Basic Strategy

In Blackjack, the player competes against the house to gain the hand closest to a numerical value of 21 without going over. The mathematics of working the deck, or decks, to one's advantage are complex. Before one gets to a very high level of play at which advantage play techniques, such as counting cards, start to be employed, there are basic strategies that must be mastered.

The strategies are best illustrated in chart form, examples of which are widely available. The basic premise of the charts is that there are three broad categories where strategies differ: hard hands, soft hands and pair splitting hands. A hard hand is one in which there is no ace and, thus, the value of the hand is fixed. A soft hand is one in which one card is an ace whose value may be counted as one or 11. Pair splitting hands occur when the player is dealt two cards of equal value. These charts are a bit much for most players to memorize at first, but will be easily recalled given enough table time.

Most charts will use the following symbols to indicate the appropriate actions: H for hit, S for stand or stay, D for double and P for split. The charts will generally show the player's hand on the leftmost column of the chart and the dealer's hand values across the top. By going to the appropriate column and row, one can see the recommended strategy. The charts differ according to how many decks are in play.

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One of the consistent strategies is to stay on any hand with a value of 17 or higher. If the dealer has 17, it is a draw. The dealer will be forced to hit if they have anything less than 17 and, chances are, they will bust before beating the player's hand. Remember that one cannot split on any hand with more than two cards, so the chart detailing when to split only applies if the first two cards are as indicated on the left.

In every situation in which a player has an Ace and an 8 or a 9, the player should stay, according to basic strategy. The math here is very easy to understand as the dealer is unlikely to get a 20 or 21 with three or more cards in their hand.

As your hand's total changes with more cards, you'll want to adjust your strategy according to the chart. For example, say the first two cards you're dealt are a 5 and a 7 in a four deck game. Going by the basic strategy chart, you hit and are dealt another 5 for a total of 17. Because you have three cards in your hand, you can't split even though you have two fives. Your recommended strategy in this case, no matter what the dealer is showing, is to stay. Practice with the strategy charts at home before hitting the casino so you get familiar with them.