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Blackjack can be beaten !
You will see how to be at least break even with the house, and maybe have a small advantage over the long run with easy methods to learn, and how and why they work. I tried to summarize many books that I read and kept only what I thought was useful and easily shareable. I’ll put the list of the book I read at the end if you want to dig deeper in the world of beating the blackjack game. ## A bit of History
Ed Thorp discussed a number of the first systems in his book Beat the Dealer in 1962. Prior him the only card counting system was recognized by the casinos as valid was « casing the aces » in which a player would markedly increase his bet (like from $5 to $500) in the second half of the deck if no aces had been dealt in the first half. In 1956, a group of mathematician - Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott - applied the statistical analysis to the game of blackjack, and published the Basic Strategy on a technical journal for mathematicians. This strategy, followed rigorously, would narrow the house edge, making blackjack close to a break even for the player over the long run. Using computers, Thorp discovered that the removal of any low card such as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 was advantageous to the player in varying degrees, and the contrary (removal of high cards valued 10 or 11 point) was hurting the player’s chances dramatically. One of the systems he developed after those analysis is called the « ten-count ». In this system tens and non-tens are counted separately. Larger bets were placed as the proportion of tens to non-tens in the deck became larger. He used this strategy for a while and the casino detected that something was wrong as the number of player using it increased, and they decided to change the rules of the game in 1964. The rule changes did not last for long because players abandoned the blackjack tables rather than play against the new rules. They decided to change the rules back to previous because of the large profit they were now missing, even with the counter. After that, blackjack became one of the most popular table game in the U.S. casinos.
How to play Black Jack
This is how a casino blackjack tables look like from the top
The large circle represent the seats, the rectangles area are the place where the players place their bets, and there is usually inscription to tells the slight difference of rules that we can find in blackjack tables. A sign indicate the limit of minimum and maximum bets. Card are dealt from the dealer’s left to right, and use 1 to 8 decks of cards.
The goal of the game is to beat the dealer. You can achieved this in two ways :
- Have a higher total than the dealer without exceeding 21.
- When the dealer’s total exceeds 21 (if you didn’t exceed 21 first).
If a player and a dealer tie, it is called a push, neither wins and you get your bet back.
Cards valued 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 count exactly at their face value. Cards valued 10, Jack, Queen and King each count 10 points. The ace may count as either 1 or 11, whichever the player prefers.
Two card valued 10 points and 11 make a total of 21 and is called a blackjack, or natural and is an automatic win paid $3 to every $2 bet if the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack either.
Any hand in which the ace can be counted as 11, without busting (getting over 21), is a soft hand. If you hold an ace and a 5 for example it is a soft 16. But if after you draw a card you get an 8, your total is now a hard 14. In this case with an ace valued 11 you would be busted with 24 so it can only be counted as 1.
It is important that you be able to read your hand’s total value, hard or soft, quickly and effortlessly.
Before any cards are dealt, all bets mush be placed.
When a dealer dealt his card, one is face up and the other is face down. Now if the face up card is an ace or a ten-valued card, you can use what’s called “insurance”. You insure yourself in case the dealer face down card would make him have a blackjack, making everyone instantly loose his bet in this case, except if a player also have a blackjack and get pushed. Because insurance bets are paid at the rate of 2 to 1, a player would be break even. Never take insurance if you have a blackjack, that gives the house an 8% advantage, worse than any other bet you can make at any other casino game.
Except if you have a blackjack/natural, the most common decision you will have is whether to Hit or Stand. Hitting is taking another card. For example if your total is 13, you might want to get closer to 21 by taking one more card. You tap with your finger on the table to signal the dealer you want another card. You can hit as many times as you want, as long as your total does not exceed 21.
To signal you want to stand to a dealer, you wave your hand sideways, palm down.
Some casino allow doubling down on any originals card, some only on cards totaling 9, 10 and 11. If you decide, and are allowed to double down according to the casino’s rules, you may put the same amount of your bet next to your original bet and must draw only one additional card.
If a player hold two cards of the same value, he may split the pair into two separate hands. If you have a double 8 for example, totaling 16 (a really bad hand) you can split them and play each 8 as a separate hand. If you get another 8, you can split again and have 3 hands. Splitting ace will most of the time allow you to have only one more card above it and you cannot re-split aces. If you receive a ten on one of your aces, it is not going to be counted as a blackjack and be paid 3 to 2. Most casino will allow you to split ten-valued card, like a jack and a king. If you split ten and get a ace, as before it wont be counted as a blackjack. In a short way : Any pair may be split. Any pair, except aces, may be re-split. Split aces receive only one card each. Some casinos will also allow you to double down after splitting.
In some casino, a player may surrender his first two cards and lose only half his bet and his hand will not be played out. It is not allowed if dealer has a blackjack, except if the casino accept early surrender that allow you to surrender before the dealer check the second card to see if there is a blackjack.
The dealer’s hand
One of the more important part in blackjack, the dealer’s actions. He completes his own hand only after all players have competed their hands. The dealer has no options, he is not allowed to double down, or split any pair. He is not allowed to surrender. He must hit any hand which totals less than 17 and stand on any hands which totals 17 or more. The only exception to this is that some casinos require the dealer to hit a soft 17 (such as A,6). He must follow house rules. So for example, if you stand on a 15, and he got a 16, he must hit a new card and can only win if his total is between 17 and 21 without bursting.
Basic Strategy (how to be almost break even with the house)
Now that you know how to play blackjack, you can begin to learn how to play without losing money. If you make decision based on your gut you will lose money in the long run. There is only one correct decision for any given play, and that decision is based strictly on mathematics. Using high speed computers, all the possibilities of any hand you might hold vs every possible dealer up card have been analyzed, and the basic strategy is what came out of those analysis.
Basic strategy is the mathematically optimum way to play your hands if you are not counting card.
Depending on the rules and the number of decks in use, the basic strategy will usually cut the house edge to no more than about 1/2 percent over the player.
The following basic strategy is a “composite” version that is likely to work well with any variation of blackjack rules. The player’s hand are listed vertically on the left side, and dealer’s up cards are listed horizontally along the top.
Use the basic strategy chart in this order :
- If surrender is allowed, this takes priority over any other decision.
- If you have a pair, determine whether or not basic strategy calls for a split.
- Check if you have a possible hand to double down, according to double down casino rules (as you may only be allowed to double down on 10 and 11, or any regular cards).
- If nothing above applied, then check the hit or stand chart. Always hit a hard total of 11 or below, and always stand on a hard total of 17 or higher. Always hit soft 17 (A,6) or below. For hard 12 through 16 and soft 18 (A,7) consult the basic strategy chart.
In the next chart, following if you are allowed to double down after splits or not use one or the other.
Never take insurance if you play only basic strategy.
Playing basic strategy accurately will greatly cut your losses, and is require to go to the next step of counting card, so practice those charts and rules until you know them perfectly. Even when you are counting card, you will play basic strategy on 80% or more of your hands.
Card counting - The Red Seven count
Introduction to card counting
Computer studies have found that the proportionate removal of certain cards gives the player an advantage over the house, while the removal of others gives the house an advantage over the player. As card are removed from play, the player’s chances of winning constantly change. By learning to analyze a depleted deck of cards for favorability, and capitalizing on particular situations by betting more when the remaining cards are in your favor and less when they’re not, you can actually have an edge over the casino. Systems varies from complexity, but the idea is to bet more when there is more ten-valued card in the deck than lower card, and bet less when it is the contrary.
The trick is to keep a running count in your head of +1 for low card such as 2 to 6, and -1 for ten/ace valued card. The particularity in the red seven count is to also add +1 for the seven, but only the red ones, to create an imbalance system that will free us to do more calculus such as true count (read books to know more about it).
- 2 to Red 7 → +1
- Black 7 to 9 → 0
- 10 points cards and Ace → -1
To practice counting, buy yourself many many cards decks and put them everywhere in your house, office, pocket,… Start with one shuffled deck, count from 0. Turn cards one at a time face-up on the table in front of you and add each card’s point value to your running count. For example :
Cards seen : 4, X, 2, 8, 9, X, A, Red 7, 5, 6 Point values : +1, -1, +1, 0, 0, -1, -1, +1, 0, +1, 0 Running Count : +1, 0, +1, +1, +1, 0, -1, 0, +1, +2
At the end of the deck your running count should be +2. If it is not +2 then you have not counted correctly assuming your deck contains 52 cards. Count again without shuffling the deck until you finish with +2 to figure out your mistake. Then shuffle and start again. Then start showing two cards at a time, you’ll see many time cards cancel them with a +1 -1. Train as much as you can, you should be able to count down a deck in 40 seconds or less before attempting any try in a real casino.
In shoe game, train yourself to count multiple deck at a time, note that your final count is always 2 times the number of decks you are using. With 4 decks, your running count at the end should always be +8.
Best practice is to calculate 0 - final countdown (related to the number of decks used) and start counting from that number. It means that when you will be at 0, its called the pivot. From 0 or above you will start to change your betting and strategy according to the red seven count strategy.
At your pivot (0 with your running count), you start to have an advantage of approximately 1/2 over the house. Simply say, the Red Seven strategy is to bet more when your running count is 0 or higher, and less (or nothing) when your running count is negative.
You will learn later how to size your bets according to your bankroll.
The Basic Red Seven Playing Strategy
Using the Red Seven Count, you can also increase your advantage over the house by deviating from basic strategy according to your running count.
The insurance 1 and 2-deck game, you take insurance any time your running count is 0 or higher. In all shoe games, take insurance at +2
Basic strategy changes Any time you are at 0 or higher (any number of decks), stand on 16vs10 and on 12vs3. Running count of +2 or higher (any number of decks), stand on 12vs2, and on 15vs10, and double down on 10vsX
The Advanced Red Seven Count
This chart follow the basic strategy.
In the stand area if your running count is higher than the numbers on the table, you have to stand, lower you have to hit. In the double down area same idea, double down if your running count is higher than the number. Always take insurance if running count higher than 4. Follow the surrender the surrender of basic strategy for 16, and follow this one based on your running count.
Important precision, follow the advance strategy only after the half of the decks have been dealt. If there is 8 decks, start using the advanced red seven strategy accordingly to your running count after 4 decks are on the discard tray.
The Profit Formula
Average Bet x Advantage x Hands Per Hour = Hourly Profit
A player get around 75 to 100 hands per hour, depends on the number of player at the table. Full tables may cut this down to 60 per hands, where head on play (1 player) may raise it to 200 per hour. Let say you bet 10$ chip, and you succeed to keep an average of 1% over the house, and you play 100 hands per hour :
$10 x 0.1 x 100 = $10 per hour
It is what you can expect from playing in the long run.
The next thing really important to be aware is what the mathematicians call normal fluctuation. In the short run of a play, anything can happen, sometimes you will win, and sometimes you will lose, even with the best card counting strategy. For example, if you try flipping a coin a thousand times, you’d be highly unlikely to come up with exactly 500 wins, and 500 losses. Even if the formula say that there is 1/2 chance to get one or the other. Statisticians use the term standard deviation to explain variations from the expected result. If you flip the coin 10 times, and you come up with 7 tails and 3 heads, it would not say the coin was dishonest, it would be considered as a normal fluctuation. However if you flip the coin 10 000 times and you get 7000 tails and 3000 heads, that would be very unlikely.
To calculate the standard deviation, the formula is simple the square root of the number of tries. Let say you do 10 times, square root of 10 = 3.16, in the example above we were 2 tails away from our expectation of 5, so well within our standard deviation (3.16). Now with a 10 000 trials, a standard deviation is 100. With our 2000 tails a head of the 5000 expected, we are 20 standard deviation times away from our expectation. Statistically this is nearly impossible.
The statisticians say that we expect to be within one standard deviation 68% of the time. We will be within two standard deviations of our expectation 95% of the time. After 3 deviation we are almost at 100%
So how big should your playing bankroll be
Bankroll - the amount of money you can afford to lose, over a specified period of time.
If you can afford to lose $1000 this week, that is your bankroll. To know your betting unit, divide your bankroll by 100. If you lose 20 units, stop playing and reassess your bankroll, bet, etc
The deck penetration is fundamental, it represents how deep the card are dealt in the game before being shuffled again. Just for you to know, less than 67% is bad and your strategy wont be efficient enough, 67 to 75% is okay, more than 76% is good ! Try to choose your table accordingly before playing.
Estimating the remaining deck
Buy yourself a few dozen decks of standard playing cards and build different stacks of card (8 decks, 7 decks, 6 deck, etc etc) and get your eyes used to guess how many cards of decks are left. This is only to calculate the true count, it’s for more advanced strategy.
One concept behind all betting strategies for card counters is bet more when you have the edge, and less (or nothing) when the house has the edge. The second thing to know, is how to raise your bet without attracting the attention to yourself.
Now, your high bet will be your bankroll divided by 100, imagine you have $2000, then your higher bet will be $20. Most casino allows $5 for a minimum bet so you will be stuck with a 1-to-4 spread, or $5 to $20 in this example. In this case bet your maximum bet only when your count justifies the 8-unit bet, not at 4-unit. Constantly reassess the size of your bankroll and alter the size of your bets accordingly. Always buy chips in small amount, if you play with nickels ($5 chips), don’t buy in for more than $100. Remember that if you lose 10 units, reassess your bankroll (divide it by 100 to know your knew high bet). You will experience big swings of positive and negative fluctuations, you got to be prepare for this, and cut your loss fast. The goal is to stay in the game for long !
If your bet are below $50 (low bets), most of the casino wont care that you change your betting from 1-to-4 even 1-to-8, but some casino don’t want any card counter at their table so if you feel heat don’t push it.
In multi-deck games, almost half of your hands are played when neither you nor the dealer has any significant edge.
During these “neutral” hands, a good card counter would break even if he was flat-betting.
This are also the moment where you may bet like a complete fool in order to establish this image for the dealer, pit boss, etc. This will increase your bankroll fluctuations, so you do not want to place your highest bets in neutral portions of the shoe. You just want to alter your bet continually with no count justification.
Card counters are generally suspected and identified by their betting styles, not how they play their hands. Don’t overdo “stupid” camouflage plays. Most of the time, you will not need such plays to camouflage your counting. Your seemingly foolish betting is your best camouflage.
How not to be busted in the casino
Primary fear for card counters is to be busted he his counting cards. Even if there is nothing illegal in this, all casino will try to kick away any card counter they will be sure they spotted. That is where the camouflage techniques are the most important thing to master after your card counting skills if you want to use it in casinos.
It is making idiot play strategy, like standing on 14, or splitting pairs that you should not, in case you don’t have skill for acting. It’s easy to do, but costly in terms of R/R in your strategy.
- Reserve your stupid plays for your smallest bet
- Use a stupid play only when it is necessary, most dealer don’t even look what you do
- One of the hand casino look the most to see if your decision vary and if you are counting the card is 16vs10. You can decide to always stand on this hand. Even when you know you should hit.
- Hitting 7/7 vs 10
- Hitting 12 vs 4,5 or 6
- Hitting 13 vs 2 or 3
Those changes in the strategy look dumb and wont cost you much of money.
Double down on 10vs10 or 11vsA, or 8vs6
Splitting 9s vs 2 or 9s vs A
People that never insurance their blackjack look suspicious because casino like to tell players to do it. So if you actually do it to look like an amateur, it won’t cost you that much.
To conclude those idiot camouflages, small stakes card counter should not bother using those technique that will eat their already low gain. If you don’t get rated, don’t get a VIP card, and don’t give your name, you don’t need camouflage. It’s primarily for high stakes player.
High Rollers survival guide
Don’t socialize in the casinos with other card counters. Even if you are with some friends, in the casino you should be strangers.
In the beginning of your plays at a table, in the hopes of influencing the dealer on your side, give him a tip. He may be less suspicious afterward, more apt to deal deeper into the deck and more likely to ignore a betting spread.
Don’t do tip too much regards to your expected hourly win from your strategy.
Dealers who cheat
Most dealers are honest, but it is real that in some casinos, it can happen. The most common is incorrect payoffs, so always pay attention to the amount you have bet and what you get payed off.
If you notice that the count is always high when the dealer shuffle means that he may be controlling the shuffle to keep lots of high cards in the out of cut part, meaning that you’ll never get access to those card you are so much looking for when the count is high. In this case, just leave the table. It can also happen if in the decks, they remove some aces or tens removed, and/or extra low cards added.
If a blackjack for the dealer on the first hand after the shuffle seems to happen more than 2 times, he is probably controlling the cards with false shuffles.
All team must write a handbook, no matter what size of bankroll or team you have. In this book all procedures, rules and agreements should be written.
- How do players qualify for team play ? What testing procedures will be used ?
- Will the team use signals in the casino ? What signals ? Member be tested on signals ?
- Who will act as a team manager ? What will be his duties and responsibilities ?
- Who handle the trip bankroll ?
- What are the betting limits ? What amount of win or losses necessitates an immediate report to the team manager ?
- Do player tip dealers ? How much ? How often and under what conditions ?
- Will violations of rules be penalized financially ? How ?
Two Persons Teams
It is usually close friends of couple that will play at the same table. You don’t have to hide that you know each other, it can effectively double the betting spread with less suspicious.
One spotter play with low stack at one table, and with a discreet signal he tells the other big stack player of the team to come because the count is high. Signal is the most important aspect of this play.
If result doesn’t come out, the most important is to keep quiet in any situation, and wait to be out of the casino to discuss or show any sign of frustration for a “bad spotter”.
NO ONE KNOW EACH OTHER IN THE CASINO !
Same same, but this time the big stack player is not a card counter, he only knows the signal, and he drinks to be even more in the role of a random player. The only risk is that he become effectively too drunk and start to do mistake.
Team can be a great fun when you are winning, but can be hell when you’re losing, risk is always there in Blackjack !
That’s it for the 21 game tutorial ! Have fun and play safe 🙃
Books / References
- Winning Casino Blackjack for the Non-Counter (really well explained for beginners, and focus really well to explain everything for the basic strategy)
- Blackbelt of blackjack (book written by one of the best player)
- The World’s Greatest Blackjack Book (very good book for beginners, covering lot of different counting system)
- Blackjack’s secret (small book with a huge amount a good information)
- Blackjack Blueprint (good book again with lots of real stories)