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.
Basic Strategy Variations
Casinos that offer single-deck Blackjack games are very aware that it can easily be beaten by a counter who uses a big bet spread, so trying to play the game with a 1-12 spread like I recommend for 6-deck games will likely get you a one-way ticket out of the casino, pronto. That’s not to say you’re going to get “backed-off” if you bet more than 5 chips on a hand, but I think it’s fair to say making $$$ at a good SD game requires a bigger bag of tricks than needed against a 6-deck game, so altering the play of your hand according to the count is a logical place to start.
If you know how to count cards, you can use the count to tell you how much to bet on each hand, but you can also use the count to help you play each hand more accurately, too. If you’ve studied my course up to this point, you know one of the key factors in playing a winning game of Blackjack is to leave the table when the True Count drops to -1 or lower, but that tactic isn’t very practical at a single-deck game, because only a few rounds of hands are dealt before the shuffle.
Consequently, you have to sit through a lot more “negative” decks, but the good thing is that a shuffle is never too far away. Yet, at the same time, we all know the casino’s edge increases as the count drops, so we want to neutralize the effects of that as much as possible. Because you’ll be sitting through many more negative counts at a single-deck game, what we need to do is learn the plays for hands like hitting 12 against a dealer’s 5 and so forth. We also want to avoid doubling and splitting pairs in low counts and we’ll hit instead. But we don’t want to guess at important plays like that, so we’ll need to learn Basic Strategy variations for “lower” numbers, like -2, -3 and so forth. A realistic range for most single-deck games is a True Count of -6 to +6 and that will cover 85% of all the hands you’ll ever play, assuming 63% penetration which is about as good as it gets. In a later lesson, I’ll talk about the importance of penetration, but for now, trust me on this.
Some players prefer to learn just the indices for the most common hands, with the idea that they’ll get a hand like A, 4 against a 5 less than 100 times in every 100,000 hands of play, but they’ll have a 16 against 10 much more often. In his book, “Blackjack Attack”, Don Schlesinger devoted a chapter to what he calls “The Illustrious 18” that are, in his opinion, the most important Basic Strategy variations. I’m not big on reproducing other authors’ original works, so I’ll refer you to the book for a complete listing if you feel you’d rather not memorize all of the variations I’ve listed here. Another idea worth considering is to not learn the indices below -2, with the rationale that you’ll likely be betting the minimum in such a count, so any playing mistakes will, in the long run, cost you very little. Or, you might want to learn only the indices where you’ll be placing extra bets on the table, as in doubles and splits, with the idea that, if I’m going to be putting more $$$ on the table, I’m sure as hell going to play the hand correctly.
But I’m of the opinion that if something about this game can be learned, it should be learned. (Okay, I know I’m a fanatic for this stuff, but what can I do?) If single deck games will be where you’ll spend most of your time, then it’s probably worth the effort to memorize the 90-odd indices presented here. But if this isn’t your primary game, a range of -2 to +6 with some judicious editing will probably suffice. Don’t forget that some of these indices are similar to those for a multi-deck game, so you won’t be starting from scratch. Learn those numbers you think are important for where and how you play.
Rather than talk you through each hand’s variation, as I did in the multi-deck section, what I’ve done here is produce a Basic Strategy Matrix that shows an “index” number for each appropriate play. Don’t worry if you have a problem understanding it, because I’ll explain it all at the bottom.
Basic Strategy Variations Matrix
Single Deck, H17, Da2, no das, no surrender
See the matrix. (Use your back button to get back here.)
Using the Matrix
(GM Note: The Basic Strategy for this game is available from BlackjackInfo.com: 1D, H17, DA2, NDAS Basic Strategy)
The general rule for understanding the Basic Strategy Variations Matrix is this: If the number in a slot is 0 or a minus, then that play is a Basic Strategy move that you should make as long as the count is higher than the number shown. For example, with A, 6 vs. 2, you will double as long as the count is 0 or higher. If the count is minus, just hit. In the case of 9 vs. 4, you’ll double as long as the count is -2 or higher (remember that -1 is “higher” than -2). For a hand of 9,9 vs. Ace, you’ll stand as long as the count is 0 or less. If the count is higher than 0, you split the 9s.
It’s a lot easier to use the matrix if you’ve memorized the Basic Strategy for this game but if you haven’t yet done that, you really should learn it before you get into this advanced mode of play. For each player hand and dealer’s up card combination you will see either a specific action, such as hit, stand, double, etc., or a number. The number is an “action point” based upon the True Count and it keys the variation. As to what the proper variation is for a situation may get a little confusing, but if you study the hand in question, you can usually figure it out. A good example of this is A, 7 versus a dealer’s 2. In the matrix, you’ll see the number 1 in that spot, so do you hit or stand or do something else? Well, “something else” is the answer, so you should double, just as you do with A,7 vs. 3, 4, 5, and 6. Logic plays a role here, so if a play sounds illogical, it’s probably the wrong one. Would you really hit A,7 against a 2? Of course, you might stand, but that’s already the Basic Strategy play, so doubling is all that’s left. Consequently, what this is telling you is that you should double A,7 against a dealer’s up card of 2 when the True Count is 1 or more. If the True Count is less than 1, use the Basic Strategy play, which is to stand. Against a 3, Basic Strategy says to double A,7. But the index for that is -1, so that’s telling you to double A,7 vs. 3 only if the True Count is -1 or higher. If it’s not, then you should stand.
Let’s talk about another variation that may cause some confusion: 8, 8 vs. 10. The notation in that box is “Stand@6”, so if the True Count is 6 or more, you will not split the 8s, but stand instead. Another hand that draws a lot of questions is 7, 7 vs. 10. Yes, Basic Strategy is correct when it says to stand with 7, 7 vs. 10 in a single-deck game, mostly because the dealer either has a good hand, like a 20 or s/he is “stiff” and we’re hoping for a dealer bust. Because you already have 2 of the four 7s in the deck in your hand, the odds are greatly reduced that you can beat a dealer’s 20 by catching another 7, so the mathematics work out that you’re better off standing and praying. But it’s a close call, so if the count is below 0, you should hit. This means that if the running count is -1 or lower, you should hit 7,7 versus a 10, not split. If the count is 0 or higher, stand.
Now, take a look at the Hard Totals section, where I have 2 different types of 16s: a 10,6 and a 9,7. In the 10, 6 row there’s a “4” under the dealer’s 10 and a “0” in the 9,7 row. This is what’s called a “composition-dependent” play and I included it for several good reasons. First of all, 16 vs.10 is a relatively common hand and you can see by the numbers that there’s quit a difference between how the two 16s should be played. What the variations matrix’s saying is that you should stand with 9,7 at 0 or higher, but stand with 10,6 only when the True Count is 4 or more. This is quite a departure from what we do with a 16 vs. 10 in a multi-deck game, where we stand only when the count is more than 0 (i.e., a running count of 1). Just a side note here: there’s a lot of confusion about this play in my multi-deck section, but what I do is stand with 16 vs.10 when the running count is 1 or more, otherwise I hit it. What you do when the count is exactly 0 doesn’t really matter because the expected value is the same for either play. The same is true for a hand of 9,7 vs. 10 in a single-deck game.
Anyway, why would we stand with 10,6 vs.10 only when the True Count is at 4 or more? It all has to do with the total number of 10s in a single deck, which is sixteen and you already have one of them in your hand and the dealer is showing one as his up card. That’s two less 10s that can bust you and two less 10s the dealer can have in “the hole”, so it sways the decision away from standing toward hitting more aggressively. Look, a hand of 16 is never going to be great, regardless of how you play it, so all we’re really doing is trying to minimize the damage. Hitting 10, 6 vs. 10 until the True Count is 4 or more helps with that process.
In the row for 6,6 you’ll see a notation under the dealer’s card of 7 like this: Split@<0 and that means, "split a pair of 6s versus 7, if the count is below 0." I don’t want you to leave without me telling you the most important variation of all, which is the Insurance bet. You hopefully know that proper Basic Strategy tells us to never take insurance (even when you have a ‘natural’ and the dealer’s up card is an Ace, in spite of what everybody else tells you), but in a single-deck game, the insurance bet becomes profitable at a True Count of 1.4 or higher.
Learning the Basic Strategy Variations
Once you’ve chosen the Basic Strategy variations you want to learn, you should make a set of flash cards for them. Exactly how to do that is explained in Lesson 14 of “The GameMaster’s Blackjack School” and I cannot over-emphasize their value. Make up a set and carry them with you, or at least study them intently before each playing session if single-deck Blackjack isn’t your “primary” game.