Unlike other popular casino games, such as video slots and roulette, a player’s fortune at the blackjack table isn’t down to pure luck. Unless you hit natural blackjack, every hand you’re dealt requires a decision. This means that having some understanding of blackjack strategy, no matter how basic, is vital. We’ve created this guide to walk you through everything you need to know to play blackjack with an air of confidence. Ready? Let’s take a look.
Blackjack is a wonderfully simple game- once you know how it works. Here’s a quick run through of the basics.
There are many variants of blackjack, but the basic objective of each game is for the player and casino dealer to get a total of 21 points, without exceeding the number. It starts with the player placing a starting wager. Next, two cards are dealt to the player which are placed face up on the table. This is followed by the dealer receiving two cards – one is face up and the other is face down.
The player makes the first move based on the current value of their two cards and the value of the dealer’s face up card. Standard options are:
- Stand: stick with your current cards as your final hand.
- Hit: take another card. You can hit up to three times to make a 5-card hand
- Double*: increase your original bet to double the amount and take another card
- Split: if you have two cards of the same value, you’re able to split them and play two separate hands. *This option isn’t always available, so check the game rules before you sign up to play.
Once the player has played his hand, the dealer will play his. The winner is determined by the person who got 21 points, or who got the closest to that number without exceeding it. If both hands are the same value, it’s a tie, known as a push, and the original bet is returned to the player.
Why use a blackjack strategy?
If the objective of blackjack, for players and dealers, is to get 21, why isn’t there 50/50 chance of winning? This is because players must always play their hand first, meaning they might bust before the dealer has lifted a finger. This gives the casino its advantage, which forms part of the house edge of each game.
However, it’s not all bad news for players, as dealers must play in accordance to a set of predetermined rules. Collectively, the act of playing second and the exact rules are what form the house edge of blackjack. If you’re playing according to basic blackjack strategy, this edge will be around 0.5%, but this percentage increases dramatically— to between 2-5% for players without a clear strategy.
In addition to following the rules, winning at blackjack boils down to laws of probability, which is what blackjack strategy is based on. Let’s imagine a single deck game with 52 cards. You’re dealt a 9 and a 5, which gives your hand a value of 14 points. The dealer’s up card is 7. From the 49 unknown cards, 26 of them will give you a total of 21 or lower and 23 will bust your hand. Blackjack strategy is based on this mathematics, rather than simply a hunch or a gut feeling.
Basic Blackjack Strategy Rules
It’s best to think of basic blackjack strategy as your gateway to this great game. In this guide we’re outlining blackjack strategy for four to eight deck games, though each blackjack variant has its own optimal strategies. For instance, the optimal strategy is slightly different if you are playing with 1 deck compared to 8 decks. Certain rules, such as does the dealer hit or stand on soft 17, also have a bearing on the exact optimal strategy for that game.
The blackjack surrender strategy is exactly as it sounds. You can ‘surrender’ your hand and receive half of your wager back if you’re unlikely to win the hand.
There are two types of surrender: early and late. Late surrender is most common, and allows the dealer to check for blackjack before a player surrenders, which means they could still lose their wager. Early surrender, on the other hand, allows players to surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack and, as a result, is much less common.
Not all blackjack games offer the surrender option, but the general tactic is to:
- Surrender hard 16 (but not if a pair of 8s) against dealer’s 9, 10 or Ace.
- Surrender hard 15 against dealer’s 10.
If you’re dealt two cards of equal value, you can split them to make two hands. This increases your chances of hitting 21, as you have more cards in play. The number of times you can split varies according to the game you’re playing, but the maximum is three splits, which would give you four hands in total. The general rules for splitting are:
- Always splits Aces and 8s.
- Never split 5s or 10s.
- Split 2s and 3s if the dealer’s up card is a 4, 5, 6 or 7. Also if double after splitting is allowed (DAS), then split if the dealer’s up card is a 2 or 3.
- Only Split 4s if the dealer’s up card is a 5 or 6 and double after splitting (DAS) is allowed.
- Split 6s if the dealer’s up card is a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Also split against a 2 if double after splitting (DAS) is allowed.
- Split 7s if the dealer’s up card is a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7.
- Split 9s if the dealer’s up card is a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, or 9 (note: not 7).
Double Down, commonly referred to as double, is where you can ‘double’ the size of your initial bet after you have seen your first two cards and commit to stand on your third card.
Different games have their own rules on doubling. While some variants only allow it if you’re holding 9 or 10, other variants allow it with 9, 10 and 11 and some on any number. These are the rules to follow which covers all formats:
- Double hard 9 if the dealer’s up card is a 3, 4, 5 or 6.
- Double hard 10, unless the dealer has an Ace or 10 showing.
- Double hard 11, unless the dealer has an Ace showing.
- Double soft 13 or 14 if the dealer’s up card is a 5 or 6.
- Double soft 15 or 16 if the dealer’s up card is a 4, 5, or 6.
- Double soft 17 or 18 if the dealer’s up card is a 3, 4, 5, or 6.
Hit or Stand
If none of the above options are available, you either have the choice to hit— risk another card— or stand— stick with your current hand. Here’s when you should hit or stand:
- Always hit hard 11 or less
- Stand on hard 12 if the dealer’s up card is a 4, 5, or 6.
- Hit on hard 12 if the dealer’s up card is higher than 6.
- Stand on hard 13, 14,15 or 16 if the dealer’s up card is a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.
- Hit on hard 13, 14, 15 or 16 if the dealer’s card is higher than 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.
- Always stand on hard 17 or higher.
- Always hit soft 17 or lower.
- Stand on soft 18, unless the dealer has 9, 10 or Ace.
- Always stand on soft 19 or higher.
Games rules affecting house edge
You might wonder why each blackjack variant has a slightly different house edge or RTP value, even if the same number of decks are in play. This is because the exact rules of a game affect a casino’s advantage. While some rule variations benefit the player, others offer an advantage to the house. Let’s take a look.
Rules that favour players
- Blackjack pays 2:1-Blackjack usually pays 3:2, so any payout higher than this is beneficial to a player.
- Double After Splitting (DAS)-If you’re allowed to still double your wager after splitting, you can reduce the house edge by around 0.1%.
- Player’s blackjack beats dealer’s-In most cases, equal hands result in a tie, so the wager is returned. However, in some games, the player’s blackjack wins even when the dealer hits 21 too.
- Early or late surrender-The surrender option is beneficial to players in that they aren’t held to playing a hand they simply can’t win. Rather than lose all of their wager, they just forfeit half. While early surrender is the most beneficial, both offer the player an advantage.
- Double down on three or more cards-Most blackjack games limit doubling down to the first two cards, so finding a table that allow you to double on three or more cards offers you a clear advantage.
Rules that favour dealers
- Blackjack pays 1:1-This is lower than the standard blackjack payout of 3:2, which swings the advantage to the casino.
- Double down card restrictions-Blackjack tables that restrict the cards you can double down on work in favour of the casino, as player choices are limited.
- No splitting Aces-Certain games prevent players from splitting Aces which, in its limitation of players’ choice, is beneficial to the casino.
- Dealer hit on soft 17-In most blackjack variations, the dealer stands on soft 17. However, giving the player the chance to hit can increase the house edge by 0.2%.
Blackjack Betting Systems
In a simple Google search of ‘how to win at blackjack’ you would find hundreds different blackjack betting strategies and systems. Many claim to have unlocked the secret to regularly beating the casino.You only need to do a Google (or Youtube) search for ‘How to win at blackjack’ to find hundreds, possibly thousands, or different betting strategies and systems. Most claim to have unlocked the secret to regularly beating the casino. However, no strategy in existence — other than card counting, which isn’t possible in online blackjack games— can overcome the house edge completely.
Still, that doesn’t mean they should be totally ignored. Some blackjack betting systems are useful as a means of bankroll management when playing blackjack over an extended period of time. The two most popular blackjack betting systems are flat betting and progressive, here’s how they differ.
Flat betting system
Flat betting is the most simple blackjack betting system. Win or lose, players bet the same amount of money every hand. Combining flat betting with basic blackjack strategy stabilises your losses over a sustained period of play, as you aren’t swept up by winning streaks, or betting higher stakes in an attempt to win back previous losses.
Progressive betting system
Progressive betting systems require players to adjust their wager amount depending on the outcome of their previous hand. Positive progression calls for players to increase stakes following a win, and decrease stakes after a losing hand, while negative progression requires players to do the exact opposite. Let’s take a look at the theory behind each.
Positive progression blackjack betting
The theory behind any positive progression betting system is that you maximise your profits when you’re on a winning streak, but keep your losses in check with smaller bets when the casino comes out on top. This is useful for bankroll management as it keeps you at the table longer than if you were to simply employ a flat betting strategy.
The Paroli system is an example of positive progression betting and its simplicity makes it a popular choice for many players. You must first decide how much to bet on each hand- let’s say this is £10. Each time you win, you increase the bet by this amount. If you lose, you revert back to the base bet of £10.
- Hand 1: bet £10. Win. Total +£10
- Hand 2: bet £20. Win. Total +£30
- Hand 3: bet £30. Win. Total +£60
- Hand 4: bet £40. Lose. Total +£20
- Hand 5: bet £10. Win. Total +£30
In essence, this has the same element of risk as flat betting because your base bet remains the same. However, gambling more on winning hands gives you the opportunity to profit when you hit a hot streak.
Negative progression blackjack betting
The negative progression betting theory is that, even if you hit a run of consecutive losses, your luck will change eventually. You’re increasing your bets until you get a winning hand, which carries greater risk. You’ll also need a higher bankroll to even attempt this system as, it’s possible to lose 10 or even 20 blackjack hands in a row.
The Martingale system is an example of negative progression blackjack betting. Following the Martingale system, a player doubles their wager after each losing hand. The theory behind this ensures that, when the player gets a winning hand, they’ll make a profit of one betting unit.
- Hand 1: bet £10. Lose. Total -£10
- Hand 2: bet £20. Lose. Total -£30
- Hand 3: bet £40. Lose. Total -£70
- Hand 4: bet £80. Lose. Total -£150
- Hand 5: bet £160. Win. Total +£10
As you can see, nerves of steel and deep pockets are required if you want to explore the Martingale betting system. Not only does this system require a huge bankroll to cover a losing run, table limits can also prove an obstacle. This means the Martingale is best suited to high rollers on high stakes blackjack tables.
Ready to play?
Now you’re clued up on blackjack strategy, you’re probably ready to put some of your knowledge into practice. Not sure where to play blackjack online? Use our list of the best online blackjack sites to compare, pick out a favourite and sign up- once your casino account has been verified you can deposit and start playing. The top blackjack casinos have a range of different payment methods, so there’s an option for everyone. Don’t forget to claim your bonus to boost your blackjack bankroll further.
Frequently asked questions
Does following a blackjack strategy guarantee a win?
No. While basic blackjack strategy can put you on the right path to beating the dealer, it can’t guarantee a win every time. Blackjack strategy is based on probability, rather than definite definite predictions.
Is the insurance bet a good way to win at blackjack?
No. The golden rule with online blackjack is to avoid insurance bets. Insurance bets always have a high house edge, which means they’ll favour the casino in the long term. While it’s possible to get lucky on an insurance bet, these aren’t a sustainable way to win money in blackjack.
How can I be certain online blackjack games are fair?
TopRatedCasinos.co.uk only works with valid UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) licence holders, which guarantee you a safe and fair blackjack experience, whether you’re playing on desktop or on mobile. The UKGC regularly audits gambling sites to prove they are prioritising player security and fair play with technology such as random number generators (RNG).
Can I use blackjack strategy on live dealer blackjack games?
Of course. Basic blackjack strategy can, and should be, be applied whether you’re playing RNG or live dealer blackjack. There are plenty of live dealer blackjack tables at which you can try out your blackjack strategy, with PlayTech and Microgaming leading the crowd.
What’s the difference between a hard and soft hand in blackjack?
In blackjack, a ‘soft’ hand is when a total relies on an Ace as 11. A ‘hard’ blackjack hand doesn’t rely on this. For example, a soft 17 would consist of Ace and 6. A hard 17 would consist of 9 and 8.