Blackjack Primer and FAQ – Learning More about 21
The game of blackjack has long been a favorite of players looking to beat the house rather than simply gamble.
You can see evidence of the reason for this from the hundreds of books and pages online covering strategy, systems, and card counting. The simple fact is the game boils down to the ability to reduce the house edge below 1% without counting.
If you’re willing to learn how to count you can actually play with an edge.
From a player’s perspective, this fact makes blackjack by far the most favorable game spread on any casino floor. Instead of the uphill climb that occurs in games like Roulette or Baccarat, where you’ll need lady luck on your side to overcome a large house edge, blackjack offers a more “pure” gaming experience.
You put your brains and abilities up against the casino one on one. What you do directly influences the outcome of the game and your long term profit potential.
For decades Hollywood has used blackjack as the standard for casino action, and for good reason. Films like Rain Man, Swingers, and The Hangover have each staged classic scenes in which a hero sits down at a blackjack table with the last of their bankroll at stake, relied on their wits to beat the dealer, and rebuilt from a few bets to a fortune.
While these films obviously exaggerate the simplicity of blackjack for the sake of creative license, the reason blackjack finds its way into so many stories stems from the fact that people everywhere are familiar with the game’s rules and mechanics.
However, despite the overwhelming popularity of blackjack within popular culture, every year millions of people pony up a few bucks to try their hand at the game only to discover that the game is not always an endless stream of face cards for the player and bust cards for the dealer.
Even when employing optimal strategy, the house edge being reduced to less than 1 percent still means you’re likely to lose just as many hands as you win. Unfortunately, most recreational players fail to utilize basic blackjack strategy, which leaves them gambling and hoping to get lucky.
Blackjack is a deceptively simple game, but one that is usually defined by a player’s awareness of several complex factors, so it’s important to educate yourself before sitting down to take on the dealer.
The following guide will walk you through the game of blackjack, answering common questions from standard rules and gameplay to the essentials of basic strategy. You’ll also find information about a few more advanced techniques like card counting.
No matter how much experience you have with blackjack, there’s always more to learn, so check out the Frequently Asked Questions below to brush up on your blackjack skills before your next trip to the casino.
I’m a newbie and need to know the essentials. How do I play blackjack?
Blackjack is a table game involving one or more players (usually no more than five or six) competing against a single dealer. The object of the game is to combine your cards numerically in such a way as to approach or reach 21 without going over this magic number. In fact, blackjack is often referred to simply as “21” by players, because this figure is the key to winning and losing.
After sitting down and purchasing chips, you’ll be expected to place a wager (more information on table limits and minimum bets can be found below). Once each player at the table has wagered, the dealer will distribute each player a single card face up, while dealing themselves one card face down.
This is followed by another card dealt face up for everyone at the table. The result is a two-card hand comprised of the values assigned to each card (2-10 are equal to their numbers, face cards are equal to 10, and aces can be used as either 1 or 11).
Here’s an example. If you receive a 10 and a King, the two 10 values add up to 20, putting you right under the limit of 21 and in a great position to beat the dealer. In this case, you would simply “stand” (more on blackjack terminology below) and hope that the dealer makes an inferior hand or goes over 21, or busts, trying.
If you receive an ace along with any 10-value card, you make blackjack and cannot lose, with the worst case scenario being 21 for the dealer as well. More often than not though, you’ll receive a lower combination of cards.
This is where the game begins. If you receive a 6 and a 7 to give you 13, while the dealer’s up card is a queen (10), logic holds that you’ll need to draw additional cards in order to climb closer to 21. By hitting you ask the dealer for another card, and assuming you don’t exceed 21 with the draw, you then repeat the decision-making process. You stand or hit depending on your hand’s strength relative to the dealer’s.
Once each player at the table has repeated this action, the dealer then exposes their down card. When the dealer’s total is 16 or less, they are forced to hit and take another card – repeating this action until they exceed 16 and “stand” or exceed 21 and bust.
If the dealer reaches a hand of 17 to 21, they simply stand and compare their total against each player’s hand to determine who wins and who loses. (Dealers have special rules about an ace and a 6, creating a soft 17. The rule is posted on the felt with some hitting soft 17 and other standing on soft 17.)
If the dealer makes a 21, all players who have not also made 21 lose their bets, while those who have made 21 simply push or tie. After the dealer’s hand is completed it is compared with each player’s hand. Winners are paid out double their wager (receiving their original bet back plus an equal amount unless they have a blackjack, which is paid out higher than one to one), and losers see their bet scooped by the dealer. This process then repeats like clockwork to form the game of blackjack.
So I need to make 21 or close to it in order to win?
One of the most common misconceptions about blackjack is that the game’s objective is to reach 21 as the player. The real goal is to either have a total higher than the dealer without going over 21 or have the dealer bust.
Here’ an example. If the dealer is showing a six as her up card and you have a total of 16, the correct play is to stand. The dealer has a good chance of busting because she has to hit. You don’t care what your total is if the dealer busts as long as you haven’t busted.
While making a high number close to 21 is always nice, the fact is it won’t happen nearly as often as you’d like, so the actual game comes from making the correct decision given your two cards and the dealer’s up card.
Simply hitting until you make 21 or go over is a recipe for disaster. Basic strategy demands that you “stay” on several low hands depending on the dealer’s up card.
For example, if you receive a 6 and a 9 to give you 15, instinct might tell you to hit and hope for a card ranked 6 or lower. But when the dealer is showing a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, it’s best to stand and hope that the dealer busts instead.
How can I learn this “basic strategy” everyone seems to go on and on about when discussing blackjack?
Once you’ve learned the rules of the game, learning basic blackjack strategy should be your next priority. Basic blackjack strategy organizes the game according to each of the possible scenarios you’ll encounter, providing a clear directive on how you should act.
For example, when you’re dealt a 12 (one of the trickiest spots in blackjack), basic strategy says to stand whenever the dealer shows a 4, 5, or 6, and to hit in all other situations.
Fortunately for you, a wealth of material has been published on the mathematical breakdown of hand values and optimal decisions. By employing basic strategy at all times, players can reduce the house edge to as little as 0.5 percent.
You mentioned “split” and “double-down.” What do those terms mean? While we’re at it, what lingo will I need to know while playing blackjack?
Like any game, blackjack has its own set of terms, and unless you know the language you could easily find yourself lost at the table. Studying the blackjack glossary below should help you feel more comfortable before taking a seat.
Bust Card: The card that, once dealt to a player or the dealer, sends their total over 21. You’ll hear people say “that hit took the dealer’s bust card.” This refers to the last player who acts taking a high card from the deck, which had the dealer received it instead, would’ve busted them and given the table a win. (This belief is false because the card could have just as easily been a lower card statistically speaking.)
Cut Card: A colored plastic card used by the dealer to mark the shuffle point for a new deck or shoe, and to conceal the bottom card of the deck from view. Players are also given the cut card to cut the deck before a new deck or shoe begins.
Double or Double Down: Players have the option to place an additional bet equal to their original wager after receiving their first two cards. Doubling down means the dealer gives that player a single additional card, and no more hitting can occur. Players usually double down when dealt a 10 or 11, hoping that the card they receive will be a 10 for 20 or 21.
Hard: A hand that doesn’t contain an ace, which can be valued as a 1 or 11, so that the hand’s value is fixed.
Hit or Hitting: Drawing an additional card.
Insurance: When the dealer shows an ace as their up card, they must offer players the option to place a side bet equal to half of their original wager. Should the dealer’s hole card be a 10 value to give them a blackjack, players who took insurance reduce their loss by 50 percent. Most blackjack experts warn that the insurance option is a “sucker” bet to be avoided every time.
Push: When the player and the dealer make an identical total, they tie or push, and the player keeps their wager.
Shoe: A large stack of cards typically containing 4 to 8 individual 52-card decks. Shoes are used by casinos to reduce the time spent dealing and shuffling.
Soft: When a hand contains an ace that is being valued as 11, the hand is considered soft rather than hard, because after a hit that ace can be devalued to 1 to avoid a bust.
Split: Whenever a player receives two cards of identical rank, they may elect to split, or separate the cards to form two hands rather than one. When splitting, a player must match their original bet for their second hand, and the dealer then distributes another card to each hand. From there, the player can hit, stand, split, or double down as desired.
Surrender: When a player’s cards are extraordinarily disadvantaged when compared to the dealer’s hand, the player may elect to surrender the hand. This means they forfeit half of their original wager with no chance to win. Not all blackjack games allow surrender.
Third Base: The seat located to the direct right of the dealer.
I’ve heard a lot about special blackjack “systems” out there, designed to help players win consistently. Are these systems for real, or should I just stick to basic strategy?
Blackjack systems that revolve around changing your bet size (doubling the bet after every loss or alternating between big and small bets) are never a good idea. The reality is these systems are snake oil sold by people trying to scam unsuspecting customers.
Blackjack is a game of numbers based on pure mathematics. His means your only hope of winning in the long run is learn how to play with an advantage. Counting cards is the most common way to gain an edge against the casino.
How much should I bet then?
Bet sizing depends on the size of your bankroll and your willingness to gamble. You can find blackjack tables with stakes ranging from a $1 minimum bet all the way to hundreds or thousands maximum. For casual players though, you’ll typically sit down at a $5 or $10 minimum table, and experts advise buying in for about 50 times the minimum.
For a $5 table, sitting with $250 gives you enough room to survive a few swings while betting between $5 and $10 per hand. Of course, you can always up the bet when you want, or just to mix things up and keep the game fresh.
What about counting cards? That guy in Rain Man made a fortune by counting, and I’ve even read articles about Ben Affleck getting banned from casinos for counting cards.
If basic strategy is the key to unlocking blackjack’s potential profits, counting cards is the hammer, allowing players to actually gain an edge on the house.
By keeping a mental count of the cards that have been exposed and discarded, players can gain an overall idea of the composition of the remaining cards in the deck. They can then raise their bet when the remaining deck is in their favor or lower their wagers when it isn’t.
Unlike the movies though, counting cards is not simple. It isn’t as complicated as many believe and anyone of average intelligence with the desire and willingness to do the work can learn to count.
You don’t have to memorize every card. All you have to do is pay attention and be able to add or subtract small numbers from a running count.
Legally speaking, counting cards is not a crime, but casinos who catch players committing the act treat it as such. Players are banned every week from casinos across the country just for trying to count through the deck and gain an advantage.
If a dealer or pit boss suspects you’re counting cards, you can be asked to leave the property and never return. In today’s casino climate, it’s highly advisable to avoid getting caught counting cards due to the risks involved.
What are some crucial basic strategy tips I should always keep in mind at the table?
Blackjack is known for strict maxims, or rules that every player should live by.
One of these holds that you should never split tens. Any time you’re dealt two identical 10-value cards, you may be tempted to split and try to make two great hands instead of one. Experts say to avoid this play every time though, because the risk is never worth the reward from a mathematical view.
With a made 20 you stand to win more often than you do by splitting and starting with two 10s and unknown cards.
Another golden rule of blackjack is to always split aces and eights. The reason is clear: starting with two aces together gives you a lowly 2 or 12 and a long road to climb if you hope to reach 21. Splitting the aces, however, gives you two chances to draw a 10 value card and make blackjack.
Splitting eights is mandatory because 16 is the worst total you can begin with, so starting over with an 8 and an 8 at least gives you a chance to make something from nothing.
Finally, you should always double down when you are dealt an 11. There are more 10 value cards in the deck than any others, so doubling your wager and taking a single card gives you a great chance to make 21 with a bigger payout waiting when you do.
Speaking of 21, what’s so special about getting a blackjack in the first place? Aren’t all 21’s winners?
When you hit your way to 21 using three or more cards, you are paid out at 1 to 1 according to your original wager. So when you risk $20 and draw out to a 21, you’ll win $20 for your effort.
However, when you’re dealt a 10 and an ace to make blackjack, the dealer pays you out at slightly better odds, giving the hand its premium value. Most blackjack tables pay out at 3 to 2 for blackjack, meaning your $20 wager would earn a $30 profit.
I’ve heard that some casinos today have abandoned the 3:2 payouts to give players worse odds. Is that true?
Unfortunately, many casinos have instituted a 6 to 5 payout for blackjack, and experts warn that these tables should be avoided, as this seemingly slight adjustment reduces a player’s expected value by a great margin in the long run.
To illustrate, your $20 wager on a 6 to 5 payout table would only return $24 when you make a blackjack, costing you $6 every time you do. The house advantage on 6 to 5 tables is almost 1.5% (one and a half) higher than on 3 to 2 tables, so even when you employ perfect basic strategy, you’ll never be able to beat the game in the long run.