Win or lose, Basic Strategy is the Way to Go

By John Grochowski
Bob is an old blackjack-playing buddy, and he said he had a friend who wanted to meet me.

Wanted to grill me, was more like it. Bob’s pal Pete had read some things I’d written about blackjack basic strategy, and he wanted to challenge me on a few points.

“It’s all very interesting,” Pete said, “but in the real world of blackjack, with real cards, sometimes you just have to go by the way it feels.”

Bob snickered. He’s a basic strategy player from way back, and I later learned that he and Pete had been arguing over feel vs. probabilities for some time.

Those who play by feel and ignore basic strategy cost themselves money in the real world of blackjack, I pointed out.

“Not on every hand,” Pete countered.

No, I explained. Sometimes bad plays will be winners. But the good plays will win more often than the bad ones.

“But when they win, doesn’t that become a good play? The other day I had a pair of 10s, and the dealer had a 6 face up. You say splitting the 10s is a bad play, right?”

Right. Twenty is a stronger hand than 10. You’ll win more money by standing on 20s than you will by making a second wager and starting two hands with 10 each.


If you start with 10 against a 6, you’ll never take more than one more card, right? You’re not going to hit if the next card gives you 17 or better, and you’re not going to hit 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 if the dealer has a 6, are you?

“I suppose not. I’d just wait for the dealer to bust.”

Of the 13 card denominations, only one, an Ace, will give you a better hand than the 20 you had before the split. Along with that 21 you’d get with an Ace, four cards --- 10, Jack, Queen or King --- would get you back to your 20.

“Sounds pretty good to me.”

But eight cards, the 2 through the 9, leave you with something less than 20. Nearly 62 percent of the time, you’ll go into a showdown with the dealer with a weaker hand than the one you had at the start. And that’s assuming you don’t do something silly like resplitting once a 10-value has brought you back up to a 20.

“But the dealer has a 6. I’m waiting for him to bust. He can bust just as well against my split as against a 20, can’t he?”

Sure he can. But how often do you think the dealer busts when he or she has a 6 face up?

“Oh, I don’t know. Two-thirds of the time?”

Try 42 percent of the time. On 58 percent of hands when the dealer has a 6 face up, he or she will make 17 or better and beat all your 12s through 16s, and some of your 17s and up.

“My 20s lose to dealer 21s sometimes.”

Sure, but 20 won’t lose as often as 17, 18 or 19 will.

“OK, but what about standing on 16 when the dealer has a 7 face up, or standing on 12 when the dealer has a 2 and you don’t want to take the dealer’s bust card?”

Sixteen against a dealer’s 7 is going to lose more than it wins no matter what you do, but it loses a little less than if you hit. So you play the odds and hit the 16, knowing that sometimes you’ll bust.

And you’ll win more often with 12 against 2 if you hit instead of standing. Sometimes you’ll take a card that would have busted the dealer if you hit, but your bankroll will be happier if you consistently anyway.

“But sometimes you’ll win two hands when you split 20. Sometimes you’ll win when you stand on 16 against 7. Sometimes you’ll win when you stand on 12 against 2. When it works, doesn’t it become a good play?”

Not in my book. You don’t know when the weaker play is going to win and when it’s not. Blackjack is a statistical game --- lots and lots of hands go into your overall result. And your overall results will be better when you make the plays that are more likely to win.

Bob finally chimed in. “I’ve been trying to tell him that. He still wants to change his play hand to hand.”

“I guess I should listen to you guys,” Pete said. “The reason Bob and I got into this in the first place was because I wanted to know why he wins more often than I do. But I want to win every hand, and you can’t do that unless you time the ‘bad’ plays right.”

Winning ‘em all is an impossible goal, I told him. The best you can do is make the plays that make you most likely to win, and take the good with the bad.

Pete shrugged. “There ought to be a way …”

John Grochowski writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column on gambling,
and is author of  the "Casino Answer Book" series from Bonus Books.