Blackjack claims the title of the single most popular casino card game in the world and rightfully so. The great success it continually enjoys can be attributed to the simplicity of its rules and the relatively low edge it gives the house. Yet, what many recreational players fail to recognize is there are ways to not only reduce this edge further but also to eliminate it altogether.
There are numerous stories in the rich history of this enticing game, relating the exploits of skilled and dedicated players who have attacked the blackjack tables, and with great success. The mention of the Czech blackjack team sends shivers down the spines of pit bosses the world over to this very day. Then again, the students from the MIT blackjack team have inspired thousands of players, proving that when perfect strategy, discipline, and determination are at hand, there is no such notion as “improbable”.
Legends like Edward Thorp, Kenny Uston, Stanford Wong, and George Hascik have helped shape blackjack into the beatable game we know today through the introduction of various mathematically sound systems that can tremendously improve one’s success at the table. Read on, if you are interested to know more about the most common blackjack systems that can help you become a consistent winner.
Benefits of the Strategies
Compared to other casino mainstays like roulette, baccarat and craps, blackjack offers players a rather high value and a low house advantage. When joining a table with favorable rules and conditions, players using a strategy can rarely expect to fight a house edge that exceeds 0.8%. A person who fails to recognize the importance of strategies tends to make many mistakes when playing their hands, which naturally results in a substantial reduction of their bankroll.
Now, compare this to a person who incorporates a strategy at the table and follows it religiously. One such player will make the optimal decisions, bet more when they hold the advantage, and commit fewer errors during sessions. Fewer errors (or none at all) and proper bet sizing at the right moments translate into a reduction of one’s losses and helps them maximize their profits under favorable conditions.
Blackjack Strategies Additional BenefitsBlackjack is unique in that it is a casino game where there are constant swings in the advantage the house holds over players. This is so because the game is based on dependent events and each card that leaves the shoe has a direct impact on the outcomes of the hands to follow. By using even the simplest of strategies, which is rightfully called basic strategy, the player can reduce the already small edge this game has to around 0.5%. In contrast, relying on instinct and hunches will further boost the house advantage with 3% to 6%.
More advanced strategies, such as card counting, are known to obliterate the house edge, so much so that at a certain point, it is the card counter who holds the advantage over the casino. This results in positive expected value, which is to say the player would win more often than they would lose in the long term and therefore, would generate far greater profits.
In a conversation with more experienced blackjack players, you most certainly will hear them emphasize the importance of basic strategy. It is proven to work as it is based on an extensive study, conducted in the early 1960s. A computer specialist called Julian Braun conducted a simulation which involved around 9 billion combinations of hands against all possible face-up cards the dealer may show. The simulation was indeed extensive as it was based on blackjack games involving one, four, six, and eight decks.
After analyzing his results, Braun changed the game of Twenty-One forever as his findings served as the foundation for the basic strategy chart. The chart contains all the optimal moves a player can make on the basis of their own hand total and the value of the dealer’s up card. The basic strategy chart enables players to decide when it is the best time to stand, hit, double down, split pairs or surrender (if allowed).
Blackjack Basic Strategy Guide and Gameplay
|Players’ Hand||Dealer’s Up Card|
Basic Strategy Additional TipsThe basic strategy chart contains the right moves players can make when facing a neutral deck. The term “neutral” here refers to the conditions players confront following the reshuffle of a deck or shoe. The rows of the chart correspond to the player’s hand total and its composition. The columns contain the values of the cards the dealer may be showing. The optimal way to play a blackjack hand is to be found in the squares where a row and a column intersect.
You will undoubtedly notice splits and doubling down are generally recommended when the dealer shows 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. These values are more likely to lead to a bust if the dealer flips over a high hole card and draws to 17. With 2s through 6s, the dealer is practically forced to hit after revealing their hole card because no two-card combination containing a 6 or less adds up to the total of 17, save for the soft 17. This weakness should be exploited through splitting or doubling, which would also help players maximize their profits.
Players should approach the situation with more caution when the dealer shows higher-value cards like 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King or Ace. These are the dealer’s strongest up cards as they are more likely to result in a pat hand of 17 where drawing additional cards from the pack will be unnecessary.
If you want basic strategy to work to your best advantage, you need to memorize the chart to perfection, at least if you are playing in a landbased venue. The simplest way to do that would be to divide it into four sections and learn one section per day before you finally string everything together.
However, if you intend to attack the game at an online casino, you can easily skip on this step and consult the chart as you play. Do keep in mind that basic strategy is not universal and there may be deviations in the optimal decisions you need to make, depending on the rules of the blackjack game you engage in.
Basic strategy can reduce the house edge to 0.5% but there are ways to further decrease the advantage the house holds over you. One such technique is card counting and it was perfected by Edward O. Thorpe, professor of mathematics and a highly-skilled blackjack player. Card counting relies on the idea that players can boost their profits by betting more when they hold the advantage and reducing their stakes when the edge swings to the dealer.
People who use card counting are not cheaters, but merely advantage players. This technique may be frowned upon by pit bosses, but it is also perfectly legal. Card counters can tell when the odds are on their side by closely tracking the ratio of high cards and small cards. More Aces and face cards remaining in the shoe are favorable to players because they may potentially result in naturals with higher payouts. A higher number of small cards works to the benefit of the dealer and reduces their chances of going bust.
This approach is applicable to blackjack because the cards that are dealt on previous hands affect the composition of the cards remaining in the shoe or deck. Therefore, advantage players would base their decisions on the cards that are yet to be dealt. This would reduce their losses on unfavorable counts and enable them to increase their wagers when they are at an advantage.
Card Counting Systems
Various card counting systems have emerged over the last few decades, each one offering a different level of challenge and complexity to players. These can be grouped into two categories – balanced and unbalanced. Balanced counting systems require the player to convert a running count (RC) into a true count (TC).
The term “running count” is based on the values of the cards as they are dealt out of the shoe. With each card leaving the shoe, the counters would add or subtract from the running count, depending on the card’s point value. The counters would then divide their running count by the number of remaining decks to obtain a true count and base their decisions on that result.
Card Counting Systems Additional TipsRookie counters would probably be surprised to learn that the said true count is not really a count at all. It denotes the correlation between two quantities – high vs. low cards. Also, balanced systems derive their name from the fact that when a full deck is counted in its entirety, the result will always amount to zero.
Unbalanced systems have emerged more recently and are considered simpler since they eliminate the conversion of running into true count. Since the point values of the cards differ, their total value per deck never adds up to zero, hence the name “unbalanced” systems.
The Hi-Lo System
The Hi-Lo is the most popular balanced counting system applicable to the game of blackjack. It was developed and introduced by Harvey Dubner back in 1963. The beauty of the Hi-Lo lies in the fact that it is both simple and extremely effective – many recreational players and professionals have used it with great success.
|2, 3, 4, 5, 6||count +1|
|7, 8, 9||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||count -1|
The Hi-Lo System Additional TipsSince this is a balanced system, the players start with a running count of zero following the shuffle. All cards are assigned a specific point value depending on their strength. Therefore, all the low cards (2, 3, 4, 5, and 6) are given the point value of +1 while face cards and Aces are assigned the value of -1. The 7s, 8s and 9s are considered neutral and are assigned no point value – they do not affect the count at all. Since there are 20 high and 20 low cards in each deck, the counter always arrives at a running count of zero.
Advantage players would start by keeping a running count after the shuffle, adding and subtracting the point values of cards as they are leaving the deck. In shoe games, the counter would divide their running count by the number of decks that remain to be dealt to establish their true count. All decisions on hitting, standing, splitting and so on are henceforth based on the true count. The bet size is also adjusted on the basis of this. Advantage players would use bet ramps and increase or reduce their bets with a specific number of units as the true count escalates or drops down.
The Red Seven System
The Red Seven system is also widely used by advantage players with a good deal of success. This card counting system was first introduced by Arnold Snyder and its greatest merit lies in its simplicity, especially in comparison to the Hi-Lo.
|2, 3, 4, 5, 6||count +1|
|7 red||count +1|
|7 black||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||count -1|
The Red Seven System Additional TipsThis system assigns almost the same point values to the cards in the deck – face cards and Aces are counted as -1, low cards 2 through 6 are given the value of +1, and 9s and 8s are neutral or 0. There is one peculiarity here as 7s are assigned point values on the basis of their color. Thus, red 7s (of diamonds and hearts) are counted as low cards or +1 while black 7s (of clubs and spades) are ignored as neutral or 0.
The overall principle is the same as that in the Hi-Lo, save for the point values of the red 7s. This causes an imbalance in the system so when a player uses it, they would arrive at a total count of +2 per full deck. Therefore, the running count after the shuffle starts at -2 multiplied by the number of decks in play. If you are playing a six-deck game, you would start with a count of -12, but if you are playing an eight-deck game, your count starts at -8. Players using this system are also recommended to jump to higher bets whenever the count is positive or revolves around 0 because they will have a greater advantage.
The KO System
The KO (abbreviated from Knock-Out) is another unbalanced counting system that is widely used by advantage blackjack players. The KO was first introduced in the book Knockout Blackjack, written by Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs, and is considered one of the simplest card counting systems to ever be devised.
|2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7||count +1|
|8, 9||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||count -1|
The KO System Additional TipsWhen the system first gained popularity, many blackjack experts questioned its efficiency and labeled it less accurate than the widespread Hi-Lo. However, the KO quickly gained momentum and today it is recommended to beginners as a simple, yet effective card counting system. The biggest claim to fame of the KO is that it eliminates the need of converting running counts into true counts.
In this system, low cards 2 through 7 are assigned a point value of +1, the ten-value cards along with the Aces are counted as -1, and 8 and 9 are neutral or 0. The complete count of a deck or a shoe will result in +4 instead of 0 because the cards with a positive point value outnumber those with a negative point value. The players assign these values to each card dealt out of the shoe to determine their running count and then raise or lower their bets accordingly. The players would then increase their bet size on high running counts and reduce it to the table minimum when the count drops below +2. Another recommendation for those using this system is to accept insurance at a running count of +3 or above.
Many advanced blackjack players, who have adopted the KO, prefer to convert their running count into a true count to gain extra accuracy although this significantly increases the complexity of the system.
The KISS Systems
The KISS counting systems gained popularity in the blackjack community following the publishing of Fred Renzey’s book Blackjack Bluebook II in 2003. The abbreviation KISS stands for “keep it short and simple” and refers to a group of counting systems, allowing beginners to progress through three levels of complexity. The group consists of three unbalanced systems but the unique thing here is that the color of the cards’ suits is also taken into consideration.
|3, 4, 5, 6, 7||count +1|
|2 black||count +1|
|2 red||count 0|
|8, 9||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K, A||count -1|
The KISS Systems Additional TipsKISS I offers the lowest level of complexity and is considered a good option for beginner card counters and recreational players, mostly because it ignores nearly half of the cards in the deck. Note that the simpler a given system is to learn and implement, the less efficient it becomes. In KISS I, face cards are counted as -1, the 4s, 5s and 6s are given a point value of +1, and the remaining cards are all ignored as neutral.
There is a twist though as the 2s of clubs and spades are also assigned a positive point value of +1. This modification renders the KISS I unbalanced and eliminates the need of converting running counts into true counts. This significantly decreases the efficiency of this entry-level system. As Renzey himself has determined, KISS I will give players a 0.5% over the casino which is why most card counters prefer to ignore it altogether.
Once players have learned KISS I, they can move one step up the three-level ladder and master the KISS II system, which offers a higher degree of efficiency. It is quite similar to KISS I but the difference here is that there are two more cards players need to keep track of as the 3s are counted as +1 and the 10s are assigned point values of -1. After the shuffle, players who use this system start on a negative running count instead of 0. This is to ensure the shoe or deck are favorable as soon as the running count turns positive. Many expert blackjack players believe the second level of KISS is more efficient when used on single-deck games.
KISS III has the highest level of complexity as more cards are added for players to keep track of. Thus, the 7s are given a point value of +1 and the Aces are counted as -1 while the point values of all other cards coincide with those in KISS II. The third level of KISS is deemed more suitable for blackjack games involving a shoe with multiple decks.
One of the biggest positives of using KISS III is that it offers a higher betting correlation at 0.98 (out of 1.00), which is to say this system is more accurate in terms of predicting favorable betting situations and the respective bet sizing they call for. However, this higher betting correlation comes at the cost of reduced playing efficiency and insurance correlation (or the system’s efficiency at correctly predicting when to accept insurance).
The Omega II System
The Omega II is a balanced card counting system which gained popularity among advanced players in the 1990s, following the publication of Bryce Carlson’s book, Blackjack for Blood in 1992. Note that this is a more advanced system which also translates into higher efficiency. This, of course, leads to a higher complexity as the Omega II falls into the category of Level 2 counting systems. While in systems like the Hi-Lo and the KO the cards are assigned values of 0, +1 and -1 only, Level 2 systems also incorporate values of +2 and -2.
|4, 5, 6||count +2|
|2, 3, 7||count +1|
|8, A||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K||count -2|
The Omega II System Additional TipsCards 2, 3 and 7 are counted as +1, cards 4, 5 and 6 are counted as +2, the ten-value cards are assigned a negative point value of -2, the 9s are -1 while the Aces and the 8s are neutral or 0. Therefore, players would deduct or add one or two points from their running count for each card dealt at the table. Then they would divide the running count by the number of decks left to be played to arrive at their true count.
This conversion along with the two additional point values are what increases the system’s complexity and efficiency, respectively. Many skilled players prefer to further increase the system’s efficiency by keeping a side count of the Aces, which as you can see are neutral here. The Omega II requires more time to master but at the same time, the efforts are well worth it as it is considered the most accurate card counting system in existence.
The Hi-Opt Systems
This group consists of two systems, Hi-Opt I and Hi-Opt II, which offer different levels of complexity. The interesting thing about Hi-Opt I is that it was developed by sportswriter Charles Einstein in 1968 while the majority of the other systems we have covered so far were created by people with extensive knowledge in mathematics.
|3, 4, 5, 6||count +1|
|2, 7, 8, 9, A||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K||count -1|
|4, 5||count +2|
|2, 3, 6, 7||count +1|
|8, 9, A||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K||count -2|
The Hi-Opt Systems Additional TipsThe Hi-Opt I is a Level I balanced system and was widely used at single-deck tables. Those who use the Hi-Opt I assign a point value of +1 to cards 3 through 6 and count face cards as -1 while the 2s, 7s, 8s, 9s and the Aces are given a neutral value of 0. This system is highly praised for its accuracy at predicting when players need to accept insurance as its insurance correlation is quite high at 0.85 out of 1.00. Players start at a running count of 0 and later convert it into a true count to modify their bet sizes.
Hi-Opt I laid the foundation for the more advanced Hi-Opt II, which was developed in 1970 by professional blackjack experts Lance Humble and Julian Braun. The Hi-Opt II is also balanced but falls into the category of Level 2 counting systems. As this significantly raises the level of complexity of this system, both its betting and insurance correlation are higher than these of Hi-Opt I.
Those who follow the Hi-Opt II system are expected to count the 2s, 3s, 6s and 7s as +1. The 4s and the 5s are counted as +2. All face cards along with the 10s are assigned a negative point value of -2 while the Aces, 8s and 9s are not counted at all because they are neutral. Even though the Hi-Opt II has been created with single-deck play in mind, the system is highly effective when used in shoe games as well. Many proficient players prefer to incorporate side counts when using this system at the blackjack tables to further boost its accuracy.
The Zen Count System
The Zen Count system is a more complex balanced system which was popularized back in 1983 by blackjack expert Arnold Snyder in his book Blackbelt in Blackjack. The Zen Count often poses as a challenge to less experienced card counters due to the fact it belongs to the Level 2 category of systems.
|4, 5, 6||count +2|
|2, 3, 7||count +1|
|8, 9||count 0|
|10, J, Q, K||count -2|
The Zen Count System Additional TipsIn the Zen Count system, cards with face value of 2, 3, and 7 are counted as +1, the 4s, 5s and 6s are given point value of +2, and the ten-value cards are counted as -2. Each time an Ace leaves the shoe or deck the player would subtract -1 from their running count. The 8s and 9s are ignored altogether.
The great thing about this system is that it works quite well on both single-deck and shoe blackjack games. To a certain extent, the Zen Count is similar to the commonly used Hi-Lo counting system. However, the Zen offers players higher insurance correlation at 0.85 out of the possible 1.00 as well as increased playing efficiency.
The strongest point of this system results from the fact Aces are assigned a negative value of -1. As we know, tracking the Aces as they leave the shoe allows skilled players to further improve their advantage. The Zen Count reduces the amount of efforts for such players because they no longer need to track the Aces on the side.
The Wong Halves System
The Wong Halves system borrows its name from mathematician and blackjack expert John Ferguson, who first introduced it in his best-selling book Professional Blackjack under the pen name Stanford Wong. This balanced card counting system is highly praised by blackjack pros for its impressive accuracy and efficiency. But before you give it a try, beware – the Wong Halves is rather difficult to master, which can partially be explained with its being a Level 3 system.
|3, 4, 6||count +1|
|2, 7||count +0.5|
|10, J, Q, K, A||count -1|
The Wong Halves System Additional TipsThe very name of the system indicates players should brace themselves for a higher degree of complexity as Wong Halves entails calculations that involve decimal numbers. Therefore, one should be proficient in dividing decimals without breaking concentration under pressure or when exposed to the distractions of the casino.
In Wong Halves, the player adds +1 each time 3s, 4s or 6s leave the shoe and subtracts -1 from the running count when ten-value cards and Aces are dealt. The 8s are neutral and as such, are irrelevant to the running count. Here comes the tricky part, though. The 2s and 7s are assigned a decimal value of +0.5 while the 9s are counted as -0.5. But this is not all – the 5s are assigned the highest positive value of +1.5.
Would you be surprised to learn that this system comes with a betting correlation of 0.99 out of 1.00? It certainly makes sense given its complexity but this system is slowly falling into disuse because it is way too difficult to apply at blackjack tables. That is why beginners should keep away from the Wong Halves – even experienced card counters prefer to use simpler systems which offer an almost identical level of accuracy.
Blackjack Money Management
Ask any gambler what is the main ingredient in the recipe for success when playing casino games and they will instantly snap “Money Management!”. This applies in full force to the game of Twenty-One as no card counting system or strategy can possibly do anything for you, if you are unable to manage your bankroll smartly. Mind that this has nothing to do with affecting the odds or reducing the edge the house holds against you.
When it comes to blackjack, there are several aspects of money management you need to consider prior to attacking the tables. Money management all starts with setting up a bankroll to play with. A sufficient bankroll is one of the biggest weapons a blackjack player holds against the casino, combined with a proper understanding of the game, of course. The bankroll should consist of money you can afford to spare and must not include funds you need to pay your rent or bills. If you cannot afford to spare the necessary amount right away, stay put until you build up a bankroll.
Blackjack Money Management Additional TipsThe question “How big my bankroll for the session should be?” arises. This has to do with the limits of the table you intend to attack. As a general rule, players are recommended to set aside at least 50 times their table minimum. So if you are joining a table with a $5 minimum, you will need at least $250 or 50 base units for a single session. Pay attention to the word “session” as generally a bankroll is broken down into three equal amounts, for three sessions. This is to prevent you from losing way too much money at a single table.
This ratio of session bankroll and table minimum is considered sufficient to get you through the swings you will experience. That being said, the more money you take with you, the more staying power you will have at the table.
Next comes the question how much should a blackjack player bet. Card counters adjust the number of betting units they bet per hand on the basis of their true count. High true counts validate betting more betting units. A basic strategy player, however, is playing against a neutral deck.
Those who play recreationally are recommended to apply the Up and Pull method. The player begins by betting two units or two times the table minimum. If they win, they drop to one unit on the next bet. This way, even if you do lose on the next hand, you will still be a unit ahead. Each winning hand is followed by a bet increase of one unit. Whenever a loss occurs, the player should start the cycle again with a two-unit bet. This method is efficient because it enables players to make the most out of their winning streaks and reduces their losses to the minimum.
Finally, it is an absolute must to set up a win goal and a loss limit for the session as these will serve as indicators as to when you should get up and leave the table. These limits are individual but the rule of thumb is to quit the game once you have won a net profit amounting to around 20% of your session’s bankroll. So your win goal with a $250 bankroll would be roughly $50. Similarly, you need to decide on a loss limit which corresponds to the maximum amount you are willing to sacrifice to the house. In blackjack, the recommended loss limit amounts to 40% of the session’s bankroll or $100 in this instance.
In conclusion, being a successful blackjack player is a combination of two things – smart money management and sufficient knowledge of the game. One cannot go without the other. Even the biggest bankroll will be unable to save you if do not understand the specifics of this fascinating game.