Intermediate Blackjack Strategy
Once you've conquered the basics of how to play blackjack, where do you go next?
You need a guide to intermediate blackjack topics, and this page is an introduction to those subjects.
We cover 4 main topics on this page:
Each of those sections on this page provide a detailed introduction to that topic.
But they also include links to comprehensive coverage of those topics.
Blackjack basic strategy is a term used to describe the correct way to play every hand in every situation in blackjack. Beginners might think that this sounds overwhelming, but once you've become an intermediate player, you probably understand that this isn't nearly as many combinations as someone might think.
Basic strategy is usually presented as a table. Across the top are the possible dealer up-cards: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, A. That makes for 10 columns.
The rows are made up of the possible totals the player might have. These are divided into hard totals, soft totals, and pairs.
By cross-referencing the total you have with the dealer's up-card, you can decide whether to double down, hit, split, or stand in any given situation.
If you look closely at a basic strategy table, you'll notice what seems like a dividing line between the 6 and the 7. That's because a dealer hand with a 6 or lower is more likely to be a stiff hand - the dealer is more likely to bust.
You'll find that the correct move is to stand more often when the dealer has a 2 through 6.
But if the dealer has a 7 or better, it's more often correct to hit.
If you have a hard total of 12, and the dealer has a 2 or 3 showing, you'll hit rather than stand. On any higher total versus a dealer 2 or 3, you'll stand - even if you only have a 13 or 14.
Basic strategy changes based on the rules variations in play. Some decisions change based on whether the dealer stands on a soft 17 or hits. Some change based on the number of decks being used.
Some websites present basic strategy charts as if they're a one-size-fits-all proposition. Others offer basic strategy generators, where you input the rules variations in use. The algorithm then presents you with a finished basic strategy.
You'll find a more comprehensive discussion of basic strategy on our blackjack basic strategy page.
Odds and Probability
Gambling games are always about odds and probability. How the math behind blackjack works is a study unto itself.
First, let's talk about the house edge.
That's a mathematical expression of how much you're expected to lose on every bet you make on a gambling game. All casino games have a house edge. That's how the casinos stay in business.
For most casino games, the house edge hovers around 5%, although it can vary widely in either direction.
But in blackjack, the house edge generally hovers between 0.5% and 1%, making it one of the best games in the casino for the smart player.
That number means that the casino expects you to lose that amount on average of every bet you place. If you're betting $100 a hand at a blackjack table where the house has a 1% edge, they expect you to lose an average of $1 per hand over a large enough set of repetitions.
Of course, this is an average over tens of thousands of hands. It would be impossible to lose $1 on a single hand of blackjack if you made a $100 bet. You'd lose $100, win $100, win $150, or some other number commensurate with your bet size.
It's only when all the wins and losses are tallied, added, and subtracted can you find an average loss per hand.
That number is also an assumption. It assumes that you're playing with perfect basic strategy. If you're making a lot of mistakes while you play, the house edge might be as high as 5%. (It could be even higher, but we like to assume you have at least a little card sense.)
One of the more interesting aspects of probability as it relates to blackjack is the fact that the game has a memory. What happens on previous hands affects future hands.
You're playing blackjack in a single deck game, and all the aces have already been dealt.
The probability of being dealt a natural and getting a 3 to 2 payout is now 0.
It's impossible to have a natural without an ace.
Since all the aces have been dealt, it's impossible to get a blackjack.
This is also the reason card counting works. We'll talk more about that later.
For now, let's refer you to our detailed page on blackjack odds and probability for more thorough coverage of the subject.
Different casinos have different rules about surrendering. It's an option that we haven't covered in detail in our beginner's section, and not all casinos offer it.
Here's how surrender works:
You think the dealer might have a strong hand. You have the option of giving up half your bet and forfeiting your hand.
This might seem like a dumb move, but if the dealer has a blackjack, you lose your entire bet. If you have a lousy hand anyway, it might make more sense to surrender.
Suppose the dealer has a 9 showing. The odds of the dealer having a strong hand are excellent. At least a third of the time, she's going to have a total of 19.
Let's also suppose you have a hard 16 total. That's one of the worst stiff totals you could ask for. If you stand, the dealer's probably going to beat you. If you take a hit, you're almost certainly going to bust.
You're better off just giving up half your bet.
If the dealer has a 10 or an ace showing, you're even more likely to want to surrender. After all, she has a potential blackjack.
And that potential blackjack is what creates 2 different kinds of surrender:
- Early surrender
- Late surrender
In a casino that allows early surrender, you have the option of surrendering, but you do so before the dealer checks her hole card for blackjack.
In a casino that allows late surrender, you have the option of surrendering after the dealer checks her hole card for blackjack.
Since the dealer wins immediately when she has a blackjack, early surrender favors the player. Most casinos offering surrender as an option only allow late surrender.
You can read a comprehensive page about surrendering in blackjack in the appropriate section of our site.
Beginners might think that a section on counting cards would be more appropriate in the guide for advanced players.
Let's talk about what card counting is not, first.
If you've seen Rain Man, you might think that a card counter commits an entire deck of cards to memory. If this were what's required, most people would be unable to count cards.
In the real world (not the movies), counting cards involves tracking the ratio of high cards to low card left in the deck. A deck with a proportionally higher number of high cards in it favors the player.
You get paid 3 to 2 if you get a blackjack. Since a blackjack is made up of aces and 10s, you're more likely to be dealt a blackjack when there are proportionally more of those cards in the deck.
If you raise the size of your bets when there are lots of aces and 10s in the deck, and if you lower the size of your bets when there aren't, you'll get an edge over the casino.
Card counting systems assign values to the cards to track this ratio. As each card is dealt, the count goes up or down.
The most basic card counting systems just add or subtract 1 from the count based on which cards are dealt. Low cards are worth +1, and higher cards are worth -1.
Not only can you size your bets based on how high the count is, you can also make different basic strategy decisions when the deck is rich in high cards.
For example, taking insurance makes sense if there are lots of 10s in the deck. This turns an otherwise foolish side bet into a mathematically advantageous situation.
But only when the count indicates.
Counting cards is easy enough that anyone can learn to do it. The trick is doing it well, and that includes learning how to count cards without getting heat from the casino.
We go into elaborate detail on how to count cards, which systems are used, and how to get the best edge against the house in our full card counting section.
Intermediate blackjack play isn't much harder than beginner blackjack play. At this stage of your development as a blackjack player, you're refining what you learned as a beginner. You're mastering basic strategy, getting a feel for the odds and probability behind the game, and starting to learn card counting.
Only the most advanced players are going to progress to the next level. These are the math nerds who want to milk every tenth of a percentage point of advantage against the casino. We'll cover that on our site, too.