How to Play Blackjack
Amazingly, most players won't make this effort. I've played hundreds of hours of blackjack, and have rarely seen anyone who knew proper basic strategy. By guessing at the proper strategy, they're willingly giving the house a 2% advantage -- meaning they lose four times as much. It's throwing money away. Don't be one of those people.
This objective of blackjack is commonly misstated as "trying to get as close as you can to 21 without going over". But the real objective is to beat the dealer. You can beat the dealer with a total of just 12, which is pretty far from 21, since the dealer could bust. Once you start playing you will often do just that. For now, it's enough to remember that you want to beat the dealer's hand.
The Bets and The Deal
Between one and seven players can play at the same table. Each player places his/her bet (chips) in the circle in front of him/her. The dealer deals the cards, two cards to each player, including herself. One of the dealer's cards will be face-up, so you'll have a clue as to how strong her hand is. The other players' cards don't matter because you're not playing against them, you're playing against the dealer.
You've seen the movie 21 or Rain Man so you've heard about counting cards. Card counters turn the odds in their favor by keeping track of the cards that have been played. When they see that the odds are in their favor (there are lots of 10's and aces left), they bet big. They also vary their hit/stand decisions according to the count.
But the advantage they get is tiny. Counters enjoy only a razor-thin edge over the house of about 1%. It's still nearly a coin toss. The odds are so close that even with an advantage, a counter could still lose for even weeks or months at a time. A counter will come out ahead in the long term, but has to survive into the long term without going broke beforehand.
And that's why more people don't count cards. Just like with everything else in life, it takes money to make money.
To ensure that you don't go bust, you have to have a huge bankroll to weather losing streaks. To make $25 an hour, you'd need $25,000 in capital. If you have that kind of cash lying around, you're probably already making more than $25/hr. In short, if you can afford to count cards, you probably don't care to.
Of course, even if you don't pursue card-counting as a career, if you're playing blackjack while on vacation anyway then you might as well learn how to count so you can put the odds in your favor.
For more on counting cards see the Wizard of Odds' Intro to Card Counting.
Play begins with the right-most player ("1st base") and continues player by player to the left. Your objective is to beat the dealer's hand; the higher hand wins, as long as it doesn't go over 21 (bust). If both of you bust, you still lose. This is why the casino has the advantage in blackjack.
When it's your turn, you have the following choices:
- Hit. Take a card. You can hit as many times as you want.
- Stand. End your turn and pass to the next player.
- Double Down. Double your bet, take exactly one more card, and then end your turn.
- Split. If you have two of the same card (like two 8's), you can split them and play each as a separate hand. You'll get one more card for each, and then you hit or stand on each hand. You have to put up another bet since now you're playing two hands.
- Surrender. Most casinos no longer offer this option. Surrender allows you to bow out of your hand and lose half your bet. This is a good option when you'd likely lose your whole bet if you stayed in, such as when you have a total of 16 vs. a dealer upcard of 10.
Once you've played your hand, that's it; play will not come back to you. Each player gets only one turn per hand. You can hit as many times as you want, but once you're done hitting, that's it.
After each player has played, the dealer plays her own hand. She flips the hole card over first so everyone can see both her cards. The dealer must hit (take cards) until she has 17 or higher. That's the rules; the dealer isn't allowed to make decisions on whether to hit or stand depending on what the players' cards are. If the dealer could vary her play depending on what the players have, the house edge would be so high that no one would play.
Note that on most tables, the dealer will hit her 17 if it's a soft 17, meaning that it has an ace that counts as 11, and is therefore unbustable.
Face-cards (J, Q, K) count as ten. An ace counts as 11, unless an 11 would cause a bust, in which case the ace counts as 1.
So here's what can happen:
- Bust. If you go over 21, you've busted, and you lose. Even if the dealer busts.
- Win/Lose. Providing that you didn't bust, then you win if your total is higher than the dealer's, or if the dealer busted. (If you bet $10, you get another $10.) You lose your hand (and your bet) if your hand is lower than the dealer's (assuming the dealer didn't bust).
- Push. If you and the dealer have the same total, it's a push, or a tie, and you neither win nor lose your bet.
- Natural. If you're dealt an ace plus a ten (or a face card, which is worth ten), that's called a natural or a blackjack, and pays 3 to 2. That means if you bet $10, you win $15. But if the dealer also has blackjack, it's a push. If you're dealt three or more cards that total 21, that's just a plain 21, not a natural, sorry. If you or the dealer has a blackjack and the other has plain 21, then blackjack beats plain 21. Do not play the fake single-deck blackjack on the Strip where naturals pay only 6:5! More on this below.
- Remember, it doesn't matter what the other players have. You're not playing against them, you're playing against the dealer.
You indicate your desire to Hit or Stand differently depending on whether the cards are dealt face-up or face-down. If the cards are dealt face-up, don't touch them, or the dealer will yell at you. If you want to hit, tap the table (between you and your cards) with your finger. To stand, wave your hand over your cards. To split or double down, place a second bet next to your original bet.
In a face-down game, hit by scratching the table with your cards, and stand by sliding your cards under your bet. To double down or split, turn your cards over and place your additional bet next to your original chip(s). When you get a natural or you bust, turn your cards over right away so the dealer can pay you or take your losing cards.
When the dealer's up card is an ace, she'll ask if you want Insurance. This is a side bet on whether the dealer has a natural (a 10 in the hole). This bet has a high house edge so you should never take it.
If the dealer shows an ace and you have a natural, the dealer will offer you "even money". This is really just another way of taking insurance, so you should refuse it. Don't take even money.
Here's how even money works: Say you had bet $10. If the dealer shows an ace and you have a natural, and you take even money, the dealer will pay you $10 and then it's over. You got a guaranted $10, no matter what the dealer has. If you decline the even money, then you'll get the 3:2 payout ($15) if the dealer doesn't have a natural, and you'll push and win nothing if the dealer does have a natural.
Most players (and most dealers) think you should take the even money because it's a guaranteed payout, and if you refuse the even money then you risk winning nothing. What they're missing is that 69% of the time the dealer will not have a natural and you'll get the 3:2 payout, which more than makes up for the times that you push and make nothing. In fact, the house edge on insurance is a whopping 6% or more.
You might not be confident about refusing even money when even the dealer will be aghast that you're refusing it, since surely the dealer should know what she's talking about, right? Wrong. I've rarely met a dealer who even knew basic strategy. Dealers are trained to deal the game, but that doesn't mean they know the odds. Most dealers have never cracked a book or a website about the game. If you don't trust me, then note that the Wizard of Odds (who was a professor of gaming math at the University of Nevada Las Vegas) says the same thing.
Never take insurance. Never take even money.
Blackjack is dying
Blackjack is dying. By that I mean every year there are fewer and fewer tables, and the odds get worse on the tables that remain.
Don't believe me? Consider this: As of 2007, there is no more true single-deck blackjack anywhere on the Las Vegas Strip or at any of the big downtown casinos (the ones bordering the Fremont St. Experience). There are exactly two real single-deck games left in Vegas, at the out-of-the-way downtown casinos the El Cortez and the Western.
All the other single-deck games in Vegas are the crappy 6:5 games (see at left) where the odds are four times worse. Even some of the double-deck games pay only 6:5. You usually have to play a 6-deck shoe game to get the traditional 3:2 payoff.
This isn't the only way the games have gotten worse. Used to be that on 6-deck games the dealer would stand on soft 17. But now hitting on soft 17 is common, and that's worse for the player.
Casinos are also putting in novelty games like "Super Fun 21" which pretend to be blackjack but have odds that are 4-5 times worse.
There are 78 fewer blackjack tables on the Strip in 2007 than in 2000. This isn't surprising, because as the casinos tightened the rules, knowledgeable players stopped playing. But most tourists will play anything, so even with fewer tables out there, Strip casinos won 39 percent more from blackjack players in 2007 than they did in 2000, courtesy of the crappy rules. For all of Nevada, casinos won 21% more from blackjack players than in 2000 despite having 546 fewer tables in play. (Las Vegas Sun)
If you've never played real blackjack, you might want to do so while you still can, because it might not be around much longer. Pretty soon there won't be anything left except the fake 6:5 tables and Super Fun 21.
Don't play at a 6:5 table!
At some tables a natural pays 6:5 instead of 3:2. This makes the odds four times worse, meaning you'll lose your money four times as quickly. Therefore, don't play at 6:5 tables! It's easy to spot a 6:5 table: the table felt will say "Blackjack pays 6 to 5" or there will be a little card sitting on the table that says the same thing. Also, if it's a single-deck game, it's 6:5. You won't find true single-deck blackjack anywhere in Vegas any more except at the El Cortez and the Western (neither of which are anywhere near the Vegas Strip). You'll need to look for a six-deck game, or some double-deck games.
Even if you're willing to throw your money away on a 6:5 game, realize that the more people who play it, the more likely the casinos will convert all their remaining games to 6:5. (See sidebar.) So for everyone's sake, please don't play 6:5 under any circumstances.
There are many rule variations that slightly change the house edge. The most obvious is the number of decks, which is either 1, 2, 6, or 8, depending on the casino and the particular table. In some games you can't double down after you split. There are many other rule variations.
I've said on this page (and throughout this site) that the house edge on blackjack is 0.5%, but that's just shorthand; the actual edge depends on the game being played, and can be as low as 0.18% or as high as 1.5% for common games. You can see the house edge for various rule sets by using either the Wizard of Odds' calculator or QFit's calculator. The Wizard also has a list of the house edge at every Las Vegas casino.
Once you know the house edge you'll be playing under, don't forget to calculate your expected loss for a session of play.
So how do you know how to play, whether to hit or stand? Fortunately experts have analyzed the game mathematically and figured out the proper way to play every possible hand. These tables are called basic strategy. You have to use basic strategy to get the best possible odds.
A basic strategy table is big and will take an hour or so to memorize. We'll get to that later, but first let's start with something much more simple. The small table below will cover more than 80% of all hands, so learning this first will help you learn Basic Strategy easier once you get to it.
When you learn the complete strategy, you'll see that the yellow section above is only for times when you don't have a soft hand (a hand with an ace that counts as one). We'll cover soft hands later.
Anyway, let's see the logic behind the simple strategy.
When the dealer shows 6 or less
Tip the dealer $5/hour
Consider tipping part of the cost of your entertainment. Whether you're playing at one of the finest casinos or one of the seediest, the dealers are usually making minimum wage. To tip (or toke) the dealer, place a $1 chip in front of your regular bet (outside the betting circle, due north of your chips). If you win the hand, the dealer wins double -- your chip plus a winning chip. And by toking the dealer this way, you're kind of bonding with them -- they want you to win, because then they win the toke. I recommend tipping at least $5/hr. when I play -- a dollar every 12 minutes or so. My reasoning is that $5/hr. x 3 players x 40 hrs./wk. x 50 wks/yr. + the dealer's $10k minimum wage salary = $40,000/yr., which is a comfortable middle-class income, and higher than the national average.
The backbone of basic strategy is that the most common card is a 10, since jacks, queens, and kings also count as 10 (as well as actual 10's). So 4 of the 13 cards in a suit are 10's. A 10 is more likely to be drawn than any other card.
When the dealer shows a small card (6 or less), she's more likely to bust. So we assume a 6 would become 16, which would then become 26, which is a big bust. A dealer 5 would ultimately become 25, a 4 to 24, a 3 to 23, and a 2 to 22. Because of this, when the dealer shows a small card, we actually call that a bust card.
When the dealer shows a bust card, we'll expect that she's going to bust, so we won't risk busting our own hand. That means we won't hit a hand of 12 or higher, because that could bust it.
There's just one small exception: Of the dealer bust cards, 2-6, the 6 is the most bustable and the 2 is least bustable. Lots of two-card combinations will bust a 6 but only one will bust a 2. And on our side, of the main bustable hands, 12 through 16, the 16 is the most bustable and the 12 is the least bustable. So when we have a low-bustable hand of 12, and the dealer has a low bust card of 2 or 3, we'll actually hit up to 13 instead of 12. If we stood on our 12 there's a good chance the dealer wouldn't bust her 2 or 3, and we're unlikely to bust if we hit our 12, so on tiny dealer upcards we hit up to 13.
When the dealer shows 7 or higher
Let's say the dealer shows a 7 or higher. The most common hole card will be a 10, giving her a total of 17 or more. Put another way, when the dealer shows 7 or higher (7+), we expect her to wind up with 17 or more. If the dealer has 17+ and we have less, then we lose. In fact, if we have less than 17, it's impossible for us to tie, and the only way we could win would be for the dealer to bust -- and when she shows 7 or higher, that's unlikely. Therefore, when the dealer has 7+, then we want a hand of 17 or higher as well. So we hit until we have 17 or higher when the dealer shows 7+, so we can at least try to tie.
When the dealer shows a high up card (like a 10), many amateur players won't hit their 16, because they think they're likely to bust. But this is bad strategy. Yes, they are likely to bust, but they're even more likely to lose the hand, because the more likely outcome is that the dealer will have 17+ which will beat the player's 16. It's chosing the lesser of two evils. You'll probably lose either way, but you're more likely to lose if you stand.
By the way, the Wizard of Odds has a good table showing the likelihood of the dealer achieving various hand totals depending on what her up card is.
Doubling Down means doubling your bet and then taking a single hit. For example, when you have a 10 or 11, there's a good chance that you'll draw a 10 for a total of 20 or 21. In those cases you'd like to get more money on the table, and you can, by doubling down. The catch is that you don't get to keep hitting. If you double down on 10 and catch a 2, for a total of 12, and the dealer shows a 9, you'd like to keep hitting, but you can't. Once you double down, you get exactly one extra card and that's it.
The abbreviated strategy for doubling down is shown in the table above, and the complete strategy is shown in the table below.
When you're dealt two cards of the same value (like two 7's), you can split them and play them as separate hands. The two cards are moved slightly apart from each other, and then you're dealt one more card to each hand. You then play each hand one at a time.
To, put up a second bet (since you'll be playing two hands). You always split Aces, because there's a good chance each ace will turn into 21. You also always split 8's, but not because the expected total of 18 is such a great hand, but rather because if you don't split them, you've got a 16, which is likely to lose either way whether you hit or stand. A mediocre 18 is better than a probable bust.
You should never split 10's. Sure, you could hope to draw two more 10's to your original 10's, giving you a 20 on each hand, but it's not guaranteed, and if you don't split, you've got a guaranteed 20. Splitting 10's is screwing up a good hand. Keep your 20.
There are other times when you split, and they're covered below.
Here's a Basic Strategy table for blackjack under normal house rules (multiple deck, dealer stands on Soft 17). If you're playing a game with rule variations, you'll need a different table. (All the different tables are mostly the same, but using the wrong tables will increase the house edge). You can get specific tables for all the different kinds of Blackjack rules at BlackjackInfo.com.
Here's how to read the table:
The dealer's up card is shown on the top row (2-A). Your hand is shown in the left-hand column.
= Double Down
= Double if allowed, otherwise Stand
= Double if allowed, otherwise Hit
= Split if you can double down after split, otherwise Hit
= Surrender if allowed, otherwise Hit
Surrender is no longer offered in most casinos. With Surrender, you give up half your bet and end your hand immediately. As you can see from the table, it's useful only in situations where you have a 15 or 16 facing a high card, in which you'd probably lose whether you hit or stand. Of course, this is really irrelevant, since you're unlikely to find Surrender at the casinos anyway.
Here's a printer-friendly version of the table.
If you haven't memorized the table by heart by the time you go to the casino, take it with you and use it while you play! Casinos don't mind if you do this, as long as it doesn't slow down the game. Don't feel guilty and try to hide it if the dealer or Pit Boss wants to see it; it's not against the law or against casino rules to use your table, and it's not like you have some special secret that the casino has never heard of. This table has been around for decades.
I used this table at a blackjack table when I was getting started and didn't trust my memory, and it was no problem. The other players ridiculed me, but I walked away from the table with an extra $150 while they were all losing, so I had the last laugh. Not that you should expect to always get ribbed by the other players for consulting your table -- most probably either won't care or know that you're making the proper plays. And not that you should expect to win just from using the table -- the odds are still against you when you use basic strategy, though not by much.
If you learn this table, you not only will have an almost even game with the house, but you'll be playing better than 90% of the blackjack players out there!
Soft Hands & Stiff Hands
A soft hand is a hand with an ace that can't be busted by taking a hit. For example, A/2, A/5, A/8, and even A/2/2/3 are all soft hands, because the if take a hit and get the biggest card possible (10), the ace will magically now count as 1 instead of as 11. You'll see from the table that when you have a soft hand you'll play more aggressively, doubling down more often, because there's no way you can bust your hand by taking another card, and there's a good chance that you'll wind up with a better total than the dealer's since you already have at least 12.
A stiff hand is a hard hand of 12 to 16, like 10/2 or 9/7 (but not A/5, which is a soft hand, as we just saw). Twelve through sixteen are the worst hands to have. If you have less than 12, there's no way you can bust your hand. And if you have more than 16, you're not gonna hit and risk busting, so the decision is easy. But if you have 12 to 16 and the dealer has a high card, then the strategy says you must hit -- and risk busting.
More blackjack stuff
You can practice blackjack for free at Bovada.
HitOrStand.net has a a game which tests your knowledge of Basic Strategy. Very nicely done.
Calculating Your Risk
- Check out the site of the Blackjack Outcome Calculator; it tells you the probability of winning or losing a certain amount of money from playing Blackjack. Very useful!
Card counters turn the odds in their favor by keeping track of the ratio of high to low cards. (More high cards left in the deck favor the player, and more low cards favor the house.) They bet more when there are lots of high cards left and they vary their playing strategy (hit or stand) according to the count.
Before you get excited about learning to count, let's get a few things straight first. Number One, you absolutely must have learned basic strategy down pat before learning to count. Counting is useless if you don't know basic strategy.
Second, it takes money to make money. If your goal is to make money, you have to have a large bankroll to weather losing streaks. To make $25/hr. you'd need a bankroll of at least $25,000, and even then you'd have a 1 in 20 chance of losing it all.
Third, basic strategy alone will let you play at a tiny 0.5% house edge, which is ten times better than your roulette, which carries a 5% edge. So even without counting cards you can get decent odds.
If you're hot to learn how to count cards, I recommend the Wizard of Odds' web page Intro to Card Counting, and the book Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder. Also, one of my favorite resources is the Card Counting Strategy Comparison, which shows how different card-counting methods stack up.
Some casinos offer variations of Blackjack, the most popular being Double Exposure and Spanish 21. Double Exposure was devised by the legendary Bob Stupak, the man behind the building of the Stratosphere Tower. (Stupak was pushed out of the company which owned the then-financially troubled Strat in the late 90's.) Stupak also devised "Crapless Craps". But we digress.
In Double Exposure, both the dealer's cards are dealt face-up. Naturally this gives you an advantage. To counter that advantage, naturals pay only even money instead of 3 to 2, and the dealer wins all ties (except Naturals). Just as with blackjack, different casinos have different rule variations. A small survey by The Wizard of Odds showed a house edge ranging from 0.33-1.45% in various casinos.
Spanish 21 also has its own special weird rule changes, but unlike Double Exposure it has a low a low house edge -- 0.40%. However, its basic strategy table is very complicated and difficult to learn. Once I was in Atlantic City and saw the Wizard of Odds, probably the world's leading expert on Spanish 21, playing the game, and even he was consulting his printout table on certain plays! Either laboriously memorizing the table or keeping the table handy while you play seems like a lot to ask for an edge that's not that much lower than blackjack (0.43% in Atlantic City), but if you're tired of playing blackjack, or if every hundredths of a percent of edge is important to you, then you might like Spanish 21. To learn more about Spanish 21, visit The Wizard of Odds.
Silly Blackjack humor
Here's some low-quality blackjack humor.
Congratulations! You're now ready to play Blackjack like an expert (and better than most of the other people you'll find at the Blackjack table).
See also how to play: