Your First Game of Blackjack in a Casino
Blackjack is one of the easiest games in the casino to play and understand. In fact, from a purely rules standpoint, it’s easy to follow the basics of what happens and how.
The purpose of this post is to give you enough information about the game of blackjack that you can sit down at a table and play without making a fool of yourself. In fact, if you can remember most of what’s written in this post, you’ll be facing some of the best odds in the casino without even having to memorize something called “basic strategy,” which is a subject I’ll cover later in this post.
The Basic Rules for Playing Blackjack
The cards are worth their face value—a 9 is worth 9 points, a 2 is worth points, and so on. If a card has a picture on it—as the jacks, queens, and kings do—it’s worth 10 points. And an ace can count as 11 points or as 1 point. You get to decide.
If you have a hand with an ace in it where you can use it as 1 point OR as 11 points, then you have a “soft hand.” If the ace must be counted as 1 to avoid having a total of 22 or more, OR if you don’t have an ace, you have a “hard hand.”
Your goal is to beat the dealer. You have 2 ways of doing this:
- Have a higher scoring hand
- Still being in the game when the dealer busts
“To bust” is to get a total of 22 or higher. 21 is the best possible score you or the dealer can achieve.
If you get a 2-card total of 21 on your initial hand, you have a “blackjack.” This is also often called a “natural.” At most casinos, this pays off at 3 to 2. If you bet $100, you’d get a payoff of $150 for getting a blackjack.
But if the dealer also has a blackjack, your hand is considered a “push.” This is a tie, and there’s no action. You keep your bet with no winnings.
In some casinos, dealers win pushes. Avoid those games. The odds are terrible with that rules variation, which, luckily, is rare. The only exception is a variation of blackjack called Double Exposure, and the strategy for that game is different enough that it warrants its own post.
The Action at the Blackjack Table
You’ll play the game at a table with room for another 5 or 6 players, although if you’re in the casino during a slow period, you can play heads-up with the dealer. You start by putting a bet in on the table in front of you. (The betting minimums and maximums are posted at the table.)
Once everyone has bet, the dealer gives each player 2 cards. In a single deck game, the dealer gives you these cards face down from a deck she holds in her hand. In multiple deck games, the dealer gives you these cards face up from a deck that’s contained in a box called a “shoe.”
The dealer also gives herself 2 cards, one of which is face up, and the other of which is face down. You make your decisions based on the cards in your hand and the dealer’s face up card.
Your Decisions at the Blackjack Table
Once you get your first 2 cards, you decide whether to hit or stand. If you hit, you take another card from the dealer. If you stand, that means you’re satisfied with the total you have.
You can also decide to do any of the following:
- If you have a pair of cards with the same number, you can “split” your hand. You put up another bet, and you now play 2 hands. The first card of each hand is one of the 2 cards from your original hand. You automatically get a 2nd card for each of those new hands. You play these 2 hands out one at a time.
- You can also “double down.” This means you double the size of your bet and take one additional card from the dealer. You cannot hit your hand any more after that additional card. And some casinos only allow you to double down on certain totals.
- You can “surrender” if you think you’re done for. This option isn’t available in all casinos or at all tables, but basically, you give up half your bet and keep half your bet. Surrendering is similar to folding in a game of poker.
- You can “take insurance” if the dealer has an ace as her face up card. This means you place a 2nd bet that’s half the size of your original bet in the “insurance” spot on the table. This bet pays off at 2 to 1 if the dealer has a blackjack, but if the dealer doesn’t, you lose that bet. This is a side bet and a sucker bet you should never make—unless you’re counting cards, in which case it might be profitable to take insurance when the deck is rich in 10s.
The way you signal these decisions to the dealer vary based on how many decks are in play. In a game where the cards are dealt face down, you’re allowed to touch the cards, but you can only hold them in one hand. And you use the cards to signal your decisions, as follows:
- To hit, you gently scrape the cards on the table.
- To stand, you slide your cards underneath your bet.
- To double, turn your cards face up. Put up a 2nd bet next to your original bet, and hold up one finger to signal that you’re doubling down.
- To split, turn your cards face up. Put up a 2nd bet next to your original bet, and hold up 2 fingers to signal that you’re splitting.
In a multiple deck game, where the cards are dealt face up, you’re not allowed to touch the cards. You still use your hands to signal your decisions, though:
- To hit, you point at the table or at your cards.
- To stand, you wave your hand over the cards, keeping your palm horizontal and parallel to the table.
- To double, you put up a 2nd bet and hold up a single finger.
- To split, you put up a 2nd bet and hold up 2 fingers.
You are allowed to use your words and say things like “hit” or “stand,” but the dealer will ask you to use the hand signals. That’s because if there’s a dispute about the action, a camera in the ceiling above the table will have a record of your decisions that can’t be argued with. (That camera is called “the eye in the sky,” by the way.)
If your total hits 22 or higher, you’ve busted and you lose your bet immediately. Even if the dealer busts later, you’ve still lost. This is the main reason the house has an edge against the player.
The Dealer’s Actions During the Game
Once you and the other players finish playing your hands, the dealer plays her hand. But she doesn’t get to make decisions about what to do. These decisions are pre-made based on the house rules at the casino.
The dealer is required to hit any hand with a total of 16 or less. The dealer stands on all hands with a total of 17 or more.
But totals of soft 17 might sometimes require a hit, depending on the casino’s house rules. If the dealer stands on a soft 17, that’s better for the player.
After the dealer finishes playing her hand, she pays off the players’ bets or collects them, depending on who won the hand.
Basic Strategy for First Time Players
Every situation in a game of blackjack has one mathematically optimal way to play it. This is based on the total you have and the dealer’s face up card. The closer you stick to this optimal strategy, the lower the house edge. The more you deviate, the higher the house edge.
This optimally mathematical way to play is the called “basic strategy.” Serious blackjack players should memorize basic strategy and use it every time they play. You can buy a laminated card with correct basic strategy on it from the casino gift shop and use it to inform your play, too.
The casinos don’t mind you doing this, because they still have an edge, even if the edge is smaller. They’re more concerned about the speed at which the game progresses at the table. This does more for their bottom line than a higher house edge on a slower game. So don’t hold up the game while you’re checking your card, or the dealer will say something to you. (The other players might get irritated too.)
But basic strategy changes based on the rules conditions in place. Single deck games have a different appropriate strategy than multiple deck games. Other rules variations have an effect, too, especially whether the dealer hits or stands on soft 17. The differences in basic strategy are marginal, though—you’re better off using the wrong basic strategy than no basic strategy at all.
I don’t recommend playing blackjack at all unless you’ve learned basic strategy first or at least bought a basic strategy card to consult during the game. The difference in the house edge is just too high otherwise. In fact, you might have better odds at craps if you make the right bets than if you play blackjack without basic strategy.
When it comes to basic strategy, you compare your total with the dealer’s face card to determine your next move. The number of cards in your hand is irrelevant. A hard total of 12 that’s composed of a 9 and 3—a 2 card hand—is played the same way as a hard total of 12 that’s composed of a 5, 4, and 3.
Some of the strategies for playing individual totals might be uncomfortable if you’re not used to basic strategy. For example, if you have a total of 12 and the dealer has a 3, you might be tempted to stand. After all, you might bust—16 of the cards in the deck are worth 10 points, after all. That’s a 30.77% probability of going bust there.
But blackjack computers have run literally millions of hands to determine which way to play each hand has the highest expected value for the player. And just because a move has a higher expected value than another move doesn’t mean you have an edge. In some situations, the best you can hope for is to make the play that loses you the least.
An example of this is a hard total of 16 versus a dealer’s face up 10. You’re going to lose money here more often than not. Your goal is to choose the decision that loses you the least money on average over time.
A Basic Strategy That Should Work Pretty Well for Most Blackjack Games You’ll Run Into
If you memorize the following rules for playing the following hands, you’ll face a house edge of less than 1% at almost any blackjack game in any casino you visit.
Here’s how you play hard totals:
- Hard 8 or less – Always hit this hand.
- Hard 9 – Double down if the dealer is showing a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- Hard 10 – Double down if the dealer is showing anything besides an ace or 10. Otherwise, hit.
- Hard 11 – Double own unless the dealer has an ace. Otherwise, hit.
- Hard 12 – Hit if the dealer has a 2 or 3. Stand if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- Hard 13, 14, 15, or 16 – Stand if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- Hard 17 or higher – Always stand.
Here’s how you play soft totals:
- Soft 13 or 14 – Double down if the dealer has a 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- Soft 15 or 16 – Double down if the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise hit.
- Soft 17 – Double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- Soft 18 – Double down if the dealer has a 3, 4, 5, or 6. Stand if the dealer has a 2, 7, or 8. Otherwise, hit.
- Soft 19 or higher – Always stand.
Here’s how you play pairs:
- AA – Always split aces.
- 22 or 33 – Split if the dealer has a 2 through 7. Otherwise, hit.
- 44 – Split if the dealer has a 5 or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- 55 – Double down if the dealer has anything besides a 10 or an ace. Otherwise, hit.
- 66 – Split if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Otherwise, hit.
- 77 – Split if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. Otherwise hit.
- 88 – Always split 8s.
- 99 – Split if the dealer has a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, or 9. Otherwise stand.
- TT – Always stand.
Most casinos with multiple deck games will allow you to double down after splitting, but if you’re facing a single deck game, that’s usually not allowed.
But the thing to remember about playing your hands after splitting is that you treat them just like you would any other new hand. You can always ask the dealer if you’re allowed to double down or re-split after splitting, too.
How the Rules Vary by Casino and Sometimes Even by Table
Most blackjack games compare well to other table games in the casino. But some games are better than others, and some games are much worse. It’s important to be able to discern between the good games and the bad games.
Below I’ve listed the most common variations to the rules and how they affect the player:
The Number of Decks in Use
The number of decks in use has the biggest effect on the odds in blackjack. The more decks the casino uses, the higher the casino’s edge is over the player. If you can find a single deck game, that’s your best option. 2 decks are common, too.
The most common games now have 8 decks, especially in Atlantic City.
A lot of casinos also use continuous shuffling machines, too. This makes the game faster and eliminates the possibility of counting cards. Even if you don’t count cards, you want to avoid any game that increases the number of bets you make per hour.
Doubling Down Rules Variations
You’re allowed to double down on any of your 1st 2 cards. This is a good rule for the player, and you should look for games that allow this whenever you can. It’s important that you follow the basic strategy guidelines for when to double down. If you’re counting cards, this rules option is a big deal, too.
You’re only allowed to double down on a total of 9, 10, or 11. This isn’t terrible, but it could be worse. Many casinos put this rule into place to thwart card counters.
You’re only allowed to double down on 10 or 11. This is almost your worst-case scenario when it comes to doubling down. Complain. Find other games. Do both.
You’re not allowed to double down. This is the worst-case scenario when it comes to doubling down rules. Refuse to play in a blackjack game where you’re never allowed to double.
You’re allowed to double down on 3 cards or more. Many casinos only allow you to double down on your 1st 2 cards, so if you can find a casino with this option, that’s great. Often the other rules will be tight to make this affordable for the casino.
You’re allowed to surrender early. This means you can surrender your hand for half your bet after looking at your 1st 2 cards. You get half your bet back even if the dealer has a natural.
You’re allowed to surrender late. This works the same way, but with one big difference—if the dealer has a natural, you can’t surrender.
Multiple Card Rules
You automatically win if you get 6 cards without busting. This is an unusual rule that’s hard to find now, but it’s only a minor benefit to the players. It doesn’t come up often enough to add much to your expectation.
You get a bonus payout with a 5 card Charlie. A “5 card Charlie” is a hand with 5 cards in it that totals 21. This often pays out at 2 to 1 if the casino has the rule in place. Like the 6 card automatic win, it’s rare, and it doesn’t add much to your expectation.
You get a bonus payout with a 777. This is an option you’ll usually only see in an 8-deck game. Sometimes you get a bonus payoff if the 7s are all the same suit, too. Don’t deviate from basic strategy because of this rule. Don’t place a side bet if one is required to win this, either.
You get a bonus payout with 678 suited. I guess this is the equivalent of a straight flush in blackjack. It pays off at 2 to 1 most of the time in casinos which offer the rule. Again, don’t deviate from basic strategy if you have a 67 suited.
Soft 17 and the Dealer
I touched on this briefly earlier, but it’s a big deal. You prefer games where the dealer must stand on any total of 17. If the dealer hits a soft 17, your expectation takes a nosedive.
Progressive Jackpots in Blackjack
The problem with blackjack games with progressive jackpots is that they almost always require a side bet to qualify for the jackpot, which is always an extreme longshot. You’re usually required to get some kind of suited hand of 3 cards to win, like the 777, all of diamonds.
Your first game of blackjack doesn’t have to be scary, but I think you should learn the rules first, for 2 reasons:
- You want to be able to play without looking silly and asking a lot of questions.
- You want to be able to choose the better blackjack games rather than the worse blackjack games.
It’s also well worth your time to learn basic strategy before sitting down to play your first game. If not, at least buy a basic strategy card.
It’s worth it to play a game where the house edge is less than 1%.