How Effective Is Basic Strategy in Blackjack?

Blackjack Strategy
You’ve read a lot of blackjack articles and blog posts now, and every one of them has suggested that you learn basic strategy in blackjack.

But how effective is basic strategy in blackjack? That depends on what you mean by “effective.”

If you want to know what it does to your odds of walking away a winner, that’s one thing. If you want to know if basic strategy will help you win in the long run, well, that’s a little more complicated.

I’ll share some opinions and ideas about basic strategy in blackjack below.

Basic Strategy in Blackjack Is a Losing Strategy

Here’s the most important thing you should understand about basic strategy in blackjack—it’s a losing strategy.

You can decide whether a strategy is a winning or losing one by looking at whether it wins or loses money in the long run. That seems like a fair definition to me.

Losing Gambling

All casino games, including blackjack, offer the casino a mathematical advantage in the long run. This mathematical advantage is expressed as the house edge. The higher the house edge is, the bigger the casino’s advantage over the player.

Blackjack is famous for having the lowest house edge in the casino, but that low house edge assumes you’re making the mathematically best decision in every situation. That mathematically best decision is what we mean when we talk about “basic strategy.”

But even with perfect basic strategy, the house edge is between 0.2% and 1%. The difference is based on the game conditions in effect. This means that in the long run, even if you play with perfect basic strategy, you’re going to lose all your money playing blackjack.

That’s how the house edge works. Over time, it’s like a tax on your gaming action.

How Does the House Edge Convert to Actual Cash Losses?

I like to illustrate the difference between the long run and the short term in blackjack by looking at a single hand.

If the house edge predicts that I’m going to lose 1% of each bet on average, over time, what does that mean?

Losing Money

It means that for every $100 I bet, I’m expected to lose $1. But if I sit down and play a single hand of blackjack for $100, it’s impossible to lose $1.

I might lose $100. I might win $100. I might win $150. I might double down and win $200. But losing a dollar is impossible.

Even if I play two or three hands, it’s impossible to average a $1 loss per hand. But if I play a million hands, my chances of coming up with an average loss of $1 per $100 bet goes up tremendously.

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In fact, with a sample size that large, it becomes almost a certainty.

The closer I get to an infinite number of hands, the closer my average should get to the expected average loss as predicted by the house edge. I like to think of this exponentially.

The most extreme example of the short run is a single hand. 10 hands is also an example of the extreme short run. 100,000 hands, on the other hand, is getting closer to the long run. And a million hands is closer still.

But here’s how you predict how much money you’ll lose at blackjack using basic strategy.

Take the amount you’re betting per hand and multiply it by the number of hands you’re getting per hour. You can try keeping a mental tally while you’re playing.

Then, multiply that by the house edge. You can find sites that estimate the house edge for you based on game conditions.

Here’s an example:

  • You’re playing 80 hands per hour at $10 per hand. That’s $800 per hour in action.
  • You’ve checked a website, and your estimate of the house edge is 0.5%.
  • $800 X 0.5% is $4, which is your expected loss per hour.

In the short run, you might see losses much lower or greater than that. In an hour of blackjack, anything can happen.

What Does This Mean in Practical Terms?

If you ignore basic strategy and just go with your gut, the actual house edge you face is probably at least 2% higher than you’d expect.

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How long would you have to play to lose all your money using basic strategy versus not using basic strategy? You can estimate this, even though the prediction will be imperfect.

Let’s say you have a bankroll of $1,000. If you’re losing $4/hour, which is the estimate we came up with already, it would take 250 hours of play before you go broke.

That’s a lot of gambling entertainment for your money, and I’d recommend thinking about it that way, too. Gambling at a casino is an entertainment expense, just like going to a concert or going to the movies.

But if you’re making a lot of basic strategy mistakes, you’re looking at a house edge of 2.5% instead, which sounds low, but it turns that average $4 loss per hour into a loss of $20 per hour. At that rate, you’ll go broke in 50 hours.

Even with a huge amount of variance, that number won’t change much. It might take 60 hours to lose all your money instead of 50, or you might lose it in 40 hours.

The difference between an expected loss of $4 per hour and an expected loss of $20 per hour is significant.

Getting the Most Play for Your Money (Among Other Things)

If you stick with basic strategy, you’ll be more likely to walk away from a session with a profit. Placing bets with a higher house edge, especially in a low variance game like blackjack, just means increasing your probability of having a losing session.

But you’ll also be more likely to last longer, which is a great goal to have.

If you combine perfect basic strategy with an aggressive approach to getting casino comps, you might even break even, value-wise.

Comp City

Things have changed in Vegas since Max Rubin wrote Comp City, but they haven’t changed THAT much. You can still get free stuff for gambling, and that free stuff can offset some of those losses.

The casino estimates your predicted loss on the average player, not on a basic strategy player. They also don’t have a problem with basic strategy players, because they know they still have an edge.

If you can earn back 0.2% or 0.3% in comps on your money, your effective house edge drops to 0.3% or 0.2%.

Basic Strategy Is a Precursor to Other Strategies

You’ve probably already heard about card counting, too. It’s not hard to do, but it takes practice and the ability to focus.

But counting cards won’t help you get an edge over the casino if you don’t know basic strategy first. Basic strategy only gives you 1% or 2% most of the time.

Add 1% to a negative 0.5% edge, and you wind up with a 0.5% edge on your side. Add 2% to that same edge, and you wind up with an edge of 1.5% over the casino.

Those are great numbers, but suppose you learn to count cards without learning basic strategy? What happens to your numbers then?

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Add 1% or 2% to a negative expectation of 2.5%, and the casino still has an edge of 0.5% to 1.5%. To succeed at counting cards, you must know basic strategy perfectly, too.

And one of the ways that counting cards helps you get an edge over the casino is by informing you of deviations from basic strategy based on the composition of the deck.

You can’t deviate from basic strategy unless you know how to play with basic strategy first.

Conclusion

How effective is basic strategy in blackjack?

In terms of reducing the house edge as low as it can possibly go, basic strategy in blackjack is 100% effective. In fact, it’s the only tactic that can make that claim.

In terms of guaranteeing that you’ll go home a winner, well, basic strategy isn’t effective at all. It can increase your chances of doing so. But in the long run, unless you’re counting cards, basic strategy is still a losing strategy.

If you’re going to play blackjack for real money, you should memorize and use basic strategy to reduce the edge. It’s not that hard, and, in the long run, you’ll get way more gambling for your money.