In a blackjack game, the "basic strategy" is the set of actions that give you the best possible return, based on your total and the dealer's visible "up card." For a given set of playing rules, there is only one best action for each possible situation.
Many of the correct decisions tend to fall into regular patterns, but others seem to have no rhyme or reason. Fortunately, you can use a "simplified" strategy that sacrifices some less-important playing decisions to get easier-to-remember patterns.
Here are Super-Easy, Simple, and Great simplified strategies that are easier to learn, but almost as good, as the perfect basic strategy. The following table can help you decide which strategy to learn. If you're not sure, start with the Super-Easy strategy first, and after you master it, advance down the list.
||Effort to learn
||lose $130 or win $120
||lose $130 or win $120
||lose $125 or win $120|
||lose $125 or win $120|
||lose $500 or win $505
A "session" is 100 hands. Please note that you can easily win or lose much more than the "typical" amount in one session or multiple sessions. Risk only what you can afford.
The following table compares the simplified strategies with the perfect basic strategy.
||Average session loss 1
||House edge 2||Chart for viewing (HTML)
||Chart for printing (PDF)
||$6.40 + $4.40||1.08 %
||$6.40 + $1.40||0.78 %
||$6.40 + 40¢||0.68 %
||Wizard's website||Wizard's website
- Average session loss is based on playing 100 hands, $10 per hand. The amount is shown as a sum of two figures: the built-in loss using the perfect basic strategy plus the additional loss due to incorrect decisions in the simplified strategy. Please note that this is a long-term average, not the likely result of session! With a bet size of $10, it is not uncommon to win or lose $100 or $150 in a session or a few sessions. Risk only what you can afford.
- House edge means the percentage of your bet that you can expect to lose in the long run while using the strategy. This is expressed as a percentage of your original bets, not counting additional money wagered on split hands and double-downs. See Blackjack House Edge (video).The figures in the table are based on typical Las Vegas playing rules: six decks, dealer hits soft 17, doubling allowed on any two cards, no surrender, and blackjack pays 3:2. The actual house edge varies with the playing rules in effect.
Warning: Beware of 6:5 Blackjack Payoff Games!
Many casinos offer games that pay only 6:5 instead of 3:2 on blackjack. In other words, for a $10 bet, a blackjack pays only $12 instead of the usual $15. Avoid these games! This lousy rule triples your average loss, from $6 per session to $20 per session (based on 100 hands at $10 per hand). Even the best 6:5 games are worse than the worst 3:2 games.
If you see a sign on the table that says "Blackjack Pays 6:5," keep walking and find another table. Oddly enough, you can almost always find a 3:2 game nearby. If all customers refuse to play 6:5 games, casinos will quickly go back to offering only full-payout games.
The Super-Easy basic strategy is for anyone who would like to try playing blackjack for fun, for a few hours or a weekend at low stakes, without spending a lot of time studying and memorizing. It's also a good strategy that serious players can give to their non-serious companions to use.
The full strategy explained in a 1-minute video
A description and tutorial in an 8-minute video
Using this strategy, the effective house edge is typically about 1%, so if you're playing 100 hands per session, you can expect to lose about one hand per session in the long run. Even though the strategy is highly simplified, the house edge is still better than almost all other bets in the casino, including the Player bet at baccarat (1.2%), Pass bet at craps (1.4%), roulette (5.2%), and slot machines (2%-25%).
Average blackjack players make a lot more incorrect decisions than the Super-Easy Casual strategy, so they typically play with an effective house edge of somewhere between 1 and 2 percent. The most common errors are hitting a "stiff" (bustable) hand vs. a dealer 4, 5, or 6; and failing to hit 15 or 16 vs. a dealer high card. You can avoid these common mistakes by following the Super-Easy strategy.
The Simple strategy is recommended for typical blackjack players. Compared with the Super-Easy Casual strategy, the Simple strategy is slightly more difficult to memorize but reduces the effective house edge by about one-third of a bet per session. If you already know the Super-Easy Casual strategy, these are the additional decisions to learn for the Simple strategy:
This strategy is similar to another good simplified strategy, the Wizard's Simple Blackjack Strategy at the Wizard of Odds website. The Wizard's chart is more compact, but I think you'll find it easier to read and memorize the Simple strategy here at BlackjackCalculation.com. The two simple strategies have slightly different strategy decisions and about the same simplification penalty.
- Split 2s, 3s, 6s, 7s, and 9s vs. a dealer low card
- Double on 10 vs. a dealer 7, 8, or 9 (in addition to dealer 2 through 6)
A video introduction to this website's Simple strategy is available on YouTube.
The Great basic strategy is recommended for serious players playing for long hours and high stakes. Compared with the Simple strategy, the Great strategy is more difficult to memorize but reduces the effective house edge by another one-tenth of a hand per session. If you already know the Simple strategy, these are the additional decisions to learn for the Great strategy:
- Hit hard 12 vs. a dealer 2 or 3
- Hit soft 18 vs. a dealer 9, 10, or A
- Double on A-2 through A-5 vs. a dealer 5 or 6
You can improve upon the Great basic strategy even further by adding the following decisions:
- Split 2s, 3s, and 7s vs. a dealer 7
- Split 9s vs. a dealer 8 or 9 (but not a dealer 7)
The Perfect basic strategy gives the absolute best decision for every possible combination of player total and dealer up card. Use this strategy if you are playing for very long hours and high stakes, to get the best possible edge.
The exact playing decisions and house edge depend on the playing rules in effect at the table. To generate a strategy chart, go to the Wizard of Odds Blackjack Strategy Calculator. Use the pull-down menus to specify the playing conditions: number of decks, whether the dealer stands or hits soft 17 (the latter is more common), whether doubling is allowed after splitting a pair, whether surrender is allowed, and whether the dealer peeks for blackjack (almost universal in the US). The strategy chart is automatically updated as you set the rules.
Note: The Wizard uses a different coloring scheme for the strategy decisions. Also, he combines the splitting and doubling decisions with the hit and stand decisions in the same block, which is the usual way of showing strategy tables. However, I think it's easier to memorize the splitting and doubling decisions separately from the others, so that's how I've built my strategy tables.To find out the house edge for a given set of rules, go to the Wizard of Odds Blackjack House Edge Calculator. Use the buttons to specify the playing rules, and the "Realistic results" field is automatically updated to show the house edge.
Should you learn card counting? For the vast majority of gamblers, the answer is no. From watching movies like "Rain Man" and "21," you might think that card counting is an easy road to riches. The truth is that card counting changes your slight disadvantage to only a tiny slight advantage. To win, you must risk huge amounts for only a small gain. For example, if you want to win just $10 per session in the long run, you will need to bet $100 per hand when the deck is favorable and experience both winning and losing streaks in the thousands of dollars.
For any gambling trip lasting a few days or less, luck is the overriding factor that determines whether you win or lose, and by how much. Whether you use a good basic strategy (-0.5 percent) or skillful card counting (+0.3 percent) hardly makes any difference. I recommend card counting only if you're playing a lot or for large stakes and you can handle, both financially and emotionally, the long and large losing streaks that are bound to occur from time to time. You will definitely lose money on some gambling trips, card counting or not.
Learning card counting does not require unusual intelligence or ability, but takes many months of dedicated practice to master the skills. If you decide to learn card counting, the very first step is to learn at least the Great basic strategy or preferably the Perfect basic strategy, forward and backward, so you can recall every decision automatically without hesitation or delay. Spend at least a few gambling trips using only the basic strategy in the casino before you even start to learn card counting.
For more about card counting, see Does Card Counting Really Work? (web page or YouTube video)
For another good introduction to card counting, see The Wizard's website
To learn card counting, see Norman Wattenberger's free online book, Modern Blackjack
The actual house edge depends to a large extent on the specific rules in effect at the table. Aside from 6:5 games, the house edge for perfect basic strategy play is usually between 0.4% and 0.7%. If you play for significant amounts of money, it makes sense to seek out the games with the lowest house edge.
If you're gambling in Las Vegas, go to the "Wizard of Vegas" Las Vegas Blackjack Survey. Click the "H. Edge" heading at the top of the right-most column to list all the casino games in order of increasing house edge. You'll notice that most of the games with the smallest house edge (around 0.27%) have a minimum bet size of $50 or $100; these are "premium" games on the Strip. The minimum bet sizes become lower (as low as $5) when the house edge gets to 0.40% and higher.
If you're gambling elsewhere in the US, go to the Stanford Wong's Current Blackjack News website. Download the free sample January 2014 newsletter, or better yet, purchase a copy of the latest monthly issue, $15. The newsletter shows the specific table rules, minimum and maximum bet sizes, house edge, and other playing conditions for almost all casinos in the US that deal blackjack.
To take full advantage of the better games, you need to learn the strategy decisions for the specific rules. For example, if the surrender option is allowed, it reduces the house edge by 0.08%, but only if you take advantage of the option and actually surrender when it's best to do so, as indicated in the Perfect basic strategy table.
For a good introduction to the game of blackjack, go to the Wizard of Odds Blackjack page.
For a very good (and free) online book on blackjack, see Modern Blackjack, An Illustrated Guide to Blackjack Advantage Play, by Norman Wattenberger.
Wizard of Vegas forum discussion on Simplified Basic Strategy
Good luck playing a simplified basic strategy!
This video is a supplement to Blackjack Basic Strategy for Infinite Decks and Blackjack House Edge with Infinite Decks, two videos by the Wizard of Odds, Michael Shackleford. The Wizard calculates the complete blackjack basic strategy and house edge, starting from a blank Excel spreadsheet, without using computer programming. He completes these tasks in less than one hour, explaining step-by-step how to fill in the spreadsheet.
If you have trouble believing some of the playing decisions of the basic strategy, or if you're a skeptical type who doesn't accept things on faith, this spreadsheet provides proof that the basic strategy is truly correct. You can modify the spreadsheet for different playing rules and examine the effects on the strategy and house edge.
Watch the Wizard's videos first. He does a fine job of explaining how he creates the spreadsheet. If you understand him completely, you have no need for my video. On the other hand, if you reach a point where you can't follow his explanation, pause it at that point and take a look at my video here, and see if that helps. After that, you can go back to the Wizard's video and pick up where you left off.
In my video, I cover the following topics:
Overview (starts at 0:00)
Introduction to the spreadsheet (starts at 3:45)
Modify the spreadsheet for no surrender allowed (starts at 5:55)
Modify the spreadsheet for dealer hits soft 17 (starts at 9:50)
Modify the spreadsheet for 6:5 blackjack payoff (starts at 14:20)
Terminology: infinite decks (starts at 17:00)
Terminology: European hole card rule (starts at 18:35)
Magic formula that fills a whole table (starts at 20:30)
The Wizard's spreadsheet file consists of several worksheet tabs. Clicking a tab displays the sheet for that tab. Each sheet covers one aspect of the blackjack strategy analysis, summarized as follows:
dealer: This sheet shows the probability of each possible final outcome (17 through 21 or bust), given the dealer's current total. The lower part shows the probabilities when the dealer doesn't check the hole card (European hole card rule). The upper part is modified to exclude the possibility of a dealer blackjack, since the dealer checks for blackjack at the beginning of the round in American games.
stand: This sheet shows the expected return of standing on every possible player total, including hands that you would never actually stand on (because hitting would be obviously better, for example, standing on hard 9). "Expected return" means your average win or loss on a $1 bet, given that you stand on that total. For standing, the expected return is calculated as ($1)*(probability that the dealer will bust or end up with a worse total) + (-$1)*(probability that dealer will end up with a better total) + ($0)*(probability of a tie).
hit: This sheet shows the expected return of hitting each possible player total, including hands that you would never actually hit (because standing would be obviously better, for example, hitting hard 20). "Expected return" means your average win or loss on a $1 bet, given that you hit that total and then take the better choice (either standing or hitting again) on the resulting new total.
hs (hit-stand): This sheet determines the better decision, either standing or hitting, for each possible player total, by comparing the average return for the two possible decisions. The color-coded charts on the right calculate and display the results graphically, giving the familiar hit-stand tables that you see in all good blackjack books.
double: This sheet calculates the expected return of doubling-down for each possible player total. "Expected return" means your average win or loss on a $2 bet, given that you hit that total once and stand on the new total. To analyze a game in which doubling is allowed only on a player total of 10 or 11, set the expected return of doubling to -1.0 for all player totals other than 10 or 11. A return of -1.0 makes doubling the worst decision, so the spreadsheet always chooses the next-best alternative action (hit, stand, or split).
hsd (hit-stand-double): This sheet determines the best decision, either standing, hitting, or doubling, for each possible player total, by comparing the average return for the three possible decisions. Again, the color-coded charts on the right calculate and display the results graphically.
sur (surrender): This sheet tabulates the value of surrender, which is simply -0.5 for all possible two-card hands or -1.0 for all busted hands. To modify the spreadsheet for a game that doesn't allow surrender, you can simply change all the -0.5 values to -1.0.
hsdr (hit-stand-double-surrender): This sheet determines the best decision, either standing, hitting, doubling, or surrendering, for each possible player total, by comparing the expected values for the four possible decisions. Again, the color-coded charts on the right calculate and display the results graphically.
split: This sheet determines whether it's better to keep a pair (either standing, hitting, doubling, or surrendering it) or to split the pair. Splitting changes your point total to one-half the original and doubles the amount at risk from $1 to $2. The color-coded chart at the bottom displays the results graphically. This completes the calculation of the full basic strategy.
prob (probability): This sheet calculates the probability of being dealt each possible combination of player cards and dealer up-card. This information is needed to calculate the total expected value (house edge).
er (expected return): This sheet calculates the expected return of each possible combination of initial player total and dealer up-card, given that the player takes the best action for each possible situation.
ev (expected value): This sheet calculates the expected value of each possible combination of initial player total and dealer up-card, calculated by multiplying the probability of being dealt that combination and the expected return of that combination. The total expected value is the sum of all the individual expected values. After accounting for the probability of a dealer blackjack, the "grand total" return is reported as -0.485 percent, or about one-half of one percent of your original bet for this set of playing rules.
To develop the Super-Easy, Simple, and Great simplified strategies, I modified the spreadsheet with simplification decisions and examined the effects on the total return.
For example, an obvious simplification is standing on 12 vs. a dealer 2 or 3. To analyze the effect of this change in the strategy, go to the hit sheet and set the cost of hitting to -1 (enter -1 into cells B10 and C10). This tells the spreadsheet that hitting 12 vs. 2 or 3 is a bad decision, so it chooses the next-best decision, which is standing. These two incorrect decisions lower the total return from -0.485 percent to -0.532 percent, or about 47 cents per playing session (100 hands at $10 per hand). This accounts for about half of the difference between the Simple strategy (which uses this simplification) and Great strategy (which does not).
For a good introduction to blackjack, go to the Wizard's web site
For a very good online book on blackjack, see Modern Blackjack, An Illustrated Guide to Blackjack Advantage Play, by Norman Wattenberger
For a detailed technical look at the game, see Wattenberger's How Blackjack Works
To simulate gambling results yourself, see Gambling Simulation Excel Spreadsheet (video)