For players who like a big slice of strategy to go with their casino games, it’s hard to beat blackjack.
It’s a game where players make decisions, and those decisions have a big impact on the results.
That goes over well with players: Popular the world over, blackjack has been the most-played table game in American casinos since the 1960s. That’s when Edward Thorpe wrote “Beat the Dealer,” showing players that here was a casino game that could be beaten with a system of counting cards.
At its core, blackjack is an easy game as players and dealer vie to see who can draw cards with numerical values totaling closest to 21 without going over.
The Basics of Blackjack Guide:
Originally played with a single deck of 52 cards, the most common games today shuffle six decks together. You can also find games with two decks and eight decks, and sometimes five decks at tables that use automatic, continuous shuffles.
Each card has a value: 2s through 10s are worth their face value; Jacks, Queens and Kings join 10s as 10-value cards, and Aces can be worth either 1 or 11, depending on the needs of the hand.
Offline, blackjack usually is a played at a seven-player table arranged as an arc. The dealer stands in the short side of the arc, while players are seated around the outer rim.
Each player position has a betting rectangle, circle or casino logo. That’s where the player places chips to bet.
On one end of most tables rests a placard that tells players minimum and maximum bets. Next to the dealer at his left – the players’ right – sits a rectangular box, the “shoe,” containing shuffled cards waiting to be dealt. Some one- and two-deck games don’t use a shoe. Instead, dealers hold the cards in their left hand and deal with their right,
Large writing on the felt covering the table will tell you either “Dealer must stand on 17” or “Dealer must hit soft 17.” That tells you the dealer must take another card as long as his hand is less than 16, must stop taking cards when he reaches 17 with the exception that he must hit “soft 17” – a 17 that includes an Ace being counted as 1.
A large, lined arc around table is marked “Insurance pays 2-1.” That’s for a bet called insurance, which we’ll discuss later.
If you play online, you’ll see virtual representations of the cards, table, and all its messages.
SHUFFLING THE CARDS
Some casinos have games in which dealers shuffle cards by hand. However, most casinos today use automatic shufflers. That results in a faster shuffle and more blackjack hands per hour.
Another option used by some casinos are continuous shufflers, in which cards are fed back into the shuffler after they’re played. That results in a game with no breaks in the action, not even to take a freshly shuffled deck out of a shuffler. It also leaves a game in which counting cards doesn’t work.
Online, cards are shuffled and dealt by a random number generator.
BLACKJACK & WAGERING
Players bet by putting chips on their betting spot. Offline, that’s almost always done with physical chips in various color-coded denominations – usually white for $1, red for $5, green for $25 and black for $100.
Blackjack games with electronic betting pads exist, but have not yet found large acceptance in the U.S.
Online play using touchscreen wagering, with players selecting a bet size and touching their betting spots.
BLACKJACK GAME PLAY
The dealer slides cards one at a time to players and himself, starting with the position all the way to the players’ right, called the “first baseman.” After each player and the dealer have one card, the dealer goes in the same order to give everyone a second card.
If a shoe is being used, all player cards are dealt face up and players are not allowed to touch the cards. In hand-held deals, all player cards are dealt face down and after all cards are dealt, players may pick up their cards with one hand.
Regardless of whether a shoe is used, one dealer card is turned face up and one remains face down.
If the dealer has an Ace or a 10-value card face up, he will look at his face down card. If he has an Ace under a 10 or a 10 under his Ace, he has a two-card 21, or blackjack. That stops the hand. Players who also have a blackjack tie, or “push,” and they keep their bets. Other players lose to a dealer blackjack.
If the dealer does not have blackjack, he will pay any player who does have a two-card 21. For decades, blackjacks paid at 3-2 odds, so a $10 bet would bring $15 in winnings. The majority of tables today still pay 3-2, but a growing minority pay only 6-5, so your $10 bet brings $12 in winnings.
Once blackjacks are paid and cards cleared away, or if there are no blackjacks, play continues. Every player in turn starting with the first baseman, has the opportunity to improve their hands.
Players have the following options: hit, stand, double down, or split.
HIT: Players may “hit” – take another card. You can take more than one card as long as your total doesn’t exceed 21. If you draw a card that takes you to 22 or more, you lose regardless of what happens to the dealer hand.
When cards are dealt face up, this is done with a hand signal such as pointing at the cards or tapping or scratching the table next to the cards. When cards are face down, players hit by holding the cards in one hand and scratching them on the table.
STAND: If you don’t want more cards, you stand. In face up games, wave your palm above your cards to indicate “stand.” In a face down card, slide your cards, face down, under your chips in your betting spot.
DOUBLE DOWN: In favorable situations, you may double your bet. In face up games, place your double down bet right next to your first bet. In face down games, turn your cards face up, then place chips next to your first bet.
In double-down situations, you will get only one more card. If you have 11 and double down, for example, you get just one more card regardless of whether it is a 10 for 21, an Ace for 12, or something in between.
SPLIT: If your first two cards are a pair, you may make a second bet to split them. Each card then acts as the start to a new hand.
In face up games, place chips a short distance from your initial bet. In face down games, turn your cards face up, move them a short distance apart and place a second bet near one card.
The resulting hands will be played one at a time. If you split 8s, for example, you will get a second card on top of your first 8, then you can hit, stand, split or double from there. Then the process is repeated on your second 8.
THE DEALER’S PLAY AND PAYOFFS
After all players have finished making decisions, the dealer plays his hand according to house rules. He always hits on 16 or less, always stands on “hard” 17 or more – “hard” indicating there is no Ace being counted as 1 – and either hitting or standing on soft 17, depending on the house rule posted on the table.
If the dealer busts by exceeding 21, he pays all players who still have bets in action.
If the dealer gets a standing hand of 17 through 21, he then pays players who have higher ranking hands and collects losing chips from players with lower ranking hands, If the player and dealer tie, it is a push and the player keeps the bet but gets no payoff.
A WORD ABOUT INSURANCE
If the dealer’s face up card is an Ace, players are offered insurance. Insurance is really a bet that the dealer has blackjack.
Taking insurance means you make a bet half the size of your initial wager. If the dealer has blackjack, the insurance bet pays 2-1. The payoff is equal to the amount you lose on the regular hand if you don’t have blackjack.
If you have blackjack, you can tell the dealer, “Even money.” Instead of a 3-2 payoff on blackjack, you will get paid even money without risking a push on a dealer blackjack.
Insurance would be an even bet if one-third of the cards were 10-values. However, only 30.8 percent are 10 values, meaning the house has a big edge on insurance. The better play is to skip insurance.
OPTIONAL BLACKJACK RULES
We’ve looked at the basics, but there are a host of optional rules, some working in favor of the player and some working in favor for the house. Having the dealer hit soft 17 works in favor of the house. Letting the player double down on any first two cards helps players, while not allowing doubles on soft hands favors the house.
The precise house edge reflects the balance of favorable and unfavorable rules.
THE HOUSE EDGE
The house had one advantage in blackjack: Players make decisions before the dealer. The house wins on dealer busts if the player busts first.
That’s enough to give the house an edge of more than 5 percent against players who use a “mimic the dealer” strategy, playing by the same hit/stand rules as the dealer.
However, players who learn a method called “basic strategy” that tells you when to hit, stand, double or split can cut the house edge to less than 1 percent. Some games with particularly favorable rules are almost in flip-a-coin territory.
Blackjack strategy is the subject for a discussion all its own, but in the meantime, a search for “blackjack basic strategy” should put you on the right trick.