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© Copyright 2000, Jim Loy
Blackjack (or 21) is a casino card game. The table is very roughly as you see on the left, with the dealer at the top, and several players sitting around the round portion of the table. You bet by placing chips in a circle on the table. The dealer deals (usually from a box called a "shoe") two cards (either face down or face up) to every player, including himself/herself. The dealer's first card goes face up. Each player's job is to get as high a total hand without going over 21. Each numbered card is worth its face value. Each face card is worth 10, and an ace is worth either 1 or 11; if the 11 would make you go over 21, then the ace is worth 1. If the hand has two possible values (like 7 and 17), then the total of the hand is called soft (a soft 17, in this example), otherwise the total is hard (a hard 17, for example). When it is your turn, there are several things you can do. If you have 21 with two cards, that is blackjack or a natural, and you win 1.5 times your bet (unless the dealer also has blackjack). If you have less than 21, you can hit (receive another card, maybe repeatedly) or stand. After one or more hits, you may then stand (unless you have gone over 21 (bust), in which case you lose). After each player is done (stand or bust), then the dealer hits (maybe repeatedly) or stands. The dealer's strategy is fixed. He/she must hit on 16 or less, and stand on 17 or more (in some games, dealer hits a soft 17). Players who beat the dealer win the amount of their bet (except for blackjack). Players who tie with the dealer neither win nor lose, it is a push. Sometimes, the player has other options, besides hit, stand, or bust:
The game may have other rules, which either increase (for example, you may only be able to double hands of 10 or 11, or maybe you cannot split aces, or maybe the dealer hits a soft 17) or decrease (double after a split, or maybe you can surrender before the dealer checks his/her hand for a blackjack) the house advantage.
Here is a version of the "basic strategy." This gives you a small disadvantage (about 1/2 %, similar to craps and roulette), without counting cards. This table features "late surrender" where you can give up and take back half your bet (but the dealer still wins all of your bet if he/she has blackjack).
|your hand||dealer's up card|
|hard 16||stand||stand||stand||stand||stand||hit||hit||surrender (hit)||surrender (hit)||surrender (hit)|
|hard 15||stand||stand||stand||stand||stand||hit||hit||hit||surrender (hit)||hit|
If the chart says double, but you can't double because your hand is more than two cards, then make the play (hit or stand) that is to the left or right of that box of the table. The basic strategy varies somewhat if the rules are different (if the dealer hits a soft 17). Different books recommend different basic strategies.
Blackjack is famous for being a casino game that you can regularly win. And so, millions of people go to Vegas and elsewhere and lose. You can indeed win at blackjack, if you count cards. This is difficult to do, and most of the time you win slowly. It might be easier to get a job.
All card counting methods involve determining when the deck is either poor in tens or rich in tens. In general, the dealer has an advantage when the deck is poor in tens, and so you should decrease your bet. And the player has an advantage when the deck is rich in tens, and so you should increase your bet. Greatly varying your bet can get you kicked out of the casino, as the casinos try to get rid of card counters. The table of strategy (looking much like the basic strategy above) also changes somewhat, depending upon the richness or poorness of tens.
The idea of card counting is simple. But the details vary from system to system. There are continual arguments (claims and counterclaims) about which system is optimal. They all work fairly well, however, with some features to help your memory, and other features to improve your odds.
The casino usually uses multiple decks, in order to prevent decks from becoming rich or poor of tens. The more decks (varies from one deck to eight decks), the lower the card counter's advantage.
So, if you can learn to count cards, maybe you should gamble? Maybe not. There are two strong reasons not to play blackjack for money:
Yes, you can win a lot of money. You can also lose a lot of money.
One book says that you can win without counting cards. This is essentially a basic strategy, fine tuned to the particular game that you are playing (eight deck with certain other rules, for example). And it does not offer an advantage over the house. It is mostly based on The Gambler's Fallacy. It should lose in the long run.
The above basic strategy chart varies somewhat from other similar charts in books. They all differ from each other. All of these sources differ on very close decisions, situations which do not actually make a lot of difference. If you played for eight hours, one of these close decisions would be expected to win or lose only a few cents. All together, a perfect system could earn you a few dollars on these close decisions, while you're gambling with many thousands of dollars. Certainly every penny counts, because your odds are not very far above 50% when counting cards, and your odds are below 50% when not counting cards. But, the perfect system is too difficult to use anyway.
Also, most of the books on card counting use odds that they derive from simulations. The exact odds can be calculated, in almost any situation, with some difficulty. But the simulations estimate the odds, rather than calculate them. That is probably the main source of argument about some of the decisions recommended in these books.
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