Most people reading this post are already familiar with the concept of basic strategy in blackjack.
But if you’re not, suffice it to say that basic strategy is the mathematically best way to play every hand in blackjack in every possible situation.
And it’s based on the available information that you have in the game, which consists of:
- The cards in your hand – your total
- One of the cards in the dealer’s hand – her face-up card
Most basic strategy charts cross-index the two pieces of data so that you can quickly know what decision you should make.
In this post, I look at why the dealer’s face up card is so important to determine the basic strategy when playing blackjack for real money.
The Dealer Only Has 10 Possible Face Up Values
The dealer can have any of the following face up cards:
- 10, J, Q, or K (all equal to ten)
That’s a much more limited number of situations than the player has, by the way. The player’s hand can be divided into three categories:
- Soft Totals
- Hard Totals
The first decision to make with a pair – two cards of the same rank – is whether or not to split the hand.
Soft hands are hands that include an ace. Since the ace can count as 1 or 11, it’s impossible to bust a soft total. These hands are often played more aggressively than hard totals.
A hard hand is one without an ace – or one where an ace must count as 1 to avoid busting. You’re obviously less likely to hit a hard total because of the increased probability of busting.
But the dealer’s face up card affects the decisions more than many people think. When my mom taught me to play blackjack as a kid, she suggested that I just follow the same strategy as the casino. I was to hit any total of 16 or lower and stand on any total of 17 or higher.
That’s inferior to actual basic blackjack strategy on any number of levels. It’s hard to talk about basic strategy without looking at why.
And the big deciding factor is almost always the dealer’s face up card.
Probabilities of the Dealer’s Final Hand
The dealer will always wind up with a total of 17 or higher. The house demands that she hit her hand until she has a total that high. This simplifies things a lot, because the dealer can only have six possible final totals:
- 22 or higher (bust)
We know what the probability of each final hand is based on the dealer’s up card, too.
For example, if the dealer has an ace showing, here are the probabilities for each possible outcome:
- 17 – 19%
- 18 – 19%
- 19 – 19%
- 20 – 18%
- 21 – 8%
- 22 or higher (bust) – 1%
On the other hand, if the dealer has a 5 showing, her probabilities for those final totals are dramatically different:
- 17 – 12%
- 18 – 12%
- 19 – 12%
- 20 – 10%
- 21 – 11%
- 22 or higher (bust) – 43%
The most important probability, of course, is the probability that the dealer will bust. If the dealer has an ace, she’ll bust less than 1 out of 5 hands.
But if she has a 5 showing, she’ll bust more than 2 out of 5 hands.
This means that you should be more likely to stand when the dealer is more likely to bust, and you should be more likely to hit when the dealer is less likely to bust.
You Shouldn’t Assume the Dealer Has a 10 in the Hole
Since there are more cards worth 10 than any other point value in the deck, some blackjack players base their strategy on the assumption that the dealer has a 10 in the hole. They also assume that their next card will be a 10.
This is probably better than playing by your hunches or than mirroring the dealer’s strategy, but it’s a far cry from basic strategy still.
That’s because, even though there are 16 out of 52 cards in the deck worth 10 points, there are still 36 cards in the deck worth some other total.
If you fail to account for those other cards, you won’t be able to achieve the optimal return in a blackjack game.
Still, with 30.8% of the cards in the deck being worth 10 points, it’s hard to ignore their importance. It’s reasonable to assume that any time the dealer is showing a 7 or higher as her up card, she’s often going to have a pat hand. (A pat hand is one you – or the dealer – stands on.)
But this can lead to the worst blackjack mistakes. Assume you have a total of 12, and the dealer has a 2 showing. You might stand here to avoid risking a bust and because you might think the dealer is likely to bust.
But the actual best strategy, mathematically, in this situation is to hit the 12.
If you could assume that the dealer always has a 10 in the hole, you could also double down every time the dealer has a weak hand. Doubling down on a total of 7 when the dealer has a 6 showing is the wrong strategy, though.
What’s a Stiff Hand and How Should You Play One?
A stiff hand is a drag, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys playing a stiff hand.
What is a stiff hand in blackjack?
It’s a total that’s likely to bust.
With a hard total of 15, any 7 or higher will bust you. That’s a total of 28 cards that could possibly bust your hand in this situation, which is more than half the deck even when all the cards are still in the deck.
But if you don’t hit that 15, you’re almost certainly going to lose the hand. After all, about 1/3 of the time, the dealer WILL have a 10 in the hole for a total of 19.
Even if the dealer has a 7, 8, or 9 in the hole, she has your 15 beat.
You must hit here.
Choosing Between Two Evils in Blackjack
Basic strategy in blackjack often means choosing between the lesser of two evils. If you have a total of 15, you have no fun decisions to make. You’re going to lose money in the long run on this specific total no matter what. The best you can hope for is to minimize the amount of money you lose in the long run with this total.
But if you stand in this situation, you’ll lose an average of $48 of every $100 you bet on this hand.
If you hit in this situation, though, you’ll lose an average of $41 of every $100 you bet on this hand.
You’re losing less money in the long run, and that’s the entire point of basic strategy.
What’s the Point of Doubling Down?
Choosing between two evils isn’t fun, and stiff hands are a drag. Splitting and doubling down, on the other hand, is where blackjack gets to be even more fun than usual.
You’ll obviously almost always double down on a total of 10 or 11 because you’ll often get a 10 and wind up with as strong a total as you could hope for.
You’ll double down on some other totals, too, though – depending on the dealer’s face-up card. When the dealer is probably weak, it’s often a good idea to get more money into action.
In some casinos, though, you’re ONLY allowed to double down on totals of 10 and 11. That’s not a good rule for the player. It adds 0.26% to the house edge for the casino.
I know that 0.26% sounds like a tiny number, but when you’re dealing with a game that has a house edge of between 0.5% and 1%, it’s almost an order of magnitude in terms of difference.
The point of doubling down is to make more money when you beat the dealer.
How Does This All Affect Splitting?
Splitting is one of the easiest sections of a basic strategy chart to learn. Some pairs always get split, and some pairs never get split. Once you learn those, the rest is easy.
For example, you’ll always split a pair of aces or a pair of 8s. And that’s easy to remember, right?
Aces and 8s.
Here’s another example:
You’ll never split 4s, 5s, or 10s.
These are all examples of hands where your decision about splitting isn’t affected by the dealer’s face up card.
A pair of 8s is a good example. That’s the same thing as a hard total of 16 – we’ve already talked about what a drag it is to have to play a stiff hand like that.
But when you split it, you now have two new hands where the first card of each hand is an 8. You’re never pleased when you see that the dealer’s face up card is an 8. That’s because it’s good starting card.
Playing the Best Casino Blackjack
You only have two pieces of information when deciding how to play your hand – your total and the dealer’s face up card. Knowing the best play with this information is crucial to help you win more playing blackjack.
Some people overemphasize the importance of their total, but the dealer’s face up card is at least as important to your decision.
And now you know why.