Learning blackjack

In two weeks, I am going to Las Vegas for my brother’s bachelor party. It is inevitable that I will gamble a bit and lose that money which I gamble; I consider this an entertainment expense, not an opportunity to make money. Nevertheless, it seems wise to attempt to limit the damage—or at least acquire some knowledge as a consolation prize—by becoming well-informed about precisely how the casino will be taking my money.

Additionally, for years I have wanted to learn statistics. In second grade, I kept “stat books” in which I attempted to study the relative strengths and weaknesses of football and hockey teams and make predictions about who would defeat whom. In eleventh grade, however, my math education derailed, and I never got around to learning statistics. When I have tried to do so, I have been put off by the giant equations with their symbols and subscripts, and dismissed the topic as something I am fated to never understand. 

So, motivated by these two complementary aims, I’ve decided to learn a casino game, and (I think) the one with the best odds is Blackjack. Accordingly, I’ve done some reading on Blackjack strategy over the past two days, and I’ll post what I have learned. Credit for any correct assertions goes to Jay Moore’s “The Most Powerful Blackjack Manual” and the iPhone app “BlackJack 101 Free.” It seems there is some disagreement about strategy at the margins—which is exactly what makes a game fun, anyway—so do not take what follows as The Truth. I am a confessed novice: I know nothing about this subject except, perhaps, for what follows.

As introduction, the object of blackjack is for the player to defeat the dealer; the player and the dealer each get two cards; all face cards (J, Q, K) are worth 10; the object is to draw cards amounting to a number as close as possible to 21 without going over 21; and if either the dealer or the player goes over 21, that is called a “bust.” The dealer deals the player’s cards face-up, but the dealer himself keeps one card face up (the “upcard”) and one card face down (the “hole card”). To “hit” is to request another card (at the risk of “busting,” i.e. going over 21), to “stand” is to refuse additional cards (at the risk of having a lower total than the dealer), to “split” if one is dealt a pair (e.g. two fives or two aces) is to double one’s bet and play two separate hands simultaneously, and to “double down” is to double one’s initial bet and accept only one additional card. The dealer must follow a particular script, usually “hitting” if his cards total 16 or fewer points, but “standing” if his cards total more than 16.

Strategy to come in the next post.

Ryan McCarl
Attorney | Writer | Educator