All about Blackjack: Strategy, Pop Culture & Players
As card games go, blackjack might just be the most famous one in the world. Played at casinos across the globe, this simple game of player versus dealer has thrilled casino aficionados for decades.
Unlike many casino games, blackjack has a large element of skill and player decisions can influence the outcome of a game significantly. Because of that, you will find more information about blackjack strategy than about any other casino game.
Basic Blackjack Strategy
Basic strategy in blackjack refers to the optimal way to play without counting cards. It tells you when to hit, stand, double, split, or surrender based on your cards and the dealer’s hole card. Basic strategy varies in certain situations depending on the casino’s rules regarding doubling, splitting, and whether the dealer hits or stands on soft 17. Charts showing you what to do in any given hand are freely available online.
Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott validated the first version of basic strategy in 1956-1957 with desk calculators. Adhering to this strategy will not overcome the house edge, but it will minimise it.
Card counting refers to any of the methods employed to keep track of the cards played (and therefore cards yet to be played) in a blackjack shoe. The general theory is that a higher number of high-value cards (tens, aces, and face cards) is more favourable to the player.
Basic counting therefore involves keeping a count of the number of high-value cards in the deck, using a system whereby cards worth 2-6 are one point, 7-9 are neutral, and tens and higher are worth minus one point. The higher the count, the more low-value cards have been played, and the more favourable the situation for the player.
Card counting is most effective when combined with team play. Because casinos are now suspicious of players who wildly change their bets, it is no longer viable for card counters to bet small amounts and then suddenly increase their bets when the count is favourable.
In team play, groups of players will keep count of the deck at different blackjack tables across the casino. When the count is favourable, they will subtly signal a player who arrives at the table to place large bets, often acting drunk or otherwise amateur.
Famous blackjack players & biggest winners
Because of the low house edge, element of skill involved, and ability to overcome the odds with card counting and other strategies, there have been some truly huge blackjack wins in history.
As a CEO of computer horseracing systems, Don Johnson was already wealthy and well-acquainted with the world of gambling when he went to Atlantic City for the blackjack trip of a lifetime.
Between December 2010 and April 2011, Johnson won $15,000,000 at the blackjack tables across three casinos. The losing casinos were Tropicana ($6 million), Borgata ($5 million), and Caesars ($4 million).
Because of the amount he was betting, he negotiated favourable playing conditions from the casinos: a 20 percent discount on losses, the ability to bet up to $100,000 per hand and split and double up to four times per hand, and a requirement that dealers stand on a soft 17.
Known as the “King of the Whales” in casinos the world over, Kerry Packer was an Australian billionaire who was notorious for his huge wins and losses at the blackjack tables. Most famously, he played six hands at once on a private table at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Betting $200,000 to $250,000 per hand ($1.2M to $1.5M+ per round) he won up to $40,000,000.
One New Year’s Eve in the 1990s, he won enough at the Las Vegas Hilton to drop the casino’s annual earnings and cost the executives their bonus. He is also widely reported as the cause of the closure of Apsinall’s Casino in 1990. After his death in 2005, casino owners revealed he was a generous tipper, once leaving a tip of $1,000,000 and on another occasion paying off the mortgage of a cocktail waitress.
The bestselling author of Turning the Tables on Las Vegas and Burning the Tables on Las Vegas is the Banksy of blackjack. For nearly 40 years, he has used a pseudonym in his writing. His picture has never appeared publicly. Even top professionals and insiders in the blackjack community have no idea what he looks like, his real name, or how to contact him.
In his writing, Andersen reveals that he plays high-stakes blackjack in Las Vegas for about 500 hours per year and uses advantage play to make a substantial living.
This Australian blackjack player and sports bettor is reputed to be the world’s biggest casino player. His total annual wagering has been estimated at approximately $1 billion per year.
Blackjack in Hollywood
The one-on-one nature of blackjack coupled with the mixture of skill and luck lends itself well to fiction. It’s no wonder that blackjack has featured prominently in movies throughout the years.
This Kevin Spacey film is a fictionalised account of the experience of the MIT Blackjack Team, a collective name for several groups of university students who used card counting and team play to win significant sums playing blackjack.
Rain Man (1988)
This acclaimed movie starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman won our Academy Awards in 1989: best picture, best original screenplay, best director (Barry Levinson), and best actor (Hoffman). Hoffman plays an institutionalised autistic savant named Raymond and Cruise his brother Charlie, a selfish, abrasive man previously unaware of his brother’s existence. They stop in Las Vegas and Raymond uses his mathematic and mnemonic skills to win at blackjack.
The Hangover (2009)
This smash hit comedy about a bachelor party weekend in Las Vegas includes a scene in which Alan (Zach Galifianakis), contrary to his generally foolish behaviour, brilliantly plays blackjack with a Rain Man inspired montage of card counting.