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The GameMaster's Blackjack School
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Lesson 1: Basic Strategy
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 that 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 HandDecisions
5 thru 8Always Hit
9Double 3 thru 6, o/w hit
10Double 2 thru 9, o/w hit
11Double 2 thru 10, o/w hit
12Stand 4 thru 6, o/w Hit
13 thru 16Stand 2 thru 6, o/w Hit
17 or higherAlways Stand
A,2Double vs 5&6, o/w Hit
A,3Double vs 5&6, o/w Hit
A,4Double vs 4 thru 6, o/w Hit
A,5Double vs 4 thru 6, o/w Hit
A,6Double vs 3 thru 6, o/w Hit
A,7Double 3 thru 6, Stand vs 2,7,8 Hit vs 9,10, A
A,8-A,9Always Stand
2,2Split 2 thru 7, o/w Hit
3,3Split 2 thru 7, o/w Hit
4,4Split vs 5 & 6, o/w Hit
5,5Never Split, treat as "10"
6,6Split 2 thru 6, o/w Hit
7,7Split 2 thru 7, o/w Hit
8,8Always split
9,9Split 2 thru 9 except 7; o/w Stand
10,10Never Split
A,AAlways 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.
Computer work: Go to "Blackjack Myths, Facts and Playing Suggestions"and read those so you can gain an understanding of what I'm going to teach you in the coming months. They also have a shareware version of a good BJ program you can try.
Go to Standford Wong's "Blackjack Page" and roam around a bit. This is a premier forum on the Internet for serious blackjack players; it will be time well spent.

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.

Questions? E-mail me at and I'll reply personally.

The GameMaster OnLine, is the on-line gambling 'zine with attitude, a man-about-town focus and a commitment to winning, both on-line and in the casino. As the original creative director and the master strategist of the Rolling Good Times we brought you the web's first real gambling 'zine. Please stop by our web site and see how we can enhance your casino experience.

©copyright, 2003 The GameMaster Online, Inc.

The Basic Course:
Lesson 1
Lesson 2
Lesson 3
Lesson 4
Lesson 5
Lesson 6
Lesson 7
Lesson 8
Lesson 9
Lesson 10
Lesson 11
Lesson 12
The Advanced Course: Lesson 13
Lesson 14
Lesson 15
Lesson 16
Lesson 17
Lesson 18
Lesson 19
Lesson 20
Lesson 21
Lesson 22
Lesson 23
Lesson 24


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