Lesson 1 – Basic Strategy

This free course on blackjack and card counting was created by the GameMaster, publisher of the GameMaster Online website. It is reproduced here in its entirety with permission of the author. His 24-lesson course is an excellent introduction to winning blackjack.

To start at the beginning, visit the Welcome page.

The foundation of winning at Blackjack is to utilize proper basic strategy in playing the hands. “Proper” means that each decision you make on hitting, standing, doubling or splitting pairs is the correct mathematical play for that hand. There is no room for intuition, gut feelings or guessing when it comes to basic strategy; you must make the “percentage” play each time. Even if you’ve doubled an 11 against a dealer’s 10 five times in a row and lost, when that hand comes up a sixth time you must double. Consistency is a big part of playing a winning game, so resolve right now that you are going to make the proper play, regardless if the dealer rolls his eyes upward or the other players at the table groan quietly when you do it. You are there for the money — there’s no other reason to play blackjack — and the application of proper basic strategy is going to get that money for you; what others think of your play is not important.

The correct basic strategy for a blackjack game depends upon the rules of the casino where you will be playing. The strategy which applies to a single deck game in Reno, for example, is quite a bit different than the strategy for an eight-deck game in Atlantic City. I’m going to show you how to learn the basic strategy of your choice; exactly what that strategy is will depend on you. To select a basic strategy, go to the Blackjack Strategy Engine and simply fill in the blanks. Once your strategy is computed, print it out.

Here’s what that looks like for a fairly common game: Six decks, double on any first two cards, double after splitting pairs is permitted and the dealer stands on A-6.

Basic Strategy Matrix :
for 6 Decks, S17, DA2, DAS, No surrender

This resource can also be downloaded for printing purposes.

Splitting Pairs

Pairs 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 T A
(A,A) Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
(T,T) N N N N N N N N N N
(9,9) Y Y Y Y Y N Y Y N N
(8,8) Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y
(7,7) Y Y Y Y Y Y N N N N
(6,6) Y Y Y Y Y N N N N N
(5,5) N N N N N N N N N N
(4,4) N N N Y Y N N N N N
(3,3) Y Y Y Y Y Y N N N N
(2,2) Y Y Y Y Y Y N N N N


  • Y = Yes, split the pair
  • N = No, don’t split the pair

Soft Totals

Soft Totals 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 T A
(A,9) S S S S S S S S S S
(A,8) S S S S S S S S S S
(A,7) S Ds Ds Ds Ds S S H H H
(A,6) H D D D D H H H H H
(A,5) H H D D D H H H H H
(A,4) H H D D D H H H H H
(A,3) H H H D D H H H H H
(A,2) H H H D D H H H H H


  • H = Hit
  • S = Stand
  • D = Double; if unable, Hit
  • Ds = Double; if unable, Stand

Hard Totals

Hard Totals 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 T A
17 S S S S S S S S S S
16 S S S S S H H H H H
15 S S S S S H H H H H
14 S S S S S H H H H H
13 S S S S S H H H H H
12 H H S S S H H H H H
11 D D D D D D D D D H
10 D D D D D D D D H H
9 H D D D D H H H H H
8 H H H H H H H H H H


  • H = Hit
  • S = Stand
  • D = Double; if unable, Hit

This is the chart that you will eventually know as well as your own name — but don’t worry, you’re not going to memorize it in this form. What we are going to do is convert all this into what a “normal” person can understand. I call what’s above the “Basic Strategy Matrix” and you’ll use it in some of your training. But what we need to do in order to memorize this is to translate the information above into all-inclusive rules. Let’s do a few as examples.

Look at the strategy for a player’s hand of 9 on the matrix above; it says to double against a 3,4,5 or 6 and hit it against everything else. We can turn that information into a simple rule: “With a hand of 9, double versus 3 through 6, otherwise hit.” See how this works? We are going to take each player’s starting hand and convert the proper play of that hand into one easy-to-understand rule. Now look at a hand of A-2. Proper basic strategy says to double against 5 and 6 and hit it against everything else, so our rule for A-2 is “Double vs. 5 & 6, otherwise hit.” As a bonus, we can group A-2 with A-3 since the play for each is identical. So we end up with a rule like this “A-2 , A-3; double vs. 5 & 6, otherwise hit.” One more example; a pair of 3’s. When double after split is permitted, proper basic strategy says to split 3’s whenever the dealer is showing a 2,3,4,5,6, or 7. Against any other dealer up card, we do not split; we should just hit the hand. Thus, our rule for a pair of 3’s becomes “3,3; split vs. 2-7, otherwise hit”. Clear on all that? Good. Below is the basic strategy chart for the matrix shown above.

Basic Strategy Decision Chart
for the Basic Strategy Matrix shown above.

This resource can also be downloaded for printing purposes.

Player’s Hand Decisions
5 thru 8 Always Hit
9 Double 3 thru 6, o/w hit
10 Double 2 thru 9, o/w hit
11 Double 2 thru 10, o/w hit
12 Stand 4 thru 6, o/w Hit
13 thru 16 Stand 2 thru 6, o/w Hit
17 or higher Always Stand
A,2 Double vs 5&6, o/w Hit
A,3 Double vs 5&6, o/w Hit
A,4 Double vs 4 thru 6, o/w Hit
A,5 Double vs 4 thru 6, o/w Hit
A,6 Double vs 3 thru 6, o/w Hit
A,7 Double 3 thru 6, Stand vs 2,7,8 Hit vs 9,10, A
A,8-A,9 Always Stand
2,2 Split 2 thru 7, o/w Hit
3,3 Split 2 thru 7, o/w Hit
4,4 Split vs 5 & 6, o/w Hit
5,5 Never Split, treat as “10”
6,6 Split 2 thru 6, o/w Hit
7,7 Split 2 thru 7, o/w Hit
8,8 Always split
9,9 Split 2 thru 9 except 7; o/w Stand
10,10 Never Split
A,A Always Split

Remember The Basic Strategy Decision Chart shown here applies only to the game described earlier; you must produce your own to fit the rules of your favorite casino.

Once you’ve made your Basic Strategy Chart, we can begin to memorize it. To do that, we will produce a set of “Flashcards”. Remember those? You probably learned how to add or subtract using those cards and they will also teach you how to win at Blackjack. You need to make one flashcard for each starting hand by reproducing the information above on a 2″ x 2′ piece of paper. (Manila file folder material does well for this.) Here’s what one looks like…

Flashcard sample

When you’re finished, you’ll have a pack of flashcards which will help you to memorize the proper basic strategy for the game you’ve chosen. Start carrying them with you and as you encounter those “lost” moments we each seem to have in our day — waiting for a plane, sitting at the dentist’s office or even while watching TV, pull your cards out and start reciting the rule for the hand shown. Check your accuracy by flipping over the card and then put it on the bottom of the pack. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you begin to learn all these rules.


I said this was a school, didn’t I? Well, you will also have some homework to do before we get together again next week. Here are your assignments

Flashcards: Spend a minimum of one hour each day going through the cards.

Next lesson we’ll finish with how to learn basic strategy through a discussion and demonstration of additional training aids and exercises which will give you the means to check your accuracy. It is not necessary for you to have your chosen basic strategy memorized perfectly at that point; all you need to know now is HOW to learn basic strategy. Exactly WHEN you learn it is up to you, since each part of this course is separate and does not depend on you knowing perfectly what came before.

← Previous: Introduction
Next: Lesson 2

21 comments on “Lesson 1 – Basic Strategy

  • Tim Brown said:

    I do great playing bj against my phone app with proper modified rules as my casino But when I break out my six decks I lose 5 out of 6 fully dealt shoes! I shuffle them well but they seem to fall against me like the often do at the casino? At home I am following 100% Basic Strategy. Is their a logical explanation?

    • Tim Brown replied:

      It’s called variance. Get used to it! Thanks for the great advice you sound like your smarter than you thought since you figured out the answer to your own Question! Keep up the good work. This is a Great website and I am sure it is going to help me win all my money back plus interest.

    • Yes, basic strategy is the best way to play your hands, whether shuffled by hand or by machine, including continuous shuffle machines.
      As for card counting, continuous shuffle machines eliminate the ability to count cards, but regular shuffle machines do not.

  • Joe said:

    What do you mean about Continuous shuffle machines and a regular shuffle machine? whats the difference?

    • A continuous shuffler is where the dealer is constantly putting the used cards back into the shuffle machine after each hand. Cards can reappear very quickly.
      Contrast that with a regular shuffle machine where the dealer finishes the entire shoe, and then puts the entire decks into the shuffle machine at once.
      The latter is just a faster way of shuffling traditionally.

      • Ryan replied:

        Do the majority of modern casinos have regular shuffle machines or continuous shuffle machines? It seems to make sense that casinos would prefer the continuous shuffler in an effort to thwart card counting.

  • Hi,

    What about cutting the decks half? Many internet casinos cut the 8decks to half. Does that nulify card counting also?

    • Actually, most internet casinos shuffle after every hand. If you play an online live dealer casino, you may find 4 decks being dealt out of 8.
      In that case, counting works fine, although you will need a big spread to beat the poor penetration.

      • Anonymous replied:

        I have a question about penetration and keeping track of the TC
        I play an eight deck game. The dealer probably discards about 3 1/2 decks when he shuffles and the player cuts . I am considering both the pros and cons of hi & lo and KO. With KO for example, the count starts at -28 ( 4-4*8). What I usually do is I start the count at 0. And say the RC is 28 ( including the 7s as +1), I now know that the shoe is getting warmer if it goes to +4 ( or in other words +32 -28), I raise my bet because now allegedly the deck is rich in high cards. Here where I am confused : if the dealer discards almost half of the shoe aka bad penetration, I rarely see a positive count as high as what I described . I am doing something wrong by not accounting for the bad penetration ?
        Thanks all !! First time poster :)
        Love this forum

        • That’s exactly the problem with poor penetration. You get few chances to raise your bet, because the shoe rarely reaches a positive situation. If you are only occasionally seeing opportunities to raise your bet in a 4.5 out of 8 deck game, you’re probably doing it right! The KO count itself (or alternatively the Hi-Lo true count) already accounts for the poor penetration.

          • Anonymous replied:

            Thanks much Ken :)
            Appreciate your prompt response. I might’ve better served hitting the other casino an hour away then ( a total of two hour drive) . I play with a dealer at this one who deals at the other casino and he commented on the poor penetration by comparing to where he deals stating that it is way better. Is my approach of starting at 0 using KO and subsequently subtracting or in fact adding positives to negatives valid ?
            Also what would you suggest in this case because I really like this casino . All the dealers and Pit bosses know me by name and I feel like they genuinely root for me and always ask me not to return any purples once they are in my pocket . I am not naive but I do feel they are small town America type of folks and genuinely friendly and accommodating. I have never raised an eyebrow when I won big but then again when I lose I also lose big at times . Any other words is there a way to account for poor penetration say you multiply by 5 instead of 8 ( decks ) in KO?

          • Yes, starting KO at zero is perfectly fine once you adjust the other key numbers. In fact, I would venture to guess that most people who use KO do this to avoid so much thinking in negative numbers.

            There is really not anything you can do to improve the local game. Don’t monkey with the numbers in KO, because that would have you raising your bet into negative situations. This is just a poor game, and the casino almost always has the edge. To beat it for a reasonable hourly earn rate will require a bigger spread to offset the infrequency of the opportunities. Unfortunately that also creates much higher variance in a game where your edge is quite thin. You could play that game perfectly for a long time and still lose money if you’re even a bit unlucky. What’s the old adage? You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    • The GameMaster originally used these lessons in a weekly course, so one lesson a week is a reasonable plan. However, since the material varies widely in its breadth lesson by lesson, you can easily just adapt the schedule to your progress.

  • George said:

    Hey Ken, I have a question.
    In your basic stategy matrix you write to split the 8,8s against a T or A, but in a matrix for a UK casino would just hit. What is the difference between them?

    • In the UK, the dealer does not deal a hole card, and any doubles or splits are vulnerable to a possible dealer blackjack. In the US, the dealer checks for blackjack immediately before play begins, so you can’t double or split if they have a blackjack. This difference makes it unwise to double or split in the UK when the dealer has a ten or an Ace showing. One exception: In the UK, still split Aces against a dealer ten.

      To get the appropriate strategy for these games, you can use the Strategy Engine and choose “No Peek”.

  • Chad B. said:

    Ken, when trying to print this lesson, the charts don’t print in color. Not sure why, but it shows up fine on-screen but just doesn’t print in color.

Leave a Reply

A valid URL is required.

Advanced Formatting?

If you are familiar with HTML, you can use these tags and attributes in your comment:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>