Beginners’s Guide to Blackjack
The last time I was in Las Vegas, there were more blackjack tables than any other game. That’s not surprising, since blackjack, or “21,” is the most popular casino table game in the world. What might surprise you is that the first time I made it to Vegas more than two decades ago, the game was just as popular.
In fact, there are more blackjack tables in Nevada casinos than roulette, craps, and baccarat combined. The game is a cultural phenomenon in the US and very popular in the UK and other countries. That popularity has its roots in two simple truths. First, the game is easy to learn and play. And second, blackjack can be beaten by skilled players. What’s more intoxicating than that combination?
Nothing, judging by the number of players blackjack has attracted in the past fifty years. I know I was attracted by the idea that there might be a game I could stay even with or even beat over a long weekend. Dreams of grandeur swept over me as I read books on “21,” but I’m going to save you some reading and boil down the basics for you.
If you’ve ever watched a friend play blackjack and been confused because sometimes they make one bet, sometimes they make two or more bets on the same hand, and sometimes the dealer takes their chips before they even get to play, don’t fret. We’ll go over all those things. It’s not as tough as it looks.
The Object of the Game of Blackjack
Win, baby, win. That’s always the object when you gamble, but there’s more to it than that. Blackjack is played with an English deck of 52 cards. The game is played against a house dealer who handles the cards and the wagers. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to stand pat on your first two cards, or draw additional cards to get as close to 21 as possible without going over. Why? Because if you go over 21, you bust and lose your bet.
In blackjack, the cards 2 through 9 count as their pip total (those are the spots in the middle of the card). Suits don’t have any bearing on the game. Face cards and tens all count as 10, and aces are slightly schizophrenic and count as either a one or an 11. When you get a ten and an ace as your first two cards, you’ll always play that ace as an 11 so that you can make 21 and get the 3-for-2 payoffs. When you get other combinations of cards with an ace or aces, you may have what are called “soft” and hard hands. A hard hand can be something simple like 7-10, which is a hard 17. Another hard 17 is A-6-10. It is a hard hand because you must play the ace as a 1-value card and may bust taking another card. This obviously happens if you get a 10 next and your total becomes 27.
However, if you have a hand of A-6, you have a soft hand. This is a soft 17 because you can draw any card, and you won’t bust. Before drawing, the ace can be counted as a 1 or a 10. If you draw a 10, making A-6-10, you’ll still have 17, but it has now become a hard 17 since the ace must be counted as a 1.
As a player with a soft hand, you will always hit until you get at least a soft 18. Some hands you will want to double down with, and I’ll explain that soon. When you get A-8 (soft 19) A-9 (soft 20), or any combination of small cards and aces that makes 19 or 20, you will always stand and take no more cards.
Buying Into the Game
To begin, players get their chips from the dealer, so find yourself an open spot at a table that has a small minimum wager. The table limits are displayed on either the right or left side of the game. If the sign says $10 to $500, that means you have to bet at least $10 and no more than $500. Then, take a seat and put your cash down on the table close to you. Don’t put it in the circle; that’s where the bets go, and you have to be careful because some casinos accept cash wagers. You might get a hand dealt to you for all your cash!
Then the dealer will wait for all players to get some chips into their own wagering circles and start dealing the cards. These will come out one card at a time in a clockwise fashion until every player and the dealer has two cards. Depending on where you are playing, the cards dealt may come out of an automatic shuffling machine that has many decks inside its dusty chambers, usually five or six. Or the cards may be shuffled by a big machine and then dealt out of a shoe that holds them for the dealer. Usually, a shoe holds six or eight decks.
For most players, it doesn’t matter how many decks are used. However, from a mathematical standpoint, it is slightly better for the player if just a single deck is used. In this case, the dealer will shuffle the deck by hand and offer the cut card to a player. If it’s you, just take the cut card and gently slide it into the deck somewhere near the middle. Then, make a bet inside your betting circle, and wait for your new hand to be dealt.
Use Accurate Hand Signals
In some games, the dealer will deliver your cards face-down. In this case, pick your cards up and take a peek. You don’t have to hide them; it’s not poker. And the dealer will ask that you use just one hand on your cards. The player to the dealer’s left goes first, followed by each player in clockwise order. On your turn, if you want to draw a card or “take a hit,” you’ll hold your cards in your hand and sweep them back towards yourself.
If you get a blackjack, you’ll also turn your hand face-up. And likewise, if you want to double down or split (more on that later), you turn your cards up. If you are in a casino where the cards are dealt face-up, you don’t get to touch your cards. Instead, you scratch the table towards yourself for a hit, and you wave your hand palm-down from side to side to indicate you are done and are going to “stand.” It’s pretty easy, and the dealer will help you. If you want to double or split, the best way to indicate that is to tell the dealer. They’ll tell you how much to bet.
Hitting and Standing
You’ll have to decide on whether to hit or stand every hand. You do this based on the one up-card the dealer shows. So, let’s go into what constitutes a good blackjack hand. Overall, if you had an 18 each hand, and the dealer followed their standard rules, they would eventually get all your money. That’s the facts.
So what hands should you hit or stand on? You are always going to hit your hand until you have at least a hard 12 or a soft 18. Other decisions are going to be based on the dealers up-card. Since the deck is comprised of 16 ten-value cards, it’s best to assume the dealer’s hidden card is a ten.
That means that anytime the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, they must take another card. If the hidden card is indeed a ten, then they have a good chance of busting. That’s what you want. So, let the dealer bust.
- Dealer shows a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6: As a player, hit until you get at least 12. With a 12 or higher, stand.
- Dealer shows 7, 8, 9, 10, A: As a player, hit until you get a hard 17 or higher. With a soft hand, hit until you get 18 or higher.
These are the simplest rules to follow, but don’t stop reading; there’s a lot more about double-down hands and splits. Without those, you’ll still be at a big disadvantage.
One of the interesting things about blackjack is that players may double down on any two-card total of 10 or 11 (some casinos allow doubling on any two-card total). Now, you wouldn’t do that with an A-9, because while it is a soft 10, it’s also a soft 20, and you want to play it as a 20, so stand. However, on hard hands that total 10 (2-8, 3-7, 4-6, 5-5) and that total 11 (2-9, 3-8, 4-7, 6-5), you’ll want to double down.
In these cases, you make an additional wager of up to the size of your original bet. The tradeoff is that you get just one card. It’s still a good bet if you follow the rules below.
- Dealer shows 2 through 9: Double down on 10 or 11. Otherwise, just hit.
- Dealer shows 10: Double down on 11.
- Dealer shows an ace: Don’t double down. Just hit.
- If the casino allows you to double down on any first two cards, you’ll want to follow a few more rules.
- Dealer shows a 3, 4, 5, or 6: Double down on a hard 9. Also double down when you have a soft hand of 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17. Otherwise, hit according to the rules above.
Casinos also allow players to split their pairs. In this case, you must match your original wager, but you can split and draw additional times, except with aces. Most casinos do not allow a redraw to aces. Some will allow an additional split or two if you draw more aces, but don’t worry; the dealer will help you.
Suppose you did get two more 7s; then you would have four hands, four bets, and the dealer would return to the first 7 and give you a second card. If it is an ace, 2, 3, or 4, you might want to double down if the casino allows you to double after a split. Again, the dealer will give you a “yes” or “no” to that question.
If you don’t get a double-down hand, you’ll continue with each hand and play them according to the rules you have learned above. However, to improve your odds, you’ll want to split the right pairs at the right time. Computer simulations have shown that not all pairs should be split against certain dealer up-cards. Follow these rules, and you’ll do fine!
How to Play Pairs
- When dealt aces, always split.
- When dealt 10s, always stand.
- When dealt 9s, split against a dealer’s 2 through 6. Otherwise, stand.
- When dealt 8s, always split.
- When dealt 7s, split against a dealer’s 2 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
- When dealt 6s, split against a dealer’s 2 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
- When dealt 5s, double down against a dealer’s 2 through 9. Otherwise, hit.
- When dealt 4s, always hit.
- When dealt 3s, split against a dealer’s 2 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
- When dealt 2s, split against a dealer’s 2 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
Summarized, always split aces and eights, double down on 5s, hit on 4s, and split all other pairs against a dealer’s 2 through 6. You can memorize that!
Casinos offer insurance when the dealer’s up-card is an ace. The bet is half your original wager and pays 2 to 1 if the dealer has a blackjack. Since a blackjack requires the dealer to have a ten underneath their ace, insurance is rarely a good wager.
In that instance, suppose there were three players in the game, and all six cards showing were non-aces. Then the cards would be 16 tens and 30 non-tens, offering 16/30, or odds of .533 on a 2 to 1 payoff. Since 2 x .533 results in a positive number (1.066), you would show a profit by taking the wager. All the rules presented in this beginner’s guide use the same logic. The plays that return the best results are the ones suggested.
Another instance of this is splitting 8s. While playing two hands, each starting with an 8 against a 9, 10, or ace is a bad bet. Playing a hard 16 (if you didn’t split) is even worse. So, it’s the lesser of two evils and provides the overall best results. Unfortunately, sometimes the best play is still below break-even, but it’s better than the alternative.
One final move a player can make is to surrender half of their wager when they get a bad hand. Not all casinos offer this option, so you’ll have to ask. Generally, surrender is limited to your first two cards and can be early or late.
“Early surrender” is when the casino allows you to quit the hand and relinquish half your original wager before the dealer looks under a ten for a blackjack.
“Late surrender” is when the casino allows you to quit the hand and relinquish half your original wager after the dealer checks for a blackjack.
Surrender can be a nice option and helps reduce loses when you hold a rotten two-card hand like 15 or 16 against a dealer’s 10 or ace up-card. In this case, you signal for surrender by running your finger diagonally across the layout between your bet and your cards. This tells the dealer you are cutting your bet in half. They will handle the chips.
Final Things to Remember
Most blackjack dealers are friendly and will be happy to help you. They may make some requests that seem strange, such as always making a hand signal whether you want to hit, stand, or take surrender. They’ll do this even if you have a two-card twenty showing. Those are the rules. It proves to the pit bosses and the cameras that they aren’t making decisions for you.
To wager for the dealer, take a chip and place it in front of your own bet, bisecting the betting circle, so half the chip is inside and half outside. That shows the pit bosses that the bet is for the dealer. How much should you tip? That’s up to you. Personally, I’m more generous when I’m winning, but I’ll still make a bet or two for each dealer of about half my average wager per hour. And you can always tip as you are leaving the table.
A final thing to remember is that no matter how good you are at blackjack, it’s still a gamble. You will have good sessions and bad. If you remember the lessons you’ve learned, you’ll have plenty of good times in the casino.
Following the rules stated in this article will keep you playing close to the house edge of about 1%. That means your entertainment cost will be about one average wager per hour. If you are a $10 per bet gambler, you might lose $200 in one night and win back $70 each of the next few trips and see a $60 loss for six hours of play after a week. Remember, it’s an average.
And if you get a players club card, the casino will track your play and give you complimentary rooms and food based on your level of play (which roughly translates to how much they think you’ll lose). It’s always fun to get a free meal, especially if you earn it by gambling. As for beating blackjack on a regular basis, you can do that with what you’ve learned already or with basic blackjack strategy, but eventually, the tides will turn, and you’ll find that you are paying the price for your gambling. That’s the tradeoff.
If you want to put more work into learning a card counting system, the game of blackjack can be beaten on a regular basis. It takes time, energy, study, and at least a small bankroll, but you can learn to count cards and make money playing blackjack. You just have to decide to do so! Regardless of how far you go with your learning, the game is fun and exciting! Just remember to watch your alcohol intake and enjoy yourself.