How to become a professional blackjack player

Blackjack is, in the CasinoPlay crew opinion, one of the classiest games in any casino – land-based or online. It is often called the King of Casino Games because it has all the thrills of a game of chance but it also brings in an element of skill. It’s a social game but you can also put your head down and just concentrate on your cards.

And, of course, it is one casino game where you know your odds are almost the same as the house which makes your chances of winning hands greater than any other casino game.

And we all like winning.

The professional poker circuit is well-known, thanks mostly to the big pots on offer to the top layers. What most people don’t realise is that blackjack actually offers a really good and profitable option for those wanting to turn their gambling games into a consistent money earning and go professional.

CasinoPlay took a look at the world of professional blackjack players and our findings were interesting to say the least and, hopefully, will give you – our CasinoPlay fans and passionate online casino players – a bit of insight into the world of the King of Casino Games.

The professional blackjack player

All professional blackjack players share three things in common:

  • They commit time and effort into learning and understanding the game
  • The know how to count cards – expertly and without drawing attention
  • They manage their money and their time gambling

The basics of blackjack

Whether you know the game or not, it’s always good to start with the basics of any casino game to remind ourselves of the ins and outs.

The blackjack table

The blackjack table has a very simple and easy to understand layout. There is a dealer position and anywhere from four to seven player positions. The player positions are normally marked with a bet box.

There is also a marked insurance band for insurance bets. Insurance payout odds are usually printed on the insurance band.

For blackjack games that have side bets you will find the corresponding side bet box.

The cards

Blackjack is played with a standard deck of cards minus any jokers. Casinos employ card shuffling machines and multiple decks of cards to offset any advantages from card counting.

The dealer

Cards are drawn by the dealer and distributed around the table. In blackjack, only the dealer touches the cards.

The basic rules of play

The object of blackjack is to draw cards until you have a total that will be greater than the dealer’s total. But you can’t go over 21 or you will bust and lose.

Play begins when all players have placed their bets on the table. The dealer draws card from the shoe and deals them starting from the dealer’s left. Each player receives one card face up. The dealer receives one card face up. Each player then receives a second card face up. The dealer does not draw a second card.

Players then get to choose whether to draw extra cards to add to their total (hit) or stick with their cards (stand).

If the player’s cards total more than 21 they automatically lose and are out of the game.

Once all players have made their choices, the dealer draws cards to try and beat the players’ totals. If the dealer draws a total over 21 they bust and all payers still in the game win. Any players with totals lower than the dealer lose. Any players with totals higher than the dealer win.

Most casino blackjack games have a rule where the dealer must draw another card on a total of 17 and must stand on a total of 16.

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Player decisions

Hit: take another card

Stand: take no more cards

Double: player doubles the bet but only receives one more card

Split: if the player has two cards of the same value they can choose to split them and play two (or more) hands with an extra bet for each

Surrender: players can choose to quit after they’ve received their second card and the dealer has one card and forfeit half their bet (not always offered at casinos)

Insurance: players can choose to play an insurance bet that pays out of the dealer pulls a blackjack

The professional blackjack player’s strategy

There are a number of specialised strategies from blackjack experts but all professional blackjack players follow a very basic 30-point start.

While we would love to go into all the strategies available out there, we really don’t have the time so we are going to give you a start to show you how strategies work and you can research any other strategies that grab your fancy.

Basic strategy

Remember: jacks, queens and kings all have a value of 10 while aces can be 1 or 11.

Key:

S – stand

H – hit

D/H – double (if double not allowed then hit)

D/S – double (if double not allowed then stand)

SP – split

Sr/H – surrender (if surrender not allowed then hit)

Sr/S – surrender (if surrender not allowed then stand)

Sr/SP – surrender (if surrender not allowed then split)

Player hand

Dealer’s face up card

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

A

Hard totals

18 – 21

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

17

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

Sr/S

16

S

S

S

S

S

H

H

Sr/H

Sr/H

Sr/H

15

S

S

S

S

S

H

H

H

Sr/H

Sr/H

13 – 14

S

S

S

S

S

H

H

H

H

H

12

H

H

S

S

S

H

H

H

H

H

11

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

10

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

H

H

9

H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

H

H

H

H

H

5 – 8

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

H

Player hand

Dealer’s face up card

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

A

Soft totals

A,9

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

A,8

S

S

S

S

D/S

S

S

S

S

S

A,7

D/S

D/S

D/S

D/S

D/S

S

S

H

H

H

A,6

H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

H

H

H

H

H

A,5 – A,5

H

H

D/H

D/H

D/H

H

H

H

H

H

A,2 – A,3

H

H

H

D/H

D/H

H

H

H

H

H

Player hand

Dealer’s face up card

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

A

Pairs

A,A

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

10,10

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

S

9,9

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

S

SP

SP

S

S

8,8

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

Sr/SP

7,7

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

H

H

H

H

6,6

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

H

H

H

H

H

5,5

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

D/H

H

H

4,4

H

H

H

SP

SP

H

H

H

H

H

2,2 – 3,3

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

SP

H

H

H

H

Card counting in blackjack

The popularity behind blackjack is the great odds the player has of winning. Compared to other casino games, blackjack has a really small house edge (typically between 0.5% and 1%) when a player is using basic strategy.

By bringing in the ability to count cards this edge drops even further. Just a note to all the aspiring card counters out there: online casinos use Random Number Generators so the chances of card counting making any difference at an online blackjack game is pretty slim to non-existent – unless you’re playing Live Dealer games of course.

Also, a warning rather than a note: land-based casinos frown heavily on card counting so DO NOT get caught. Practice your card counting skills. For professional blackjack players card counting is like breathing, something that they do without thinking and without being obvious.

Card counting is quite a simple concept but your math skills need to be on point and you need to be quick.

How card counting in blackjack works

The MIT Blackjack Team (think of the movie 21 and you’ll know exactly who we’re talking about) favour a card counting system called Hi-Lo.

For the Hi-Lo system (and there are other systems out there) the 10, J, Q, K, A are good advantage cards for the player but as they are depleted the player advantage is lowered.

2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are good for the dealer and as they are depleted the player advantage increases.

7, 8 and 9 are neutral cards as they don’t favour either the player or the house.

  • High value cards have a ‘count value’ of -1.
  • Neutral cards have a ‘count value’ of 0.
  • Low value cards have a ‘count value’ of +1.

Now we need to get into the math using an example game.

The running count

Our example game will be dealer plus four players and 5 decks of cards in the shoe (the number of decks is important to know).

On the deal we have the following:

  • Player 1 has Q and 3 (-1, +1 = 0).
  • Player 2 has 6 and A (+1, -1 = 0).
  • Player 3 has Q and J (-1, -1 = -2.
  • Player 4 has 3 and A (=1, -1 = 0).
  • Dealer has 9 (neutral = 0).

If we add all these count values we get a count value of -2.

Note: this is before players start doubling, splitting, etc and before dealer begins the final deal.

On the deal:

  • Player 1 draws a 6 (add +1).
  • Player 2 draws a 10 (add -1).
  • Player 3 stands.
  • Player 4 draws a Q and a 4 (add -1 and +1).
  • Dealer draws a 10 to end the round (add -1).

So, we end the hand on a count value total of -3.

This is known as the running count.

Now we need to convert that to a true count.

The true count

The true count is the running count divided by the number of decks remaining (rounded to the nearest half deck).

So, for example, after a number of hands have been played and you have a running count of +9 with 4.5 decks remaining: 9/4.5 = +2 so your true count is +2.

The higher your true count, the greater the advantage to the player.

How to bet using card counting

The object of card counting is to time your bets to take maximum advantage as the true count gets higher. The higher the true count, the better the player’s advantage and the more likely a win will come your way.

For the MIT numbers people this true count guides how much they bet on any given hand.

  • If the player is betting R50 a hand, that is 1 betting unit (R50 = 1 betting unit).

Bets are placed by subtracting 1 from the true count number to work out many units to bet.

For example:

  • Running count is +20.
  • 5 decks remaining.
  • +20/5 = true count of 4.
  • 4 – 1 = 3.
  • Bet 3 units (R50 x 3 = R150).

Is that all?

Ok. Our brains are struggling. Because math. But that’s not all, folks because, remember (and this is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT) you still need to play your blackjack game using your preferred strategy like the one in the basic strategy section above!

Oh, and don’t forget to interact with other players and the dealer so they don’t think you’re actually counting cards.

Managing your money at blackjack

This is one of the most basic rules for any gambler – professional or beginner: have a budget, stick to it.

Success doesn’t happen overnight so you will need to practice, practice, practice. This means having enough of a bankroll to allow you to play and lose consistently without having to sell a kidney to pay your rent.

The easiest way to become that most unfortunate of players, the failed gambler, is to throw good money after bad. Watch your bankroll. Walk away when the time is tight. Try again another day.

Side bets

The final thing that any professional blackjack player needs to be aware of is the side bets.

Side bets change from game to game and can be anything from drawing a certain number of cards without busting (e.g. 5 cards without busting) or getting a particular run of cards (e.g. getting three 7’s to make a 21).

Side bets can be a distraction rather than a quick way to make a buck. There is a reason that table games often have side bets and the reason is that the odds benefit the house immensely. Focus on your game and rather leave the side bets to the playing-for-fun crowd.

What the professionals say

We hope this article helps you to get a handle on what it takes to be a professional blackjack player. To end we want to give you a couple of tips from the pros themselves:

  • Be comfortable. Finding a table that just feels right will help you relax into the game. If you are not comfortable at the table (because of other players or the dealer or just a vibe) find another one.
  • Look for the tables that offer better payouts for blackjack. The norm is 1.5x the bet but this can and does change from casino to casino and table to table.
  • Fewer decks are easier to count.
  • Check the table rules like soft 17 or surrender, for example.
  • Make sure the table limit fits with your bankroll.
  • Sat calm and in control.
  • Don’t drink and gamble. Alcohol leads to stupid decisions and losing money.
  • Don’t chase losses.