Guide To Playing Casino Blackjack
This complete guide to Blackjack is suitable for both live casino play, and playing online. Casino blackjack, also known as 21, has proven to be the most popular table game offered in casinos and online gaming web sites.
Complex strategies are built around the basics of playing blackjack, so learning these basic rules will get beginners off to a good start as they develop more skills.
A fundamental rule of blackjack is: Learn the game thoroughly before attempting to play in a casino or at an online blackjack game for money.
Without the basics outlined here, a novice player won’t know how to adjust his or her strategy to achieve the goal, which is to beat the dealer’s hand. (Please note: The following are American rules; international players must learn rules for casinos in their respective countries).
The goal of casino blackjack can be expressed in one sentence: Your objective at all times is to beat the dealer. Blackjack’s goal isn’t to achieve a hand of 21 points; it’s to beat the dealer with the total you have in your hand and with your betting strategy.
Other players at a casino blackjack table are of no consequence, except to the extent that their playing strategies compete with yours to beat the dealer. Consequently, it doesn’t matter what you see in other player’s hands, or what they see in yours. All that matters is what all of you see in the dealer’s hand, and how you play the probabilities of beating the dealer’s total.
In scoring blackjack, the cards are valued in this way:
- An Ace can count as either 1 or 11.
- The cards from 2 through 9 are counted at face value.
- The 10, Jack, Queen, and King are all valued at 10.
Unlike poker, the suits of the cards are irrelevant in blackjack. All that matters is the total count.
3 other things to keep in mind regarding Aces:
- The variable value of the Ace is always assumed to be whatever makes the best hand.
- A hand with an Ace is called “soft” if the Ace can be counted as either 1 or 11 without going over 21, or “busting.” For example (Ace, 6) is a soft 17.
- The hand (Ace, 6, 10) is a “hard” 17 since the Ace must be counted as only 1 point, since the hand would bust if the Ace were counted as 11.
One last note about card values: Cards valued at 10 is the most plentiful in any deck. Therefore, a good strategy is always to assume that the dealer’s “down” or “hole” card is a 10.
Dealing the Cards
The way cards are dealt in blackjack depends on how many decks are being used.
In single-deck games (rare in casinos today), the dealer will distribute cards to the players after players make their bets (see “Betting” below). He or she will make two passes around the table starting at her/his left (players’ right) so that players and dealer each have two cards. The dealer will turn over one of his/her cards, showing its value, and betting proceeds.
In handheld games, players’ cards are dealt face down, and players pick up their cards with one hand only. (Poker players may have to break some habits for this tactic). Players’ cards must remain on the table at all times. Any cards subsequently dealt must remain on the table; players do not pick them up.
In multiple-deck games, cards are dealt from a box called a “shoe.” As with handheld games, cards are dealt after bets are placed, starting to the dealer’s left (players’ right). Players’ cards are dealt face-up, and players are not allowed to touch cards.
Play proceeds around the table from the dealer’s left. The first seat to the dealer’s left is called first base. Each player, in turn, tells the dealer how he or she wishes to play according to these basic terms:
- Stand – To receive no more cards.
- Hit – To draw one or more cards.
- Surrender (when available) – To forfeit your hand, retaining half your bet.
There are also two other player options, Split and Double (or Double Down) that are discussed below.
After each player has finished his or her hand, the dealer will finish his or her hand, and then collect or pay players’ bets.
The Dealer’s Role
Each casino has specific rules about how the dealers play their blackjack hands. Unlike players who have options, dealers must play his or her according to the house rules with exception. The blackjack tables in all casinos typically are labelled to tell players how the dealer plays the house hand. Following are the most common rules:
Dealer stands on all 17s: In this case, the dealer must take cards (“hit”) until his or her total is 17 or greater. An Ace in the dealer’s hand is always counted as 11 if possible without the dealer going over 21.
Dealer hits soft 17: With this rule, if a dealer has a hand with a “soft” total of 17, in which an ace could be counted as 1 or 11, the dealer is required to hit until the hand totals 17 or busts.
What’s Blackjack, or a “Natural?”
Scoring “blackjack,” or a “natural,” means to get a total of 21 in the first two cards dealt. This requires a hand consisting of an ace and any 10-valued cards. In the past, this term was applied only to hands having an actual Jack and an Ace, but the definition has since been broadened to include any two-card 21 total having an Ace.
A player’s blackjack beats any dealer hand other than another blackjack. If both player and dealer have blackjack, then the hand is called a “push,” or a tie, and nobody wins.
Most casinos pay winnings for blackjack at the odds of 3:2. For example, if a player bets $10 and wins a blackjack, he or she would win $15. A dealer usually will immediately pay for a winning blackjack, so players should immediately turn up their winning cards in a facedown game.
How to Bet
Learning how to bet appropriately is one of the keys to winning blackjack. Most tables have a minimum bet requirement that is clearly posted, so choose your table with care (more about this later).
Before each hand is dealt, players put their bets into a circle or box in front of your seat at the table. If placing a bet with multiple chips in various denominations, place the largest chips at the bottom of the stack.
Don’t touch the bet in the circle once the cards are dealt. The dealer will count the chips for you if you need to know how much you’ve bet to split or double (explained below).
When the hand is complete, the dealer will move around the table to each position to pay winners and collect chips from losers. Players may remove their chips after being paid and place the next bet. To let a bet ride, combine any winnings into one stack with the previous bet (big chips on the bottom as always).
More things to know when playing blackjack
Surrendering offers players the choice to fold a hand at the cost of half of the original bet. This decision must be made before any other action on a given hand.
Not every blackjack offers surrender as an option. Those that do feature two choices: early or late surrender. In early surrender, the player may fold before the dealer checks his or her cards for a blackjack. This gives the player a chance to get out of the hand at half the cost.
Late surrender is the more common form of this option, where the dealer checks for blackjack first, and then players are allowed to surrender if the dealer doesn’t have blackjack. Even when surrender is offered, it’s no longer an option once a player splits, doubles, or draws a third card.
Surrender can be a helpful option to those who understand how to use, but too many players surrender when they might have won had they employed basic blackjack strategy. To calculate whether to use surrender, consider your win-loss ratio.
If you’re losing 75 per cent of the time and winning 25 per cent of the time, then the net loss you’re experiencing is 50 per cent, or equal to the amount you’ll lose in surrender. That’s when it’s appropriate to surrender your blackjack hand.
Hitting or Standing
The most common and crucial choice that players make during blackjack is whether to draw another card (hit) or stop with the total they already have (stand). Deciding which of these choices to make is the heart of blackjack, and the choice that draws a myriad of different strategies for how to make the choice.
(See Beginner Blackjack maths for a basic explanation of how to decide whether to hit or stand on a blackjack hand).
The mechanics of how to indicate your choice of hit or stand depending on what kind of blackjack game being played.
When playing a multideck game dealt face-up from a shoe, most casinos require hand signals rather than verbal requests. This requirement is made partly to eliminate any confusion about your intentions because casinos are noisy places, and partly so the casino surveillance cameras can clearly record your playing decisions.
In multideck games, to indicate to the dealer that you want a hit, tap your finger against the table directly behind your cards. To let the dealer know you want to stand, wave a hand horizontally over the cards.
Playing signals are different in a handheld single-deck game. To hit, hold your first two cards with one hand and lightly scrape across the table felt. The dealer will lay the next card or cards in front of your bet on the table. If you bust at this point (go over 21), toss your hand face-up on the table. Then the dealer will collect your bet, and discard your cards.
To indicate a stand, tuck your hand facedown under your betting chips, but don’t pick up the chips in order to place the hand. All you have to do is slide a corner of the cards under the chip or chips. Watch other players and you’ll catch on quickly.
Splitting and Doubling Down
In addition, to hit, stand, fold and surrender, there are two choices players can make: Split and Double, or Double Down. These options can increase a player’s chances of winning when played correctly.
Splitting – A split is when a player splits a pair of cards into two separate hands, playing them independently of each other. While there are many schools of thought on how to split, a good basic strategy is always to split 8s and Aces. Here’s why:
A pair of 8s gives a total of 16, which is the worst possible hand. You can’t win with it (remember, dealers often draw until hitting 17). If you hit on a pair of 8s, you’re likely to bust. Splitting a pair of eights always improves a player’s chances to win.
Splitting a pair of Aces is a similar strategy, remembering that Aces count either 1 or 11. A pair of Aces yields a total of 12, since counting both Aces as 11 would be an automatic bust. It’s hard to hit well on 12 because of the predominance of 10s in blackjack. Splitting a pair of Aces not only increases a player’s chances of winning; it increases the chances of achieving a natural or blackjack.
How to Split Pairs
In a handheld game, toss the cards face up in front of the bet, and then place a matching bet beside your original bet. The dealer will then separate the two cards and treat them as independent hands.
In a multideck game, the dealer will ask if you wish to split your pair, and then divide the cards for you once you lay down your additional bet.
One final word of advice: Never split any pair of 10-value cards. They total 20, and that can be a winning hand in many cases.
Double, or Double Down. These two terms mean the same thing. This is an option in which a player may double his or her bet and receive only one more additional card. This choice can result in either a big win or a big loss.
Learning basic blackjack strategy is the way to know when it’s time to double a bet. For example, if a dealer’s upcard is a 5, and you the player hold say, a 4 and a 7 for a total of 11, the odds are that you’ll draw a 10 on a hit (remember, 10-value cards are the most common). Doubling, in this case, would be a good idea.
Most casinos allow players to double down for any amount up to their original bet amounts, so you could double the bet for less if you choose. However, remember that you’re only going to get one more card in exchange for your doubled bet, so you might as well go for the full amount.
How to Double Down
If playing a facedown game, toss your two cards on the table face-up in front of the bet. In a face-up game your cards will already be visible. Either way, add your double-down bet next to your original bet, not on top of it. Then the dealer will deal out one more card. In a facedown game, he or she will probably tuck the additional card facedown under your total bet. That card will be revealed later after all the other players have made their choices.
Insurance and Even Money
The quickest explanation of Insurance and Even Money bets is this: Both bets increase the house’s edge of winning, so they’re generally a bad idea. Period. Nonetheless, here’s a couple of short definitions to help players understand why these are such bad bets.
Insurance – Typically when a dealer turns up an Ace, he or she offers “Insurance” to all players. Insurance is essentially a side-bet when you wager half your original bet amount that the dealer has a 10 to match his/her Ace for a blackjack. If the dealer does have a blackjack, players who bet insurance will be paid back at 2:1 odds.
However, a player who bets insurance will still lose his or her original bet. So the net result of this bet is that players break-even, providing that they win if the dealer has blackjack. If the dealer doesn’t have blackjack, then the players lose their insurance bets and still have to play out their original bets.
In most cases, Even Money is an Insurance bet by another name. This may seem like a good idea at first when a player has a blackjack and the dealer is showing an ace. An Even Money bet in this case would be betting that the dealer will draw a 10 to make blackjack, in which case the two hands would tie, or “push,” and the player would lose his or her bet.
While a player may get a return of the amount he or she bet if the dealer turns up blackjack, he or she would lose the possibility of winning 3:2 for the blackjack the player holds. Do the math.
There are many rule variations and completely different blackjack games that change the dynamic and even your odds of winning. This is especially true with online blackjack games for money. Make sure to learn the odds of different blackjack games before playing.
Getting in the game
Once you’ve learned some basic blackjack strategy, including the necessary hand signals, you’ll want to try your skill at a casino’s blackjack tables. Here’s where it behoves you, as a newcomer, to pay close attention to details.
Choosing a Table. Look carefully at how the casino designates the betting limits on its tables. Both the minimum and maximum bets should be posted at the table. Some casinos colour-code their betting limits, such as Red for $5, Green for $25, and Black for $100 minimum tables.
Note that it can be hard to start at the bottom level of blackjack play because lower-limit tables (say $3 to $5) often are quite crowded. If your bankroll can stand it, you’d do better to play a mid-level table. You might not play as many hands if you’re losing, but at least you’ll get the chance to play.
Next, be sure that the actual game being played at the table is blackjack and not some variation. Genuine blackjack tables should have the phrase “Blackjack pays 3 to 2” printed on the table’s felt covering. AVOID playing tables where the payout for blackjack is 6:5. This is a sucker’s table because the payout probabilities consistently favour the house.
Take time to observe the play at a table you’re thinking of joining. For starters, take a good look at the dealer. Does he or she seem friendly and helpful to the players? If so, that’s probably a good table to try. Avoid grumpy or hard-looking dealers; they’re no help to newbies.
Beginners typically will fare better at multi-deck games where 6 to 8 decks are dealt from a “shoe.” The advantage here is that the player’s cards are dealt face-up, and the dealer can answer questions are playing choices. There will be time to move up to games with fewer decks after you’re more proficient.
That’s because games with fewer decks have a lower casino advantage (also known as the “house edge”) so that dealers aren’t as helpful to newbies. Face-up games also give newcomers more chance to observe how other players play out their hands.
After you’re seated at a table, wait for a break in the play to buy chips. Put your cash out in front of your position. It’s best to buy in at a rate between 10 and 20 times your average bet. So if the table stakes are $5 a bet, buy $50 to $100 worth of chips. The dealer will pick up the cash and give you your chips. For security reasons, the dealer won’t take any cash from you. Give the exact amount, too, because dealers won’t make change.
Chip colours have been pretty well standardized in the casino industry these days. Reds are $5, Greens are $25 and Black chips are $100. There are also $1 chips that are usually white or $1 tokens that are silver. For other denominations, ask the dealer.
When you’re done playing, take your chips to the cashier to turn them back into cash (assuming you haven’t lost all your bankroll). Dealers may prefer to “colour up” your chips, exchanging a large pile of smaller denomination chips for a few larger ones.
To leave a table, wait for the end of a hand, and then push your chips out between the betting boxes so it doesn’t look like a bet. The dealer will count the chips and return a smaller stack that equals your winnings. Whatever you end up with, don’t forget to “toke” or tip the dealer, especially if he or she has been helpful to you while playing. That way you’ll get a reputation as a welcome player.