Blackjack persists as one of the world’s signature casino games. Blackjack games are among the most popular pastimes at land-based and online casinos around the globe.
While the house edge makes blackjack nearly impossible to beat in the long term, you can make the most of any blackjack session with a solid betting strategy. The fundamentals of a sound blackjack approach include proper bankroll management, understanding of basic strategy, and a consistent betting system.
Some blackjack players push their betting systems to the brink, using techniques like card counting and even team betting in an effort to overcome the house edge.
This article takes a look at blackjack betting strategy, with a focus on fundamentals you should understand at the blackjack table.
What are the Rules of Blackjack?
Blackjack rules can differ depending on which blackjack variant you’re playing. Most Las Vegas casinos and many online blackjack games play with American Blackjack rules.
In American Blackjack, all players are dealt two cards, face up. The dealer also gets two cards, one face down and one face up.
Blackjack players are tasked with putting together two or more cards that add up to 21, or a close to 21 as possible, without going over.
After the first two cards are dealt, each player can hit (take another card), stand (stay with the cards they have), or in certain situations double down, split pairs, or surrender (give up your hand and keep half of your wager).
A double down can only be applied if you’re dealt a total of nine, ten, or 11. Splitting pairs takes a paired hand and splits it into two separate hands, doubling your wager but allowing only one more card on each.
Going over a total of 21 results in busting, and the player loses any amount of money they’ve wagered.
After each player completes their desired betting action, the dealer turns their face down card up for all players to see. The dealer must hit if their total is 16 or less and must stand on 17 or greater.
If the dealer either has to stand, all players that beat the dealer with a higher total win. The dealer busting results in all live players winning.
If the dealer is dealt a natural blackjack (21) with their first two cards, the down card is turned face up, and all players that don’t also have a natural blackjack automatically lose.
A natural blackjack generally pays 1.5-to-1, while beating the dealer any other way pays even money.
Blackjack Betting Strategy
Many free resources on blackjack strategy can be found online or in print format. The most common resources for blackjack players are strategy charts that display whether to hit, stand, or double down, for every possible combination of the player’s hand ad the dealer’s up card.
Most casinos, even in Las Vegas, allow players to use such charts right at the blackjack table. The understanding of basic strategy starts with a thorough knowledge of how your cards and the dealer’s affect the way you should play blackjack.
Once you have a solid understanding of basic strategy, you can then expand your approach to include specific betting systems.
Blackjack Betting Systems
Blackjack players have been coming up with methods to decrease the house edge since the game was invented. Some techniques, like the Martingale System, attempt to offset losing streaks by doubling the amount of a bet until you win.
Other methods employ progressive betting strategies, which dictate that you only increase the amount of a wager after a win and return to the original bet size after you lose. Some players use a simple flat betting strategy and stick as close to perfect basic strategy as possible.
The most ambitious blackjack players in the world might use techniques such as card counting and team play to try to overcome the house edge, making blackjack a profitable game for the player.
Let’s take a look at some of the most well-known blackjack betting strategies:
The Martingale System attempts to offset losing streaks by doubling the amount of the bet after each hand that you lose. Theoretically, you can always get back to even on a session if you use the Martingale System until you win a hand, no matter how many hands you’ve lost in a row before that.
The Martingale System is a negative progression betting strategy. Even at the lowest blackjack stakes, you’ll need a massive bankroll to avoid risk of ruin in real money games.
For example, let’s say you start with a $10 bet using the Martingale System. If you lose your first hand, you then have to bet $20 on the next hand. Lose that hand, and your next bet has to be $40.
You’ll need to keep doubling your bet using this negative progression system until you finally spike a winning hand. Losing streaks of ten in a row or more aren’t that uncommon in blackjack, so the Martingale System isn’t the best blackjack approach if you’re not playing with a big bankroll.
For instance, if you lost ten straight hands using the Martingale System with a $10 starting bet, you would be down $10,230 for the session. Negative progression blackjack betting systems shouldn’t be used if you’re not ready to chase your losses with big recoup bets.
Winning Streak Strategies
Winning streak strategies, aka positive progression strategies, stand opposite to the Martingale System in their approach. Positive progression strategies attempt to maximize the value of a hot streak by increasing the bet after a winning hand.
The key to victory when using a positive progression approach is to always stop at some point during a winning streak. For example, if you start with a $10 wager and win, your next wager might be $20.
Win that $20 hand, and you’re already up $30 after two hands. If you up your next bet to $40 and win again, you’re up $70 after three hands.
After three straight wins, you might want to call it a session. Your current hot streak will inevitably come to an end, and you must stop after a win for a positive progression strategy to work.
The Oscar’s Grind strategy can be applied to any game offering even money payouts. Blackjack doesn’t exactly fit into that category, as some events, like making a natural blackjack, pay at different odds than 1-to-1.
The Oscar betting system involves keeping the bet size the same after a loss and increasing the wager by one after each win. You repeat this system until you’re up one unit, then go back to the original bet size.
This system aims to win exactly one betting unit per series, then start another series with the original bet size.
For example, let’s say you begin with a $10 bet using Oscar’s Grind. If you lose that hand, your next bet is again $10.
You’ll keep betting $10 on each hand until you get a winning hand. After that, you increase the bet to $20. You then keep betting $20 until you win again, then increase the bet to $30.
Each series using Oscar’s Grind goes on like this until you’re ahead. Once you’ve netted a profit, that series is complete, and you start another series with a $10 bet.
Like the Martingale System, Oscar’s Grind should only be used if you have a bankroll that can withstand long losing streaks.
Card counters are immortalized in the world’s most popular blackjack books and movies. If you’ve seen the movie 21 or read Ben Mezrich’s books about the MIT card counting team, you’re familiar with the tales of blackjack card counters winning millions.
The premise behind counting cards involves making big bets when the shoe is weighted toward aces and high cards and smaller bets when the remainder of the shoe is heavy on lower cards.
The number of decks in a shoe determines the effectiveness of a card counting system. A six-deck blackjack game is ideal for card counting, while single deck games limit the usefulness of this strategy.
Card counting involves keeping a basic running tally of which cards have come out of a shoe so far during a blackjack game. The most basic card counting system assigns point totals to each card that comes out of the deck.
For example, the system outlined in Mezrich’s books assigned a “-1” to each card ten or higher dealt to the table. Cards seven through nine are assigned a “0” and cards six or lower are designated as “+1”.
When the cumulative “+” count hits certain numbers, card counters increase the size of their bets. A sizable “+” tally indicates that the remainder of the shoe includes a surplus of high cards, and those conditions mathematically favor the player.
Conversely, a shoe stacked with low cards favors the dealer, and card counters will adjust to high “-” counts by only putting out the minimum bets.
While the MIT Blackjack Team can pull this strategy off with staggering precision, card counting can lead to consequences at casinos. While card counting isn’t technically cheating, successful implementation of this strategy will get you noticed by casino security for all the wrong reasons.
Card counting is also extremely mentally taxing, as it not only involves keeping an accurate running tally, but also requires that you divert from basic blackjack strategy depending on the situation.
Card counting aside, even the best blackjack strategies can’t overcome the house edge in the game. Like all forms of gambling (besides poker), the player will always lose to the house in the long run.
Blackjack is best played for entertainment purposes only. You should only go to the table with a bankroll that you’re comfortable losing and not chase losses if you lose that pre-determined bankroll.
If you want to use one of the systems outlined above, be sure you understand the bankroll required for each, as well as what each system aims to accomplish.
Finally, if you’re thinking about taking up card counting, be prepared to put a serious amount of time and practice into that skill set. You won’t be well-received by the casinos if you’re one of the few to achieve success in card counting, so be prepared to be shown the exit, or worse.