I’m going to Vegas this weekend. Not really my favorite place, but this time I’m determined to actually try to have a good time. Therefore I will have to gamble. Blackjack seems fun, and at least has an element of skill, so I’m deep in study mode. The amount of preparation required is modest: three spreadsheets must be committed to memory. Fun! I feel like I’m back in third grade, learning my times tables again.
The thing about blackjack is that it’s not just the hand you have that matters: what hand the dealer has (and what the odds are that hand will “bust”) also factor into the decisionmaking process. Fortunately, computer models and statistical analysis have determined the correct strategy: all you have to do is commit the results of that analysis to memory.
Below is the basic spreadsheet for “hard hands” (no aces). Every book about blackjack has this spreadsheet. This alone is enough to make you avoid the most frequent mistake of a novice punter: hitting on 13-16 when the dealer is showing 6 or less. The top row shows the card the dealer is showing, the left column shows the total of your two cards added together. Your only options are to hit (h), stay (s), or double down (dd).
|8 or less||h||h||h||h||h||h||h||h||h||h|
|17 or more||s||s||s||s||s||s||s||s||s||s|
Ignore this sheet when you get two of a kind (e.g. two 8s) or when one of your cards is an ace (a “soft hand”). There are separate spreadsheets for those situations.
If you are planning on learning this sheet by heart, the best thing to do is copy it out by hand onto paper. Just the process of writing it down yourself will get you part of the way towards memorizing it. The key thing is that, although there are a lot of cells in the table, there are very regular patterns that can be memorized. This means that you basically have to memorize the contours, not the individual members of the grid.
Once you’ve got that down pat, you can practice your blackjack skills at hitorstand.net. Unlike most online blackjack games, hitorstand scores you on whether you made the correct move, not whether you won or lost money. This makes it a good place to hone your blackjack skills.
You can find a lot more information about blackjack (including the soft hands chart and the split chart) in the wikipedia entry. While you’re there, check out the story of the MIT Blackjack team.