Ryan McCarl

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Learning blackjack, part 2: strategy

I wrote a complete version of this post a couple of days ago on a plane, but somehow lost the file. But then, I am writing this in part to fix it in my memory and build my understanding, so there’s no harm in writing it again.

Below is what I have gleaned about basic blackjack strategy, primarily from two sources: the iPhone app Blackjack 101 Free and the book The Most Powerful Blackjack Manual by Jay Moore. Credit for any insights goes to those sources, and blame for any mistakes rests with me. I am a novice still trying to learn the game, so I would caution against taking the advice below without a healthy dose of skepticism.

Key and glossary (basic rules were outlined in the previous post): A = Ace (value of 1 or 11); K = King (value of 10); Q = Queen (value of 10); J = Jack (value of 10);

“soft” hand = hand that includes an ace, in which the ace can count as either 1 or 11 without the hand going over 21; “hard” hand = hand that does not include an ace, or hand in which the value of the ace must equal 1 so as to avoid exceeding 21;

“blackjack” = a winning hand that totals exactly 21 (e.g. 10 + A);

“to bust” = to have cards whose total value exceeds 21, thereby losing the round; “busting” or “breaking” hand = a hand that has not yet busted but that presents a hightened risk of busting.

### Basic principles: -I always thought that the object of blackjack is to get as close to 21 as possible without busting. In fact, however, the object is to beat the dealer, which may involve standing on far less than 21 if the dealer’s upcard suggests that the dealer may bust. The player acts before the dealer, and if the player busts, she loses regardless of what happens to the dealer.
-There are thus two variables in every blackjack hand that determine the appropriate move: (1) the strength of one’s own hand; and (2) the apparent strength of the dealer’s hand, as suggested by the dealer’s upcard. -The average winning total in a blackjack hand is 19. But if one has 17, any additional cards are likely to cause the hand to bust. Therefore, regardless of what the dealer’s upcard is, the player should always stand on “hard 17.” -The strongest card for both the dealer and the player is a “soft” hand: a hand that includes an ace. -The dealer makes no decisions; she simply follows a script. She must always hit on a total of hard 16 or below and stand on a total of hard 17 or higher; and depending on the table’s rules, she must either hit or stand on a soft 17 (Ace + 6). -The core strategy: bet aggressively but play conservatively when the dealer’s hand (upcard) is weak to avoid busting and allow the dealer to bust; bet conservatively but play aggressively when the dealer’s hand (upcard) is strong to try to reach a higher total than the dealer without busting. -The strongest card is an ace, as mentioned above; other strong upcards for the dealer are cards with a value of 10 (10/J/Q/K) or 9. An upcard of 8 is neutral, leaning toward strong; an upcard of 7 is neutral, leaning toward weak; an upcard of 2 or 3 is weak; and an upcard of 4, 5, or 6 is the weakest. Thus, for instance, regardless of what the player is holding, the player should bet aggressively and play conservatively–hoping to avoid busting and wait for the dealer to bust–when the dealer shows a “busting” upcard, i.e. a 4, 5, or 6.