How a Basic Strategy Player can Beat Blackjack

October 30th, 2012 by KenSmith

Casino Chips

Blackjack has always offered a great value in the casino for anyone willing to learn basic strategy. Without card counting, a player that uses an accurate basic strategy at the table can play games at most casinos with substantially under half a percent house edge. Even the worst rules and conditions rarely exceed a house edge of 0.8%.

If you are a recreational player, you can consistently overcome that small edge with the value you receive from comps of free rooms and food. Why is it possible to get back more in comp value than your actual expected loss?

The reason is simple… Most players do not play accurate basic strategy.  They play the game badly.  As a result, the typical player loses substantially more than a fraction of a percent of their action, and the comps given to blackjack players reflect this higher theoretical loss.

Of course casinos know that basic strategy players lose a lot less than the average player, and they supposedly have a way of dealing with this problem.  But, fortunately, their solution just doesn’t work…

When you sit down at a table and hand over your player card, the pit personnel will write down the length of time you play, and the size of your average bet.  What you may not know is that most casinos also have a notation for how strong a player you are.  Generally the rating cards will have spots to mark your ability as “Superior”, “Average”, or “Poor”.  If you are a solid basic strategy player, and the pit is doing their job, they should be marking you as “Superior”, meaning that your play has very low expected losses.  This would negatively impact the comps that will be extended to you, because your theoretical loss will be very small.  This system is intended to keep basic strategy players from getting more back in comps than they will lose at blackjack.

So, why is a basic strategy player still able to beat the system at virtually all casinos?  Pit bosses mark almost every player as Average in skill.  During a session at the recent G2E gaming conference, the moderator quoted a study that was done of 2 million player ratings.  Of all those rating cards, only six were marked as “Poor” players.  That’s easy enough to understand, because if a player were ever to accidentally learn that they were rated as a poor player, they would likely be offended.  And poor players are the bread and butter of the casino.  What’s more surprising is that of those same 2 million ratings, only a handful were rated as Superior.  More than 99.9% of the ratings were “Average”.

So how do you exploit this casino loophole?

  • Play accurate basic strategy. (If you aren’t sure of the exact strategy for your game, see our Strategy Engine).
  • Inflate your rating by timing your bigger bets to be on the table while the floor person is watching.
  • When you leave the table, ask about your average bet rating. When confronted, the floorperson will often fudge on the side of higher bets.
  • Most importantly, make sure you get all the comps you have earned. Ask!

I still have a couple of topics that came from the gaming conference, including the comments on RFID chips that I said would be in this post. That’s coming next.

If you are a Twitter user, you can stay up-to-date on all my posts by following me @BlackjackInfo.


29 Responses to “How a Basic Strategy Player can Beat Blackjack”

  1. Steven says:

    Hello, I have been studying card counting and basic strategy for 6 months. I have read the books that are recommended and practiced every day for about an hour or so. After recently reading a few posts online,pros have been saying that card counting is no longer what it used to be and that it’s nearly impossible to maintain a healthy living off of the game let alone making it worth your time playing. Is this all true? Should I even continue thinking of card counting as a part time job on the weekends to make some money?

  2. KenSmith says:

    It is certainly true that game conditions are not as good as they were ten years ago, but there is another factor that I think offsets that negative. Table games are spreading to new jurisdictions at a faster pace than I have ever seen.

    For players who are willing to travel, there are so many new venues to play that I think this is something of a golden age for the game. If you get away from the well-worn games in Vegas, there are tons of fantastic opportunities at small properties all over the country. If your target bet size is anything up to a low spread in black chips, there are lots of places to get a decent game.

    For a weekend warrior, this may not be much help. If your local games deteriorate, you may not have the flexibility to travel far afield in search of better conditions. But before you give up on the profitability of the casinos nearest you, make sure you look with an open mind at all the opportunities there. Look at other games, and look at promotions.

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  6. Michael says:

    I’m in Las Vegas right now as I type this staying at the Luxor. I’ll be here for 2 weeks. I took your advice and lost $3,000.00 at the MGM 3/2 Blackjack tables outside the Rouge. I’ve studied card counting for 8 months. I can count through an entire 6 decks every time. Vary the bet using the Kelly method etc. None of that helped me last night.

    1) An Asian women kept talking to me and was rubbing my leg with her leg and arm. I know Asian women want white guys but I’m not interested. This behavior was making me nervous. I lost the count and started losing. I broke even and left the table.

    2) The pit boss knew I was counting. He walked up and gave me an intimidating look. The dealer was rude and could not even speak English.

    3) The dealer puts the cards on the table to cover up hit on 17 or stand on 17. This forces you to ask.

    4) The dealer at the MGM uses a mirror to see her down card then starts telling me how I should play. This is bullshit. I would have never sat down if there was a mirror. That’s cheating. If I did that I would be thrown out or arrested.

    5) I lost $3,000.00 in a matter of minutes. It was no fun. It was a complete waste. The dealer got 14 blackjacks. They were winning every hand. NOBODY plays that good! I never saw them shuffle. I feel cheated. To study this long to card count then coming out to Vegas to put it into action and losing $3,000.00 in a few minutes on the first day! This is Bull. I’m super pissed! This was no fun at all and a complete waste of time.

    6) Card counting is bullshit. Every time you flip a quarter it’s an independent event. There is no law of physics that says it will be 50/50. You can flip a quarter 10 times and get tails 9 times in a row. This is exactly what happened to me last night at the MGM. And there is NO GUARANTEE that you will get heads 9 times in a row if you play long enough. All that money is GONE. WASTED.

    7) I started getting a major attitude with the stupid rude dealer who cannot speak English! Where do they hire these people!? There are ALLOT of people that need jobs! Why hire some women who worked at a Hanoi whorehouse who cannot tell you about comps or why there is a mirror on the table!

    8) I used my M Life Card. I got it at the desk there. I lose $3,000.00 in minutes and the pit boss refuses to comp me!!! I was dressed like a movie star. This guys comes over and stares me down. When I asked about comps he puts the card on my table like “fuck you” and walks away. Yes I was super pissed and I think that’s understandable. There is NO WAY a dealer could play THAT WELL UNLESS THEY WERE CHEATING! I say the cards on the tables and NEVER saw her shuffle them! I just assumed she did.

    9) The environment ruined my counting. I was reduced to a nervous wreck. I was fumbling, behind on the count, the dealer was rude, the pit boss knew (and for some reason let me continue) and this was just an overall awful experience. A total waste of time. This is the last time I will gamble. I’m just going to focus on my business. At least there when I lose $3,000.00 I can file in court.

    10) Think about this next time you tell everyone to play at the MGM Grand. All the Stand on soft 17 tables were $100.00 minimums. On a Sunday night no less! The non shuffling, the covering up of the tables so you have to ASK if they are hitting on 17 (what tourist asks that question) the god dammed mirror, the crowd, the rude dealer giving suggestions while looking at her mirror (AKA cheating) and losing $3,000.00 in what felt like minutes WITH PERFECT BASIC STRATEGY PLAY was the worst most wasteful experience ever. This was a total waste of time and money! Not to mention the airfare, hotels, outrageous prices of food and drink. I’m never coming here again!

  7. KenSmith says:

    Losing $3,000 in a matter of minutes gives you every right to rant. I get it. I’ve been there.
    What should we take away from this? One main thing:

    Anyone who tells you that card counting is easy is either lying, or hasn’t done it enough to know the reality of it.
    Learning to beat the game mathematically is pretty easy. It is in fact the easiest part of all.
    Any reasonably dedicated person can learn the skills needed to count cards and beat the game at their kitchen table.

    So, what makes counting hard? All the other stuff:

    • Maintaining your concentration at the table
    • Handling the losing streaks
    • Staying welcome to play
    • Handling the losing streaks
    • Keeping sessions short to preserve longevity
    • Handling the losing streaks
    • Scouting tables
    • Handling the losing streaks
    • Making you sure you don’t over-tip, or over-bet, or over-camouflage.
    • Handling the losing streaks

    Oh, and did I mention the losing streaks? :)

    You can count perfectly, bet perfectly, and play perfectly, and still sometimes lose day after day.
    A bad losing streak can run into hundreds of hours. To survive that kind of brutal run and still be able to play correctly is not easy.

    The edge in card counting is small. Very small. Under 1% small. Yes, if you play long enough, you’re almost guaranteed to make money. But it can be a very long haul. There are easier ways to make a living. And, there are also easier ways to make money in the casino. The problem is, almost none of those other methods are as “easy” as card counting to learn and exploit. And there is something crucial about going through the process with card counting that gives you the experience necessary to thrive in the casino environment.

    I don’t know any successful gamblers who didn’t count cards at one time, and I still know a few, bless their souls, that are still exclusively counters.
    It seems mandatory to the education of an advantage player to spend that time in the trenches grinding out a 1% edge or less. You learn to respect the variance, you learn to handle the inevitable losing streaks, and you learn how to handle yourself in the casino. All these skills are worth more than the money you’ll hopefully win along the way.

    Now, back to your story… There are a few issues that should be cleared up.
    The “mirror” you’re talking about is a peek device. The dealer cannot see the value of the down card, but can only tell whether they have a blackjack. (Next time look at the special marks on the Aces and ten-valued cards, and notice how the dealer inserts the cards differently if their up card is a ten or Ace.) So, the dealer doesn’t have any more information than you after she peeks. Any advice the dealer offers in any circumstance should be ignored anyway. You know a lot more about the game than they do, despite their oft-stated opinions.

    Anytime you’re uncomfortable at the table, or going on tilt, get outta there. You won’t do yourself any favors by playing when you’re less than calm, cool, and collected.
    If you think that the pit knows you are counting, get outta there. Staying will just allow them to confirm their suspicions.
    If you’re losing more than you’re comfortable with, get outta there. If you are losing the count, even once, it’s time to go.

    Not everyone has the will (read: stubbornness) to make counting work. Different people have different tolerance levels for all the crap that comes with counting. For me, dealing with back-offs and hostile pit people was very disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I don’t play blackjack nearly as often as I did before. But I still find plenty of opportunities in the casino environment, actually more than ever.

    The last particular of your story that I will address is the “14 dealer blackjacks”. I’m going to guess that you didn’t mean to imply that happened over the span of the same “few minutes” as your $3k loss. A typical table will deal about 60 hands an hour if crowded. Let’s give them 80 hands to be generous. How often should a dealer get 14 or more blackjacks in the next 80 hands? The odds are over 40,000 to 1 against. I’m also going to assume that the game you played was absolutely on the square, and you didn’t see those 14 blackjacks over the course of an hour or two. I can understand the urge to exaggerate the description under the circumstances. I just didn’t want to gloss over that stat without commenting on it.

    So, should you throw in the towel, chalk up your $3k loss as an idea that didn’t work out, and never look back? Maybe. It would not be an unreasonable decision. Just realize that if you do choose to come back to the game, at some point you’ll have a similarly brutal beating again. And it won’t be any fun then either.

  8. Mike Gunter says:

    I have been a dealer for 10years. 8 hrs a day 5 days a week. First, if you play on a table that offers surrender you are throwing your money away. As soon as someone on a table surrenders the whole shoe is ruined. Surrender is the biggest scam in blackjack. Second if you play with someone who doesn’t know when to hit and when not to hit there goes that shoe. NOT THE HAND, THE SHOE! As far as card counting, that might have worked on single shoes but it doesn’t work on 6 deck shoes. As soon as someone makes a mistake in basic stradigy there goes the SHOE. The worse mistake that can be made is to play with someone who does not hit a 16 against the dealers 10. 9. 8 or 7. No worse than splitting face cards. Every mistake a player makes cost the table 3 hands they would have won. It want be the next 3 hands in a row but I guarantee you it will cost you 3 hands for every mistake anyone on the table makes. I have stood back there and studied this game for 10 yrs and I can almost tell you the 3 hands you will lose after a mistake is made. You have to play on a no midshoe entry table. Players jumping in the middle of a shoe kills a shoe. People have no Idea how to play this game. I would say 1 in 100 really know how to play blackjack. Want to win at blackjack? Play heads up on the dealer. Blackjack is a mistake driven game. The more players the more mistakes made. At least heads up with a dealer all you have to worry about are mistakes you make. If you play perfect basic stradegy at best you will beat the dealer on average 7 or 8 more hands in a shoe. I am not a guru trying to sell you anything just 10 long yrs of watching and analizing the game. I am also a player. So listen or not thats how it is.

  9. Jared Hemingway says:

    I disagree with Mike Gunter and this is precisely why listening to dealers is bad business. If the game is square, it doesn’t matter how others play. The cards you still receive are random and a count with basic strategy still applies. Folks all caught up in how others play are too superstitious. But agreed, it’s very frustrating to see mistakes that cost you a hand(s.). But if you really pay attention, those mistakes win you hands also. Cards come out random, how others play have no mathematical affect on the shoe. Enjoy

  10. Bernie says:

    It’s amazing how many blackjack dealers don’t know how to play blackjack. I hear bad advice given from blackjack dealers all the time. I have been told I made a bad plays when hitting soft 18 vs. a dealers picture card plus hitting 12 against a dealers 3. Just two examples of dealers stupitity. Bernie

  11. Harold says:

    As a veteran blackjack player, I have to agree with Bernie. Dealers generally do not know the finer points of the game. Their knowledge of the game is generally acquired by observing repetitive actions of the players, and as most skilled players know, most players don’t really know how to play the game. Regarding playing with unskilled players, it’s true that you seem to remember how others bad play cost you hands, but I have come to believe that their stupidity will result in an equal number of hands that I win. One thing for sure, it is almost impossible to find a table where all of the players are skilled. Just learn to deal with the fools and have fun.

  12. KenSmith says:

    Since today’s dealers are probably tomorrow’s pit bosses, this is why I think that there will always be beatable blackjack games out there. Let them all think you can’t beat the game. :-)

  13. Ryan says:

    For the longest time I used to think that bad players prevented me from winning, but it turns out not so much. The thing with bad players is they don’t have as much of an affect on your hand as you like to think. The thing with BJ players is they react to the immediate situation and never think about the long run. All those hands you think drunk guy splitting 10′s cost you will come back to your favor later even though in the moment you are seething. Obviously if you play once a year then these beats seem worse and sting more, but with such a small sample size you’re not going to care what anyone tells you anyways because your recent experiences will ring loudest. I’ve definitely had tables where players played so bad they booted them from the table so once in a while the gods hear you. I never listen to dealers but do pretend I that care about their advice since it seems to make me more personable and gets me further with the pit. I like to act like I don’t know what I want to do when I know exactly what I’m going to do because, unlike Poker, weak is strong is not always a bad thing. I want them to think I’m a not quite an idiot but a weak player who leans on the casino a little bit. I don’t win all the time, but I always have fun..otherwise why play???

  14. Bob Carroll says:

    The above statements are all interesting. I like a table where I am confortable and prefer players who are good because it seems to lift the leveal of play. Card counting, even speed counting is mentally taxing after a few hours. Generally it is best to ignore all comments and concentrate on your playing. Gambling, especially blackjack, is a mathematical
    experience so stay with some form of perfect strategy. Most people, including dealers, are not familiar with probabilities so their advice, mo matter how sincere,must be considered suspect.
    Randomness is often misunderstook because it includes streaks of winning and losing. Not only within a shoe but even a weekend of gambling. Best advice I ever received is that one should play only with money one can afford to lose.

  15. Randall Newman says:

    RESPONSE TO MICHAEL: Loosing $ 3,000 at the MGM.
    I just returned from Sam’s Town in Tunica, MS and have been counting cards about 12 months.
    I have found it very profitable. This was my 3rd trip in 12 months to Tunica but I also have been to Biloxi to practice my skill. My first trip out was not a big winner. As I have practiced and experienced the real casino again and again I have never returned a looser.

    I also went to Las Vegas in May 2013 and I also played at the MGM. My experience was totally positive. But I enjoyed several casino’s while I was there and each experience was positive. I did not always win – because even a card counter cannot always win but I did come back with more money than I spent. And with never purchasing a meal or paying for a hotel room – I feel the experience was VERY POSITIVE.

    Michael, With $ 3,000 I can’t imagine remaining at the same place when I could determine the cards were against me – I suggest you try again.

  16. Shane says:

    Look I am not a huge card player and I have the opinion that the house always wins. But I will give your tips a go and let you know how I fared.

  17. Don Q says:

    Bankroll, I always bring at least 40X my minimum unit bet. With 3K, my unit bet would have been $75.00. Why play the 6 deck shoe with that bankroll? With $50 to $75 unit, he could have played a 2 deck BJ with minimum bet of $50 heads up vs the dealer. If I lose 3 hands straight after I just sit, I leave that table, there’s no math to it but just 3 strikes I’m out.I had at one time, lost 9 straight hands! If he has a bankroll of $3K, he could afford to invest in a tutored BJ counting lesson.
    I don’t know where he had played before but the mirror he was talking about, could have been the mirror peek the dealers check if the they have a natural.

  18. Don Q says:

    If this guy was for real, the pit boss would have spoiled him; losing 3k in a few minutes, those are the guys they love. They have a live one. They’ll even entice him to come back have and bait the hook with a promised refund on his plane ticket plus a $100.00 slot free play for the wife or girl friend. The Asian dealers are probably more educated than him. I bet you, they probably speak at least 2 languages including English, not counting Mandarin and Cantonese. If he really knew how to count even from books, he would read that 2 decks are better than a 6 decks. I would have loved him to play at my table. The focus would have been on him because he would have a lot of tells that he was counting, and the focus would have been on him.

  19. Scott says:

    When gaining an advantage using basic strategy as outlined here, what role does tipping play? I doubt if a player who tips can still have a positive expectation.
    Thank you, Ken.

  20. KenSmith says:

    You’re right. A player’s edge in this case is small enough that tips are going to eliminate the advantage. At most, you might consider a $1 tip after each blackjack. If you’re looking for a net positive result, tipping is quite expensive to that goal.

    Am I saying you should not tip? No, because everyone has different goals and expectations at the table. But it’s also wise to be aware that you are paying the dealer for something if you tip, and it isn’t your cards. It’s for the experience at the table. But if your main goal is getting an edge, anything over minimal tipping is going to make that impossible if you are a basic strategy player.

  21. Mike says:

    Ken – “And, there are also easier ways to make money in the casino.”
    Such as?

  22. KenSmith says:

    What I mean is easier per dollar earned.
    Here are a few possibilities: Hole carding table games, Video poker play for free play coupons, Promotions, Drawings.
    The edge in each of those is usually much higher than card counting. The trick is they require different skills, and often a lot of scouting.
    But when you do find an opportunity, you will have a bigger edge and much lower risk.

  23. Harry says:

    In regards to Michael losing $3k in a matter of minutes @ the MGM, how much was he betting $1000 a hand? I am no card counter but I have played Black Jack since 1978 in Vegas and many casinos around the country. Michael had a lot of complaints and when you lose everything is wrong or bothering you.

    I see as everyone else that most people do not know how to play much less know how to bet. Blackjack is a game of patience you have to start with a “base bet” every single time and build up from there on your winning streaks. I see players betting $25 or $50 lose 5 or 6 in a row and then bet $300 and lose again now what’s your next bet $600? a quick way to go down. Or the player who after losing 5 in a row is now winning play after play but does not raise their bet, how will you get your money back or get a big win if you do not build on your base bet? or the player who has won several stacked bets in a row and 5 or 6 hands later reduces the bet to table minimum anticipating a loss.

    As for the green or chicken players who make mistakes non stop, your hand can go either way, I do not give advice at the table or correct people’s mistakes because the next time they play it right we may lose again! I do like a “no mid shoe” table overall.

  24. Guilmon says:

    Michael:

    “Ive studied card counting for 8 months. I can count through an entire 6 decks every time. Vary the bet using the Kelly method etc”.

    Be that as it may, you are still a raw neophite. I know this because:

    “The dealer at the MGM uses a mirror to see her down card then starts telling me how I should play. This is bullshit”.

    No, it isn’t, and there is nothing wrong about this, and it’s been around for a very long time. Using that mirror prevents Spooking. If the dealer never lifts the hole card off the table to see if the hand is a blackjack, then other people can’t see it either.

    “An Asian women kept talking to me and was rubbing my leg with her leg and arm. I know Asian women want white guys but Im not interested. This behavior was making me nervous. I lost the count and started losing}”.

    Why did you start losing? If you aren’t comfortable playing there, then move. It’s not like the MGM has the only blackjack tables in town, now is it?

    “The pit boss knew I was counting. He walked up and gave me an intimidating look. The dealer was rude and could not even speak English”.

    I highly doubt that. Most pit bosses don’t count, don’t know Basic, and have a lot more tables and players to watch than little ol’ you. If you didn’t like the dealer, then why didn’t you move?

    “I lost $3,000.00 in a matter of minutes. It was no fun. It was a complete waste. The dealer got 14 blackjacks. They were winning every hand. NOBODY plays that good!”

    Vera Variance can be a real bitch at times. It happens, and if you stick around card tables long enough you will see some of the god-damnedest things happen that defy belief. They will happen to you and it ain’t no fun when it does. Been there; done that.

    “Card counting is bullshit”.

    No, it isn’t. It’s a helluva hard way to make some easy money, and there will be occasions where it’ll look that way. You have to ride out the dry spells, give the slim edge you get from counting time enough to make up for them. It will happen. However, it won’t happen if you don’t watch the ‘tude. It takes a certain equanimity to play this game, and bad attitudes will ruin your ‘roll faster than if you played like a casual gambler. To add insult to injury, the pit crew will gladly let you steam it off, and back you off the instant it looks like you’ve come to your senses.

    “I started getting a major attitude with the stupid rude dealer who cannot speak English!”

    Then leave. No one’s holding a gun to your head, forcing you to play.

    “This guys comes over and stares me down. When I asked about comps he puts the card on my table like fuck you and walks away”.

    Maybe “this guy” woke up to find that his kid is flunking out of college, his wife filed for divorce, and his dog got run over? If he’s having a bad day and taking it out on you, you can always play somewhere else.

    That’s another thing: don’t sweat the pit crew. They probably don’t know you’re a counter. If you’re backed off, then worry about it. Don’t figure that they’re gonna nail you this time. If it happens, it happens, then you deal with it.

  25. Kosenko says:

    Hi there. Iam new to your site but I am glad to see most of your bloggers are correct in what they say, especially regarding poor players changing the shoe! I was twenty years in the business so I think I know a little bit. Good luck to all.

  26. seeker says:

    I too am new to this site. Stumbled onto it after searching Reveres Advanced point count system. Been on the site last 2 days & signed up for the news letter.I also had ideas of big winnings when i went to vegas in 1980.Reality set in.Now i play around my home,P.A.We don’t have the best conditions but if you play well you can win $$.To me Michaels problem is he never read the rule of only playing under the best conditions as outlined in L.R.’s Playing blackjack as a Buisness.I know the book is outdated but there are many good points that can help even the most seasoned player.Good Luck & thanks for the site.

  27. Rocky says:

    Do I think card counting works on an 8 deck shoe. Nope. But if they had 95percent deck penetration in the shoe. And there was about 1 deck left in the show with a plus 10-15 count. He’ll yea is would work. Lol. Basic strategy is your best bet. And he’ll if you win 100 bucks at the end of a 6 hr session. He’ll that’s a great time and a win.

  28. Peter says:

    Does basic strategy apply to 2-card combos after card-splits? ie. Split 8′s against Dealer’s 4. You get a 2, do you double down or just hit? I have found these situations to be more of a trap than winning strategies, because if you happen to have build up your bet, then have to split and double down maybe twice or even three times, you end up risking and often losing your entire winnings and end up losing. Help, anyone?

  29. KenSmith says:

    Absolutely.
    Yes, these hands will make or break your entire session, because you can get as many as 8 bets working under the most common rules.
    (That’s three splits and four doubles!)

    When basic strategy says to double, it is because the double is more profitable than just hitting.
    Don’t forgo these extra opportunities to take advantage.

    Sure, sometimes things won’t go your way, but how sweet it is when you get several bets on the table and the dealer busts.

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