Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why everyone should learn blackjack basic strategy


Blackjack is one of those games that's so common that most people find themselves playing it at some point in their lives, whether at home games or in casinos, even if they're not really into gambling. It's also one of the more dynamic casino games because as players we get to make our own decisions on whether to hit, stand, double, split or surrender, rather than just put our chips on the table and pray--you'll find that players interact with each other more than usual at the blackjack table.

It never fails to amaze me when I see people play blackjack haphazardly and with clearly no knowledge of basic strategy. You wouldn't sit down to play a game of Monopoly without knowing at least that you could buy and sell property, right? It frustrates me when I see players with a 10 failing to double against the dealer's 5. A player who does that is not optimising his game when the odds are clearly in his favour.

For those who are unfamiliar with basic strategy, a quick Wikipedia search will explain things a bit. Basically, for any combination of cards (yours and the dealer's), there is one decision that will be most beneficial to you as the player.

Some decisions seem pretty obvious. For instance, if you have a 20, you stand no matter what card the dealer has. If you have 14 and the dealer has 10, you take a card even though you may go over 21 and bust, because if you don't you stand a high chance of losing when the dealer takes his second card. Pretty elementary stuff.

Of course, some basic strategy decisions are a bit more surprising to beginners but can easily be explained. For instance, if you have a 15 and the dealer shows a 4, you should stand. When the dealer shows 3, 4 or 5 he is in a good position to bust if he draws two big cards. Since your own 15 could easily bust if you take another card, it's best to just stand and let the dealer bust.

You need basic strategy to achieve the best possible results permitted by the rules of the casino and your own luck. I'm sure most of us have won money prior to learning basic strategy on very lucky days. Blackjack basic strategy can help you do even better on your lucky days; even when things aren't going as best they could, using basic strategy can at least help you to stay in the game longer.

"But I can't be bothered to memorise the whole table! It's so much easier to just go with my gut feeling."

Anyone who says this obviously hasn't put any actual effort into learning blackjack basic strategy. Many of the decisions are pretty much a matter of common sense once you gain a basic understanding of the blackjack probabilities.

Furthermore, it doesn't take very much time or practice (as opposed to card counting) to get a decent grasp of basic strategy. You don't have to go and play at actual games in the casino to drill basic strategy into your grey matter. Because the dealer does not make actual decisions but always has to follow set rules dictating whether he should hit or stand, you can just practise on the computer--there are many free options online.

Sure, some of the combinations may be a bit trickier, particularly the rules governing splits and hands with aces. But the tricky hands will appear only a small percentage of the time. Most of the time you'll be dealing with hands that can be disposed of very, very easily as long as you've spent some time learning blackjack basic strategy. Even if you don't learn basic strategy perfectly, at least getting a feel for the overall pattern of decision making helps tremendously.

If you keep at it, before you know it, blackjack basic strategy will become second nature. For the more common hands, at least, you'll be able to determine the optimum decision the second the dealer turns over the cards. It's not like card counting, which requires intense concentration and some say detracts from the pleasure of playing (card counters use basic strategy as well, all while keeping track of the card count). Basic strategy players can order drinks, socialise with other players and fiddle with their mobile phones, all while playing their cards right. Believe me, it's not rocket science.

"Why do I have to take blackjack so seriously? I just play for fun! Stop being so anal!"

If that's what you're thinking, you have the misconception that basic strategy is an esoteric science that only the truly hardcore can be bothered to master.

Did you know that many casinos in Las Vegas give out free blackjack basic strategy cards and even allow you to openly refer to yours as you play? Yes, the strategy is so basic that even the casinos think that players without it would be too severely handicapped.

Now, I know what you're thinking: if even casinos are giving out free basic strategy cards, that means blackjack basic strategy can't really help me win, right? Well, without basic strategy, players would lose money way too fast and then stop playing altogether. Casinos always try to let people win just enough money to keep them playing. If there was a game in which the casino had a 100% edge and won every single time, guess how many people would be playing? (Those numerate gamers who have the mathematics of blackjack all figured out tell us that basic strategy can reduce the house edge to under 1%. This means you have slightly more than a 49% chance of winning, making it the game with the lowest house edge.)

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, learning blackjack basic strategy is no big feat. Of course you can bring a cheat sheet with you into the casino if they allow it, but you'll find it's much easier to just memorise the simpler combinations, just like it's easier to master basic addition and subtraction than it is to whip out a calculator everytime you want to count $1.50 for a can of Coke.

"Alright, alright, I'll learn the damned thing. But how?"

This excellent website generates a printable basic strategy table which you can customise according to the rules at your casino. You'll probably have to do a little research to determine the rules at different casinos, but if you're not sure just enter them approximately--most common combinations remain the same for all sets of rules. Besides, once you learn one set of rules it's easy to make small adjustments where necessary. I think most casinos in Malaysia, Macau or Indonesia and those on cruises from Singapore will use at least 6 decks. The website has a few other features like tips on memorising basic strategy and a basic strategy trainer, if you really want to be spoonfed, heh.

I myself memorised basic strategy by printing out a blackjack basic strategy chart and pinning it on the noticeboard in front of my computer. Then I played blackjack on the computer for a while everyday, referring to the chart whenever I slipped up or forgot what to do.

Doubling and splitting are very important, and you should devote particular attention to this when learning basic strategy. If you don't even know how to double or split (yes it sounds silly but I know there are people out there who have a fuzzy awareness at best of these options), you won't be able to make the most of basic strategy. It is unacceptable not to know when and how to double or split as hands involving doubling and splitting are those that have the potential to make you the most money. Not doubling or splitting when you should is like driving a manual car without changing gears, and then wondering why your car doesn't go very fast.

If you haven't already learned blackjack basic strategy, please do so. It really makes playing blackjack a much better experience!

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