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by Ariadne

Ariadne has over 15 years of experience dealing and supervising casino games in multiple states for diverse companies. He offers his observations of how most players misplay their hands at blackjack.

Do you play perfect "basic strategy?" I hear it all the time from players, "I know how to play, but I just have a hard time remembering the iffy ones." There are no iffy hands in blackjack; one playing decision is always mathematically better than another. In my experience as a blackjack dealer, less than 10% of players truly play perfect basic strategy.

Unfortunately, beginning blackjack players often get bombarded with terrible advice from fellow players and even dealers. The dealer may be in a difficult position of telling any potential "tipper" that advice is incorrect. When I deal and that happens, I try to soften it with, "The card in the gift shop says to double, but it's your money and you should do whatever you want." However, a worse-case scenario often occurs when a dealer doesn't know the right play and gives a personal opinion on how to play a hand (usually it's wrong advise to boot).

No matter what the minimum betting limit happens to be, I see the following four hands misplayed more often by players. These aren't necessarily the worst possible mistakes players make - they are just the most common based on my experience as a dealer.

  • 2-2
  • 3-3
  • 9-9
  • A-7

The principle of smart blackjack play is this: play every hand according to a mathematically correct strategy that lowers the house advantage over you. Some playing decisions may appear counter-intuitive, but you've got to trust the math. (No one session yields sufficient hands to prove a point that one strategy is better than another; it requires millions of hand, usually done by computer simulation, to determine which playing option is better.)

Note: The following playing strategy is for a six-deck game with s17 and das. The Expected Returns are from Appendix 1, blackjack page on

Pair of 2s and 3s

A pair of 2s and 3s has the same basic playing strategy: You should split when the dealer shows a 2-7.

Most players don't hesitate splitting 2s and 3s against a dealer's 6, but they will often misplay either pair against a 2 and 7. Often I hear a player say, "The 2 is a dangerous card..." or "What would I want two 12's for?" However, just as a dealer often makes a hand starting with a 2 or 3, so will you. For example, suppose you split your 2-2 against a 2 and you a draw a 10 for a dreaded 12. You now have an unfavorable choice, meaning whether you stand or hit, you have a "negative expectation."

The math says the return on hitting is approximately -25% vs. -29% for standing. In other words, by hitting the 12, you will lose 4% less of your money and you're only going to break 4/13 of the time. You have every reason not to like the 12 against a 2 because you are the underdog no matter what strategy you invoke. But here is the key: playing it right by hitting will, over time, allow you to lose less (or make your money last longer).

But wait ... if I'm wandering into "negative expectation" territory, why did I split my 2's in the first place? That's because you're not always going to get 12 when you split and start with a 2. You also have to consider the opportunities to double (10 and 11) if you were to draw an 8 or 9. If you were simply to hit your 2-2 against a 2, the expectation is -11% (lose 11 cents per original dollar bet). By splitting and taking advantage of doubling opportunities when they occur, lowers your expectation to -8% (lose 8 cents per original dollar wagered). You are still losing money, but you'll lose less by splitting.

Let's look at 2-2 against a dealer 7. Lots of players hate this hand. The expected return is -8% vs +0.6% by splitting. Notice that your expected return by splitting is a positive percentage, meaning 2-2 vs a dealer 7 is a winning hand by knowing the proper strategy for splitting and doubling down after splitting.

When splitting 2's or 3's and getting a two-card 9, the correct strategy is to double down the 9 against a dealer's 3 through 6 upcard. If you split and wind up with a two-card 10, you should double against dealer's 2-9; and with an 11, double against 2 through 10. Note: In each case, you'll have a positive return when you double down.

Pair of 9s

It's been my experience that 9-9 gets misplayed at nearly every table in the casino that I have ever dealt. The basic strategy rule is this...

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