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Blackjack for Beginners

You can play blackjack at three different skill levels. First, just play your hunches. On a roll? Go ahead, split those tens. Got a feeling the next card is a seven? Double down your 14. (But we don’t recommend it.)

Hey, if you get lucky, you can win a lot of money in a short time. And it’s lots of fun. But you’re much more likely to lose a bundle in a hurry, and in the long run you’re bound to leave a trail of money in your wake. Even if you do get lucky, you’ll get no respect. If that seven does hit your doubled down 14, no one will slap you on the back and say, “Brilliant play.” No, they’ll lower their heads and mumble, “Lucky idiot,” or worse. Most blackjack players think that stupid plays by one player causes them to lose. Never mind that’s there no truth to this (See “Third Base Controls the Table” in the March, 2005 issue), some people simply become hostile when you make wild plays.

If you want to play your hunches, better to do it at the craps tables. There no one cares how dumb your bets are. And craps players are more fun than blackjack players, anyway.

Next, you can learn correct basic strategy. Quite simply, for any situation there is an optimal play. Playing correct basic strategy minimizes the casino’s advantages. For most blackjack games, correct basic strategy holds the casino advantage to right around 1% (assuming you stay away from that single deck, 6:5 game), making it one of the best game in the house from a statistical point of view.

If you go to a casino several times a month, playing three or four hours of blackjack each trip, then by all means learn the correct basic strategy for the game you’re most likely to play. It’s a good investment. Even if you only visit a casino occasionally, or just play a little blackjack as a diversion from your favorite casino activity, it’s still worth the time to at least get an understanding of how it works.

If you are really serious about winning at blackjack, you can learn to count cards. Counting cards is one of the few ways to get an edge on the casino. The advantage of counting cards is that in the long run you can make some money. But there are definite disadvantages. First, in the short-run you can also lose a lot of money, even more than by playing basic strategy (See “To Count or Not To Count” in the May, 2005 issue). Next, casinos don’t like card counters. Not even a little. You may find yourself unwelcome at your favorite spot. Finally, learning to count cards well enough to win without getting the boot is not easy. It can take years of study and practice, and you’ll have to play a lot of blackjack to make it worth the time and risk.

So what’s the beginning or occasional player to do? Risk your money and dignity playing like a greenhorn, or spend hours cramming for a calculus exam? I’ve developed what I call the MGM Strategy for the occasional blackjack player. MGM has nothing to do with the casino giant, but stands for Minimal Gray Matter. Now, I’m not trying to insult your intelligence here. If you are new at the blackjack table, there will be enough going on to keep even the best brain whirling. You’ll have to handle the chips, get the hand signals right, and endure other players’ whines and gripes.

Admittedly, MGM is not as powerful as true basic strategy, but your return on most games will be between 98% and 99%, just a point off from basic strategy. With MGM, blackjack is still one of the best percentage games in the house; in the long run the least expensive game to play, and in the short run, the best chance of coming out ahead. Dealers and other players will see you as a smart player and no one will get upset at you.

Most importantly, even if you’ve never played the game you can learn this strategy in a few minutes. You’ll know it by the time you’ve finished this article. If that’s too much, do what you did with the conjugation of verbs for your Latin exam—write it on your sleeve.

The MGM Strategy

Hit or Stand:
Rule 1: If your total is 11 or less (counting an ace as one), take a card.
How to Remember: If it won’t break, hit it.
Exceptions: Stand with ace-7=18, ace-8=19, ace-9=20; and of course ace-10, which is blackjack.

How to Remember: Anything 18 or over is a good hand. Keep it.
The rest of the Hit/Stand plays depend on the dealer’s up card. Rather than worry about every possible card the dealer may have, we’ll put the dealer’s up card into one of two classes. Anything between a 2 and a 6 (inclusive) is a weak hand for the dealer. Seven through ace is a strong hand.

Against the dealer’s weak hand:
Rule 2: Don’t hit anything 12 or over.
How to Remember: Don’t chance breaking when the dealer has a weak hand. Give the dealer a chance to break.

Against the dealer’s strong hand:
Rule 3: Hit until you have 17 or better.
How to Remember: The dealer has a strong hand, I have to take some chances.

Doubling Down:
Rule 4: Always double down with 11.
How to Remember: I have a strong hand, and should bet as much as I can.

Rule 5: Double down with 10, unless the dealer has 10 or an ace.
How to Remember: I have a better hand than the dealer, and should bet as much as I can.

Rule 6: Double down with nine against dealer’s weak hands (two through six).
How to Remember: I have a better hand than the dealer, and should bet as much as I can.

Splitting Pairs:
Rule 7: Always split aces and eights. Don’t split any other pair.
How to Remember: For aces, trading one bad hand for two great hands. For eights, trading one terrible hand for two not-so-bad hands.

Insurance and Even Money:
Rule 8: Don’t take insurance or even money on blackjacks.
How to Remember: It’s a sucker play.

That’s it.
Good luck, relax and have some fun.

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