How to Play Blackjack

Blackjack is by far the most popular table game played at casinos around the world. Being able to trace its origins back to the 1600s, blackjack is also one of the longest-standing card games that have been played at casinos since it was invented.

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There are a number of different variations which have each originated from different parts of the world. Blackjack is a particularly unique game because it puts every player at a single table against one dealer, as opposed to other table games which require players to face off against each other.

We have composed a number of extensive articles and resources dedicated specifically to the game of blackjack. Each of our articles is written by industry experts, game strategists, and gambling enthusiasts. You can take a look at the following links to learn more about different blackjack variations, basic strategies, to find tips, and more.

On the surface, blackjack may seem like a game of chance, but there are skills you can develop that can help you get a bit of an edge on the house. Knowing the rules and making a few good decisions can actually help you get ahead of the game and over enough time win you some major cash. The strategies are relatively simple to learn. Discipline, patience, and practice are the only things you need. Don’t let the idea of patience and discipline get you down, though; playing blackjack at the casino is also incredibly fun.

Blackjack Setup

Areas are usually set aside by casino for games requiring a special table. Since it is the most popular table game, blackjack tables will probably be most prevalent in these areas. A standard blackjack table is in the form of a semi-circle, providing seats for five to seven players. One dealer stands behind each table, which are usually in groups of four, arranged in a circle. This center area where the dealers stand is known as the blackjack pit. This allows the pit boss to keep watch over several games at once.

The table surface lists important information. The most important piece of information on the layout is the payout statement. This will tell you upfront what a blackjack, or natural, will pay out any time you get one. Underneath that, the table will list at what point total the dealer must stop playing the house’s hand, such as always standing on 17. Always check out at what point total the dealer must stand, because that piece of information is very beneficial, and lets you know which strategy is best for that table. The final information statement on the table lets you know whether insurance is available for that game. Insurance is a side bet against a dealer’s potential natural hand, and is only offered when the dealer’s up card is an Ace. These bets are separate from regular bets, and pay out double if the dealer gets a natural.

Grabbing a Seat

Beneath the table information are circles indicating how many players may sit at the table—five, six, or seven. A stool or chair accompanies every circle on the table, so have a seat and get ready for some fun!

The seat on the far left of the table, from the player’s side, is known as third base. Some players believe this seat is of vital importance when playing blackjack because it’s the last seat to be dealt a card, before the dealer plays their hand. Players in this seat may refrain from hitting on their hand when the dealer has a low up card and must hit, believing the dealer will bust. But watch out! If you’re in that seat and take a hit, and the dealer winds up with a good hand afterward, the other players may blame their losses on your actions! Bettors’ beliefs that the third basemen has this sort of edge on the game is usually based on experience and personal tradition.

The truth is, the third basemen doesn’t really affect the outcome of each hand. The only advantage to sitting in the third base seat is that it allows you to see more of the cards before playing your own hand. If you can stand the heat, this is quite possibly the best seat in the house.

The far right seat is called first base, though it carries no superstitions. Players sitting at first base are rarely blamed for the outcome of the dealer’s hand.

The Money Pit

The table’s chip tray sits on the table, in front of the dealer. This is the bank account for the table; the dealer exchanges cash for these chips, as well as pays out winning bets from the tray. You may also exchange a marker, a check written by the casino if you’ve established a line of credit, for chips to play blackjack. The tray is replenished when needed, so there’s no worry of breaking the bank.

The pit boss will call for more chips whenever any denomination is running low in the tray. When the chips arrive, the dealer will sign for them and drop the resulting paperwork in a box built into the table, known as the cash drop box. These boxes are replaced at the end of every shift, and they keep safe all the cash the dealer takes in exchange for chips.

More About the Table

There are a few other beneficial bits of information on the table, the most important of which is the plastic placard listing the table betting limits. Table limits will vary from casino to casino, and sometimes even table to table. These limits are changed, too, based on day of the week, time of day, or crowd level, so always check the placard!

Placards are switched out whenever the table limit changes. Don’t worry if the limits are raised while you’re playing; players may be grandfathered at their original levels whenever limits are altered. This allows players to continue playing at the level they started their game, until they decide they’ve had enough fun and leave the table.

The presence of a shoe is another indicator of the nature of the game at a particular table. This will indicate that a multiple deck game is currently being played. Always feel free to ask how many decks are in play. With enough practice, you may even be able to tell just by the size of the pack in the shoe.

Six decks is the usual standard for a multiple deck game of blackjack. Without a shoe on the table, it’s a safe bet that the table is playing a single- or double-deck game. Just check how many cards the dealer is holding, and how many have been discarded, to give you an idea of whether you’re in for a double deck of cards.

Skilled players might be a little better off in a single- or double-deck game, but we’ll be going over some basic strategies that can help out your game regardless of the number of decks in play, be it only two, or as many as six.

Why Do Players Enjoy Blackjack?

Dealing is the most boring activity in a game of blackjack. Simply watch the blank faces of any casino dealer. They all look as if they’re following a routine because they are. The dealer makes absolutely no decision about the game. Instead, they must follow the house rules every time, all the time. If a dealer cuts the pack in six equal stacks before dealing, you can rest assured that every dealer in the casino is doing the same thing.

Because the dealer makes no decisions during the game, all the choices are yours. Each hand played should have meaningful decisions accompanying it, and with a basic strategy, you can lessen the advantage the house has over you. Provided the house rules are lenient enough, basic strategy may even tip the odds in your favor!

The draw of blackjack is two-fold; it offers the chance to enjoy the environment of the casino, and you have the opportunity at winning some major cash. Basic strategy doesn’t mean you’ll instantly become a blackjack expert, however. Becoming proficient at blackjack, like any other endeavor, takes lots of research and tons of practice. What blackjack and basic strategy does offer you is the chance at coming out ahead of the casino.

Card Values

Depending on how you’d like to use it in your hand, an Ace can be either a 1 or an 11, while all face cards are worth 10 points. Face value points are given for the remaining cards in the deck, so a 3 is always 3 points, and a 10 is always 10. Your objective is to beat the dealer’s hand without busting, or going over 21 points. You can disregard the card suits in blackjack, as they have no affect on the game.

How to Play Blackjack

Getting started is as easy as finding a seat at a blackjack table and placing your bet in your betting circle. Don’t worry if you sit down in the middle of a hand, because the dealer will either deal you in next round, or wait to deal you in until after the next shuffle. Once the shuffle is done, the dealer selects a player to cut the cards.

Once the deck is cut, the dealer takes the cut card and places it near the end of the pack. This practice prevents the dealer from dealing all the way to end of the deck and serves as a reminder to shuffle the deck before the cards run out. Next, the first card of the pack is discarded or burned, and the deal begins! The dealers will deal cards to each player, starting at the right seat and moving clockwise around the table. Each player is dealt a two-card hand, as well as the dealer. It doesn’t matter if the player’s cards are face up or down, but the dealer will have one down card and one up card. The down card is called the hole card, and this configuration allows all the players to see part of the dealer’s hand. After the dealer has his or her up card, the game begins.

Betting a Natural

The dealer will offer players the chance to take insurance if the dealer’s up card is an Ace. This bet is up to half the original bet, and pays 2 to 1. The dealer won’t turn over the hole card, but will check it discreetly to see if it equals 10 points. Keep in mind that there are 16 cards worth 10 points in a single deck—4 Kings, 4 Queens, 4 Jacks and 4 10s. If the dealer’s hole card equals 10, the insurance bets are paid out, and original bets are lost. Because insurance pays 2 to 1, it compensates for the loss of your original bet. It’s a way to come out even if it turns out the dealer has a natural.

If the dealer doesn’t have a natural, the insurance bets are removed from the table as losses, and the game continues.

Most casinos pay out 3 to 2 for a natural, or one and one-half times your original bet. If you happen to be dealt a natural, which is an Ace and a card equaling 10, you should immediately let the dealer know you’ve won by flipping over your cards.

When both you and the dealer have naturals, you push—you get no money. If the dealer has an Ace for an up card, the option to go for even money is available instead of needing to push. Taking even money amounts to the same thing as taking insurance, since they both pay 1 to 1. The dealer will pay out 1 to 1 for your natural before checking their hole card. Later we’ll discuss why taking insurance and even money aren’t the best strategies in the world.

Sometimes a dealer will check their hole card if they have a 10 up card, to see if they have a natural. If they do, you lose your bet unless you have a natural yourself. You won’t be paid for a natural until the dealer checks out their hole card.

Playing Out Your Hand

Naturals don’t appear very often in a game of blackjack, so don’t hold out for one. Without naturals winning a hand, the game continues normally, allowing players to make what they think are their best decisions. The basic strategy used to make some of these decisions will be discussed, but some of the question you’ll have to answer include:

* Should I keep my hand or surrender?

* Does my hand have a “splittable” pair?

* Should I “double-down”?

* Should I stand or hit?

Surrendering Your Hand

If you’ve got a bad hand (otherwise known as a stiff hand), some casinos give you the option to surrender. If you surrender, you give up your stiff hand in exchange for half your original bet. Hands without much hope of winning should be surrendered, and it allows you to save half the money you may have lost.

Two types of surrender exist: early and late. Early surrender gives you the chance to back out only before the dealer checks if they have a natural. Late surrender is when surrenders are only available after the dealer checks their hand. Early surrender is the better option, allowing you potentially to save half your bet if it turns out the dealer was lucky enough to get a natural. Surrendering is easy: simply let the dealer know you give up. The game doesn’t stop when you surrender; the dealer picks up your cards, half your original bet, and moves on.

Splitting Pairs

Any two cards with the same face value is known as a pair. Any pair dealt to you can be split, but it’s not a good idea to split a pair of 10s—that equals 20 points and could very well win you the game! Later, we’ll explore which pairs are the best to split, based on what the dealer’s up card happens to be.

Splitting turns your single hand into two hands, requiring a second wager equal to your original bet. You have to bet equally on both hands. To split your pair turn both cards face up, separate them, and place the second wager on top of one of the cards. When your turn comes up, you’ll draw as many cards as you want for your first hand, and only draw cards for your second when you’ve completed the first to your satisfaction. Sometimes the house rules will let you re-split a hand if you get a third card with the same face value. Don’t forget, though, that each split requires another equal bet. The only exception to this drawing rule is when you split a pair of Aces. Usually, you’re only allowed one draw card for each Ace.

Doubling Down

Doubling down allows you to double your bet on the chance you’ll win after the one more card is dealt to your hand. Doubling down comes with an advantage; it lets you increase your bet after seeing the dealer’s up card and examining your own hand. The downside is that you’re only allowed one more drawcard.

Some casinos restrict doubling down only to when you have 10 or 11 in your hand, but others will let you increase your wager on any two cards. Some casinos let you double down after splitting a pair, and a few will even allow you to double down for less than your original bet. Always find out the house rules!

Placing your cards in front of your original bet and laying the additional wager next to, not on top of, your hand indicates to the dealer that you wish to double down.

How to Take a “Hit”

“Taking a hit” – asking the dealer to give you more cards — should only be done when your first two cards don’t come close enough to 21 to beat the dealer. You let the dealer know you’d like another card by lightly scratching the surface of the table with your cards. Every scratch gets you another card from the dealer, so be careful. In some games, cards are dealt face up and you’re not allowed to touch them. In games like this, indicate you’d like a hit by tapping the table with your finger. Hits are tricky things, and if you bust you’ll have to watch the dealer take your cards and bet away.

If you think your hand is good enough, place your cards under your original bet or wave your hand at the dealer. This indicates you’d like to stay, and not receive any more cards. Be sure not to touch your bet when staying, and only use one hand. Dealers can become nervous if you touch your bet or use both hands to touch your cards while the game is in progress.

How a Hand of Blackjack Ends

Once the players have finished playing their hands, it’s the dealer’s turn. The dealer is not allowed to double down, split, or surrender like a player can. When the dealer starts their turn, they will flip over the hole card so that the entire hand is visible to all players. It’s better for you if the dealer’s hand totals 16 or less, because then they must takes hits until the total rises to 17 or higher. Hits on soft 17s are dictated by the casino rules and usually listed on the table layout. A soft hand is any hand that includes an Ace that could be used as an 11, such an Ace and a 6.

When the dealer’s hand reaches 17 or more, the comparing begins. Player totals are compared against the dealer’s hand, and if the dealer busted, your hand wins automatically, as long as it’s under 21. If your hand is higher than the dealer’s hand, you’ll win even money. You only lose your bet if the dealer’s hand is higher than yours. If your hand ties with the dealer’s, you push and no money changes hands at all.

Once all the winning bets are paid out, the losing bets collected and deposited in the chip tray, the dealer picks up all the cards. These are placed in the discard tray on the table and replaced in the pack when it’s time for the next shuffle.

Blackjack: A Brief History

Vingt-et-un, pontoon, California Aces, 21—these are all names for good old blackjack. Even though the game began in France, known as vingt-et-un, the game has been popular staple of American casinos for years. Basically the same anywhere you find it, cities, states and even separate casinos offer slight variations of the game. We’ll cover the basic elements here, and discuss strategies and the variations of this game of skill later on.

A standard deck of 52 cards is used in a game of blackjack. Anywhere from one player up to seven can play against the dealer at the table. The dealer generally has a lot on their plate, dealing cards, exchanging cash for chips, playing the hand for the house, and even summoning a waitress for cocktails, if the players so desire. The initial deal is two cards at the start of the game, each player getting a hand as well as the dealer. The object of blackjack is simple: Put together a high-scoring hand that doesn’t go over 21, hopefully beating the dealer’s hand in the process. The other possible way to win is when the dealer busts, or goes over 21 in their own hand, while your hand stays beneath that number. We’ll go over the rules, table layout, and card values before we get into any strategies later on.

Blackjack Variations (Types of Games)

Blackjack is not the name of one game, but rather an “umbrella” term used to cover several different types of the game. While the end goal of every blackjack variation is to reach (or come as close to reaching) 21 without going over, different versions of the game have slightly different rules which we’ll go over below.
Single-Deck Blackjack – This game is played with only one 52 card deck. If you are able to understand and play classic blackjack, chances are you will be able to master any of its variants.
European Blackjack – This game is played with two 52 card decks and is sometimes referred to as “double-deck” blackjack. This version of blackjack carries a house edge of .39% and most often requires the dealer to hit on soft 17’s. Like some other blackjack variants, European Blackjack only allows you to double with a 9 or 11.
Free Bet Blackjack – The most popular new variation in Las Vegas. This game allows players to double down on 9-11 for free. All splits may also be made for free, except on face cards. Resplits and double down after splitting are also on the house. In exchange for all of these great player-friendly rules, the house pushes all hands that did not bust or get dealt a blackjack when a 22 is made by the dealer.
Change It 21 – Available at Fremont in downtown Las Vegas. This game allows players to pay 50% of the original bet in exchange for the ability to discard one of the first two dealt cards. Players may double down or split after receiving the new card. Double down after splitting is not permitted. This game pays 6-5 on blackjack.
Spanish 21 – Another commonly found variant of blackjack is known as Spanish 21. This game is played with 6-8 48 card “Spanish” decks. A Spanish deck is the same as a normal 52 card deck minus the four numerical 10 cards. The dealer is allowed to hit on a 17, but is not forced to do so like in European and classic blackjack. The house edge of Spanish 21 ranges between .40% and .76%.
Vegas Strip Blackjack – This variant is played with 4 standard decks of 52 cards. In this game the dealer is forced to stand on a soft 17 and is able to peek at his or her face-down card to see if they hit blackjack. The house edge on Vegas Strip or 4 deck blackjack is about .34%.
Atlantic City Blackjack – This form is similar to Vegas Strip, but it is played with 8 decks of 52 cards and has a marginally higher house edge of about .35%. Another difference between Atlantic City and Vegas Strip blackjack is that you are given the late surrender option, which allows you to quit the hand and recoup 50% of your original bet.
Blackjack Switch – This is an interesting variation of the game because each player is dealt two hands and are able to interchange cards between the two dealt hands. The game is played with 6-8 decks of 52 cards and allows players to place two separate bets of equal size. You are able to double on any two cards and the dealer is forced to hit on soft 17.
Double Exposure Blackjack – This variation has one of the highest house edges at .69%, making it one of the toughest types of blackjack to win. Double Exposure is played with 8 decks of 52 cards. Both of the dealer’s cards are dealt face up and the dealer is forced to hit on soft 17. Players are only able to double on 9 and 11; even if they have already split.
War Blackjack – More of a side bet than a game. Unlike most blackjack side bets, a winning War Blackjack wager may be parlayed into the original bet. The War bet is similar to the standard home card game. The dealer gives the player one card, as well as himself. The highest card wins. In the blackjack version, an ace is low and the house wins all ties. The player has the option to take any winning bet out of action or use it to parlay the original bet. The two bets must be equal. Once the War bet is graded, the other card is dealt to the player and dealer.
Most Liberal 21 – Often referred to as the World’s Most Liberal 21, is only available at two downtown Las Vegas casinos. The game is owned by the parent company of Plaza and Las Vegas Club. The game offers several player-friendly rules. These include the ability to hit and resplit aces. Players may also double down on any number of cards. Surrender is available. A player that makes a hand of 6 cards without busting automatically wins. In exchange for these rules, blackjack only pays even money, except on suited blackjacks, which pays 2-1.

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Basic Blackjack Rules

True Blackjack

When playing blackjack, the player begins by placing a wager and is subsequently dealt two cards. The sum of those two cards will range anywhere from 4-21. If the initial two cards you are dealt consist of an ace and any face card (including a numerical 10), you will automatically be paid because you just hit blackjack.

If you get blackjack will either be paid 6:5 or 3:2 of your initial bet, which we’ll go over more in the next section. If the cards you are dealt do not constitute blackjack, then you will be forced to choose between hitting and standing.

If you stand, you are hoping that your initially dealt two cards will be greater than the dealer’s final total, or you are hoping that the dealer will bust (have his or her cards total over 21). If you hit, you will receive another card in addition to your first two dealt cards. If you hit and the sum of your cards exceeds 21, you lose. You may hit as many times as you would like so long as the sum of your cards does not exceed 21.

Blackjack Payouts

blackjack-stack-of-chips

Blackjack has a few different payout ratios depending on the cards you end up with. If your first two cards do not constitute blackjack and you are able to outlast a dealer who busts, or have a higher total than the dealer, your payout will be 1:1. This means you will win an amount equal to your bet. So for example: if you beat the dealer and had a $10 bet out on the table, you will win $10.

When the first two cards you’re dealt DO constitute blackjack, there is a slightly better payout structure than the even-money offered to players who simply outlast the dealer. Blackjack typically pays out at 3:2 odds, meaning if you hit blackjack you will receive 1.5x your original bet. For example, if you wagered $20 and hit blackjack, you will win $30. Some tables only pay 6:5, which you should try to avoid for obvious reasons. This also means you should thoroughly inspect the rules before sitting down and playing at any blackjack table.

Buying Insurance

Apart from the two payouts, we went over above, the only other one you need to be familiar with is called an insurance payout. Insurance is simply a side bet wagered by a player who thinks the dealer has blackjack. This option is only available when the dealer is showing an ace. If the player is correct and the dealer does in fact have blackjack, the payout will be 2:1. For example, if you make a $10 insurance bet and the dealer has blackjack, you will win $20.

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It is important to keep in mind that there are some variations to the payouts made for hitting blackjack at casinos. For example, some Las Vegas casinos only offer a 6:5 blackjack payout at certain tables. The 6:5 payout is usually only associated with single-deck games and is employed as a way of mitigating any advantage a player may derive from counting cards.

It must also be noted that when playing Double Exposure blackjack, all wins pay out 1:1, including blackjack.

Basic Blackjack Strategy

Blackjack is not a game heavily reliant on skill like Texas Hold’em or most other forms of poker, though there is still some basic strategy every player will do well to learn. Blackjack strategy consists of taking into consideration your hand relative to the dealer’s single face-up card. In games where both of the dealer’s cards are dealt face-up, your moves will depend much more on the cards you hold.

“Soft” vs “Hard” Hands

blackjack-soft-17

Before discussing actual strategy, players must know the difference between a soft and a hard hand. A soft hand is any hand that contains at least one ace, while a hard hand is a hand that contains no aces or contains an ace that is forced to count as 1. The softness or hardness of your hand will help you decide how to wager and what moves to make.

To keep things simple, we will discuss strategy in terms of soft hands first and then hard hands. If you are dealt a hard hand in the range of 4-8, it goes without saying that you should hit every time. If you are dealt a hard nine, however, you will either double or hit depending on the dealer’s one face-up card. If the dealer’s face-up card is between 2 and 6, it is advised that you double down, whereas if the dealer has anything superior to a 7, you should hit. With a hard 10 or 11, it is almost always advised that you double down on your bet if you are able to.

A player dealt a hard hand ranging from 12-16 you should stand so long as the dealer’s one face-up card is no greater than 6. If, however, the dealer is working with a face-up card of 7 or more, you should hit, even though you risk busting. Finally, if you are dealt hard hands in the range of 17-21 you should stay every time.

The strategy behind soft hands says that if your hand is between 13-15, you should hit every time regardless of what the dealer’s face-up card is. If you have a soft 16-18 and the dealer’s face-up card is less than 7, you should double down. If you have the same soft 16-18 and the dealer’s card is 7 or greater, you should hit. Finally, any soft hand 19 or greater is a sign that you should stand.

Splitting Your Hand

Splitting is another strategic move in blackjack, and should only be done with certain card hands. If you have pocket 2s, 3s, 6s, 7s, or 9s, it is advised that you split so long as the dealers’ one face-up card is below 7. If you have pocket 8s or aces, you should double no matter what the dealer’s face-up card is. Finally, with 4s, 5s, and 10s it is highly suggested that you never split. For those who are unaware, splitting involves turning your one hand with two cards into two separate hands totaling 4 cards. If you split, you are able to place a wager on both of your new hands and have the chance to win twice.

Learning Basic Strategy to Lower House Edge

In summation, blackjack is the world’s most popular table game and can be found at casinos all over the globe. Though there are a number of variations available, having knowledge of and understanding how to properly play the classic version of blackjack will help you immensely when trying to play any of its derivatives. Despite the fact that blackjack is a game based much more on luck than skill, there is still a good bit of strategy involved. If you take the time to understand blackjack strategy, even in its most basic form, you will be doing yourself a service that can take you a long way.

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Getting Started

Ready to either practice blackjack or play for real money, but don’t want to wait for a trip to Vegas? The best online blackjack casinos offer free versions of popular blackjack games, along with the option to play for money. Some online casinos even offer live dealer blackjack games.

And if you’re still learning proper blackjack odds to maximize your odds of winning, check out these recommended blackjack books.