If you’ve been following my blog here recently, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been writing a series of posts that are trying to get into the essence of gambling in general and specific gambling activities.

The first 2 posts in this series were title “What Is Gambling?” and “What Is Baccarat?”

This one, of course, is called “What Is Blackjack?”

The baccarat post was essentially complete. There’s only so much you can say about that card game. It’s simple and straightforward. It’s a good game with a low house edge.

But entire books have been written about blackjack, and additional books are surely on the way. It’s a more complicated game with more complicated strategies.

This means that a single blog post about blackjack can cover the basics of what is essential about blackjack.

But it can’t be a comprehensive or definitive guide.

I’ll come as close to that goal as I can, but you’ll find plenty of additional posts and pages about the game of blackjack on this site. In fact, I’ll be working on a blog post titled “What Is Card Counting?” when I finish this one.

For now, here’s (almost) everything you need to know about the game of blackjack and how to play.

Blackjack Is Also Known as “21”

That might seem like an odd lead-off to this section, but it’s a great way to describe this card game. When my mom taught me to play blackjack when I was a kid, I think she called it “21.”

Blackjack is a card game where you’re competing to get a total of 21 or less, but you want to have a higher score than your opponent. In most cases, you compete with the casino dealer, but blackjack is sometimes played in home games, too.

In cases where you’re playing in a casino—which is most of the time—a 2-card hand totaling 21 has a bonus payout. Usually when you win a hand of blackjack, you win even money. In other words, if you bet $100, you win $100.

But a natural (or blackjack), which is that 2-card total of 21, pays off at 3 to 2. A $100 bet pays off at 3 to 2 when you’re dealt a blackjack.
The cards in blackjack have a value of between 1 and 11 depending on the card. The numbered cards are worth whatever their number is. A 2 of spades is worth 2, while the 4 of hearts is worth 4, and so on. (The suit is irrelevant, in fact.)

The face cards—the jack, the queen, and the king—are worth 10 points each.

The ace is special. It’s worth either 1 point or 11 points. Since a total of 22 or higher loses, this gives you some flexibility with the ace. If counting it as 11 points would “bust” your hand and create a loser, you can count it as 1 point instead.

You start with a 2-card hand. The only possible cards to get you a total of 21 are an ace and a card worth 10 points. That’s what makes the total of 21 so special, and it’s why a good starting point for a discussion of blackjack is that it’s also called 21.

How to Play Blackjack in a Las Vegas Casino (Or a Casino Anywhere Else)

To get started at a blackjack table in a Las Vegas casino, you buy chips. Put the cash on the table. The dealers aren’t allowed to exchange anything with you via their hands.

This is because the camera that monitors all the action needs to be able to maintain a record of what’s happening. They call that camera the “eye in the sky,” by the way.

Once you have chips, you start in the game by placing a bet. A blackjack table has a minimum betting amount and a maximum betting amount, and the chips that you get will be based on those amounts. The betting limits are posted on the table.

Once you’ve placed your bet, the dealer shuffles the cards and deals everyone at the table a hand—including himself.

But you’re not playing against the other players. You’re only playing against the dealer.

Different casinos have different ways of dealing the cards, too. I cover that in this next section.

The Dealing, Action, and Game-Play of a Blackjack Hand

In some casinos, you get your 2 cards face-up. In others, you get your cards face-down. The dealer always gets one card face-up and one card face-down.
The difference has to do with the number of decks in use.

In some casinos, you play out of 1 or 2 decks. In these games, the dealer shuffles and deals the cards by hand. In these games, the cards are dealt face-down.

In most casinos now, you play out of more decks—usually 8 decks. These casinos use a machine to shuffle the cards, and the cards are dealt from a container called a shoe. (In the single and double deck games, the dealer holds the card in her hands.) In those games, the cards are dealt face-up.

When you get your cards, you get to look at them. You also know one of the dealer’s 2 cards. You get to decide what to do after that.
Most of the options are variations of hitting and standing.

Hitting just means taking additional cards.

Standing means declining additional cards. You’re standing on the total you have now.

You don’t just say what you’re going to do out loud, though—you have to use hand signals. Again, this has to do with the eye in the sky. The camera can see your hand gestures, but it can’t hear what you’re saying to the dealer.

In a game where the cards are face down, you can touch the cards and hold them in your hand. To ask for an additional card, you scrape them gently on the table. To stand, you set the cards down and slide them under your chips.

In a game where the cards are face up, you are not allowed to touch the cards. To take a hit, you point at the cards with your index finger. To stand, you wave your hand over the cards with your palm facing the table.

Those aren’t your only options, but they’re the ones that your other options are based on.

Actions You Can Take in a Game of Blackjack

To hit your hand means to take an additional card. If that additional card brings you closer to a total of 21, that’s great. If it takes your total to 22 or higher, you lose immediately—the dealer collects your bet.

To stand means you decline additional cards. Your total stands until the dealer plays her hand.

To double down is to take a hit of one (and exactly one card) while simultaneously doubling the size of your bet.

To split is to place a 2nd bet and use each of the cards from your hand as the starting card of a new hand. You’re only allowed to split if both cards are of the same rank, though. Once you’ve split your hand, the 2 new hands are played out separately.

To surrender, you forfeit half your bet, but you get to keep half your bet. This is similar to folding in poker. Not all casinos offer the surrender option.

Taking insurance is a side bet that’s available when the dealer’s face-up card is an ace. When a dealer has an ace as her up-card, the dealer wins immediately if she has a 10 as her face-down card. (Unless you also have a blackjack, in which case, this is treated as a push.)

To “take insurance,” you wager half your original bet. If you win, you get paid off 2 to 1 on the insurance bet. Since you’re losing your original wager and winning the same amount, it’s a wash.

The problem is that this side bet should be considered a separate bet, and it’s a bet where the house has a huge advantage over the player. You should only take insurance if you’re counting cards and the count is strongly positive. (I’ll explain more about what that means later in this post.)

As you can see, almost all these actions are variations of hitting and/or standing, with restrictions on when you’re able to take these actions. (You can only split if you have 2 cards of the same rank, for example.)

As the Game Progresses and How the House Gets Its Edge

As the game progresses, your total number of points grows as you take more cards. If at any point you have a total of 22 or more, you immediately lose. This is called “going bust” or “busting.”

The casino has an edge over the player in blackjack for 2 main reasons:

  • The first is that the casino automatically wins if the dealer has a 21. You don’t even get to play your hand; if the dealer has a blackjack, unless you also have a blackjack, you lose.
  • The second is that the casino plays its hand after you’ve finished playing your hand. If you’re playing correctly, you’re going to bust at least some of the time. When you bust, you immediately forfeit your bet. If the dealer busts later when she plays her hand, you’ve already lost.
  • If it weren’t for these 2 rules, blackjack would basically be an even money proposition, and you’d break even eventually.

    Also, the dealer has specific rules for playing her hand. She doesn’t get to decide what to do based on her instinct or even what might be mathematically correct in a given situation. Usually, she has to hit any total of 16 or lower. In some games, she also must hit a soft total of 17.

    A soft total, by the way, is a total that includes an ace. It’s “soft” because there’s some flexibility in how you calculate the total—you can count the ace as 1 or 11.

    It’s impossible to bust a soft hand, because you can always subtract 10 from the total if the next card would bust your hand.

    Basic Strategy in Blackjack

    Since there are a finite number of situations you can face in blackjack, the correct strategy for playing any given hand isn’t too hard to calculate. Mathematicians and blackjack experts have figured out the mathematically optimal way to play any given hand in any given situation, and that mathematically correct move is called basic strategy.

    You can buy a wallet-sized version of a basic strategy chart in any casino gift shop. You can also find basic strategy charts online. The easiest way for me to learn basic strategy, though, was to memorize it as a series of rules for what to do in each situation.

    The strategy has 2 considerations:

  • The first is what cards you’re holding.
  • The second is what card the dealer is showing as her face-up card.
  • When you compare the 2 on a table, you’ll be given the correct play to make.

    Your first decision is whether you should surrender—if that’s even an option at the casino where you’re playing. The only totals you’ll ever surrender with are hard totals of 15 or 16. You’ll generally surrender with one of those if the dealer has a high card (9+) showing.

    Your next decision only applies if you have 2 cards of the same rank. Should you split? If you split, then you play each of your new hands as if they were fresh hands. If you don’t split, you just treat the cards according to their total.

    You’ll always split aces or 8s. You’ll never split 4s, 5s, or 10s. The strategy for splitting other pairs depends on the dealer’s face-up card. Generally, the lower the dealer’s face-up card is, the likelier you are to want to split.

    After that, you decide whether you should double down. Most of the time, you won’t double, but if you have a total of 9, 10, or 11, doubling will often be the correct move. The only times you won’t double with those totals are when the dealer has a high card face-up.

    Once you’ve gone through that flowchart of possible decisions, you’ll decide if you have a soft total or a hard total and decide whether to hit or stand accordingly.

    You’ll play soft hands more aggressively than you will hard hands—in other words, you’ll hit these hands more often. A soft hand is a hand with an ace in it where the ace can be counted as either 1 or 11. If you must count the ace as 1 to avoid busting, it’s not a soft hand anymore. It’s a hard hand.

    You’ll also double down on more soft hands. If the dealer has a 6 or lower as her face-up card, she’s more likely to go bust than if she has a 7 or higher. Often, you’ll double down with a soft hand versus that dealer low card.

    The same logic applies in a different way to hard hands. If you have a hard total of 16 or lower, you’ll be more likely to stand if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing. You’ll have to play more aggressively when the dealer has a 7 or higher showing.

    It’s beyond the scope of this post to offer you a complete basic strategy chart or table, or even a set of specific strategies organized by hand. Since that information is readily available elsewhere on this site, you don’t need it anyway.

    The House Edge in Blackjack

    All casino games carry a house edge. This is a percentage that estimates the theoretical amount that the casino expects to win from every bet you place. For example, if you’re betting $100 per hand, and the house edge is 0.5%, you’re expected to lose 50 cents per hand on average.

    The house edge in blackjack, though, varies based on the decisions you make. For example, if you hit every hand until you busted, the house edge would be 100%. The quality of your decisions affects that number.

    Also, keep in mind that the house edge is a theoretical average over time. You can’t lose 1% of each bet. It’s not possible. You’ll either lose the entire bet or win at least the same amount as what you’ve staked. The house edge is the average amount you expect to lose over the long run.

    The actual hold percentage for blackjack averages about 2.5% to 4% depending on the casino. That’s the average that the casino is winning per bet over time in real numbers.

    The house edge is a theoretical number, though, and in blackjack, it assumes that you’re playing with perfect basic strategy. The house edge varies based on which game rules are in effect at your casino, but the number averages between 0.5% and 1%.

    This makes blackjack one of the best games—if not THE best game in the casino—for a gambler on a budget. Of course, that 0.5% number is a long-term expectation, so in the short run, you can’t expect that to be the actual number. In any individual session, where you might play 50 or 200 hands, give or take, you might lose a lot more than that expected amount or a lot less. You might even walk away a winner.

    The Law of Large Numbers suggests that the longer you play, the more likely you are to see your actual results resemble the theoretically predicted results.

    I like to think of casino gambling—including blackjack—as a form of entertainment that costs money. I’ve seen many writers break that down into an expected hourly cost. That formula is easy enough to apply, too.

    You just multiply the number of bets you’re making per hour by the amount you’re betting each time. You multiply that by the house edge.
    If you’re playing an average of 50 hands of blackjack per hour at $5 per hand, you’re putting $250 per hour into action. 0.5% of that is $1.25 per hour, which makes blackjack some of the cheapest entertainment in the casino.

    And memorizing basic strategy isn’t that hard.

    Advantage Play Techniques in Blackjack

    Another quirk of blackjack is that it’s a game with a memory. Every time you deal a card, the composition of the deck changes. Since a natural (or a blackjack) pays off at 3 to 2, some configurations of the deck are better for the player than others.

    Imagine a deck where all the low cards—9s or less—have already been dealt. You’d now have a much higher probability of being dealt a blackjack and getting the 3 to 2 payout.

    Now imagine a deck where all the high cards—the aces and the 10s—have already been dealt. It’s impossible to get that 3 to 2 payout now. You can’t get a blackjack without any aces or 10s.

    If you raise the size of your bets in that first scenario, and bet the minimum in that 2nd scenario, you’d create a situation where you had a mathematical advantage over the casino.

    In real life, this will never happen. But the principle enables you to understand how card counting works, which is the main advantage technique in blackjack. I’m going to write about card counting at length in my next post, but for now, understand that card counters just track a rough idea of the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck. You then raise and lower the size of your bets accordingly.


    Blackjack is the best table game in the casino because it offers the best odds. It’s easy to play once you know how, although it has some subtleties and some wrinkles that can keep the game interesting for years.

    You can even get an edge over the casino if you use the right advantage play strategies.

    Did you already know how to play blackjack before reading this blog post? What’s your experience with the game been like so far, and how is it likely to change as a result of what you’ve learned here?

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