A Step by Step Guide to Playing Blackjack for the First Time

by Michael Stevens
on July 29, 2016

Blackjack is one of the most popular table games in casinos worldwide and has attracted some of the best analytical minds seeking to break its secrets.

The practice of card counting originated by E.O. Thorpe in the 1950s revolutionized the game and has been responsible for a cold war of sorts between practitioners of the various card counting systems and the casinos that view card counting as a form of cheating.

The following, however, is designed for the first-time blackjack player, who need not concern himself with such advanced concepts, for now.  For now, it is best to focus on how to get the most out of your trip to the casino and from the entertainment dollars you will be spending.

1. Practice Good Gambling Hygiene

Good preparation centers around protecting your money – how to optimize the mileage you get from your bankroll and how to resist confusing your bankroll with your savings accounts.

Preparing for a game of blackjack should be no different than preparing for any other game of chance, whether at a casino, online or in a backroom.

Following these tips will provide a foundation for controlled gambling entertainment:

  1. Decide beforehand the amount of your bankroll. This helps you to utilize other concepts like hands per hour.  At the very least it lets you know when it’s time to go home.
  2. Carry a watch and refer to it often throughout your casino visit. Casinos are designed to make you lose track of time and stay at games where you must pay to play.
  3. Leave bank cards and credit cards at home or in the hotel room safe. Casinos are conveniently stacked full of ATMs which, in turn, are directly connected to your life savings.
  4. Don’t drink and bet. Drinking should never be a prelude to placing a bet, even when the casino is handing them out for free.
  5. If you go gaming with others, make sure their gaming temperaments are complimentary to observing the above commandments.

2. Learn the Basic Rules of Blackjack

The basic rules of blackjack are simple enough.  Each card is valued according to their face value.  Face cards (Jacks, Queens, Kings) are worth 10.  Aces are worth 1 or 11.

The winning hand contains cards that, added together, beats the hand held by the dealer, without going over 21.

To go over 21 is called a “bust” and the player loses regardless of the outcome of the dealer’s play.  The dealer can also bust, though a dealer’s bust does not guarantee a player’s win.

To begin, each player places a bet.  Following the initial round of betting, each player is then dealt two cards, face up.  During the same opening round, the dealer deals himself two cards, one face up and the other face down.

A hand containing an Ace and a 10-point card (face card or 10 card) is called a “natural” or “blackjack”, from which the game derived its name.  A blackjack automatically wins the pot and the payout is typically higher, paying 3:2.

Note that some Las Vegas casinos modified the payout percentage for a natural blackjack from 3:2 to 6:5. Since a natural blackjack can occur as often as 1 in 20 hands, the change in payout percentage has significantly increased the house edge.

The only time a player’s blackjack does not win is when the dealer also holds a blackjack.  In that case, the result is called a “push” and the players holding the blackjack take back their bets.

When the dealer holds a blackjack he collects bets from all players not holding blackjacks.  If the dealer’s face up card is an Ace or 10-point card, he will look at the face down card to see if he is holding a natural blackjack.  This is the only situation the dealer may look at the face down card before it is his turn to play.

If you want to learn more in-depth strategy about the game of blackjack, including tips to help become a winning player, be sure to check out our complete guide to blackjack.

3. Observe a Winning Etiquette

This section assumes you will be playing at an actual brick and mortar casino.  Even if you have been playing blackjack online, casino gaming is a whole different experience.  Having the proper social graces will help further your enjoyment of the casino experience.

Entering a Game

Before you even approach a blackjack table, the first rule of etiquette order is to prepare your money.  Always use cash.  Use crisp bills.  The dealer must evaluate the cash you present before he cuts you in.  Using crisp bills is a courtesy.

You will want to find a table that has available seating.  Otherwise, you will have to wait around a table until a seat becomes available.  If you find a table that has an open seat, observe if a game is already underway.  If so, do not sit down at the table until the game has completed.  You can tell a game has completed when all cards have been collected and the table is clear.  Then you may sit down.

If, for some reason, you feel you must join a table while play is underway, do so as unobtrusively as possible.  In no way make your presence known to the other players nor the dealer.  A good idea is to watch the play for awhile, and wait until there is a lull.

When the previous game ends and you are seated at the table, take the initiative and announce your intention to the dealer that you wish to join the next round of play and for how much you buy in will be.  Do not wait to be asked.

To do this, once seated, simply reach into the table with cash in hand and announce “I’d like to play for $100” or “I’d like to join the table, please change $200”.  This clearly announces your intent.  The dealer will take your money, cut you your chips, and you will be ready to play the next round.

Concerning chip denominations, the dealer will not ask you what you want.  He will be able to manage paying out a blend of chips that will meet your gambling and tipping needs.

To start the round of play, the dealer will announce – “place your bets”.  This is your cue to place a wager.  You do this by placing the chip(s) on the table in the small circle immediately in front of you.

Note: this should be the last time your hand reaches into the table during play, unless it is to communicate to the dealer your intent to either hit or stand.   Never touch or try to retrieve your bet.  Never touch the cards dealt to you.

The only exceptions to this are collecting or recollecting your chips at the end of your game, should you win or draw.

Now that you have gracefully and confidently introduced yourself to the table it is time to take your turns with equal style and competence.

4. Take Your Turn

Once the initial cards are dealt to all players and the dealer, without incident of blackjack, the play begins.  The player to the left plays first, followed by the next and so on.  Each player plays until he wins or loses.  Then play passes on to the next player.

Therefore, even though other players are at the table, each player is trying to beat only the dealer’s hand.

When it is your turn to play you will have to choose between two options – to receive another card or not.  You may indicate to the dealer you want another card simply by tapping your finger on the table beside your card.

If you do not wish another card – to “stand” –  you may also communicate this to the dealer via hand signal, using a sharp side-to-side swipe of the hand with palm down, over your cards.

It is important to note that you should never presume that the dealer has guessed your intention.  For example, you are holding cards that amount to 20, and it is obvious you should stand.  You must still clearly indicate to the dealer, using the method illustrated above, your intention.

While you may hear of other cues used at blackjack tables, including verbal cues like “hit”, “hit me” or “hold”, I highly recommend sticking with the two simple hand gestures outlined above.  There is not a casino nor Blackjack dealer in the world that will not know and understand them.

The player’s play continues until he decides to stand or goes bust.  The player may decide to stand at any time and is never under any obligation to take another card.  Therefore, as the player, you may decide to take no cards.

If you stand, your play is over and the dealer moves on to the next player.  If you bust, the dealer collects your bet and removes your cards and moves on to the next player.

Once everyone at the table has played, the dealer then plays.  The dealer’s play begins by turning over the face down card.  Unlike the players, who are free to stand or hit as they choose, the dealer’s decisions over whether he stands or hits are bound by certain rules:

  1. The dealer must hit if his cards amount to 16 or less.
  2. The dealer must stand if his cards amount to 17 or more.
  3. The dealer must count the Ace as 11 if it brings his total to 17 or more.

Once the dealer finishes play, his hand is compared against the hands of the players who did not bust.  Those players holding a higher hand than the dealer have their bets paid out.  Those holding lower hands than the dealer have their bets collected.

If the dealer goes bust, he then pays out the amount of the bet made by each player who did not bust.  Typically, the payout amount is 1:1.

It is considered a draw, or “stand-off” if the total held by the dealer equals the total held by a player.  In this case, the player simply retrieves his bet.  The exception to this is when the dealer busts.  A dealer bust is not a draw with a player bust.  A player who busted does not collect if the dealer also busts.

5. Playing Basic Strategies for the Beginner

Besides the basic play outlined above, blackjack allows some variance for betting during play.  We will next take a quick look at the options and include some basic strategy tips for each.

Splitting Pairs

When a player receives two cards of the same value – say two “9’s” or any two 10-point cards (eg a 10 and a Queen) – he may split those into two separate hands.

Remember, the player should not touch the cards once play has commenced.  To indicate he wishes to split the player simply places a new bet beside his original bet in, or near, the circle on the table.  The dealer will then place the cards beside each other.

Play then commences as normal, only now you are playing two hands.

Generally, the best time to use this strategy is when you are holding a pair that is less than a pair of tens.

Note that, if for whatever reason after a player places his second bet for a split pair, there is some confusion over the player’s intent, the player may communicate to the dealer his intention to split by placing his index finger and middle finger on the table, in the formation of an upside down “V” sign.

Doubling Down

Doubling down may be done on your first two cards, regardless of their face value – in other words, they do not have to be a pair.

To indicate your intent to double down, simply place a new bet in the circle immediately beside the original bet.  Note that the second bet should be equal to, or more than, the original bet.

Once the second bet is placed the dealer will follow up by dealing only one more card.  There are no options to hit again afterward.  The dealer will place the final card perpendicular to the two original cards to indicate the double down bet.

Typically, double down bets are best used on two cards that have no or little chance of busting with the third card and when the dealer’s face up card is strong.

Insurance

A player has available the option of insurance when the dealer’s face up card is an Ace.  You may bet half of your original bet against whether the dealer gets a Blackjack.  If so, you receive a payout of 2:1.

Note that this is considered a wasteful bet by everyone other than the casino.  Your attitude ought to be that you are there to gamble, not hedge bets.  Therefore, when the dealer offers you insurance, politely pass.

Like all other games of chance, there are many variations and house rules.  The above introduction is to the basic game of blackjack which you will find in any casino around the world, along with its variants.

6. Optimize Your Blackjack-as-Entertainment Dollar

For the best experience, budget your resources wisely.  There is no need to sit down at a table with a hundred-dollar bankroll and be required to leave ten minutes later due to lack of funds.  Here are some insights to help you optimize your entertainment at the blackjack tables.

Hands Per Hour

After buying your way into a blackjack table, you may expect to get anywhere from fifty to one hundred games in over the next hour.

Of course, this depends on a range of factors.  However, all other things being equal, if you sit down at a table with a couple of other players, you can expect to get in at least 100 hands over the next hour of play.

That number will fluctuate as players join and leave the table.  A table of seven players may play roughly half the number of hands.

As a new player, I highly recommend you find a table that has a lot of action and is full of players.  It will give you more time to acclimatize yourself to the game and flow when you are playing at a more relaxed pace.  At first, it may seem more intimidating to play with a full table.  But this guide will provide you with all you need to know to keep you from embarrassing yourself.

Having a general idea of how many hands per hour you can expect to play gives you an idea of what size bets to place per hand.  With this knowledge, even a relatively modest bankroll can support hours of play and entertainment.

House Edge

The house edge for blackjack has been estimated to be from 0.26% to 0.43%, assuming perfect execution and depending on house rules.  However, as a player deviates from perfection the house edge goes up, and can go up considerably.

As a player new to the game, you would be best advised to ignore the 0.26% figure and assume it is going to be higher.  This is another component to factor into estimating the mileage of your entertainment dollar at the blackjack table.

Conclusion

Blackjack comes in many shapes and sizes.  Some of the more common variations involved difference in the number of decks used (typically six to eight), where the dealer is required to stand, if the player can double after a split, where a player can double, the above mentioned odds differences on natural blackjacks and so on.

Also note that the above guide assumes house rules requires player cards to be dealt face up.  Not all casinos follow this form and deal player cards face down, requiring the player to manipulate the cards.  Such games utilize slightly different ways for the player to communicate intent to the dealer.

Spanish 21 is a version of blackjack that offers the skilled and experienced player with a liberal set of options on the concepts outlined above.

However, entering a casino with a basic knowledge of not only what to play, but how to approach the table, the dealer and fellow gamblers, will contribute significantly to your enjoyment as a beginner blackjack player.

You may not be playing like a pro right away, but you will at least look like one.

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