How to Play Blackjack

Blackjack is the most popular table game in a casino and it offers the smart player the best odds/

Before you sit down at a blackjack table, make sure you know what the table betting limits are. There is usually a small display on the table (on the dealer’s right side) that will tell you the table minimum and maximum betting limits. If you are a beginner I would start with the lowest minimum bet table that you can find (in most casinos it’s $5 during the week).

When you take a seat at a blackjack table, you need to convert your cash into casino chips (also known as checks). Just wait until the dealer completes the hand in progress and place your cash on the table in front of you preferably outside of the betting box (otherwise the cash could be mistaken for a bet on the next hand). The dealer will exchange your cash for an equivalent amount of casino chips. Place the chips in front of you. You are now ready to make your first bet but first let’s make sure you understand the playing rules. (Note that some casinos don’t allow players to enter mid-game. If this is the case, wait till the dealer finishes the shoe and begins to reshuffle before you place your cash on the table for chips).

The objective of blackjack is to beat the dealer’s hand by either, 1) having a total that exceeds the dealer’s total or, 2) by not going over 21 when the dealer does.

Exceeding a total of 21 is known as ‘busting”. The casino’s edge comes from the fact that players must go first and when they bust their hand they automatically lose even if the dealer subsequently busts (i.e., if you bust and the dealer busts on the same hand you lose).

All cards count their face value in blackjack. Picture cards count as 10 and the ace can count as either a 1 or 11. Card suits have no meaning in blackjack. The total of any hand is the sum of the card values in the hand. A hand containing a 4-5-8 totals 17. Another containing a queen-5 totals 15. It is always assumed that the ace counts 11 unless your hand exceeds 21 in which case the ace reverts to a value of 1. Generally hands which contain an ace that counts as 11 are known as soft hands (i.e. ace, 7 is a soft 18 hand and ace-3-3 is soft 17). A hard hand is any hand that either does not contain an ace of if it does it counts as 1 (i.e. 10-8 and 5-ace-10-2 are hard 18 hands).

Prior to the deal of the cards, all players must make a bet by placing chips in their respective betting boxes. Every player and the dealer will receive two cards. One of the dealer’s cards (known as the dealer’s upcard or face card) is dealt up so that players can see its value. The other dealer’s card (known as the dealer’s downcard or hole card) is unseen. The two player cards can be either dealt face up, face down, or sometimes one up and one down. In general, games that are dealt from dealing shoes (normally containing 4, 6 or 8 decks of cards) the player’s cards are dealt face up. In this case you should not handle the cards. In games in which the dealer deals from the hand by pitching the cards to the players (single or double deck games) the player cards are usually dealt both face down (or sometimes one up and one down and rarely both up). In these games it is permissible for the player to handle the cards (with one hand only and the cards must always be above the table).

After the player looks at his initial two cards and sees the value of one of the dealer’s two cards, the player must make a playing decision. This includes making the following playing options:

Hit. This means you want the dealer to give you another card to your hand. In shoe games, indicate to the dealer that you want a hit by making a beckoning motion with your finger or tapping the table behind your cards with your finger. In hand held games, scratch the edges of the cards in your hand lightly on the felt.

Standing. This means you are satisfied with the total of the hand and want to stand with the cards you have. In shoe games, indicate that you want to stand by waving your hand over the cards. In hand held games, tuck your cards under the chips that you have in the betting box.

Pair Splitting. If you have two like cards (e.g. a pair of 6’s or aces), you could excersise the option to split. When you split you must make another bet equal to your original bet (just place your chip next to the original chip bet on the hand). By pair splitting you play each card as a separate hand and you can draw as many cards as you like to each hand (except split aces-most casinos will only allow one draw card to each ace). For example, if you were dealt a pair of 8’s (16) and split, you would have two separate hands containing an 8. You would be required to play out one of the split hands first before the other. In shoe games you indicate that you want to split by placing another chip next to the original chip. For hand held games toss your cards on the table and then make the secondary wager. Most casinos will also allow players to split all 10 value cards such as a jack-ten or queen-king (although this is not a recommended playing strategy).

Doubling down. This playing option allows you to double your bet in return for receiving one and only one draw card. In most casinos you can only double down after you receive your first two cards and before drawing another card. To signal the dealer that you want to double down just place your chip next to the original chip bet on the hand (shoe games) or toss your cards on the table face-up in hand held games and then make the secondary bet.

Surrender. This playing option is sometimes permitted. It allows a player to forfeit the hand with an automatic loss of half the original bet. Player’s can surrender their initial two card hand only after the dealer has checked his cards for a blackjack. Once a player draws a card the surrender option is no longer available. If the dealer has a blackjack hand, then surrender is not available. When a player surrenders (to do so tell the dealer “surrender”) the dealer will remove the player’s card from the table and place one half of the players bet in the chip rack. The player is no longer involved in that round. In some casinos a hand signal must be given for surrender which is to draw an imaginary line across the felt layout with your finger.

Insurance. When the dealer’s upcard is an ace, the dealer will ask players if they want to make the insurance wager. It is a side bet in which players are betting that the dealer’s hole card will be a ten-value card. Players can make an insurance bet equal to one half of the initial bet made on the hand. To make the insurance bet you simply place your chips on the insurance line, which is located right above the player betting box. You win your insurance bet if the dealer has a ten-value card in the hole. A winning insurance bet pays off at 2 to 1 odds.

Even Money. When the player has a blackjack hand and the dealer has an ace showing the dealer will ask the player if he wants “even money”. Even money means the dealer will automatically give you a 1 to 1 (or even money) payoff on your bet before he checks his downcard for a potential blackjack. Taking even money yields the same result as making an insurance bet on your blackjack hand.

Unlike players, the dealer in blackjack has no playing option. Casino rules specify that a dealer must draw until the dealer’s hand totals less than 17 and stand when the total is 17 to 21. In some casinos, dealers must stand on soft 17 and in others they must hit (it’s better for the player if the rules specify the dealer must stand on soft 17).

If the player’s hand exceeds a total of 21, the player automatically losses. If the player’s hand exceeds the total of the dealer’s hand, the player wins the hand and is paid at 1 to 1 odds. If the player and dealer have the same total, the hand is a tie or push and the player retains his bet.

Some casinos only pay even money or 6-5 when a player has a blackjack and the dealer doesn’t. Do not play at these tables (make sure that player’s blackjack pays at the traditional 3 to 2 odds).

There is a basic playing strategy for blackjack and you should learn this strategy before you play (it will reduce the house edge to roughly half a percent). I’d also strongly suggest that new players bring a strategy card with them when they play and refer to it to make the right play.