Can People Actually Win at Blackjack in the Long Run?
Very few people can make a living off of blackjack. To win in the long run, you must count cards, watch tables, risk big money, and employ questionable betting strategies.
While most of the tactics needed to win aren’t illegal per-say, putting down enough money to take advantage of the right moments, as well as employing the necessary table watching and betting strategies, will likely get you booted from any major casino before you can win big.
Furthermore, the bankroll needed to make a living off of blackjack, the way attention and memory work, and the way the general short and long term odds work, means that average person won’t walk away from the blackjack table ahead in the long run or, for that matter, in the short run either.
The rule of large numbers says favorable odds will manifest over time with all strategy employed, but it also says that the average person won’t manifest the edge. In all cases, it is a matter of statistics and logistics. Betting on being an outlier is itself a bad bet.
Simply put, if you have enough money to ensure that you will make money off blackjack over time, then you should stick with what made you the money in the first place.
How Much Money Can Someone Win at Blackjack?
The amount you can win at blackjack depends on your bankroll, the betting limits on the tables you play, and your betting strategy. Given this, there is no exact answer to how much you can win at blackjack.
According to the Wizard of Odds Micheal Shackleford: “With today’s rules, a realistic advantage the counter will have is only 0.5% to 1.5% (risk $1,000,000 and get back $5,000 – $15,000 over time), You will not win money slowly and gradually. Instead, your bankroll will go up and down like a roller coaster. Only in the long run (due to the rule of large numbers), over many hours, days, weeks, and months of playing, can you count on winning.”
So, unless you have an extra $1,000,000 you are willing to risk, can live off of $15,000, and want to spend all your time at a casino trying to avoid being spotted by security… you likely can’t make a living off of playing blackjack at the tables alone. With that said, there is always the rare exception to the rule.
MORE INSIGHT INTO THE BANKROLL NEEDED TO MAKE A LIVING AT BLACKJACK: Above it says a “$1,000,000 bankroll is needed to get $5,000 – $15,000.” This however assumes that one would lose enough times in a row to need that large of a bankroll, which is unlikely. For another frame of reference and more detail, one commenter had this to say (you can see their comment for yourself below): “Your math is off. First a 1% advantage is not a 1% return. So $1,000,000 doesn’t mean you get a $10,000 return. It means if you play 100 games you should win 50.5 of those games and the House should win 49.5. Going back to that $1,000,000 to get $10,000. You would have to have a total bet of $1,000,000 to get that $10,000. Because of the way law of large numbers works, that would have to be bet on roughly 1,000 times to start showing up. So you could take $1,000 and bet it over and over 1,000 times and come out $10,000 ahead. The bank roll needed to do that would be equal to the largest amount down plus the amount you bet. So if you had a win-lose-win…lose-win-win game, you would need $2,000. But if it went Lose-lose-lose-win-win-win…win, you would need $501,000. I agree at the end of the day however, 99.9% of people can’t make a consistent living from Blackjack.” The conclusion is the same, but the specifics are a little different.
This Man Won $15M at Blackjack, How Did He Do It? Don Johnson will be the first to admit that the average person can’t make money at blackjack. Stories like this might give people the wrong impression. The only impression this video should give you as how rare it is to make money on blackjack.
How to Win at Blackjack (Without Cheating)
To win at blackjack without cheating you must play perfect strategy, count cards (which is not illegal), and vary your bets based on the count. You can’t watch tables or coordinate with other players, as those are both considered cheating. You also must do all math in your head as you can’t keep a tally, on paper or with your hands, at a table. On top of that, dealers in casinos are trained to pick up on players trying to count cards and they will employ strategies to distract the player.
Employing some white-hat card counting and betting strategies can improve the odds of a casual gambler. Although the average person can’t make a living playing given logistics, the average person can increase their odds of winning, especially compared to slots and other games, and this can mean a more enjoyable night of entertainment at the casino.
Sloppy counting and slightly varied bets are welcome at most blackjack tables. There is an unsaid acknowledgment that good players will employ what is called “basic strategy” (here referring to basic blackjack strategy, basic counting, and basic betting strategy).
I’ll explain why trying to win at blackjack, in the long run, is more a sign of gambling addiction than a good idea, but I’ll also tell you how you can improve your blackjack game when playing for fun.
Let me say clearly that card counting is hard and is not as rewarding as television and the movies make it out to be. If it were an easy way to make money, then everyone would be doing it. – The Wizard of Odds is Michael Shackleford
How to win at blackjack (21) with gambling expert Michael “Wizard of Odds” Shackleford. AmericanCasinoGuide has an awesome YouTube channel for realistic gambling advice. This episode features Michael “Wizard of Odds” Shackleford.
TIP: There are only a small handful of gambling advice gurus online who aren’t just trying to sell their eBook on how to be rich. If that worked, they wouldn’t be selling eBooks online. My absolute favorite white-hat gambling statistics nerd site is the Wizard of Odds. The Wizard of Odds is Michael Shackleford, A.S.A., a professional actuary who has made a career of analyzing casino games. Michael is more a professor of probability in games of chance and skill, than gambler.
The House Always Wins – Not Just a Clever Saying, but How Casinos Keep the Lights on
All casino games are set to give the house (the casino) an edge. The house edge is built into every game, and there is no way to beat it in the long run in almost all games. The one exception to this rule (with “table games” at least) is blackjack.
In blackjack (with favorable rules) a betting strategy can overcome the edge by about 1% over a long period of time (51 cents on the dollar for you, 49 cents to the house).
FACT: As Albert Einstein reportedly said, but didn’t (paraphrasing heavily), “the only way to win at a Casino is to own the Casino or steal from the dealer.”
The Rule of Large Numbers, Volatility, and Blackjack – Why Winning is Technically Possible
The rule of large numbers says, “theoretical odds [essentially] manifest over time” (they approach convergence, they don’t literally manifest). In other words, the more instances of something we calculate, the more the actual results will mirror our theoretical odds. This is similar to Bayesian algorithms.
On the flip side of this, the bigger the standard deviation of results, the more volatile the odds of hitting expected results will be and the more volatile the game will be in the short term. There are math-related terms like normal distribution, variance, and other statistics speak, but you don’t need to understand them fully to understand the concept.
The gist is that odds only manifest in large numbers, in the short term games can be volatile, we can measure volatility over time, or we can measure it for a single play based on the volatility of expected results compared to the current count. In other words, in the short term, some bets will have a better edge than others. In the long term it doesn’t matter due to the rule of large numbers.
TIP: Here is a list of math terms applied to gambling for reference.
Example of the Rule of Large Numbers with a Fair Coin
A fair coin (a theoretical coin that is perfectly made) has two possible results, and both have a 50% chance of occurring. If I flip a coin 100 times anything can happen (maybe 55 heads, 45 tails). If I flip it trillions of times, I’ll get about 50% heads and 50% tails. There are only two things that can happen, so the results are fairly predictable in the short term and the long term.
When we employ this logic to blackjack, we realize that, on paper, the more we play with perfect strategy, the more we can be sure we will manifest our 1% edge. The problem is that the standard deviation of results outside of key moments is not as favorable as with a coin flip. There are more things that can happen in the short term.
FACT: A coin flip is one of the best bets in the world, which is why no one offers it. You could just play until you were up and call it a day. It is very predictable; blackjack is less so.
Why Blackjack Strategy Works
The perk of blackjack is that in key moments, which you can spot by counting, the odds suddenly become more predictable and favorable than with a coin flip, but the chances of winning are NEVER 100%. When there is a higher chance of high cards and aces, it is the case for EVERYONE at the table, even the dealer.
A coin always has a 50% chance of paying out, but when “the count” is high enough (meaning there are lots of 10’s and A’s left in the shoe, which are favorable to the player) the chances of winning are much higher than 50%. If you could wait around, and watch tables, and jump in with a giant bet at the right moment you would having a big edge on the house (but would still risk big losses). This is the logic that the team at MIT played with, but the risks and logistics make it sound much better on paper than it was in real life.
As you can imagine, casinos do not like people watching tables and then coming in with big bets. Since this isn’t a realistic strategy, even the best players won’t manifest this potential edge and will instead, at best, manifest the 1% edge which factors in playing bad hands with a reduced bet.
Basic Strategy For Blackjack
To count cards, you also have to employ basic blackjack strategy.
Here is a 100% legal strategy that you can share openly with others at most casinos (in more friendly games). I don’t include the nitty gritty details, so you’ll lose a few .01% edge in the name of fun and simplicity. 
The goal of blackjack is to have more points than the dealer without going over 21. The following section contains a statistics-based strategy (called the “basic strategy”) which will help accomplish this.
NOTE: Just knowing basic strategy isn’t enough to beat the house edge, you need “perfect strategy” (which is basic strategy with extra rules). The strategy below is a simplified version of basic strategy. For a full strategy see: “4-Deck to 8-Deck Blackjack Strategy” at Wizardofodds.com or “Blackjack Strategy Charts” at blackjackapprenticeship.com.
Simplified Basic Blackjack Strategy in 8 Steps
To be super clear, this is an oversimplified strategy meant for quickly conveying the essentials. It will produce worse returns over time than the strategies linked above (like the 4-Deck / 8-Deck strategy from Wizard of Odds).
- Always hit if you show less than 12.
- Always hit if you show a hard 16 or less and dealer shows 7 or higher.
- Never hit hard 17 -21
- Always double 11 (typically double 10)
- Always split As and 8s (9s are a good choice too)
- Never split 4s, 5s, or 10s
- Generally be aggressive (split or double) when dealer shows 4 -6.
- Hit a hard 12 if the dealer shows 2 or 3.
- Assume the dealer’s other card is a 10.
So again, is the above strategy perfect? No. Is it even a full basic strategy? No. Instead what it is is the key set of rules you need to play a decent game of blackjack (that is stand on a hard 17 or higher, hit a hard 16 or lower, split As and 8s, and bet aggressive against a 4-6). If you follow only steps 1-6 you’ll do decent at a blackjack table.
Blackjack by the Wizard of Odds.
TIP: Only play at $5 – $15 tables (no one betting big money wants to play with someone who doesn’t play perfectly). Look for tables that pay the average 3:2 on blackjack (sometimes $1 tables pay less, and some tables with funky side-bets or rules might pay more). If the table allows surrender, then surrender 15 and 16 against 10’s.
How to Count Cards – A Simple Strategy: Hi-Lo Strategy
Now that you understand why trying to make money off blackjack is a bad idea and know the basic rules, I’ll share a simple version of basic card counting with you called Hi – Lo strategy. This isn’t detailed enough to win big over time, or draw the ire of the casino, but it will increase your odds.
Start the count at zero
As each card is dealt if it is a:
- 2 – 6, then add one (+1)
- 7 – 9, then add zero (+0)
- 10 – A, then subtract one (-1)
The only other rule:
- The higher the count, the better the odds of blackjack, and the more you should bet.
This has to be done quickly. If a dealer spots you counting, they will likely speed up the deal and start a conversation to distract you. Being off from the count means losing part of your 0.05% long term edge and you can imagine how problematic that can be.
TIP: Again this is the simple version. See “Hi-Lo Card Counting” at Wizardofodds.com for more.
TIP: Learn the rules and hand signals before attempting to count. There are little rituals like tapping the table and saying, “good luck Ace” when a player gets an ace as their first card. Being social and friendly helps offset any anger that you may draw from counting sloppily. Part of the overall strategy is being an interesting companion to have at the table, or at least not making the dealer, floor manager, other players, etc. angry.
Basic Blackjack Betting Strategy
The general betting strategy for blackjack is easy. Simply follow these rules:
- As mentioned above, the higher the count, the better the odds of blackjack, and the more you should bet.
- The lower the count, the more favorable the cards are for the dealer and the less you should bet.
- Don’t start a shoe with your minimum bet. For instance, on a $5 table start at $10.
- You should increase your bet by increments based on the count. For instance, make your max $100 and min $5
- The more you vary bets, the more you stick out like a sore thumb, and the more money you stand to make. Also, the more volatile your short term game will be.
- The higher the count, the less risky the specific bet. The lower the count, the riskier.
All About Card Counting with Blackjack Expert Henry Tamburin. Henry Tamburin is one of the other very few gambling advice experts who aren’t out for your wallet.
TIP: Never take the side-bet, if you want to win in the long run. If you are playing for fun, know it is a worse bet, but can pay off big in the short term. If you want to take things to the next level, I strongly suggest sticking with the sources already discussed on this page or check out Winning at BlackJack.
Things You Should Never Say or Do When You Play Blackjack
Here are some things you should never do:
- You should not put a dummy player at the table and then sub in a big better like they do in the movies. This will get you banned from the casino.
- You should not vary your bet so obviously that you seem as though you are counting.
- You should not use your fingers (or anything else) to count at the table.
- You should not say out loud that you are employing any of these tactics. You can talk basic strategy (not counting) at a friendly table, but the unspoken rule is that you don’t speak of it during a game.
- If you win a bit, you make it look like the odds are better than they are for anyone passing by. So you are being a useful idiot for the casino. You take a little coin, but double as good marketing. If you push this relationship, realize that you will be risking your ability to play at the casino.
- You should, if you want to win in the long term, never break from strategy, never play other games (outside a select few), and never take side-bets.
TIP: Everyone likes a happy winner; nobody likes a braggart. Check out more rules for what to do and not do at blackjack by smartgaming.com.
Quit While You are Ahead
My final word of advice on blackjack is quitting while you are ahead. This should be part of your betting strategy. We know that large numbers care only for statistics, but in the short-term your mental well-being is important. If we are betting on a coin flip, and you win 2 in a row, best you made big bets and walk away rather than getting whittled down. The house always wins, so if you are breaking the norm, cash your chips in while you are ahead.
The only control you have at the casino is a basic strategy, betting strategy, and game choice. With so little in your control, quitting while you are ahead becomes one of the best tactics in your tool-belt.
GET HELP: The reality of this is casino games are not economically sound investment choices, especially if you are planning to pay taxes on your winnings. Remember, if you do have winnings, you’d better have taxes withheld by the casino rather than trying to come up with money at tax time. Taxes offset any percentage edge you can get by a wide margin. If you are driven to play, see our page on biases related to gambling or get help with gambling addiction here.