Blackjack seems a simple, straightforward game and yet, many players lose thousands of dollars on the blackjack table because, often, they do not fully understand it. There are so many variations of the standard rules that it may be really overwhelming for the casual player to track them all.
However, to play blackjack properly and avoid losing a lot of money, players need to learn the rules and fundamental principles of this classic casino game. In its standard form, it is easy to play and mastering it requires just a little practice. This article explains the first steps into the game of blackjack – its objective, possible moves, payouts, and side bets. It also lists the most common rule variations found in land-based and online casinos.
Basic Rules of Blackjack
Blackjack is a card game where 6 or 8 standard decks are used after being shuffled. There are also versions with 1, 4, or 5 decks and in the majority of games, each deck consists of 52 cards. No Jokers or wild cards are included and the four suits play no role in the game. Up to seven players can sit at the table and each one of them is dealt individuals cards, which are then compared to the dealer’s hand.
The game starts once everyone places their chips on the dedicated betting boxes on the blackjack table. The dealer deals one card to each player in the standard order – from left to right, and then, he draws a card for himself and proceeds with dealing a second card for everyone on the table. All cards are put face-up, with one exception – the dealer’s second hand is dealt face-down in standard blackjack.
Each card has a point value and the totals of the players’ hands are compared against the dealer’s hand. Before that happens, of course, players can request additional cards so they get a hand that is as stronger as possible. Players with winning hands are immediately paid, while those, who lose to the dealer, lose their bets, as well.
Objective of the Game
The objective of the game is sometimes misunderstood – it is a common saying that you need to have a hand that is as close to 21 as possible to win. In fact, to win, players need to beat the dealer and this can be achieved in three different ways:
- Players win immediately if they have a natural, i.e. if their first two-card hand is blackjack (an Ace plus a 10-value card). The payout is 3:2.
- Players win if they have a total that is higher than the hand of the dealer without going over 21. In this scenario, they receive even money (1:1).
- Players win if their hand has a value of up to 21 and the dealer busts. Once again, they receive a 1:1 payout.
It is important to clarify when players lose, too – either when their hand exceeds 21 and they bust or when the dealer holds a stronger hand. Whether the dealer has blackjack or simply a higher hand than the player, it makes no difference for the outcome of the round.
So, how do we find the total value of the hands in blackjack? This is the simplest part of the game – cards from 2 through 10 count as their face value and higher hands (Jack, Queen, and King) count as 10. Aces are more interesting as they can be counted as 1 or 11, depending on which value helps the hand.
Soft and Hard Hands
There are two types of hands in blackjack – soft and hard. It is extremely easy to distinguish between the two although some guides on blackjack would probably feature complex descriptions of the so-called “softness” and “hardness”. Soft hands or soft totals, as they are sometimes referred to, include an Ace, which can be counted as either 1 or 11. The remainder of the hands can be described as being hard.
A soft hand would be, for instance, a hand of an Ace and an 8 because the total of the hand can be either 9 or 19. Typically, only two-card hands are categorized by these two properties, so a hard hand would be an 8 and a 7, which totals 15, or 9 and 10, which would be the hard equivalent of the soft Ace-8 hand. If we apply these terms to hands with 3 or even more cards, we can take a total of 14 as an example – Ace-5-8 would be a hard 14 where the Ace counts as 1. If we count it as 11, the value of the hand would be 24, which exceeds 21 and is a bust.
These two categories are rarely used when describing the player’s hand but it is important to distinguish between dealer soft and hard hands. It is also essential to understand them when we start using a strategy.
Unless players win immediately with blackjack when they receive the 2 cards at the beginning of each round, they must decide what to do with their hand. They have several options for playing out their hands.
Players may decide to request more cards from the dealer. This option is called “hitting” and it can be repeated as many times as the player needs or until the hand busts.
Another option is to “stand”, which means players do not want any additional cards. If they decide to Stand, their turn is over for the current round and the total they have will compete against the dealer’s hand.
Players may also decide to Double or Double Down – to double their bet and request one final card to their total. Usually, this option is allowed only on the first two cards or immediately after splitting a pair. It is important to know which hands are suitable to Double Down on to – in most cases, players should Double Down on hard totals of 9, 10, and 11, for instance.
This option is offered only when players receive two cards of the same value. In this case, a second bet equal to the original one is placed and the two cards are separated into two hands. The dealer draws another card to each of the two hands and the player can then play them separately.
Some casinos do not allow splitting of unlike 10-value cards such as 10-Queen but this is permitted in standard blackjack. Also, some casinos allow splitting three times within the same round while others restrict resplitting.
Players who expect to lose to the dealer with their current cards have the option to forfeit half of their bet and give up from playing the round. They lose half of their bet, keeping the other half. Most games allow this move only after the dealer checks for blackjack. Some casinos offer Surrender if the dealer’s upcard is an Ace or a 10-value card. The rule has several different variations.
After players resolve their hands, it is the dealer’s turn to decide how to proceed with the two cards he or she has received. In standard blackjack, which is often called American blackjack and follows the Las Vegas rules, the dealer draws one face-up and one face-down card. This face-down card is referred to as a “hole card” and the dealer flips it over once all players act.
The dealer is allowed to either Hit or Stand – Doubling Down, Splitting, or Surrendering are not given as options here. However, the dealer does not actually decide what to do – every dealer’s move is predetermined by the specific rules of the game. The house rules depend on the type of blackjack variation but usually, the dealer must Hit until he gets a total of 17 or more. If his two initial cards have a higher value, he is required to Stand.
Soft 17 Rule
In most blackjack games, the dealer’s Ace is automatically assumed to be 11 and not 1. As we have already said, the house rules require the dealer to Hit until he has 17 – if he has 17 or more, he has to Stand and is not allowed to draw any more cards to get a higher total. There is an exception to this universal rule, however, and it depends on whether the dealer Hits or Stands on Soft 17.
If the dealer has 6-Ace, this hand is a soft 17. Some games require dealers to Stand on Soft 17, which means that the dealer cannot draw any more cards to this hand. Some house rules, however, say that the dealer Hits on Soft 17. In this case, the dealer draws a third card to his 6-Ace hand, increasing his chances to win. This automatically means that the Hit on Soft 17 rule is bad for the player.
Peek for Blackjack
Blackjack, i.e. an Ace and a 10-value card, beats any other 21, which is why the dealer is allowed to look at his hole card if the face-up card is either an Ace or a 10-value card. This action is referred to as “peeking” – the dealer checks for blackjack without exposing the hole card to the players. If he has blackjack, he immediately wins the round. Typically, player blackjack beats all 21 hands and ties with a player natural – in this scenario, the bet is pushed.
Is Insurance a Sucker Bet?
1Should you take it?
Insurance is usually considered a reasonable option when it comes to a car or a house but is one of the most controversial topics in blackjack. Insurance is a side bet, which allows players to insure against a dealer blackjack. It is allowed in many variations of the game offered by American casinos. Whether to take it or not is up to the player.
Insurance is only offered when the dealer’s face-up card is an Ace and the chances for dealer blackjack are relatively high (higher than usual). In this case, the player is allowed to buy Insurance, which costs half of the original bet. If the dealer gets a natural, the Insurance bet wins. If the dealer does not have a natural blackjack, however, this side bet loses. It is important to know that Insurance is resolved independently from the original wager.
It pays 2:1, which means that players who win the Insurance side bet break even on the hand. In comparison, blackjack pays less – 3:2, or $1.5 for every $1.00 wager. Meanwhile, most professional players advise never to take Insurance because it is a sucker bet. And in most cases, they are correct. This side bet assumes that the dealer’s hole card is a 10-value card. In reality, this card is more likely to be any other card (from 2 to Ace) than a 10-point card.
3What are the odds
If we take single-deck blackjack, for example, we will have 3 known cards – the player cards and one dealer card. So, we will have 49 unknown cards. Assuming the player does not have a 10 in his hand, there will be 16 cards with a value of 10 and another 33 cards of some other value. The odds are then 33 to 16, or 2.0625 to 1, that the hole card will be a non-10 card. In comparison, the payout is 2 to 1, which is lower than the odds of losing. If the game uses 6 decks (312 cards in total), there will be 96 ten-point cards and another 213 non-tens – or odds of 2.21875 to 1 that the Insurance bet will lose.
As you can see, this side bet is more likely to lose than to win and the odds of the hole card being a non-10 card are even higher if the player holds one or more 10-point cards. For this reason, blackjack players are advised to avoid buying Insurance unless, of course, they are skilled card counters.
Blackjack players can be successful in the long term only if they choose a 21 variation with good odds and if they manage to apply the proper strategy. All this depends on the house rules, however, which may vary significantly from one casino to the next. Although the game of blackjack is more or less the same, these rule variations are essential when deciding how to play out a hand.
Number of Decks
The standard game of blackjack uses 6 decks of cards – each deck comprises of 52 cards from 2s through Aces. All Jokers are removed and there are no wild cards or cards with some other special function. Many blackjack versions are also played with 8 standard decks. Some games use 1, 4, or 5-deck shoes. While many inexperienced players simply do not take the number of decks into consideration, expert-level players and card counters always do because using fewer decks reduces the house edge.
Typically, games that use a single-deck shoe offer a house edge of 0.17%, whereas variations with 6 decks have a house advantage of 0.64%. The house edge in 8-deck blackjack versions is slightly higher at 0.65%. It is easier for the player to get a natural when playing single-deck blackjack than when playing a 6-deck game, for instance. If he receives a 10-value card in the beginning, the probability of getting an Ace is 4 to 46 since there are still 50 cards in the deck. Four of them are Aces, while 46 cards are not. In percentage, this could be expressed as 8.70%.
When we compare it with a 6-deck blackjack game, the probability of getting an Ace in the same scenario is lower. If only 2 cards have been dealt (a 10 to the player and a non-Ace to the dealer), there will be 24 Aces left in the shoe against 284 cards, which are not Aces. The probability is then 8.45% (24/284). This may not seem a huge difference (8.45% against 8.70%) but the number of decks affects more aspects of the game.
Hit or Stand on Soft 17
Every version of blackjack has a rule determining the dealer’s actions when having a soft 17. As already mentioned, the house usually requires the dealer to Hit on Soft 17, which increases his chances of receiving a higher total. The Soft 17 rule is typically printed on the table felt and can be instantly seen by players.
In some games, the writing says Dealer Stands on Soft 17 or Stands on All 17. This rule is beneficial to the player as the dealer is required to play out a hand of Ace-6 without drawing any more cards. Such a hand is always better to Hit on, however.
No Hole Card
Most casinos outside the United States offer the so-called “no hole card” variations of blackjack. This type of blackjack is sometimes referred to as European blackjack and in it, the dealer draws a single face-up card in the beginning and gets a second card only after the player’s turn has ended.
Some blackjack variations allow spit hands to be resplit multiple times as long as the new card is the same as the original card. Each time players decide to Split, they place another bet that is equal to the original wager, while the dealer divides their hand and deals a further card to each of the new hands. Usually, only one Split is allowed or players have the option to split up to 3 times.
The standard rules say that only one card will be dealt to split Aces and that Aces can be split just once. Typically, players cannot Hit or Double on such hands. But some variations allow players to resplit pairs of Aces. Sometimes, quite rarely, in fact, the rules permit hitting on split Aces. Another important thing is that a split hand consisting of a 10-value card and an Ace is simply 21 and not blackjack.
Double on Hard 9, 10 and 11
In some variations of blackjack, Doubling is allowed only on hard totals of 9, 10, or 11, i.e. 9/10/11-value hands without an 11-point Ace. Typically, this rule can be found in European-style blackjack and it favors the casino rather than the player. Under the Reno rule (named after the town of Reno in Nevada), players can Double Down only on hard 10 or 11.
Early or Late Surrender
Surrender is allowed only in some versions of blackjack but usually, the option appears after the dealer checks for blackjack. It is referred to as “Late Surrender” and can be found in many American blackjack games. In certain variations, however, players are allowed to surrender their hands even before the dealer peeks at the hole card and this option is called Early Surrender. This variation of the rule is, of course, more favorable to the player but is rarely offered by casinos.
Blackjack Pays 6:5 or 1:1
The standard payout for player blackjack is 3:2 or 1.5 times the bet size. Sometimes, casinos pay out less in order to increase their house edge. Often, they pay 6:5 or 1:1 (even money) and players should avoid such games if possible. For instance, if a player bets $1.00 and gets blackjack in a 3:2 game, he receives $1.50 plus his original bet, while in a 6:5 game, he would be paid $1.20. If the payout is even, then the profit will be $1.00.
5/7/10 Card Charlie
The so-called “Charlie” rule means that players who collect a certain number of cards without going bust win automatically. Originally, the 5-Card Charlie started as an interesting rule in home blackjack games but some online casinos started offering it in order to attract more players. Nowadays, there are similar rules that include 7, 8 or even 10-cards. Of course, collecting 10 cards without going over 21 is extremely unlikely and this variation of the rule may never be applicable.
Still, the 5-Card Charlie favors the player and reduces the house edge. Players should know, however, that the odds of getting 5 cards without busting are approximately 50 to 1. The 6/7/8/9/10 Charlie occasions are even less likely to occur.
Common Side Bets
Many blackjack variations offer side wagers, which are independent of the main bets and the chips for them are placed in designated areas on the betting layout. The side bets win on certain outcomes in each round – for instance, when the cards dealt on the table form a poker hand. Players should take into account the high house edge percentages offered on most side wagers.
This is a common side bet in blackjack and players who make it bet that their initial hand will be a pair. The payouts differ, depending on whether the two cards are of the same rank only or they are identical. Usually, having a perfect pair – two cards of the same rank and suit such as two Queens of hearts brings a payout of 30:1 or 25:1.
A colored pair is two cards of the same rank but their suits are not the same, only of the same color – a Queen of hearts and a Queen of diamonds, for instance. This pair usually pays 10:1 or 12:1. The other hand that brings a payout on this side bet is the mixed pair and with it, players get 5:1 or 6:1. It consists of same-rank cards but one is black and the other is red such as a Queen of hearts and a Queen of clubs.
This side bet pays 9:1 if the player’s two initial cards and the dealer’s face-up card form one of several possible poker hands. Some casinos offer different payouts, however, depending on the strength of the hand in poker. Here are the four possible winning hands when placing the 21+3 bet:
- Flush – Three cards of the same suit such as 3 hearts, 3 spades, etc.
- Straight – Three consecutive cards of any suit such as 2 of hearts, 3 of diamonds, 4 of clubs
- Three of a Kind – Three cards of the same ranking such as three 5’s
- Straight Flush – Three consecutive cards of the same suit such as 2, 3, and 4 of hearts
This is one of the first side bets that were offered on the blackjack tables in Las Vegas more than 20 years ago. It can be found even today in both online and land-based casinos and it actually comprises of two side wagers. With the first one, the Under 13 wager, players bet that their initial cards will have a total of less than 13. The other option is to bet that the player’s first two cards exceed 13.
Usually, these bets pay evenly (1:1) and if the hand total is 13, the casino wins. As with all side wagers in blackjack, the Over/Under 13 side bet offers a high house edge and players should place it only occasionally for its entertainment factor.
How to Play Blackjack like a Pro
Most casino patrons who decide to try their skills at the blackjack table soon find out that mastering this classic game requires practice and the use of a good strategy. But it is also important to distinguish between playing blackjack in a land-based casino or online since online blackjack comes with one significant disadvantage – that you cannot count cards online. Live blackjack, on the other hand, could be intimidating for beginner players mostly because of its fast gameplay and the pressure of playing against an actual dealer.
Whether players decide to visit their local casino or play online, however, there are several main principles they should follow to maximize their chances of winning. Using a reliable blackjack strategy is just one of many things that would contribute to a successful play and consistent winnings over time.
Choosing a Blackjack Variation
The first factor that will affect the outcome of a game session is the specific blackjack variation patrons choose to play. There are games with more favorable rules and casinos that offer comp programs and bonuses one could take advantage of. Before claiming a bonus, however, players should take a closer look at the terms and conditions associated with it.
Of course, single and double-deck variations are always players’ best option since they have a lower built-in house edge. When it comes to the rules, one that is most favorable to the player is when the dealer is required to stand on soft 17. Patrons should also look for tables that pay 3:2 for a natural rather than just 6:5 or even money. Overall, there are plenty of interesting blackjack variations but games such as Classic Blackjack and Double Exposure usually offer the best odds.
Using Optimal Strategy
The basic strategy for blackjack is mathematically proven to decrease the house edge to around 0.5% and each specific variation of the game comes with its optimal strategy. Most of the blackjack strategy lies in the choices made during gameplay – when to Hit, Stand, Double, Split or Surrender. It is recommended, for instance, to always Hit on hands totaling 5 through 8 (no matter what the dealer’s face-up card is) and to Stand on totals of 12 through 16 when the dealer holds 4, 5, or 6. Players should also Stand on all hard hands of 17 or higher and Hit on soft totals of 17 or less.
When it comes to splitting pairs, the general rule is to never Split 10s or face cards since a total of 20 is already a very strong hand. It is recommended to always Split Aces and 8s, however – a pair of Aces would otherwise bust, while a total of 16 is the worst hand to hold in blackjack. Many players avoid Doubling Down but it is the best decision when having a hard total of 11 regardless of the dealer’s face-up card. Surrendering one’s hand is also a good tactic in certain situations – particularly when the player holds a hard total of 16 or 15 against dealer’s 9, 10 or Ace. Last, but not least, taking Insurance should be avoided at all times since this side bet increases the house edge significantly and is universally considered a sucker bet.
Many casino patrons fail to recognize the importance of bankroll management when gambling but it is vital to their long-term success whether they enjoy slot machines and roulette games or they prefer relying on their skills at the blackjack tables. The first thing to do is set up a bankroll – the amount of money that will be used for gambling rather than for drinks, food, or some other form of entertainment offered at the casino.
It is also important that patrons only gamble what they can afford to lose and set some limits to their daily losses or wins. Some blackjack players prefer to stick to the table minimums or always save a portion of their winnings. There are different approaches one could take to optimize their bankroll and they would depend on personal preference.
Things to Avoid
There are tons of things blackjack players should learn to avoid even before they start playing and probably the most important one is to avoid bad advice – whether it comes from an “expert”, a fellow player or a casino dealer. Any piece of advice based on superstition and the so-called “gambler’s fallacies” such as relying on winning streaks and hot or cold tables is bad advice. Progressive betting systems should also be avoided since they never change the odds of the game and can sometimes be extremely risky and costly.
Card counters should never play online blackjack – their efforts will be futile. Of course, bragging about one’s card counting skills in the casino lobby is also a bad decision since this practice is not warmly welcomed by the staff. Those who play live blackjack should also stay clear of the bars, stick to non-alcoholic beverages, and follow the rules and etiquette at the blackjack table.
Several blackjack rules are not favorable to players, which is why tables that use them should be avoided if possible. This includes tables that return even money or 6:5 for blackjack and games where the Double Down option is available only on totals of 10 or 11. Of course, the rule requiring dealers to Hit on soft 17 is also bad for players as are blackjack variations that are played with 8 decks of cards.
In conclusion, blackjack players should try following the best strategies – there are plenty of color-coded strategy charts, free online guides, etc. What they should stay away from is betting progressions such as the Martingale, unproven theories, and superstitions. It is also a very bad idea to play as the dealer plays – remember that the dealer’s actions are restricted to either Hit or Stand and that the dealer has the advantage of acting after the players. Following the dealer’s rules would result in a house edge of over 5%.