Blackjack is the best gambling game in most casinos. It’s easy to play, it’s usually cheap, and if you’re willing to put in a minimal amount of effort, you can face the lowest house edge in the casino. The purpose of this post is to teach you how to play blackjack for fun. Future posts will explain how to get more serious about your blackjack hobby.
What do I mean when I saw “play blackjack for fun?”
On a lot of websites, this means playing free games on the internet. You don’t risk any money in such games, but you also don’t have the opportunity to win money.
I don’t think gambling with nothing on the line is much fun at all, though. I’d like to redefine that idea in this post. When I suggest that you should learn how to play blackjack for fun, I mean you should play for real money.
But I also think it implies playing without the goal of earning a living or getting too serious about getting an advantage over the casino. In other words, you’re treating the game as entertainment—which, frankly, is how you should treat every casino game.
I’m assuming you’re brand-new to the game, too. So, I’m going to explain the game and how to play.
The Object of the Game of Blackjack
The object of the game of blackjack is to beat the dealer, not the other players. There might be anywhere from 0 to 6 other players at the table, but what they do doesn’t matter. You only care about your total score versus the dealer’s total score.
The dealer represents the casino. All the players at the table compete against the dealer to determine if they win or lose money. This makes blackjack a fundamentally different game from poker, where you play against the other players at the table. (Casinos now offer house-banked poker games, too, and these games have more in common with blackjack than poker, in my opinion.)
A lot of writers focus on the importance of having a higher score than the dealer. The reality is that many times the best strategy for winning at blackjack is to just avoid busting. This distinction is more important than it sounds, too.
Blackjack is a “comparing game” where you get a 2-card hand to begin with that’s worth a certain number of points. You have the option to get additional cards and increase the point value of your hand. The dealer also starts with a 2-card hand that’s also worth a certain number of points.
If your total number of points is higher than the dealer’s, you win. If you get 22 or more points during a hand, you lose immediately. (That’s what “busting” or “going bust” means.) If the dealer gets 22 or more points, and if you’re still in the game, the dealer automatically loses.
I’ll go into more detail about how those points are determined and how the hand plays out later in this post. First, though, I want to discuss some of the basic mechanics of game-play.
How the Cards Get Shuffled in a Blackjack Game
Blackjack used to be dealt from a single standard deck of 52 cards. You can still find some blackjack games dealt from a single deck, but it’s more common to face a game that uses multiple decks. A blackjack game can be dealt from 1-deck, 2-decks, 4-decks, 6-decks, or 8-decks. Theoretically, you could use more decks than that, but the casino has little incentive to do so.
The dealer is the casino employee who’s responsible for shuffling and dealing the cards to both himself and to the players. The way the cards are shuffled varies based on how many decks are in use. In single deck and sometimes double deck games, the cards are manually shuffled by hand. This process is similar to how you’d shuffle the cards at home if you were playing cards with your buddies on a Thursday night.
Once you start dealing with more than 2 decks of cards, shuffling by hand becomes more unwieldy. Casinos use machines to shuffle cards, too. There are 2 types of machines used to shuffle decks. The more common of these is just an automatic shuffler. The machine shuffles the cards, a cut card is inserted randomly in the shuffled cards, and when the dealer gets to the cut card, it’s time to shuffle again.
The other type of shuffling machine used by casinos is called a “continuous shuffling machine.” In a game which uses this type of shuffler, discards are just fed back into the shuffler throughout the game. Some casinos like continuous shuffling machines because they eliminate the possibility of a card counter getting an edge over the casino. Such machines also enable the dealer to deal more hands per hour. The more hands per hour, the more opportunity the casino’s house edge has to drain the player’s money.
These details of how the cards get shuffled in blackjack might seem minor. And for the “just for fun” player, they are minor.
But blackjack actually becomes more fun as you get more advanced in your understanding of the game. You’ll see that, as you continue your education, the means of shuffling has a big effect on how the game of blackjack actually gets played.
Before you can get a hand of blackjack, you must place a bet. And before you can place a bet, you must buy chips from the dealer. The first thing you need to know about buying chips is that you can’t buy them while a hand is being played. Wait until the current game wraps up before trying to buy chips in a blackjack game.
You’ll notice, if you look, that most blackjack tables have a sign posted on them indicating the betting limits for the table. This sign will list the minimum and maximum bet sizes at the tables. It’s important to pay attention to these limits. If you’ve seen the movie Swingers, you probably remember the scene where Vince Vaughn’s character has only $300 to gamble with, but he buys in at a $100 minimum table, so he only gets 3 chips.
Most casinos in Las Vegas have tables with minimums as low as $5, but you can find some casinos with limits as low as $1 or $3 per hand. Maximum bets per hand can be much higher, depending on the casino. Some casinos have posted maximum bets of $10,000 per hand. High rollers can negotiate higher per-hand limits, too.
When you buy your chips from the dealer, you lay your money on the table. You do not try to hand the money directly to the dealer. This is a procedure instituted to prevent cheating and collusion. Casinos have cameras in the ceiling which monitor the action from above. They can see money laid on a table, but they can’t see what happens when a dealer’s hand and a player’s hand come together.
Before you can get a hand of blackjack, you must place a bet. There’s a small circle or rectangle on the felt of the table in front of you. Your chips go inside that circle or rectangle. If the table isn’t full, you’re allowed to play multiple hands at once. You must place a separate bet for each hand.
You can change the size of your bet every hand if you want to. This is the primary way card counters get their edge over the casinos, by the way.
Once all the players have posted their bets, the dealer deals the cards, as follows:
How the Cards Get Dealt in a Blackjack Game
The dealer starts with the player on his left and deals every player a card, one at a time. In single deck games, these cards are dealt face-down, except for the dealer’s hand, where the first card is usually dealt face-up. In games being dealt from a show—the box that holds the cards in a multi-deck game—the cards are dealt face-up. The dealer always gets his card last.
Once everyone gets their first card, the dealer starts over again with the player to his left, and he deals everyone a 2nd card. When the deal is done, every player has 2 cards, and so does the dealer. The players’ cards are either both face-down or both face-up, but the dealer always has one card face-up and one card face-down.
After the betting and the deal, the players get to make their decisions about their hands. The dealer then “makes his decisions” about how to play his hand. (I put that in quotes because the dealer doesn’t really make decisions; he must play his cards according to the rules specific to that casino.)
Blackjack Card Values and Being Dealt a “Natural”
As I mentioned earlier, blackjack is a comparing game where each hand has a point total. The game is resolved when someone goes bust (scores 22 or higher) or when the dealer’s total is compared to the player’s total.
The point values for the cards in blackjack are easy to remember. The numbered cards have point values equal to their ranking. The 2 of spades is worth 2 points. The 3 of hearts is worth 3 point. The suit doesn’t matter, just the ranking of the card.
The face cards—the jack, queen, and king—are worth 10 points each.
Aces are worth 1 point or 11 points, depending on what would be better for the player
If your hand has a total of 21 points on the 1st 2 cards, you have a “blackjack” or “natural.” This hand is an instant, automatic winner—unless the dealer also has a natural. If you win with a natural, in most blackjack games, you get a 3 to 2 payout. In other words, for every dollar you bet, you win $1.50. A $5 bet wins $7.50 on a natural. A $100 bet wins $150 on a natural.
If you and the dealer both have a natural, the bet is considered a “push,” which is the same thing as a tie. You don’t win any money, but the casino doesn’t, either. You just get your original bet back.
If the dealer has a natural, any player who doesn’t have a natural loses immediately. The players don’t even get to play their hands.
If you don’t have a natural, and if the dealer doesn’t have a natural, which is most of the time, you get to play your hand. This means deciding whether to take more cards or not. I cover those decisions in the next about strategy.
Dealer Strategy vs Player Strategy
You have only a handful of decisions in blackjack, but that’s more than in most casino games, where your decisions don’t matter. As in all casino games, your 1st decision in blackjack is how much you want to bet.
The more important decisions have to do with whether you take additional cards in your hand. The 2 basic decisions in blackjack are these:
- Hit – To hit is to ask for one additional card from the dealer.
- Stand – To stand is to decide to take no more additional cards and go with the total you have.
You do have other possible decisions, but these are really just variations on hitting. These include:
- Double down – You double down by doubling the size of your bet. You get one additional card, no more, no less.
- Split – You can only split a hand in blackjack if you’ve been dealt 2 cards of the same rank. When that happens, you can put up a 2nd bet, and play 2 hands instead of one. Each of the 2 cards you were dealt becomes the starting card for a new hand. You then play out each of these 2 new hands normally. You could win both of them, neither of them, or win one and lose the other. They’re totally independent hands.
- Surrender – If you really hate your hand as compared to the dealer’s, you can just drop out, similar to folding in poker. You only have to forfeit half your bet when you surrender, which saves you some money when you feel like you have almost no chance of winning.
The decisions that you make are your strategy, and they can vary based not only on the cards you’re holding, but also on the value of the dealer’s face-up card. Mathematicians, by the way, have calculated the mathematically optimal decision for every situation in blackjack. They call this basic strategy, and it’s easier to learn than you might think.
The dealer has a “strategy,” too, but it’s based on the house rules of the casino. The dealer must follow the prescribed strategy, regardless of what kinds of totals the players at the table might hold. His strategy is based exclusively on his total.
If the dealer has a total of 17 or higher, he must stand. If the dealer has a total of 16 or lower, he must hit. That’s it for the dealer, with one subtlety.
A hand with an ace in it is considered a “soft hand.” The ace counts as an 11, but if you hit such a hand and get a high card, you can consider that ace to be worth 1. This prevents you from going bust.
In some casinos, the dealer must hit a soft 17. In others, the dealer must stand on all totals of 17.
The order of play is simple, too. The players play their hands 1st. If they bust (get a total of 22 or more), they immediately lose their bets.
If they have a total of 21 or less after taking their actions, they have a showdown with the dealer after he plays his hand. If the player gets closer to 21 than the dealer, the player wins even money.
And if the dealer busts, the player automatically wins—assuming he didn’t bust before the dealer played his hand.
This, by the way, is where the house gets its edge in blackjack. The players must play their hand 1st, so they lose their bet when they busts EVEN IF the dealer also busts later in the hand.
And that’s how to play blackjack for fun. It’s really not a complicated game at all. In fact, most casino dealers are friendly and will help you figure out what you should do and when you should do it.
I think, though, that blackjack becomes more fun when you learn more about the intricacies of play. The first step is to memorize basic strategy—the mathematically optimal way to play every hand. The next step is to learn how to count cards, which is easier than you think.
Future posts will deal with these subjects, too. For now, go have some fun playing blackjack. You’re facing some of the best odds in the casino when you do.