How to Play Hard Hands in Blackjack

You're likely to find basic strategy in just about any resource covering blackjack. All it means is someone has put together an optimal set of suggestions for coming out ahead in a game of blackjack, taking into account the relationship between the limited number of potential player hands and possible dealer up cards. Most of these basic strategies are simple enough to be memorized and used at any blackjack table.

What is a Hard Hand?

Where strategy becomes more complicated in application is when playing what's known as a "hard" hand. A hard hand is any hand that doesn't include an Ace, or where an Ace can't be counted as 11. Hard hands differ from both "soft" hands that contain an Ace and "stiff" hands which are likely to bust on a hit.

That said, the reality is that casinos don't like players who count cards. We mean, they REALLY don't like players who count cards. Get caught at card counting, and you could find yourself barred from playing at that casino. Get a reputation as a card counter, and you could find your mug shot in the famous Griffin Books, a directory of alleged gambling cheaters put out by Griffin Investigations of Las Vegas.

So if you're going to learn how to count cards in order to win at Blackjack, you'll have to work hard to be both accurate and extremely subtle about your counting. Meanwhile, become familiar with other cheating techniques so that you don't get taken in by them.

Automatic Dealing to Prevent Blackjack Cheating

Truth be told, it's a lot harder to count cards in Blackjack than it was half a century ago. Not only did casinos move to multideck games in the 1980s, but an entrepreneur named John Breeding, a former truck driver, came up with a way to complicate card counting.

With some engineering assistance, Breeding invented a machine that constantly shuffles the Blackjack deck during play. In 1992 he founded Shuffle Master Gaming (Shufflemaster Inc.) to sell his invention. It seemed like a natural improvement for casinos, but it took nearly five years before Breeding could get Shuffle Masters installed in 500 U.S. casinos.

These machines protect a casino's Blackjack profits in three ways:

  • They complicate card counting;
  • They let the dealer distribute more hands per hour;
  • They use fewer decks (4 instead of 6 or 8) , which cuts down costs.

How Players Cheat at Blackjack

The following explanations are definitely not "how-to's" for blackjack cheaters. If anything, these descriptions are intended to educate honest Blackjack players at cheating methods so they can spot them and defend themselves against them. After all, if you see someone using one of these methods at a Blackjack table, it's best to alert security, because players as well as the house are being cheated.

Blackjack Cheating #1 - Marking Cards

Figuring out how to mark cards is one of the ways dishonest players try to get around the added security offered by Shuffle Master machines. There's a definite advantage to knowing what the Blackjack dealer's down card is, since a typical Blackjack rule requires dealers to hit until their hands reach 17.

One popular method to mark cards is to scratch the card back with sharp fingernails. Naturally such nails aren't suspect on women players, but a man with long nails will definitely get more than one look from the pit boss. Other ways to mark cards are known as card mucking (putting some substance on the card) or card bending. Sometimes cheaters have tried to mark cards using a substance only seen with special eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Cheaters typically mark10-point cards in order to tell whether the dealer has Blackjack.

Blackjack Cheating #2 - Spooking

This cheating method takes two people – one person to play the hand and a second to stand near or behind the dealer to peek at the dealer's hole card. Once the hole card is determined, the spotter conveys the information to the player by a secret signal.

Blackjack Cheating #3 - Switching Cards

If you saw that great film "The Sting," you'll remember that Paul Newman's character, Henry Gondorff, cheated at poker using some sleight-of-hand to switch out cards. However, sleight-of-hand is much harder to achieve in real life, especially in casinos with video cameras and sharp-eyed security. The temptation to try a switch is terrific, and so is the penalty if a player gets caught.

A version of switching cards is known as the "on-table swap." To accomplish this, a nimble player will play multiple hands at the Blackjack table, exchanging cards between them to make a better hand in one. It's best to be a really superior sleight-of-hand artist to pull off this one.

Blackjack Cheating #4 - Tag-Teaming

Executing the on-table swap often involves a companion strategy: One partner distracts the dealer while the other exchanges the cards. "Spooking" is another tag-team strategy. The problem with these companion techniques is casino security cameras are so sophisticated now that they frequently catch a swap or a spook in progress. Moments later the team is tagged by big burly security guards and headed off to the pokey.

Blackjack Cheating #5 - Computer devices

When originally pioneered by people such as the late Ken Uston, computer devices were thought simply to be a way to help players who count cards keep track of their counts. Subsequently, however, the devices were used to calculate probabilities and make recommendations on betting amounts. Now computer devices, even the smallest of microprocessor chips, are universally banned from casinos.

Blackjack Cheating #6 - Dealer Cheating

In theory, it's possible that a player or a team could bribe a dealer to "fix" a Blackjack game in their favor. The hole in this logic is that if one player could bribe a dealer, so could another, and then there's still no way to be sure the dealer will hold up his or her end of the bargain.

Also in theory, it would make no sense for a casino to cheat at Blackjack, since the house always wins in the long run anyway. Nonetheless, there have been and probably still are dealers and casinos that have succumbed to the lure of greed enough to engage in cheating. Here are some of their methods.

Blackjack Cheating #7 - The Second Deal

The Second Deal shows up most often in single-deck, handheld Blackjack. This technique requires that the dealer has sufficient manual dexterity to make believe he or she has dealt the top card while instead dealing the next card down. A dealer that can pull the necessary "second deal" card to make Blackjack can protect the house's percentage while effectively draining players' bankrolls.

The trick to second dealing is that the dealer must know whether the second card will benefit his or her hand, often by peeking at it. A cheating dealer can distract players by gesturing with the hand holding the deck. As the players' eyes follow the hand movement, the dealer is surreptitiously looking at the second card. If the card is good for Blackjack, a Second Deal ensues.

Blackjack Cheating #8 - Pegging

A more risky cheat that benefits the casino is called pegging. This involves using a tool called a pegger to put tiny dents in various cards, such as the ten-count cards (10-J-Q-K). Similar to the way a tool is used to created Braille manuscripts that blind people can "read" with their fingertips, a dealer can feel "pegged" cards and know when a ten is coming up. Obviously this knowledge will benefit a dealer in making Blackjack.

Blackjack Cheating #9 - High-Low Pickup

The High-Low Pickup is another dealer cheat. In this technique, the dealer collects the just-finished hand in a high-low order, alternating the cards. Then the dealer proceeds to do a "false shuffle," in which the deck appears to have been shuffled but isn't, leaving the cards in high-low order. This ensures that the dealer can then give out the cards in an order that virtually guarantees players will bust. This works whether the dealers draw until busted, or draw until reaching 17.

Blackjack Cheating #10 - Bottom dealing

Dealing from the bottom rather than the top of the deck is another dealer cheating technique that only works in single-deck, handheld games. It's also effective only when the dealer can peek at the bottom card to know whether it's to the house's benefit.

Blackjack Cheating #11 - Switching hole cards

The old switcheroo of exchanging a hole card is another technique for a handheld situation, since it's much harder to pull a switch from a multideck shoe with everyone watching.

Blackjack Cheating #12 - The Holdout Shoe

With the advent of multideck Blackjack in which cards are dealt from a box called a "shoe," the cheating method known as The Holdout was born. The Holdout Shoe is a box that has been fitted with prisms or mirrors that only that dealer can see. Reflections of the cards can tell the dealer which card is next, allowing the dealer to pull that card out of the back of the shoe, thus shorting the decks.

Bottom line: Cheating is for losers, whether your cheating in blackjack or cheating at scrabble.. To be a winner in every sense, learn to play Blackjack effectively by mastering a card counting system and employing good basic strategy.