How to Study Blackjack: From Beginner to Advanced
Being able to reference a picture of a strategy chart is one thing, and memorizing one chart for one specific title is another. However, studying blackjack to get good at it in the general sense, across most titles in the genre, requires knowing how to structure your learning properly and a fundamental understanding of what makes the individual games different.
The Fundamentals of Studying Blackjack
Blackjack is generally considered to be the most popular casino game in the world where strategy is a serious consideration. There are examples in all kinds of media of players learning how to “take down the house” by getting so good at the game and exploiting aspects of it that they can get an edge against the casino.
Whether you want to try to figure out a mathematical edge against the casino, or you just want to get the best payout rate possible while you play, you need to know how to study the game as a genre instead of looking at it in terms of individual titles.
Along these lines, there are beginner, intermediate and advanced ways of looking at your study and trying to make your way through to a higher level of understanding and average payout rates.
In what follows, we’re going to break down a method of studying that will take you from the beginner level to a more advanced stage as quickly as possible by being as efficient as possible in knowing what it is you’re actually trying to learn.
What’s Expected of the Reader
We’re going to assume a few things about the reader before we get started:
- We’re going to assume that you know the general rules of blackjack and that you understand how the gameplay works.
- We’re also going to assume that you probably have some experience with basic strategy, either by referencing a chart or using a program that tells you how to play correctly in different situations.
- Finally, we’ll be assuming that you have some amount of experience playing different forms of the game and understand that rule sets can vary, which in turn will change the correct strategies from one table to the next, even if your cards are the same.
If you don’t have these basics down, we suggest checking out our articles on the more basic elements of blackjack strategy so that you can get a firm foundation before you use this breakdown of how to study the game and move up to the advanced levels.
A Brief Overview of What You Need to Learn and Why
Before we get into the specifics of actual study methods, we need to point out what is needed for learning this game and why it’s critical to understand why you need to know these things.
First off, understand that the beginner’s idea of strategy is using or memorizing a chart of how to play for a specific game. Despite this being a beginner’s approach, it’s not simple at all for a lot of games, and it’s a smart way to start things off.
However, there’s a big problem with this approach, which is that it makes it difficult to transition to any other style of blackjack with any serious level of confidence. That’s because the rule sets will be different, and you will usually make a lot of costly mistakes if you try to apply the chart-based strategy from one title to another in this genre.
A better approach, and the approach we’re going to advocate for here, is to go after a generalized understanding of the game as a whole. This doesn’t mean memorizing charts for every single game, though there is a case for learning the right strategies for a basic, multi-deck game. Instead, it means learning what the different rule variations are and how you need to adjust your strategies to them.
If you take this approach, you’ll be able to better adjust to any style of blackjack that you sit down to play. While learning to do this takes a lot of study, we’re going to show you how to make this as efficient as possible by breaking things up into two areas: how to study and what to study.
A Full Blackjack Curriculum
There are primarily three areas that need to be studied to become a well-rounded blackjack player at a fairly high level:
- Basic Strategy – Knowing when and why to hit, stand, double, split, surrender and so on in a specific game.
- Rule Differentiation – Knowing how specific rule changes affect respective changes in what the correct basic strategies are.
- Card Counting – Reserved for live dealer tables (and not regular online tables), can help you to bet more when you have an advantage and bet less when you do not.
We’re going to take a look at each of these three sections independently to show you exactly what you should be looking for each one of them.
However, understand that you can pick any of these three in any order that you want and get better at that one part of the game without having to worry about the others if that’s what you want to do. Alternatively, you can work through all of it and see how all three of these parts come together to complete one large, grand strategy.
How to Study: Basic Strategy
The first thing you should do is to find some strategy charts for a very basic multi-deck game. What this will do is that it will allow you to see certain thresholds that exist, which will clue you in to finding similar thresholds in the other games you play, no matter what the rules are.
A threshold is a hard “line” between how you play one type of hand and how you play a similar but slightly different kind of hand.
For example, there is a clear threshold between how you play hard totals of 10 and 11 when facing a dealer with 2-10 compared to how you play hard totals of 12-16. The former is largely centered around doubling a majority of the time, and the latter never doubles and is all about knowing to stand against a 2-6 (in most cases) and hit against a 7-A.
It’s really easy to pick that up from a visual standpoint, but here are a couple other thresholds based on special options that you should pay attention to in particular because they can shift a lot based on simple rule set changes.
The Surrender Threshold
Some games allow you to surrender early or late, and deciding when to surrender correctly is one of the first and easiest things to do when facing a new game with a different set of rules than what you’re used to.
As a general rule of thumb, you’ll only be surrendering in the absolute worst spots with hard totals in the 15-16 range against strong dealer cards like 9, 10 and A.
These thresholds can change, however, if you have a rule like the dealer not peeking for blackjack. That makes your own hands when facing a 10 or A worth much less, which in turn means that you should surrender a little more when facing those cards, even with totals as low as 13 or 14 in some cases.
The Soft Doubling Threshold
Another threshold to pay attention to is seeing when you should double with soft totals. The “rule of 23” tells you how to handle this threshold in standard multi-deck games (where you should double if you’re facing 2-6 and your total plus twice the dealer’s card is 23 and above).
However, adjusting this threshold to rule changes is critical. One way you can see how this works is to observe how this threshold moves around when looking at different rule changes, and something like European blackjack with its no peek rule is a good example for this, as is Spanish blackjack with its atypical 48-card deck.
How to Study: Rule Differentiation
While the threshold concept can show you some aspects of how basic strategy works in the general sense, the way you take that to the next level is to see exactly why and how different types of rules work to shape what you’re trying to accomplish in different scenarios.
We’re going to look through a few different examples of how rule changes can cause you to rethink how you’re playing so that you can see how you need to study the game to get good at identifying the adjustments that you need to implement when playing at different types of tables.
In any blackjack game that’s being dealt with a single deck, there’s one thing in particular that really changes in terms of how you should play, and that’s the idea that the right play can vary not just based on what your total is but what the actual cards are in your hand.
These are generally called “composition-based” strategies or “card-based” strategies in the blackjack world.
For a quick example, most players who are familiar with basic strategy can tell you that you should hit with a total of 12 when you’re facing super-low dealer cards. However, which of those dealer cards you should hit against can vary in a single-deck game based on which cards make up your total of 12.
In this particular example, you may need to hit against a 2, 3 or 4 when you make your 12 with a 10 and a 2, but you might only hit against a 2 if you have an 8 and a 4 instead. This is an important area to study because it can give you a non-trivial increase your payout rate, which cuts down the house advantage even more.
No Peek Rules
In most games, the dealer peeks to see if they have blackjack if they have an ace or ten showing. While this is typically the case, some games do not have this rule, and you have to study the effects that this rule change will have on how you need to play.
The basic idea is that the dealer is more likely to have blackjack if they’re showing a ten than they would otherwise, and they’re much, much more likely to hold a blackjack if they’re showing an ace.
As a result, you’ll need to become more conservative when facing aces or tens, and when you pair this with the ability to surrender, you get some really complicated adjustments.
Switching Back Cards
Some games allow you to play two hands at once and to swap your back two cards to get two new hands to play. As a result, you need to study how to handle this option so that you switch when it’s a good idea and keep your cards the way they were dealt when switching will put you at more of a disadvantage.
This is one of those rule changes that has become more common in certain areas, particularly among software providers who are newer and are trying to get attention. That’s why it’s critical to learn how to handle it now so that if the industry shifts hard in that direction, then you’ll be ready.
48-card Spanish Deck
A number of different online blackjack games (and even some land-based tables) force you to play with the 48-card Spanish deck instead of the 52-card French deck that is the most common.
Understand this: If you do not make some serious adjustments to this deck switch, then even if you play a strong basic strategy, you’ll often end up with a massive house advantage.
This 48-card deck removes the 10 cards so that the order goes …8, 9, J, Q… instead of the usual way. This makes it harder to get blackjacks, and it also makes it harder for the dealer to bust out, both of which are things you need to adjust to correctly to avoid really doing poorly in these types of games.
How to Study: Card Counting
There are a lot of card counting systems out there that follow slightly different guidelines in terms of how different cards are weighted, but that doesn’t matter much when it comes to how to study and train yourself to be able to do it.
Unlike the other aspects of generalized blackjack strategy, counting cards is something that has to be practiced instead of simply studied like you would study for a test for school. In what follows, we’re going to break down a study method that has given many people great results along with why you need to practice and study in this way.
The Necessity of Mastery and Speed
Whether you’re counting cards in a land-based casino or with an online game with a live dealer, the fact of the matter is that you have to be fast and accurate when it comes to counting cards. This is because you’ll have a lot of cards coming and going, and keeping up with your running count can be tricky at best.
As a result, you absolutely must practice this until you are really good at it. It needs to be something that happens almost automatically as you look at the cards in front of you so that it takes little to no conscious effort, and it takes quite a bit of practice to get to that point.
However, we’re going to show you a way to train yourself and study in the most efficient way possible so that you get to the point where you need to be much faster than what most people do.
An Incremental Approach
To use this form of practice, you’ll need a complete deck of 52 cards and a place to deal them out in front of you.
With most counting styles, they will be called “balanced,” which means that the end count is zero if you do it correctly for a complete deck (though you can adjust this method for unbalanced counting styles as well). You start with your count at zero, and you should end at zero if you finish up through all 52 cards.
What you want to do is start by turning over one card at a time from a shuffled deck and mentally keeping your count in your head. You want to practice this over and over again, and if you end with a number other than zero at the end of the deck, then you’ll know you made a mistake.
The idea here is to do this over and over until it becomes like second nature and is very quick and smooth. Once you have this part down, you could probably handle the speed of many online live dealer games and count just fine. However, you can take things to the next level and really master counting with a bit more practice.
Once you have it mastered with one card at a time and can consistently count down the entire deck in under 60 seconds, you’ll want to start dealing two cards at a time instead. This will help you to learn mental shortcuts to speed yourself up even more, which is critical since most cards are dealt two at a time to begin with in blackjack games.
If you master that aspect of the situation, you can proceed to handling three cards at a time just to put in the practice, but you’ll find that you mostly treat them like a pair of cards plus one additional card as far as how you handle the mental calculation.
Practicing Game Conditions
It’s one thing to practice this on your own with a deck of cards, but it’s a completely different thing to do it at the table while things are going on. Your nerves can cause you to make some mistakes, so we don’t recommend jumping right in to blackjack tables that are at your normal stakes when you’re very first starting to put your card counting work into practice.
Instead, we suggest playing lower stakes or just sitting and watching a game and trying to keep up with the count as they play. Live dealer blackjack games online are great for this sort of practice, and it shouldn’t take long before you feel comfortable enough to transition from observing to actually playing.
Learning to play blackjack on a high level, for the entire genre and not just one particular style, is a tall task. However, the approaches we have given here to studying the three key parts of the game will help you to be well on your way to mastering the complete set of games by teaching you how to adjust properly while still maintaining a strong and solid foundation of the fundamentals.