Look, Blackjack is a badass game. You get to say “hit me,” you can count cards to beat the house, and you generally act like a boss while sipping free drinks. Almost every casino in Vegas (and everywhere else) spreads Blackjack, with some going as low as a few dollars per hand. The crazy thing is that being a good blackjack player is actually pretty simple, and knowing basic rules and strategy can give you hours of entertainment alone or with friends — it doesn’t take much to be a bad bitch at the Blackjack table.
The Goal of Blackjack
The overall goal of blackjack is to get your hand to beat the dealer’s hand without busting — that means getting to 21, or closer to 21 than the dealer, without going over. #Basic, right? Several people will probably be at your table, but each person is only playing against the dealer, not each other. That means you can root for other players to beat the dealer — do it for them and they’ll probably do it for you.
A game of Blackjack is played using up to 8 standard 52 card decks. Each regular card (they’re actually called “pip cards”) counts as the value it shows, meaning the 7 of clubs counts for 7 points. The face cards — Jacks, Queens and Kings — all count for 10. Aces are flexible; they can count as 1 or 11 depending on what’s best for your hand. If you have a 10 and an Ace, the Ace will count for 11 to make 21. If you have a total of 15 and are dealt an Ace, it would count as 1, because 11 would put your total value over 21 and cause you to bust. Instead, 15 and an ace gives you 16.
When your hand contains an ace that can count as 1 or 11, it’s called “soft” (i.e., an ace and a 4 gives you a “soft 15”). Any other count is called “hard” (i.e., a 4, 9, and ace is a “hard 14,” and a 7 and 8 is a “hard 15”).
Before each hand, all players must place a bet based on the table stakes. If the table minimum is $5, then you’ve got to pony up at least $5 to play that hand.
The game starts with the dealer giving everyone at the table, including themselves, two cards. In most forms of Blackjack, the dealer will have one of his cards facing up and the other facing down. Once everyone has their cards, it’s time to make a decision based on what you have in front of you and what the dealer has showing.
There are several different plays you can make once it’s your turn to act, and what you do will depend on what your total is. You can hit, stand, double down or split.
If you want another card — lets say you were dealt a 5 and and 3, so any additional card can only get you closer to 21 without taking a chance that you’ll bust — you take a hit. You may hit as many times as you want until you go over 21. If your hand total goes over 21, you lose automatically (even if the dealer busts, too), and you have to wait until the next hand is dealt to play.
If you’re happy with what you’ve been dealt, or you’ve taken hits and do not want any more cards, then you stay — that’s also called standing.
Doubling down is a slightly more advanced play. When you double down, you must place an additional bet equal to the amount of your original bet. You are dealt one more card — just one more card — and that’s it. Some casino rules may allow you to take more cards after doubling down, but for the most part, when you double down, it’s one and done.
It’s something you’d consider doing if you were dealt 11, meaning face cards and tens would give you an unbeatable 21 and the other high cards would get you close to it. Other house rules for doubling down may include only doubling on a total between 9 and 11, so it’s important to get familiar with a casino’s basic rules before playing (and you can always ask the dealer, he or she will be happy to help).
If you’re dealt two cards of the same value, you can split them apart to form two new hands. Just like with doubling down, you’ll need to place another bet equal to your original wager. Once your additional chips are on the table, the two cards split and each one is given a new card to form two new hands that you’ll play separately. All the standard rules will apply to both hands.
A good time to split is when you have an unfavorable starting hand of two equal value cards. Hands such as two 8s or two 7s will be prime hands to split since they make totals (16 and 14) that are unlikely to win.
Insurance and Surrender
When the dealer shows an Ace, you may have the opportunity to buy ‘insurance,’ which is a side bet that the dealer has blackjack. The insurance bet pays 2:1, but the odds of the dealer having blackjack are about 1 in 3. Unless you’re a world-class card counter, don’t take insurance.
You should also look at the table’s rules on surrendering, which is an option to give up on a hand. When you surrender, you’ll lose, but you’ll only lose half your bet. Surrendering is the right move in a few circumstances, such as when you have a hard 16 and the dealer is showing a 10. The odds of you winning that hand are so poor that your best option is to surrender. The simple strategy guide shows you the situations in which you’ll choose to surrender.
How Does The Dealer Play?
You’re the one sipping a martini and having a great time glambling, but don’t forget that the dealer is playing, too. Dealers have to follow a strict set of rules — they can’t use their own judgment. Every decision they make is pre-programmed into a dealer’s mind. If the total of the dealer’s first 2 cards is 16 or lower, they dealer has to take a hit. If the total is 17 or higher, the dealer will stand under most Blackjack rules. Dealers are not allowed to double down or split.
One rule that can cause some confusion is the ‘Soft 17’ rule. A soft 17 is a total of 17 with an ace in it. Depending on the rules of a particular casino, the dealer will either be allowed to hit a soft 17 or they will have to stand on a soft 17. The rule on this will always be clearly displayed on the table.
Winning a Hand
While winning in blackjack usually happens by getting as close to 21 without going over, that doesn’t mean you can’t win with a low-value hand — remember, all you need to do is beat the dealer, who busts about 28% of the time, without busting yourself. Even a total of 3 can win; if the dealer goes over 21, any hand that hasn’t busted will win. That means that occasionally there will be times when the right play will be to stand on a low total.
A perfect example would be when the dealer is showing a 6. The chances the dealer’s hand will bust in this instance are at their highest. Even if you only have a total of 12, you should stay. He’s got to hit on everything under 17, so if the dealer does go over 21, your hand will win.
If your hand’s total is the same as the dealer’s, that tie is called a “push” and your bet is returned. You don’t win anything, but you don’t lose, either.
If you’re dealt a 21 on your first two cards — a combination of an ace and a King, Queen, Jack or 10 — you have Blackjack, giving you an automatic win regardless of the outcome of the dealer’s hand (unless the dealer also gets Blackjack, which would be a push). You deserve a bonus for kicking so much ass, and you get one in the form of a 3-2 payout on your bet, meaning if you had bet $10, you’d win $15.
If you get a total of 21 using more than two cards, the chances you win are still high, but it’s not guaranteed. If the dealer also gets 21, it’s a push — a frustrating, unfortunate push. A total of 21 using more than two cards only pays even money, meaning a $10 bet would pay a $10 win. Blackjack is somewhat rare; if the casino is using six decks, you’ll be dealt blackjack about 4.75% of the time.
Saying “hit me” at the Blackjack table might sound cool, but you actually need to communicate your plays with hand signals, too. Instead of just saying “hit” or “stay,” you’ll use hand motions that indicate to the dealer (and the security cameras) what you want to happen. Tap the table to request an additional card, and when you want to stand, you will wave your hand over your cards as if to say ‘no more.’ If you want to double down or split, place chips equal to your original bet next to that bet, not on top of it. Combining what you do with your hands with very clearly stating your action — such as saying “Hit” when you tap the table, or “Split” when you add chips — helps ensure that the dealer knows exactly what you want to do.
A Few Don’ts
Just like you’ve learned to not deal with fuck boys and to never mix clear and brown liquor, there are a few lessons that are just as important to know in blackjack.
- Don’t touch the cards or pick them up. There’s no reason to touch your cards in blackjack, so leave everything right on the table. The last thing you want is for the dealer or floor manager to give you a hard time because it looks like you’re tampering with the cards. They need the security cameras to be able to view cards at all times.
- Once you’ve made a bet, don’t touch your chips. Leave your chips alone after you’ve placed them on the table — the dealer will give them back to you if you’ve won, and he’ll take them when you lose.
- Keep your purse off the table. For security reasons, casinos don’t like clutter on the table, but it’s pretty common to have your phone out.
The Simple Strategy
There is a correct, mathematical way to play blackjack, but it’s very complicated to memorize (F that). However, there are some great resources available to help you quickly navigate any situation that comes up in blackjack. One of the most helpful guides I’ve seen is from a site called Wizard of Odds. They have a small, simple strategy chart that tells you what to do on any given hand. Once you’ve got that down, you’re in business. You can practice for free on the Wizard of Odds blackjack simulator, which also tells you when you’ve made a mistake. After an hour or two, you won’t need to look at the chart at all.
It’s not as 100% accurate as memorizing the entire foolproof strategy, but it’s extremely close to perfect basic strategy. It’ll allow you to play a night of blackjack, earn money, free drinks and rack up comps. Perf.
It’s really that easy — and it’s just as easy to play Casino War, Roulette and Craps!