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

Key:

  • 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

Key:

  • 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

Key:

  • 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.

Homework

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.

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52 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.

      • eni replied:

        can you please look at betfair online live casino i don t think they have a shuffling machine is.is there good to play pls take a look

        • There are quite a few online casinos that deal live games. Unfortunately, as far as I know none are yet available in the two US states where online casinos are legal (Delaware and New Jersey). I did try these kinds of games years ago, before the law changed in 2006. At that time, they were painfully slow, likely under 30 hands an hour. I can’t participate now, but I hope they improved the speed. You should be able to watch and see how the shuffle is handled, and how deeply the games are dealt to decide whether it is worth the trouble.

  • 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.

  • Spliting 8s against a ten? Isnt that a sucker play? I mean your going up against the highest card a dealer can have isnt that just asking for punishment?

    • This hand is ugly no matter what you do, but it is definitely better to split here.
      If you hit the pair of 8s against a dealer ten, you’ll lose about $5.35 on a $10 bet on average.
      If you stand, you’ll average a loss of $5.37.
      If you split and put another $10 bet up, the average combined loss on the two (or more!) hands is $4.75.
      Basic strategy is a game of pennies. You play every hand in the way that wins the most on average, or in this case, loses the least.
      Split ’em.

  • i dont understand, is the BS always used or just when playing alone against the house, and if so, why???
    when im studying BS i see suicidal hands

    • Basic strategy is, by definition, the mathematically best way to play each decision absent further information about the composition of the remaining decks. It applies whether you are playing heads-up or at a table full of players.

      • Jim replied:

        but what if for example i have a 14 against an 8 and there have been three low cards in a row, you know there is gonna appear a 10 so i am going to burst, but BS tells me to Hit. Should i still hit??

        • The thing is, you DON’T know that the next card is a ten. There is no magic card god that makes sure that a fourth low card cannot come out after the three before it. Is it less likely than if those other small cards had not been dealt? Yes, because you have used up the 3 small cards. But be clear here: It is NOT because they happened to all appear in a row just now. With 14v8, there is simply no circumstance where you should stand. Just hit it.

          For closer calls, card counters can use information about the remaining deck to sometimes correctly deviate from basic strategy. But virtually all beginning players overestimate how often this is appropriate. Almost all hands should be played with basic strategy, even if you are counting cards.

          • pili replied:

            hey, but what if the true count is +3 and i have a 14 against an 8. im the last one in the table and there has appeared 5 low cards in a row, i know that there is gonna appear a 10, if i hit it im gonna burst but if i dont hit it im gonna lose, in that case the smartest to do is to surrender, right? or be a suicidal bomber playing blackjack??
            Another thing, yesterday at the casino some people got mad at me and insultated me because i got a 13 against a 10(i was the last one at the table) and it had appeared 4 high cards in a row, i knew a low card was coming, probably a 5 or 6 that would leave the house in 15 or 16 and would probably burst. but i followed the BS and i got the 6, that leaved me at 19. for a surprise then the house made 20. if wouldnt have hit it, everyone would have won, instead everybody got mad at me. what should i do if i feel and probably know that theres gonna appear a low card? i feel and i know it, and it happened. please help, i dont get insulted again, i live in a third world country and people that go to the casinos are dangerous, maybe im gonna get in trouble

            • You say “I know that there is gonna appear a 10”. No, you don’t. There are still lots of small cards left in the shoe. There is no magic that says just because 5 low cards in a row have come out that the next card is going to be a ten. Just hit it. There is no time when you should stand with 14v8.

              As for other players getting mad because you played correctly, there’s not much you can do about it. Maybe try not to sit at third base, where most of the anger gets focused based on whatever happens with the dealer. But don’t play badly just to satisfy someone else’s idea of how to play.

              Based on your IP, it looks like you are in Colombia. I was in Medellin a few weeks ago. Wow! What a beautiful and amazing place. I loved it!

  • first i want to apologyze about the thing concerning my security, it was just bullshit. i was trolling a bit, my country is not dangerous, i love colombia. but some people get angry at you when you play BS. i have another question, here in my city there is a side bet which you gamble to get a pair. if you get a mix pair(red and black) like a 6 of diamonds and a 6 of spikes they pay 6 times your side bet. if you get a color pair(red and red or black and black) like a 6 of diamonds and a 6 of hearts they play 12 times your side bet and if your ge a perfect pair(the same card) like a 6 of diamonds and a 6 of diamonds they pay you 25 times your side bet. my question is it worth it?

    • Like most side bets, it’s quite expensive. The house edge in six decks on the paytable you describe is 5.47%.
      My advice about side bets is very simple: Ignore them.

  • James Ong said:

    If the casino does not pay out 3 to 2 for blackjack after splitting Aces, do we still proceed to split ace pair?

    • Yes, you should still split Aces. The rule you describe is used in almost all casinos. Blackjack is only possible on the first two cards, not after splitting. If you draw a ten to a split ace, the hand is just a normal 21, and does not get paid 3:2. In addition, when splitting Aces you will be dealt only one card on each hand. (Some casinos allow resplitting if that card is another Ace.) Even with these restrictions, splitting Aces is still the correct play.

  • Glen said:

    Hi Ken. I’ve been playing basic strategy for years and am starting to learn to count properly. I’m going on a trip to Connecticut and playing at MS. The BSE says to surrender 16 against a 10, I get that, but it says to stay if no surrender. I’ve never stayed on 16 against a 10, is that really mathematically correct?
    Thanks,
    Glen

    • Glen replied:

      I’m also not sure if they H17 or S17, but if it’s H17 it says to surrender, or stay with 17 against an Ace. Ok, so I’ve never stood on 16 against 10 and I’ve never surrendered a 17. Can you help me understand these 2 plays?
      Thanks again,
      Glen

      • For 16vT, see the article I linked in my last reply.
        For surrendering 17vA (correct when the dealer hits soft 17), well, 17 against an Ace is a very weak hand. It is made even worse when the dealer hits soft 17, because he cannot flip over a 6 for an immediate push on the hand. It’s just enough to swing the numbers slightly in favor of surrendering over standing. Again, that’s ONLY in the H17 game. In the S17 game, you should stand with 17vA.

      • Glen replied:

        Thanks Ken. I read the article and I’ll do what your BSE says. I just wanted to make sure. My wife & friends are going to over me some strange looks when they see these plays.
        I love your site,
        Thanks again,
        Glen

        • Good luck! Just remember, that 16vT advice is based on a game that offers surrender. If there is no surrender, then hit all the two-card 16s vs a dealer ten, and you can stand on any three-or-more-card 16s vs ten.

          • Glen replied:

            Hi again Ken.
            I was using your trainer with surrender as an option to practice BS and was going to practice a little counting as well but when surrendering it doesn’t show the dealer’s hole card. Is there a way to get it to show the dealers hole card or should I count it as a -1, or 0?

            • Ignore any unseen cards. It essentially reduces penetration by one card. The new version of the trainer won’t have this issue. Thanks for reminding me!

  • Jose said:

    If I am playing in the European style, with no hole card and I am the last player in the table. I have 16 against a dealer 10. Basic strategy says you must hit. But in the European style, the next card can be for the player (if he hits) or for the dealer (if he stands). If the player hits good cards for the player are A, 2, 3, 4, 5. But, except for the Ace, all other is also good for the player since it is possible he bust with the next card. It is the same for a 15 against 10, or a 15 against 9 etc.
    My question: Should I change the basic strategy in this case? In which cases.

    • No, do not change basic strategy in any of these situations. By deciding to take or leave the next card in the shoe, you cannot impact the dealer’s expected outcome in any way. Think of it this way. If the dealer always burned a card before drawing, would it make any difference? No. Play your hand by basic strategy. That’s all you can do.

  • JR Russell said:

    Ken:
    I would like to thank you for your knowledge and course. I read the course did the practice and it payed off big. Had a large bankroll to start $25k and get comps. in Vegas due to my slot losses on previous trips. I looked on websites for lowest house advantage, and started at Bellagio (-.252)6 Deck $25 game, dealer stands soft 17, DAS, Surrender, all the right rules. Played for six hours and noticed was being watched by pit boss after and hour( I am sure I was obvious as first time playing with all the rules and high low together), I varied my play using a 25-250 spread. I was up so I started tipping, staying higher bet after shuffle even made a few questionable plays as I knew they were on to me. Stayed for three days was up $6200 in about 30 hours of play at four casinos. (bellagio, MGM, Teasure Island and Aria)
    Was wondering for a beginner like me what other advice you have to not look so obvious a counter to the man.
    Thanks again!

    • The number one way to extend your playing lifetime is to keep your sessions short. If possible, spread your action across casinos and across shifts and keep your sessions just under an hour.

  • anonymous said:

    Why are you telling people to follow basic strategy if they’re to be counting cards? They shouldn’t be following a simple hit-stand-double-split table, there should be a threshold in many entries. Like you double 10 against 10 if the truecount is over 4, you double 10 against A if the truecount is over 3, you hit 16 against 10 if the count is 0 or negative, stand if anything positive, double 11 against A if truecount is positive, don’t if 0 or negative, etc. I think it’s counterproductive to learn these things as fixed entries, they’re functions. It’s just, that “basic strategy” is the value of those functions when the truecount is 0. It is important to learn how close the thresholds are to 0 at the very least, which ones are borderline decisions. For one thing, you want the casino to think you’re a superstitious fruitcake. I do that all the time, I’ll be like “I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to hit on this” (talking about hitting 13 against 3, with the truecount below negative 2 and 2 thirds) or “no way am I doubling, I’ve got a bad feeling about this” (10 against 9, count is -2 or lower), “I’m a do it! I shouldn’t but I’ll do it!” (splitting 9’s against an ace with a truecount over 3). And the funny thing is, it doesn’t hurt the optimality that badly if you don’t hold to the threshold exactly, so maybe sometimes you’ll split 9’s against an ace if the truecount is only 2.5, another time, maybe you won’t if it’s 3.5.

    • C’mon, it’s lesson ONE. You’ll get to all these strategy variations in later lessons.
      I absolutely encourage EVERY player to start by learning basic strategy so completely that it is automatic. The variations are easy to add later, but you MUST have the basics down before muddying the waters.

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