Video games suck at blackjack.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a convenient target, being the latest and most high-profile offender. But video game blackjack hasn’t ever been done right in my recollection. And it’s because every game gets a central component wrong: The key to blackjack, the thing that makes it interesting, is the betting. Not the rules.
So let’s talk first about those rules, the absolute basics of blackjack. How each card works, what the goal is, how a typical hand flows.
The objective in blackjack is to get a set of cards whose sum is 21. Less than that is OK. More than that is a bust — a lost hand. Numbered cards, 2 through 10, count as the number printed on the card. Face cards also count as a 10. Ace can be either a 1 or an 11, whichever you choose. So if you have a 9 card and two Aces, you have a 21: 9 + 11 Ace + 1 Ace. That’s great.
At the start of a hand, you get two cards and the house gets two cards. Your cards are both visible, but you can only see one of the house’s cards. When it’s your turn — setting aside advanced strategies for a moment — you can choose to either hit (take another card) or stand (end your turn).
Once you stand, it’s the house’s turn to either stand or hit. They don’t make that decision themselves; it’s dictated by the cards they’re holding. You win a hand if the house goes bust or if the house is forced to stand on a number that’s lower than your own card total.
Now that you know the rules, let’s talk about how blackjack is actually played in practice.
When you sit down to play blackjack, the only person you’re playing against is the dealer, who represents the house. Everyone else at the table influences the way the cards fall — if someone right before you hits and gets the Ace you need, that’s one less Ace in the deck that could possibly drop — but they’re not the enemy.
When it’s your turn in blackjack, the one house card you can see is as much of an influence on what you do as the cards you’re holding. The dealer always goes after every player’s turn is over, but your decision to hit or stand is based entirely on how the house rules work. Knowing how those rules work is the real key to winning.
It’s pretty simple: If the house has a hand total of 16 or lower, the dealer has to hit. Once that total is 17 or higher, the dealer has to stand. The only wrinkle here is when the house has a “soft 17,” which is an Ace and an 8. Most casinos require the dealer to hit on a soft 17 and then continue playing under the same “stand on 17 or higher” rule.
Whenever you’re playing blackjack, you operate under the assumption that the card you can’t see is probably a 10. It’s an odds thing. There are 52 cards in the deck, but when you factor in all the face cards a total of 16 cards have a value of 10. That’s versus four of each for every other card.
The only person you’re playing against in blackjack is the dealer.
Let’s think about this now in practical terms. Forget your hand for a second. If the dealer’s visible card is a 6, you proceed as if they have a 16 — which means when it’s their turn, they have to hit. If the visible card is a 7, they probably have 17 — an automatic stand.
Your decision to hit or stand is based on the same assumption. You can (and should) safely hit anytime your hand total, the sum of all cards, is 11 or lower. Once your hand total exceeds 11, it’s all about what the dealer has.
If you see the house has a 7, 8, 9, or 10 showing, you want to keep hitting until your hand total is at least one higher than the visible card plus 10. So if you see a 7, you assume it’s a 17 and keep hitting until you’re at 18 or higher (or go bust). But if you see, say, a 6 or a 5, you’re going to want to stand the second your hand total is higher than 11.
At that point, you’re betting that the dealer will bust. If the house has a 16 and has to hit, chances are they’re going to draw a 10. In the case of a 16 specifically, any card higher than a 5 (except Ace) is going to be a bust for the dealer. So if the dealer’s showing a 6, you want to stand even if you only have a 12.
There’s one special case that’s worth highlighting. If the house is showing a 2 or 3 and you have a 12, most pros will tell you to hit. Only a 10 (or 9, if you have 13) will bust you in that situation, and it’s also the one case where you hedge the odds a bit and say “OK, the dealer may not have a 10 hidden here.”
There are other advanced strategies, like doubling down or splitting your hand, but I’m not getting into all of that here. It’s good to understand those finer points of the rules if you want to get serious about blackjack gambling, but they’re irrelevant to this discussion. (Learn more here.)
Now we come to the heart of what makes blackjack an interesting table game: the gambling.
Red Dead Redemption 2‘s blackjack (and, really, every other video game version I’ve encountered) emphasizes “straight betting.” You put money down, you play the hand, you double what you bet if you win. When the next hand starts, you bet the same amount of money and keep on playing that way.
It’s a viable blackjack strategy in terms of the math and the way the odds work out. It’s also ridiculously boring and slow. Thankfully, it’s not the only option. Enter progressive betting.
With this approach, the amount you’re wagering in each hand is influenced by the amount you won or lost in the previous hand. There’s a multitude of ways to go about doing that, but I’ll share the strategy that has always worked for me. That doesn’t mean I’ve never lost; it’s just a reflection of how I’ve played the odds most successfully.
With progressive betting, the amount you wager is influenced by your win or loss in the previous hand.
Start with the table minimum bet. Let’s say it’s $5. You bet that. You win. Now you have $10, double your original bet. Let it ride. You win again, bringing your total on the table to $20. At this point, pull back $5 and bet $15. Whether you win or lose that next hand, taking your initial $5 back means you’ve already broken even and are gambling entirely with “won” money.
How you bet from that point on depends on how conservative or aggressive you are as a gambler. If I win that third hand, the $15 bet doubles to $30 and, personally, I take $10 back. So now I’ve got a $20 bet on the table — $5 more than the previous bet — and I’ve added $10 from my winnings to what I have banked.
The goal in blackjack, at least the way I play, is to stay afloat and keep betting conservatively until I go on what’s called a “run,” a consecutive series of winning hands. Once I get past that starting hump of two straight winning hands (i.e. once I’ve paid for my initial bet), I’m not risking anything in each successive hand.
In a more aggressive strategy, you might only take back $5 and bet $25 on the fourth hand. You’re growing your winnings more slowly by leaving more won money out on the table to be gambled. But, as your run continues, you’re also growing that pile much more quickly.
The particulars vary from strategy to strategy. My approach is definitely more conservative, aimed at keeping me in the game longer until I can hopefully go on a run. Like I said, there’s no surefire way to win. That’s just what works for me.
The problem in Red Dead and other games: When you win a hand, those winnings go right into your master cash supply. It emphasizes straight betting because there’s only one number to keep track of: The amount you bet on every hand. If you want to roll with progressive betting, you’ve got to manually set the next hand’s bet each time.
It’s an easy thing to keep track of early in a run, but it becomes increasingly complicated as your string of wins gets longer. There isn’t a thorough accounting on the screen of what you bet and what you won, so it all comes down to following the math in your head.
What’s frustrating is this is such a fixable problem! All video games I’ve encountered deal with blackjack in the same way: Win or lose, your bet resets to the minimum once a hand is over.
Instead, these games should be more reflective of how it would work in a casino. When you win on a $5 bet, the dealer puts another $5 into the space where your bet was placed. It’s then up to you to leave the money there or pull it back as you like.
That’s what video game blackjack ought to do. Leave my money on the table, let me decide how much to bet next based on how much I just won. It would make virtual blackjack a whole lot more interesting and in line with the way things tend to work in a real casino.
Is blackjack just a minor piece of Red Dead Redemption 2, something that no one has to engage with and a bunch of players probably won’t? Sure! But this has been bugging me, a gambler, for a long, long time. And if any game can fix this, it’s Red Dead.