Blackjack strategy: playing the dealer

Today I read a blackjack “tip” from a supposed gambling expert. That expert said that you should “aim to get closer to 21, not to beat the dealer.” I was shocked, since this is exactly the opposite of what I advise.

In the game of blackjack, the goal is not to get as close as you can to 21, though that is sometimes what people say. The goal is to beat the dealer. Whether you beat the dealer with a hand of 20 or a hand of 4, you get the same reward. Sure, most of the time you want to get close to 21 because the dealer is going to hit until he gets to 17 or better. However, people who follow a strategy of trying to get close to 21 often play too aggressively and hit when they should stand.

Playing to get closer to 21 ignores the chance of the dealer busting. If the dealer busts, you win with any hand, as long as you don’t bust as well. For example, if you have a hand of 12, that’s not very close to 21. Therefore, people following a “get as close to 21 as possible” strategy would take a hit regardless of the dealer’s hand. However, if the dealer has a hand of 4, 5 or 6, blackjack basic strategy says to stand.

You would stand on those hands because the dealer is likely to have a stiff hand, which is a hand between 12 and 16. With those hands, the person is likely to bust if taking a hit. Since you also have a stiff hand, taking a hit is risky. In this case, it’s best to stand and hope that the dealer busts. How likely is he to bust? Let’s break them down.

If the dealer has a hand of 14, there are five cards (3, 4, 5, 6, 7) he can draw that would beat your hand. The dealer can draw two cards (ace, 2) that would leave him with another stiff hand. There are six cards (8, 9, 10, J, Q, K) that would bust his hand. Therefore, if the dealer has a 14, there is a 8/13 chance that the card he draws will be bad for him and good for you.

Now let’s look at if the dealer has a hand of 16. Here your odds are even worse. There are only five cards (ace, 2, 3, 4, 5) that will help his hand and the other eight cards (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K) will bust him. Combine that with the fact that, with a 12, you have a stiff hand, you can see that the odds are best to stand and hope the dealer busts.

For that reason, you should ignore any advise that says you should get as close to 21 as possible. While that is part of the strategy, it is secondary to beating the dealer. Often, getting as close to 21 as you can gives you the best chance of beating the dealer, but that is not always the case.

As always, this strategy works in online casinos as well as in the brick and mortar variety.

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