Learn to Earn Cash at Casino Blackjack (Even If You’re Starting From Scratch)
Maybe you’ve heard some of the stories about people who have bought big-ticket items like cars or houses with the money they make playing blackjack.
Maybe you’d like to be the kind of person who “gets away with something.” Maybe you’re someone who can’t stand the thought of a regular job.
If that’s the case for you, then it’s easy to understand why you might want to know how to make money playing blackjack.
This post is aimed at the beginner who has making money from the game as their goal. It’s not for the people who are already attending the Blackjack Ball (an annual event hosted by Max Rubin — its attendees are secrets, but half of the 100 regular attendees claim to be millionaires from their blackjack activities).
But isn’t blackjack just another casino game?
And don’t all casino games have an unassailable mathematical edge over the player?
Yes, and yes, but also, not necessarily.
This post explains how the house gets its mathematical edge over the player, but it also explains how card counters overcome that edge by taking advantage of how the deck changes over the course of the game.
It also explains which kinds of blackjack games really are impossible to make money at (unless you get lucky. And if that’s your goal, you’d almost be just as well off playing slot machines).
What Are Your Chances of Winning at Blackjack in the Long Run?
I don’t think you can find any reliable statistics about how many people play blackjack and what percentage of them are long-term winners.
But we do have access to some statistics about who’s winning long term money from playing poker.
From that, perhaps we can make some guesses that aren’t too inaccurate about your probability of winning at blackjack in the long run.
The number of poker players who make a consistent profit over the course of a year is between 5% and 10%. This is based on internet play, but I don’t see any reason that similar numbers wouldn’t apply to brick and mortar poker.
This means that 90% to 95% of poker players lose money in the long run.
It’s safe to say that this number applies to blackjack players, but it’s also likely that the number of blackjack players losing money on a regular basis is even higher.
And as far as making your living from blackjack goes — well, it’s hard to imagine that anyone except the rare minority wins enough money at blackjack regularly enough to make money at it.
My best educated guess is that your probability of winning at blackjack in the long run is less than 3%. It might even be as low as 1% or 2%. If only 100 people attend the Blackjack Ball each year, it’s easy to see that the percentage is small, even if there are 10 blackjack winners out there who don’t get invited for every player who does get invited and shows up.
That’s because casinos actively try to thwart blackjack players from getting an edge. No such obstacle exists to prevent poker players from making a living.
Why Blackjack Differs From Other Casino Games
Let’s go back to that point about how casino games, including blackjack, all have an unassailable (at least in the long run) mathematical edge. This is called the “house edge,” and it’s a projection of how much you’ll theoretically lose as a percentage of the money you bet.
In other words, if someone says the house edge for a casino game is 5%, it means the casino expects to win 5% of every $100 their customers bet — on average, over time.
Your average, off-the-street blackjack player who knows nothing about the game and probably makes bad decisions at least as often as good decisions is probably working against a house edge of 5% or so.
If that player bets $100 per hand and plays 50 hands per hour, the casino expects to win $250 from that player in the long run.
In the short term — over the course of a single session or a single trip to the casino — some players come out ahead. This is called “variance,” and it’s a side effect of the random nature of the game.
Over time, if you play enough hands, your actual results are going to start to resemble the theoretical prediction. This is what mathematicians call the Law of Large Numbers.
In blackjack, the casino gets its edge by making you play your hand first. I’ll assume that even if you’re a beginner, you know how the game is played, and that you know that a total of 22 or higher is an instant loss. It’s called busting.
The reason blackjack differs from other casino games, though, is because the composition of the deck changes as you play. Until the dealer shuffles again, the cards that have been dealt are no longer in the game. Since the decks are shuffled and randomized, sometimes you’ll wind up with decks that have more of some cards than others.
This is important in blackjack because a natural — a two-card total of 21 — pays off at 3 to 2. In a fresh deck, this gives the house an edge of 0.5% to 1% against the player, assuming the player uses perfect basic strategy and that the casino uses more-or-less standard rules.
But if a deck of cards has an unusually high distribution of aces and 10s in it — the only two cards you can use to make a total of 21 — you have an edge over the casino. If you raise the size of your bets in these situations, you have a net mathematical edge over the casino.
That’s where 80% of the mathematical edge most counters get over the casinos comes from — raising the size of their bets when the situation is right. They can also change the odds in their favor by changing their strategy decisions based on the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck.
No other game in the casino gives you this opportunity to raise your bets when the odds are in your favor — at least no other game makes it reasonably simple to figure out when you have such an edge.
I’m going to have more to say about basic blackjack strategy and counting cards in this post, so keep reading.
Why Basic Blackjack Strategy Is a Must
Since there is a limited number of situations you can face in a blackjack game, the correct mathematical strategy for each of those situations is easier to determine and memorize than you might think. This correct mathematical strategy is the one which gives you the highest expected value in each possible situation.
How many possible situations are there?
The answer to this is based on the nature of the game.
The dealer plays with one card face-up and one card face-down. The dealer can have any of the following possible cards, each of which is one aspect of a “situation.”
- 10 (including jacks, queens, and kings)
So if you made ten columns, one for each of the possible face-up cards the dealer might have, you’d have the beginning of a basic strategy chart.
The other piece of the puzzle that you have is what you hold in your hand, but that’s more complicated because you have multiple possible hands.
For example, if you have an ace in your hand, you have a “soft total.” Here are the possible soft totals you might be holding.
- A2 – Soft 13
- A3 – Soft 14
- A4 – Soft 15
- A5 – Soft 16
- A6 – Soft 17
- A7 – Soft 18
- A8 – Soft 19
- A9 – Soft 20
These are called “soft totals” because you can count an ace as 1 or as 11. It’s impossible to bust a soft total for this reason.
You also have a lot of possible hard totals, which are totals where neither of the cards is an ace. But you should always hit a hard 8 or less, which means that some of those totals can be considered the same.
- Hard 8 or less
- Hard 9
- Hard 10
- Hard 11
- Hard 12
- Hard 13
- Hard 14
- Hard 15
- Hard 16
- Hard 17
- Hard 18
- Hard 19
- Hard 20
You also have the option of splitting pairs, so you must account for all the possible pairs you might have.
So now you basically have 30 different possible hands to play against ten possible dealer hands, which sounds like 300 possible situations.
It’s actually slightly fewer than that, though, because many hands can be ignored. For example, you’ll always stand on a hard 17 or higher, which means you don’t have to think about hard 18, 19, or 20. You’ll also always stand on a hard 19 or hard 20, which eliminates two more situations.
And some hands also get played the same. For example, a hard total of 13, 14, or 15 is always played the same — you don’t have to memorize rules for playing each of them.
And many times, the dealer’s total only matters if it’s higher or lower. For example, you’ll always stand with a 13, 14, or 15 if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, and you’ll always hit if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.
So you only have to remember two decision points for these three hands, reducing the complexity of the basic strategy dramatically.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to explain a full basic strategy here, but I do need to explain why it’s important to memorize basic strategy and use it every time you play.
The only way to make money consistently at blackjack is to play perfectly all the time. The edge you can gain against the casino is so small that you can’t afford to give up even 0.1%. It won’t be worth your time to play if you do that.
Even WITH perfect basic strategy, the casino has a mathematical edge.
You can gain 1% or so by counting cards, but if your basic strategy is so bad that you’re operating at a 2% disadvantage because you’re making bad decisions about hitting and standing, you’ll still lose money in the long run.
And that’s the opposite of our goal of making money playing blackjack.
Your journey starts with memorizing and executing perfect blackjack basic strategy.
Card Counting – How to Become a Card Counter
I’ve explained in more blog posts than I can count that you don’t have to memorize which cards have already been played to engage in card counting. If you want to become a card counter, all you need to do is learn to execute a system for tracking the approximate ratio of high cards to low cards left in the deck.
The easiest way to do this is to assign a +1 or -1 value to the low cards and the high cards, respectively.
Every time you see a low card dealt, that’s one fewer left in the deck. Every time you see a high card dealt, that’s one fewer in the deck, too.
Remember, you want to raise the size of your bets when there are more aces and 10s in the deck than usual. You want to get more money into action when the probability of getting a 3 to 2 payout is increased.
Every time a 10 or an ace comes out of the deck, your probability for that happening decreases.
But every time a card that’s NOT an ace or 10 comes out of the deck, your probability for that happening increases.
The basic counting system that most people who want to learn how to become a card counter start with is the hi-lo system, which assigns a value of +1 to 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It also assigns a -1 value to the aces and the 10s — including the face cards (jacks, queens, and kings).
When counting, you must try to conceal what you’re doing. If the casino thinks you’re counting cards, they’ll start shuffling the deck every hand, eliminating whatever edge you might have had. Or they might ask you to avoid their blackjack games and stick with their other games — where, of course, you can’t get an edge. Or they might ask you to stay out of their casino altogether.
You must also account for the number of decks in play. The more decks the casino is using, the lower the effect of each card becomes. The ratio of one ace out of 52 cards is dramatically different from one ace out of 416 cards.
To do this, you convert your “running count,” the number in your head, to a “true count.” You estimate how many decks of cards are left in the shoe, and you divide the running count by that number to get the true count.
Here’s an example.
You’re playing in an eight-deck game, and you estimate that there are five decks left in the shoe. You calculate that the running count is +10. You divide that by 5 to get a true count of +2.
When you decide on the size of your bet, you use the +2 figure, NOT the +10 figure.
How do you size your bets?
In the hi-lo system, you first decide on your betting range in units. You might decide to bet between 1 and 4 units per hand, for example.
A unit is just the amount you’re betting when the count is negative or 0. It’s your base that you start from.
You might decide that $25 is your unit, so your betting range is $25 to $100. You might bet $25, $50, $75, or $100, depending on the count.
To decide the size of your bet, you add the true count to 1. If the count is +1, for example, you’d bet 2 units, or $50. If the count is +2, you’d bet 3 units, or $75.
The most you’d be willing to bet is 4 units, or $100.
Why would you limit your top bet?
There are actually two reasons for this.
The first is that counting cards isn’t a sure thing. You’ve increased your probability of getting a 3 to 2 payout with lots of money in action, but that’s no guarantee. If you bet too much, you could go broke before your long-term expectation kicks in. This is because of that magic word I mentioned earlier — variance.
The second is that the bigger your betting range is, the more likely you are to catch heat from the casino. Plenty of recreational gamblers let bet rides or double the sizes of their bets, so they’re not necessarily counting cards.
But don’t forget that the dealers and pit bosses often know how to count cards, too.
The trick is to get away with what you can get away with and move on.
The hi-lo system is only one of several card counting techniques you can use. Other techniques are simpler or more complicated. The easier ones are sometimes less profitable, while the harder ones are sometimes more profitable.
But it works just fine, for beginners or intermediate blackjack players alike.
Can You Make Money Playing Online Blackjack?
Counting cards only works in brick and mortar casinos. Online casinos, both the ones that use live dealers and the ones which use random number generator software, duplicate the odds you’d see in a casino with real decks of cards.
The problem is that after every hand, they shuffle those cards back into the deck.
This eliminates the possibility of getting an edge.
What about signup bonuses, you might think?
Couldn’t I sign up, get a big bonus at a casino, then use basic strategy to keep the house edge low enough that I can fulfill my wagering requirements and have a positive expectation?
At one time, this wasn’t just possible — it was common.
Many online casinos have cracked down on such behavior, though. Most of them just plain eliminate blackjack from the games you can play toward fulfilling your wagering requirements. Others only count 10% of your wagers on blackjack toward your wagering requirement.
If you needed to wager your deposit plus bonus 35 times to fulfill your wagering requirements, you could pull it off and show a profit a lot of the time.
But if you need to make 350 times your deposit plus bonus to fulfill your wagering requirements, there’s practically no way you can possibly get an edge over the casino. You’ll go broke almost every time before fulfilling the wagering requirements.
That about sums it up. If you want to make money playing blackjack, all you need to do is master basic strategy, learn how to count cards, then execute what you’ve learned perfectly.
You might be thinking, if it’s that simple, why do only an estimated 1% or 2% of blackjack players make a living playing the game?
One of the reasons is that the amount of self-discipline and self-control required to pull this off are characteristics many gamblers don’t possess.
Another reason is because casinos are actively trying to thwart card counters. And casinos are good at getting their way.