How to play Blackjack

How to play Blackjack

Blackjack, also known as 21, is the most popular table casino game in the world. One of the reasons for this is probably due to the idea that anyone, even complete gambling novices, have a shot at winning big if they learn to count the cards. Whilst this initially helped the game become popular, casinos have since implemented a range of measures to counter card counting; even if they hadn’t, the practice takes time, effort, and skill.

Nevertheless, blackjack remains popular, and can still lead to great winnings if you play it smartly. In this guide, we will cover the basic rules of blackjack and introduce you to the strategies that will allow you to win big at the table.

The Set Up

Blackjack is played on a semi-circular table, with up to seven players sitting around it and one dealer across from them. Bets are placed in the form of casino chips in the middle of the table. The table will usually have a sign that states the minimum bet as well as some basic rules, such as how many times you can split. Getting a Blackjack (see below) usually pays 3:2 (i.e: you get 3 dollars for every 2 paid), winning without a Blackjack wins 1:1.

The Rules

  • You play against the dealer, not against other players
  • You play with one or more decks of 52 cards
  • Cards from 2 to 10 are worth their face value. Jacks, Queens, and Kings are worth 10, and Aces can be worth either 11 or 1.
  • Aces count as 1 when doing so would keep the value of your hand below 21. They count as 11 when doing so would take the value up to 21.
  • A hand can be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. A hard hand either does not contain an ace, or has an ace that counts as a 1. A soft hand has an ace that counts as an 11. If your initial hand has an ace, it counts as 11. If you add other cards that would then take the number over 21, the ace reverts to a 1 and the hand becomes hard. Hard and soft hands are played differently, and have different strategies.
  • The game revolves around your cards adding up to 21 or over. You can win the game by your cards equalling 21 on the first draw (a ‘Blackjack’), by your cards adding up to a higher number than the dealer without exceeding 21, or by letting the dealer hit 21 before you.

Each player has two hands – depending on where you are, they will either be turned up or down. The dealer will either have two cards – one up, one down – or just one card face up: either way, this means you can see the dealer’s first card, which will be your first indication of how to proceed.

Each player places a bet on the centre of the table, and will each have a turn before the dealer has theirs. ‘Blackjack’ (i.e.: hitting 21) pays 3 to 2. During your turn, you have several options, each one with its own hand gestures – these are used for the benefit of the casino’s surveillance system and to avoid disputes. The gestures vary depending on whether you are playing with handheld cards or with cards face-up on the table. Your options are:

  • Hit: You take a new card. This card will either take you closer to 21, or will bust the hand by taking it over 21. Gesture: scratch the table with the cards (handheld) or wave towards yourself (cards on table).
  • Stand: You don’t take any more cards. Gesture: place your cards under the chips (handheld) or place your open hand over your cards (cards on table).
  • Double Down: You double your bet, and commit to taking one single additional card. Gesture: place additional chips next to original bet, outside the betting box, and point towards the new bet.
  • Split: If both your cards are of the same suit, you can split your hand into two by placing a second, equal bet. The dealer then deals a new card for each hand, and you play both hands independently. Gesture: Same as double down, but you point with two fingers forming a V – or ‘split’ – signal.
  • Surrender: Not always available. You can choose to surrender your hand, but only as a first decision: i.e: you can’t hit, and then surrender. The house keeps half your bet, and half is returned to you. There is no gesture for this, and the decision to surrender is made verbally.

The dealer, on the other hand, can only hit or stand. In most casinos, they must always hit when their hand is worth less than 17, and must always stand on 17 or above – in most cases, it is also specified whether they must stand on a soft 17. There are two other options which may occur during the game:

  • Insurance: If the dealer’s face-up card is an ace, they may ask you if you want to take insurance. This is a 2 to 1 bet that their second card will have a 10 value, giving them a Blackjack. Simply put, it means that you can get your money back if you lose the original bet and you can come out even. Getsure: Place chips to half the value of your original bet on the insurance line, above your cards.
  • Even Money: If your hand is a Blackjack and the dealer’s face-up card is an ace, they can offer you even money. This means you get a payoff even if the game is a push (a tie), and has the same effect as insurance.

Simply put, you want to get as close to 21 as possible during your round, without risking busting. You also have to take into consideration the dealer’s card: is he likely to get closer to 21 than you, or is he likely to go bust? You can calculate the probability of each outcome if you know the number of cards, although the more decks used, the more complex the calculations: this is what is known as card counting.

Learning Blackjack Strategy

So those are the rules of Blackjack, but how do people learn strategies to win it? Blackjack strategy is purely logical and mathematical: the exact chance of winning any given game can be calculated based on the number of decks, the cards already visible, and the specific rules of the table (e.g: no doubling after splitting, stand on soft 17). This involves either quick, on-the-fly mathematics, or memorising strategy charts. Strategy charts tell you the best option – statistically speaking – for each hand.

Beginner players can bring strategy charts with them to the game, however they cannot place them on the table and they may not have the option to look at the chart every time, as Blackjack is quite a fast-paced game. For this reason, it is better to familiarise yourself with the charts, even if you don’t feel ready to memorise them completely. If you are a beginner, choose a casino table with less players and with low stakes, where people will be more patient. You can find Blackjack charts online for free, or you can buy books containing them