early versions of the game. If a player received a Jack of Spades (which was a black jack) and an Ace of Spades as his first two cards, he was paid 10 to 1 on his bet. This rule was eventually discarded but the descriptive term “blackjack” remained.
Though the game was popular for many years, it wasn’t until the early 50’s that a math expert named Robert Baldwin along with a mathematician friend named Cantey began to research and define the mathematics and probabilities of the game as applied to various scenarios. In the mid 1950’s Baldwin had a paper published in the Journal of the American Statistical Association entitled “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack”.
But Baldwin had to work with a low tech calculator and slide rule so his strategy, though helpful and certainly better than nothing, was not nearly perfect. A few years later Edward O. Thorpe came onto the scene and the game hasn’t been the same since.
Thorpe was a mathematician who worked at the Atomic Research Center in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He had access to a huge computer and in his spare time and off hours began to program it for blackjack research. As a result he developed several methods of beating the game long term by use of card counting. In 1962 he published a book called “Beat The Dealer” which has since become the equivalent of the blackjack player’s Bible.
Beat The Dealer was an immediate huge success that at one point rested atop the New York Times best seller list. The second edition of the book contained the perfect strategy for playing Single Deck Blackjack which was developed by an IBM employee, Julian Braun.
Braun spent countless hours programming an IBM mainframe and running simulations until finally he had produced the Basic Strategy that blackjack players still use today. Some minor changes have been made to better accommodate multiple deck blackjack since the original strategy was for single deck (that’s all there was then). But the main body of the work has not been improved upon.
After Thorpe’s book was published, he gained notoriety, perhaps more than he bargained for. He made appearances on TV shows such as “What’s My Line?” and “To Tell The Truth”. He proved that blackjack could be beaten long term. This prompted countless enthusiastic readers to flock to Las Vegas seeking their fortunes at the blackjack tables. Meanwhile the casinos panicked.
Casino management was so distraught that they actually shut down all the blackjack tables in Las Vegas for several days while they put their heads together and decided what to do. The result was a change in the rules that put the odds so decidedly in the casino’s favor that no one would play the game any more. This tremendous drop in revenues forced the casinos to rethink their strategy and return to the old rules (with a few minor changes). Once again, players resumed their love affair with blackjack and as it turned out the casinos really had little reason for panic. Very few players could master Thorpe’s complicated 10 count system and thanks to Thorpe’s popular book, interest in blackjack was at an all time high with thousands of players being drawn to the tables to try their luck. Profits from the game soared.
As far as changes in the game that the casinos got away with, there were several. One was the insertion of a plastic cut card into the deck about one third to one fourth of the way from the end. When the cut card was reached, the deck would be shuffled whereas previously cards were dealt all the way to the bottom of the deck. Since the card count became more effective as more cards were used out of the deck, this practice decreased the number of favorable betting opportunities.
Another change was that casinos began to use multiple decks. It began with 2 decks but soon 3, 4, and 6 deck shoes appeared culminating in the famous 8-deck shoe used in Atlantic City. Multiple decks being used diluted the effectiveness of the card count.
Other minor rules were added or taken away and they varied from casino to casino but no other major changes in the rules have taken place to date.
If all else failed, casinos often barred card counters and would no longer even allow them entrance. And though I won’t get into it here, some casinos have even resorted to bringing in expert cheaters known as “mechanics” to deal to unwanted players.
Thorpe was the first famous card counter although there are stories of others who preceded him who were knowledgeable and skilful enough to make a living playing the game. Before the publication of his book, Thorpe played his system in many unsuspecting casinos. They were amazed at his constant success and concluded that he must be cheating. They thought he was marking the cards somehow (since back then only single deck blackjack was played and the players handled their cards). They thought he might be crimping or scratching some of the ranking cards in the deck so they forbade him to touch the cards. They dealt his cards face up. Of course he continued to win and the casinos continued to harass him. Thorpe eventually went to Puerto Rico for awhile where he received the same kind of treatment.
Many successful card counters like Thorpe were eventually barred from casino play so they became proficient at using disguises in order to continue to make withdrawals from casino coffers. Some of the stories of their exploits make fascinating reading.
Out of the throngs of card counters produced by Thorpe’s insightful book, a small handful rose to the top and even gained quite a bit of notoriety. Among those were Lawrence Revere and Ken Uston.
Revere produced some of the more effective and easier to use counting methods and presented them in his popular 1977 book “Playing Blackjack as a Business”.
Ken Uston was famous, not only for being a very successful blackjack player, but he put together a team of players that used hidden computers to determine perfect blackjack play as each card was dealt. Information about which cards had been played as well as both the player’s and dealer’s hand was input by means of pressure sensitive switches located in the player’s shoe. By using his toes to press these switches, accurate up to the second information was entered into the computer. The player wore a device hidden in his ear, similar to a hearing aid, which told him the correct decision to make at each juncture. Before one of the devices was found and confiscated, Uston’s team won over $100,000. Uston was prosecuted but a federal judge found that since the information used in the programming and use of the computer was public domain and fairly common knowledge, he had broken no laws. But needless to say Uston was not very welcome in casinos after that.
Today there are still a few single and double deck pitch games available here and there, but the majority of blackjack tables found in casinos are 4, 6, and 8 deck games. Even though players don’t enjoy the advantages of games offered back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, it is still the most popular table game in the casino.
Blackjack is a casino card game where players compete individually against the dealer. The player attempts to get a hand with a total as close to 21 as possible without going over. His hand must also have a higher total than the dealer’s hand unless the dealer “busts” by going over 21. If the player’s hand and the dealer’s hand are equal, then it is a tie (also called a “push”) and no money changes hands.
All tens and face cards in the deck are valued at 10, aces have a value of 1 or 11, and the remaining cards are equal to their face value.
A winning hand in blackjack pays even money (1 to 1) unless the player is dealt a natural (a 10 value card and an Ace). A natural, also known as blackjack, pays the player 3 to 2. When a player gets blackjack, he is paid immediately so he still wins even if the dealer takes one or more cards and winds up with 21 also.
A round begins when each player at the table places his bet inside the circle in front of him, then cards are dealt in a clockwise rotation around the table. Each player, including the dealer, initially gets 2 cards. One of the dealer’s two cards is dealt face up and the other face down.
In 4, 6, and 8-deck blackjack game, all cards (except the dealer’s hole card) are dealt face up from a card holding device called a shoe. The player never touches the cards. If he wants to “hit” (take another card), he points at his cards on the table or else wiggles his finger to indicate he wants a card. When the player is satisfied with his card total, he waves his hand over them to indicate he is standing and doesn’t want another hit.
In single and double deck games, the dealer holds the deck in his/her hand and pitches the cards face down onto the table in front of the player. The player looks at his two cards and decides how he wants to play them. If he wants to take a hit, he will scratch the cards on the table in a sweeping motion toward his body. When the player is satisfied with his total, he tucks the original 2 cards under his bet.
If the player takes a card and busts by exceeding a total of 21, the dealer collects his cards along with his bet and he is out until the next round.
The player seated immediately to the dealer’s left is said to be sitting at the “first base” position and the dealer always addresses him first after the initial two cards are dealt. Play then moves around the table in a clockwise fashion and each player takes his turn at deciding how to best play his hand. The last player to make his decision is the one seated immediately to the dealer’s right. He is said to be occupying the third base position.
When all players are satisfied with their card totals or have busted (gone over 21), the dealer then turns over his hole card and plays out his hand. The biggest advantage the casino has over the player is the fact that the player must go first and may bust his hand and lose even if the dealer subsequently busts when he plays his hand.
Whereas players have the option to stand on any total they choose, the dealer must hit any total less than 17 while standing on any total of 17 to 21. The exception to this is when a dealer has a total of soft 17 (a total of 17 where the Ace is counted as 11). Most casinos rule that the dealer must hit soft 17 until it either becomes a hard 17 (total of 17 where the ace counts as 1) or has any total greater than 17. Some casinos stand on soft 17, however, and this is advantageous to the player.
As I stated earlier, the dealer has no options in how he plays his hand, but the player may have several. Naturally the player always makes the decision to either hit or stand, but he also has the choice to “double down”. To double down means that after seeing the first two cards dealt him, a player has the option of making a second bet. This bet can be any amount equal to or less than his original bet. It cannot exceed his original bet, however. If a player decides to double down, he places his second bet in the circle beside his first bet and the dealer gives him one (and only one) more card. This card is usually dealt face down. If the player wins his double down, he is paid even money on both his original bet and second bet.
Although, in multiple deck blackjack the player is normally allowed to double down on any two card total, it is generally unwise to double on anything other than a total of 9, 10 or 11. In single or double deck blackjack, doubling is normally only allowed on totals of 9, 10 or 11 and often only on 10 or 11. This varies from casino to casino.
Another option the player has, if he is dealt two cards of the same value such as two 3’s or two 8’s, is to split that pair into two separate hands. If a player decides to split a pair, he must place another bet equal to his first bet to cover the second hand. When this is done, each hand is played out in the usual fashion. Each hand is considered individually and the bet on that hand is either paid or collected depending upon whether it beat the dealer’s hand. By the way, if a player splits a pair of Aces and is dealt a 10 value card on one or both of them, this is not considered to be a natural and the hand is paid even money, not 3 to 2.
Another aspect of splitting is this; if after a player has split his original hand he is dealt another card of the same value as the first two, he is usually allowed to split the hand again resulting in his having 3 hands. With multiple deck blackjack, most casinos allow the player to split as many times as he wants as long as he continues to be dealt a matching card. However, once again, single and double deck games are usually more restricted and the player may only be allowed to split once.
Besides whether to hit, stand, double down or split, in certain circumstances there is another decision a player has to make. After the first two cards are dealt, if the dealer’s face up card is an Ace, the player will be offered insurance. The insurance bet is allowed so the player can insure his hand against the possibility that the dealer has a 10 in the hole thus giving him a natural total of 21 and an automatic winning hand. If the player believes the dealer has a 10 in the hole, he can place a wager on the insurance line equal to half his bet. Then, if the dealer does have blackjack, the player is paid 2 to 1 for his winning insurance bet but losses his original bet and therefore breaks out even on the exchange. But if the dealer does not have blackjack, the insurance bet is lost and play continues as normal. Generally, the insurance bet is considered a sucker bet that strongly favors the house.
There is one unique situation that involves insurance. If the player is dealt a blackjack but the dealer’s up card is an ace, then the player can take insurance and assure himself of at least getting paid even money for his blackjack even if the dealer also has a natural. But doing this is not generally recommended by the experts.
Some few casinos allow the player still another option that reduces the house edge when used correctly by the player. I’m speaking of a strategy called “surrender”. If a casino allows surrender, that means a player may surrender half his bet instead of playing out his hand. This option is generally only used when the player has a stiff hand of 16 or maybe 15, and the dealer’s up card is a 10.
Blackjack is somewhat unique among games of chance offered by casinos in that it is recognised as a game of skill that can be beaten long term. Even though blackjack is the most profitable casino table game in North America and many other countries as well, it is still the game about which casinos are most paranoid. And it is certainly the only game at which even a small stakes player stands a chance of getting barred from playing if he/she is too successful too often.
The reason blackjack can be beaten long term is easily understood. Whereas games like roulette and craps are infinite games (meaning that the results of each individual spin of the wheel or roll of the dice are not directly related to previous results and there is no definite beginning or end), blackjack is a finite game. By “finite” I mean that previous results or hands dealt do affect future results and there can be a reasonable expectation that the affect will manifest in a discernible way. Also, there is a definite beginning and end where blackjack is concerned. The beginning is when a new shoe or deck of cards is shuffled and put into play, and the end is when the cut card is reached and the deck is shuffled again.
Since blackjack is a finite game, and since certain cards in the deck are more favorable to the player than others, every time a card is played from the deck, the odds change slightly. Most often they favor the house, but sometimes when quantities of certain cards are removed from the deck during the course of normal play, the player actually enjoys a slight advantage. And if the player places a higher bet when the odds are in his favor and a lower bet when the odds favor the house, over the long haul he should win more than he loses. This is why blackjack is considered to be a game that can be beaten long term.
The way a successful blackjack player beats the game over the long haul revolves around what is known as “card counting”. By keeping a running count of the cards as they are played, it can be determined at what point the odds favor the player and by how much.
Card counting has gotten a lot of bad publicity. It has mostly come from sources that had something to gain by spreading negative propaganda concerning the supposed difficulty involved in mastering and executing it under live conditions. And it is true that some of the early counting methods introduced by Edward O. Thorpe and others were difficult to execute in live play not to mention confusing. Not only was a running count called for but the player had to make mental computations involving fractions in order to arrive at the amount to bet. But soon it was learned that easier methods could be used that were almost as effective as the more complicated ones, and card counting entered a new era. However, the casinos were instrumental in empowering the belief that card counting was extremely difficult and only a genius could pull it off successfully. Also people in the business of selling blackjack systems jumped on the same train and added their voice of discouragement when they saw an opportunity to sell methods that could supposedly win without counting. Then, of course, the average everyday gambler who knew no better accepted the statements of the so-called experts and so the belief spread that successful card counting was an unachievable goal for most players. But in reality, card counting is not that difficult. My 6 year old daughter learned to do it and she was not a genius by any means.
Despite claims to the contrary, apart from the utilisation of card counting to some degree or another, I don’t know of any other way to beat the game long term. I’ve examined many so-called non counting methods, but none ever held up over extended play. So, if you are a serious blackjack player with a strong desire and motivation to win long term, you’ve got to bite the bullet and learn some method of card counting. On my web site I introduce a very simple yet effective method with “MP Blackjack”.
To clear up another misconception, card counting does not involve the memorisation of every card played. It is accomplished by assigning a value to each card and then adding or subtracting that value as each card is played. For instance, if five’s and six’s are assigned a value of +1 and nine’s and tens have a value of -1, then if a six and a nine were dealt, the count would be zero, but if a five and a six were dealt, the count would be +2. And, if those cards were followed by a nine, the count would fall to +1. Simple enough.
Now, when the count is higher, the remaining cards in the deck (or shoe) are favorable to the player and when it is lower the house has the upper hand. So the idea, as I said before, is to bet more when the count is higher and less (or nothing at all) when the count is low.
Knowing the proper count can not only affect the size of your bet, but it can also help you adjust your playing strategy so that you are making the most advantageous decisions at any point in the deck or shoe. Later I will give you the basic strategy that has been worked out using computer analysis and every blackjack player should know it by heart. But there are times when a card counter can depart from basic strategy based upon the current composition of the cards remaining to be played. This can give him a little extra advantage.
Ten valued cards and Aces are the most valuable cards to the player and that is why they are assigned higher negative values in most counting systems. Lower cards, especially the five’s and six’s are more valuable to the house so they are assigned positive values because as they are played and eliminated from the remaining deck, the odds swing toward the player.
One of the main reasons 10 valued cards and Aces are important to the player is rather obvious. It takes a 10 and an Ace to form a natural blackjack for which the player is paid 3 to 2. But if the dealer gets a natural blackjack, the player only loses his regular bet and does not have to pay odds to the house. Besides having a greater chance for a blackjack, more 10 value cards in the deck means more pat hands for the player. Another advantage to a deck rich in tens and high cards is that if the dealer gets a hand that must be hit, he/she has a much greater chance of busting. And finally, when there is an abundance of high cards left, the player’s chances of getting a hand on which he can double down (9, 10, or 11) are increased and also he has a better chance of getting a pat hand when he does double down. Millions of computer simulations have proven beyond doubt that card composition rich in high value cards favors the player.
Another way card counting aids the decision making process is when the dealer’s up card is an Ace, and the player is offered insurance. Normally insurance is a bad bet with odds that heavily favor the house, however, if the player knows the deck is rich in 10’s, it might be to his advantage to take it.
Besides card counting, there are a few other things that accomplished players have incorporated into their repertoire.
“Shuffle Tracking” is the art of being able to track certain favorable sections of a multiple deck shoe even as they are broken down and shuffled. The player takes careful note of the sections of the shoe where the cards ran favorably, then he attempts to track those sections as the dealer shuffles. If two favorable sections are shuffled together, he attempts to mentally mark where those cards wind up in the newly shuffled deck and will raise his bets when those sections come into play. But, everything considered, this is a very difficult thing to accomplish yet some have reported good results.
Another procedure is something called “back counting”. This requires a player to watch a table for 10 rounds or so in order to qualify it for play. There are certain things that must happen in order for the table to qualify. This is explained in detail in MP Blackjack.
An ability to read card flow and clumps is also a necessity if one is to be successful playing against multiple deck shoes. Most people think that card flow in multiple deck blackjack is totally random, but that is seldom the case and it is also the reason that the house advantage in multiple deck blackjack is much higher than most people (even experts) think. Once again, MP Blackjack explains why card flow is not usually totally random and it also gives insight into how to take advantage of this fact.
Some savvy players have made use of a strategy that requires the player to occupy the first base position (first position at the table to the dealer’s left). This strategy is also based upon card flow tendencies. If the last card dealt by the dealer (either to himself or the player at third base to the dealer’s immediate right) was a 10 value card, then the player at first base raises his bet in hopes that the first card he is dealt will also be a 10 or maybe even an ace. If this happens, then the player has an elevated chance of winning since he is much more likely to have a pat hand (or maybe even a blackjack) than if he received a lower value card.
Since casinos are very much aware that blackjack can be beaten, over the years they have developed several counter measures that are highly effective.
One of the biggest countermeasures was the introduction of the use of multiple decks. Originally, the game used only one 52 card deck and all the cards were dealt, right down to the last one, before the deck was reshuffled and play continued. But with the advent and success of card counters, casinos began using 2 decks and eventually expanded that to 4, 6 and 8 decks dealt from a shoe. The use of more decks dilutes the card count and makes it less meaningful and effective.
Also, something known as a cut card began to be used. This is a plastic card which is inserted two thirds to three fourths of the way into a freshly shuffled deck or shoe and when the cards are dealt down to the cut card they are reshuffled. This is done because the card count is more effective with fewer cards left in the deck since the count is less diluted. Using a cut card also gives the card counter fewer opportunities to place a larger bet while enjoying favorable odds.
Other countermeasures used may be a little more subtle and as a result, blackjack is probably the most manipulated game in the casino other than slots. In some casinos that still perform manual shuffles rather than using shuffle machines, dealers are taught to change the shuffle based upon how well the house did in the last shoe. This is normally not detected by the untrained eye but it happens all the time. I’ve even seen dealers use false shuffles when mixing certain parts of the deck and if the player catches it and says something, the dealer simply claims that it was accidental. And who can prove or say for sure that it wasn’t?
Another countermeasure that can be attributed to Pit Bosses and casino management is the practice of only opening just enough tables to accommodate the number of blackjack players in the casino. They want to keep the tables as full as possible at all times because this also makes the job of a card counter much more difficult. A card counter would much prefer to play the dealer heads up (one on one). The more players at the table, the better chance that someone else will get the good cards when the count is high. Also, there is an increased chance that the count may change dramatically by the time the dealer is ready to play his own hand and the odds could already have turned back in favor of the house.
Another counter measure that has more recently come into vogue is the use of continuous shuffle machines. These machines are a combination of shoe and shuffler. Each new round of blackjack is dealt directly from the machine and when the hands are played and picked up, they are immediately deposited back into the machine. One model machine places each card into a different numbered slot. It contains a computer chip with a random number generator that randomly selects cards from the individual slots for replay so it is possible for some of the same cards that were just played to come out in the next round. This sophisticated technology of course completely negates card counting.
I strongly urge all blackjack players to unite, whether you count cards or not, and avoid these continuous shuffle machines, if nothing else then out of principle. If enough blackjack players will boycott them and refuse to play them, then the casinos will eventually stop using them because they have a strong adversity to reduced revenues due to lack of action.
In discussing counter measures I hate to even bring up this topic, but I would be remiss if I didn’t. Although the majority of players are convinced that casinos never cheat because they have no need to, unfortunately this is not always the case. It is commonly known among casino insiders that there are blackjack dealers who have the ability to cheat. They are known as “mechanics”. Many casinos make use of their services from time to time and may even have one on staff. In a TV interview, a Vegas insider told of a very successful female dealer/mechanic in that city who wore a beeper and made a very good living making herself available to several different casinos when they were having problems with a counter or someone on a roll. I know from personal experience that bringing in a mechanic is one of the last options used against a counter before finally resorting to the ultimate countermeasure…
If all else fails, even bringing in a mechanic, and the casino’s level of paranoia is elevated because of the constant success of a blackjack player, they may resort to barring him/her from any future indulgence in the game at that casino. A few years ago successful players were often barred from casino property all together but in recent years the trend seems to be more toward just barring them from playing blackjack. That is probably due to some law suits brought against casinos by players contesting this unfair treatment. Card counting is not illegal, although casinos would like to have you believe it is. But casinos are technically private clubs or private entities that can choose whom they want to allow admittance.
In closing out my general discussion of blackjack strategies for live casino play, I wish to encourage serious players to stay away from multiple deck games. Your best chance comes by using an effective method like MP Blackjack and playing single or double deck pitch games. I realise that 6 and 8 deck games are all that is available in many venues and that is tragic. If that is the case, and you just have to play blackjack, then at least learn to count cards and become adept at reading card flow etc. That will help give you a fighting chance.
As far as playing blackjack online is concerned, you have probably already guessed that since the software in most online casinos is set up so that each new hand is dealt from a fresh deck, card counting is useless. In fact none of the strategies discussed so far (except Basic Strategy described below) apply to online play. Success at online play is pretty much a factor of luck, unless you do something stupid like hitting when you already have a total of 20. If you must play online, then the best strategy seems to be to keep your sessions short and play at a lot of different casinos while trying to take maximum advantage of the bonuses offered.
In this discussion all totals are considered to be hard totals unless specified as soft hands. A hard hand is any hand consisting of two or more cards which does not contain an ace which can be counted as 11 without yielding a total in excess of 21. A soft hand is a hand containing two or more cards one of which is an ace which can be counted as 11 without yielding a total in excess of 21.
The following is a discussion of hard totals, soft totals are addressed last. It is assumed the player is not counting cards because if that were the case, there would be a slight alteration in strategy in some cases.
When the dealer is showing a 2 up, always hit if your total is 12 or less. If you are playing a single or double deck game, stand on 13 or more. Hit a total of 13 against the dealer’s 2 up if you are playing multiple deck and stand on a total of 14 or more. When playing multiple deck, always hit 12 against the dealers 2 or 3 up.
The generally accepted rule is to stand on 12 or more against the dealer’s 3 through 6 up, otherwise hit.
Against the dealer’s 7 through ten and ace up, stand on 17 or more, otherwise hit.
Double down on a total of 11 against the dealer’s 2 through 9 up. Some say always double down on 11 while others advocate refraining against a 10 or ace up, especially when playing against a 6 or 8 deck shoe.
Double down on a total of 10 against the dealer’s 2 through 9 up. Double down with a total of 9 against the dealer’s 4 through 6 up. You may also consider doubling against a 3 up but that is a little more aggressive especially against a multiple deck shoe.
Basic Strategy says to always split aces and 8’s.
Never split 10’s! The reason is obvious. You have the 3rd best hand you can be dealt (behind a blackjack and a card total of 21) and will win a majority of the time, so don’t risk messing it up.
Split 2’s against the dealer’s 3 through 7 up.
Split 3’s against the dealer’s 4 through 7 up.
Don’t split 4’s.
Never split 5’s.
Split 6’s against 2 through 6 up.
Split 7’s against 2 through 8 up.
Do not split 9’s against 7, 10, or ace up. Otherwise split.
When holding a soft total of 13 through 16 (A2-A5), double down against the dealer’s 4 through 6 up. Otherwise hit until you have a standing hard total of 17 or more.
Double down with soft 17 (A6) against the dealer’s 3 through 6 up. Otherwise hit.
Double down with soft 18 (A7) against the dealer’s 3 through 6 up. Stand if the dealer has 2, 7, 8, or ace up. Hit against the dealer’s 9 or 10 up until you have a hard total of 17 or more.
If holding a soft 19 or soft 20 (A8, A9), always stand.