Blackjack: The Critical Importance of Playing Hands Correctly

Other Sep 22, 2020

Basic Strategy cards (that can be purchased at a casino gift shop for $1.99) advise the blackjack player of the correct decision – either to hit, stand, split, double-down, surrender – for every possible hand combination.

These instructions are informed by the best expected outcome for each hand combination. Sometimes, expected outcomes for certain hand combinations are extremely poor, irrespective of the option chosen.  As a result, many players are tempted to "act on instinct" and deviate from what's referred to as Basic Strategy.

However, unless the player is an advanced card counter, deviating from Basic Strategy is generally a big mistake.  Any deviation from the most advantageous (or least disadvantageous) play increases the house’s edge.  

For example, one of the more frequent mistakes I see amateurs make is in their approach to ‘player 16 versus dealer 7’.  Both expected outcomes are poor: if the player elects to stand on 16, the expected outcome is a loss of $0.475 for every dollar bet; if the player chooses to hit 16, the expected outcome is a loss of $0.415 for every dollar wagered.  Even though each option is likely to produce a loss, the player would be committing a serious error by standing on 16 versus a dealer’s 7, as this option gives away an additional 6% advantage to the house.  Put another way, for every $10,000 of notional bets wagered under the ‘player 16 versus dealer 7’ scenario, standing will cost the player an additional $600.

Ouch.

Why is this so? If the player chooses to stand, the only way he or she will win is if the dealer busts – an outcome with a 26.2% likelihood when the dealer is showing a 7. By contrast, there are five cards that will improve the player’s hand (ace, 2, 3, 4, and 5) if he or she hits, an outcome gained 38.5% of the time. Granted, just because the player has improved his hand does not guarantee a win; but with the dealer drawing to 17 approximately 37% of the time (or about three times in eight) with a 7 up, it is easy to see why the expected outcome is 6% better taking a card versus standing.

By contrast, hitting a 16 against the dealer’s 10 does not meaningfully improve the player’s expected outcome (-$0.535 hitting vs. -$0.538 standing) as the dealer will draw to 20 approximately 37% of the time. As such, drawing an ace, 2, or 3 with a 16 does not help the player nearly as much against a dealer’s 10 as compared to a dealer’s 7. That is why, the player should take the surrender option (-$0.500) when offered as it improves his outcome by at least 3.5% versus the other options.

Of course, the house has an edge at all casino games, so it’s important to follow the tenets of Basic Strategy to prevent it from accruing an even greater advantage.

-- written by Hot Rodz

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