A blackjack player once asked me this question: “Every time I play blackjack against the dealer, he always seems to beat me. So why shouldn’t I just mimic the dealer’s strategy?” That’s a good question and to answer it you first have to understand two things:

1. How to play blackjack
2. How the casinos get their edge in blackjack in the first place.

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When I ask most blackjack players how the house gets their edge in blackjack, this is what they usually say: “They get their edge because players don’t know how to play their hands.”  It’s true that a player who plays blackjack and guesses on whether to hit or stand results in an increase in the house edge against this player. But what’s more important to understand is this: what is the inherent house edge in blackjack?

Simply put, the casino gets its edge in blackjack because players act on their hand before the dealer acts on her hand, and if the total of a player’s hand exceeds 21, the player is an automatic loser even if the dealer subsequently busts in the same round. There are more reasons why blackjack players lose besides mimicking the dealer's strategy.

The “double bust” rule is the casino’s sole built-in advantage in blackjack, and if everything else were equal and a player mimicked the dealer’s playing strategy (i.e., always stand on 17-21 and hit on 16 or less) the house edge would be about 8%. That’s because the player and the dealer would have about a 28.3% probability of busting, if they played in the same manner; therefore, 0.283 times 0.283, or about 8% of the time both hands would bust and the dealer would win.

Fortunately, not all is equal when you play blackjack. Players have certain advantages and options that are not available to the dealer. They include:

• Receiving a 3 to 2 bonus payoff on a blackjack, whereas the dealer gets paid only at 1 to 1 on his winning blackjack (advantage to player).
• Being able to double their wager in favorable situations (like being dealt a two-card 11), whereas the dealer cannot double down (advantage to player).
• Being able to split, and sometimes resplit pairs, whereas dealers cannot split (advantage to player).
• Players can stand on totals of 12–16, whereas a dealer must always hit a total of 16 or lower (advantage to player), and players can hit some soft hands whereas the dealer cannot (advantage to player).
• Being able to surrender, when rules permit (advantage to player).

I trust you now understand why mimicking the dealer strategy when you play blackjack is a very bad idea. So is guessing on whether to hit or stand on a particular hand or using your “intuition” that says you should hit because you are “due” to win the hand. No, blackjack is not a guessing game; in fact, brilliant mathematicians have calculated the best way to play every hand and have condensed this information into what is known as the basic playing strategy. By learning the basic strategy, meaning knowing when to hit, stand, double down, or pair split, and playing every hand accurately, you can reduce the initial 8% double-bust house edge down to 0.5% or less (depending on the number of decks of cards and the playing rules).

The following table summarizes the effect the 3 to 2 bonus blackjack payoff and the player advantage (options) has in reducing the initial 8% house edge. Getting paid 3-2 for a blackjack reduces the house edge by 2.3% (and that’s for doing nothing at all); using the correct standing and hitting strategies reduces it another 3.5%, and so forth.  (To reiterate, the percentages will vary slightly based on the number of decks of cards and the playing rules.)

 Intial House Edge 8% 3 to 2 bonus for BJ -2.3% = 5.7% Correct Standing/Hitting -3.5% = 2.2% Correct Doubling -1.6%=0.6% Correct Pair Splitting -0.4% = 0.2%

SUMMARY

• Mimicking the dealer’s strategy is a very poor strategy that should never be used.
• Guessing or playing by “intuition” is another losing strategy.
• The only way to improve your chances of winning at blackjack is to learn the basic playing strategy.

The complete basic playing strategy for any given mix of playing rules and number of decks of cards being used is summarized in Chapter 3 of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide.

Henry Tamburin is one of world’s most respected blackjack experts and a world-class player. He is the author of the Ultimate Blackjack Strategy Guide, and Blackjack: Take The Money and Run. He edited the monthly Blackjack Insider Newsletter, and was a featured blackjack columnist for Casino Player magazine, Midwest Gaming and Travel magazine, Gaming South magazine, Southern Gaming magazine, New England Gaming News, Jackpot, Bingo Bugle, and Casino City Times.

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