Blackjack FAQ

Regardless of your expertise level, you’ve probably got some
questions about blackjack and how it’s played. This page is
aimed at people of all experience levels. The questions start
with the most basic at the top and get more advanced in subject
matter as you proceed down the page.

All of the questions are listed first, with the answers
below. There are also links to further information where
relevant.

We’ve worked hard to create a comprehensive
resource about blackjack in this section. If your question isn’t
answered on this page, be sure to browse through our complete
blackjack section
. Chances are the answer is contained within
one of the other pages on the site. If you still can’t find an
answer, get in touch. We’ll update this page accordingly.

Blackjack FAQ: The Questions

Blackjack FAQ: The Answers

How Do You Play Blackjack?

Blackjack is normally played in a casino at a blackjack
table. You’ll face a dealer, but you’ll also have other players
at the table. They also face the dealer. You and the other
players aren’t competing with each other (unless you’re playing
in a tournament – more about that later.)

Your goal is to beat the dealer. You can do this in one of
two ways:

  • You can get a hand total of closer to 21 than the dealer
    does.
  • You can still be in the hand if the dealer busts.

The cards in blackjack each have a point value from 1 to 11.
Aces count as either 1 point or 11 points, depending on what’s
more favorable for the player. The face cards (the jack, queen,
and king) count as 10 points each. All the other cards in the
deck have a point value equal to their rank. Suits are
irrelevant.

To play, you have to place a bet. Once all the players have
placed their bets, the dealer gives everyone a 2 card hand. She
deals herself a 2 card hand, too – one of her cards is face up,
the other, face down.

If the dealer has a 21, she’s an automatic winner unless you
also have a total of 21, in which case, you have a push. You get
your original bet back, but no winnings.

Usually, though, the dealer won’t have a 21. Neither will
you, usually, but when you do get a 2 hand total of 21, you get
a 3 to 2 payout. That 2 card hand – an ace and a ten – is called a
“natural” or a “blackjack”.

After you look at your cards, you have the option to receive
additional cards or stand. To take an additional card, you
“hit”. Otherwise, you “stand”.

You also have the option of “doubling down” or “splitting”.
Doubling down means placing an additional bet and taking one – and
only one – additional card. Splitting is only an option if you’re
dealt 2 cards with the same value. In that case, you can place
an additional bet and start two hands, the first card of each
being one of the cards from your original hand.

You might bust by getting a total of 22 or higher. In that
case, you lose. The dealer collects your bet and moves on to the
next player. Perceptive readers will notice that you play your
hand before the dealer plays hers. If you bust, the dealer wins
even if she busts too.

Further Information

Those are the basics. For more detailed
instructions on how to play, please see our page on blackjack
rules
.

How Do You Win at Blackjack?

Blackjack offers the best odds in the casino, but the house
still has an advantage over the player. The short answer for the
average gambler is that you can win at blackjack by getting
lucky and quitting while you’re ahead.

That’s also the boring answer, though.

If you want to win consistently at blackjack, you have to
implement some kind of advantage gambling strategy. Most people
are familiar with the idea of card counting, even if they’re not
up on all the specific details. But that’s only one way to get
an edge over the casino. Other techniques, like shuffle tracking
and dealer tells, can also help you beat the casino
consistently.

Advantage gambling techniques take knowledge and practice.
It’s not easy to get rich as a card counter, but if you’re
willing to put in the work, there’s no reason you couldn’t be a
consistent winner in the long run at the blackjack tables.

Does Blackjack Really Offer the Best Odds for Casino
Gamblers?

Yes, blackjack really does offer the best odds for casino
gamblers. The house edge for blackjack varies from around 0.19%
to 1%, if you play according to the correct basic strategy. Most
other casino games don’t even come close.

In fact, the only games that come close to offering odds as
good as blackjack are video poker games, but you can’t get as
much money into action playing video poker. They just have lower
betting limits.

What Is the Correct Basic Strategy?

Basic strategy is the mathematically correct decision to make
in every situation you’ll ever come across in a casino at a
blackjack table. It’s determined by calculating the expected
value of each possible decision you could make.

Example

You have a total of 20 with two cards. You have the following
options:

You could hit. The only card that will help you is an ace.
Any other card will make you go bust. So you have a 1 in 13
chance of improving your hand, and a 12 out of 13 chance of
guaranteeing a loss. You only win even money if you win, so it’s
not worth it to take the hit.

You could stand. The only way to lose in this situation is if
the dealer gets a total of 21. Regardless of what the dealer’s
up card is, she has a far less than 50% chance of getting a 21.
In fact, even if she gets a total of 20, you don’t lose – it’s
just a push.

You could split. This might seem like the thing to do,
because you have a chance of getting a blackjack on each of
those cards. The problem is that only 1 card out of 13 is going
to result in that 3 to 2 payout. Your odds of getting a worse
hand are significant, too. 5 cards out of 13 will improve each
of those 10s, but 8 cards out of 13 will decrease your chances
of winning. And you have to deal with those odds twice.

So the appropriate basic strategy decision in the above
example is to stand.

The dealer will have one of only 10 possible up cards. You
compare your total to the dealer’s up card to determine what to
do. Generally speaking, you’ll play more aggressively if the
dealer has a 7 or higher showing. Many other times, you’ll stand
on a lower total in hopes that the dealer is going to bust.

You can learn the correct basic strategy by memorizing a
table or chart, or you can learn it by memorizing a list of
rules for various hands.

What’s the Difference between Downtown Vegas Blackjack and
Las Vegas Strip Blackjack?

The rules in Downtown Vegas are more liberal than the rules
on the strip. For example, on the Strip, most blackjack games
are dealt from a shoe with as many as 8 decks of cards in it.
This reduces the player’s chances against the casino. It also
makes it harder to count cards.

Las Vegas Strip casinos usually have higher minimum bets,
too. If you have a limited bankroll and only want to risk $5 per
hand, you’ll be better off finding a game in Downtown. Most of
the games on the Strip have at least a $10 or $20 minimum bet
per hand.

Other rules variations to look out for on the Strip include
6/5 blackjack. This is a variation where instead of getting a 3
to 2 payout for a natural, you only get a 6 to 5 payout. This
adds more than 1% to the house edge. You should never play in a
6/5 blackjack game.

Further Information

Please see our page on blackjack games
and variations
for a more detailed look at the different
variants and their rules.

When Should I Take Insurance?

You should only take insurance if you’re counting cards.
Insurance is just a side bet where the odds are against you. If
you’re counting cards, you’ll know when the situation is right
to take insurance, but otherwise, don’t do it. It’s a sucker
bet.

How Insurance Works

If the dealer gets an ace face up, she has a chance of having
a 10 in the hole. If she does, you automatically lose unless you
have a total of 21.

You can take an insurance bet, which means placing an
additional bet that’s the same size as your original bet. You
win the insurance bet if the dealer does in fact have a natural.

Here’s the problem, though. The dealer only has a 4 out of 13
chance of having a 10 in the hole. The bet only pays even odds.

You would only want to take insurance if the deck were really
rich in 10s, but that’s rare enough that you might not ever get
in that situation.

Taking insurance at the correct time is also a clue to the
casino that you’re a card counter, so even if you’re counting,
you might want to avoid the insurance bet.

How Do You Count Cards?

You can find dozens of different methods of counting cards,
but they all involve the same approach. You don’t actually
memorize which cards have been played. Instead, you assign a
value to the low cards and a value to the high cards. You keep a
running total of these values. This enables you to predict
whether or not you have an edge over the casino.

Example

Rhonda is learning to count cards. She’s opted to learn one
of the most basic systems, the Hi-Lo. All cards valued between
2-6 count as +1 in this count, and all aces and 10s count as -1.

The high cards are favorable to the player, because they
increase your odds of getting a blackjack. If the low cards come
out more often than the high cards, you’re more likely to get a
blackjack and the corresponding 3 to 2 payout for that hand.

Rhonda’s been counting for a little while, and she estimates
that the count is now +5. That means the odds are in her favor,
so she raises her bet on the next hand from $20 to $100.

There’s a little more to card counting than this, but that’s
the basic idea.

Further Information

You can find more details, including
specifics for the various systems you can use, at the
appropriate page on our site
.

Is Counting Cards Illegal?

Counting cards is not illegal as long as you’re not using
some kind of device to help you keep your count. Counting cards
is just a matter of thinking while you’re playing a game. How
could that be illegal?

Casinos hate it when you count cards, though, and in most
jurisdictions, they can legally bar you from playing blackjack.
In Atlantic City, casinos cannot ban card counters, but they’ve
instituted such strict rules for their blackjack games that you
can’t get an edge by counting anyway.

How Much of an Edge Can You Get When Counting?

A skilled card counter can get an edge of as much as 2% when
counting. 1% is a more realistic target, though.

Card counters who make mistakes are generally not playing
with an edge, though. Some casinos and casino managers realize
that some wannabe card counters aren’t actually good at it. In
those cases, they let the amateur play even though they’re
trying to count cards.

Which Are the Best Books about Blackjack?

Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp is the beginning of card
counting, but it’s outdated in some ways. Plenty of great
blackjack books have been written and published since, though.
We’re especially fond of The Big Book of Blackjack and Black
Belt in Blackjack. Arnold Snyder wrote both of those.

Professional Blackjack by Stanford Wong is also excellent.

Further Information: We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of
the best blackjack books, which features detailed reviews of
over 20 recommended reads.

Do Casinos Cheat?

Casinos have a built-in mathematical edge on all their games.
They don’t have to cheat. In fact, they’re insanely profitable
because they’ve stacked the odds in their favor on all the
games.

That being said, some small out-of-the-way locations might
cheat. There’s probably not much you can do about their cheating
in these smaller venues. Your best bet is to probably avoid any
place that seems small and shady.

Think about the risk and reward scenario for casinos that
cheat. Casinos have a hugely profitable business, but they can
lose their license and go out of business if they’re caught
cheating. Why would they want to kill the golden goose in that
way?

Why Can’t I Use My Cell Phone?

Casinos don’t allow you to use cell phones because you could
use them to cheat. For example, you might have a confederate
standing behind the dealer when the dealer peaks at her hole
card. It would be easy for your confederate to share that info
with you via cell phone.

Another way you might cheat using a cell phone is to use it
as a tool to keep up with the count at the table. Using any kind
of tools (other than a basic strategy chart) to get an edge over
the casino is a strict no-no.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on My Blackjack Winnings?

In the United States, you’re required to pay income tax on
all your income, including that from gambling. Casinos are
required to report winnings of $600 or more at the horse track,
$1200 or more at a slot machine or bingo game, $1500 or more at
keno, and $5000 or more in a poker tournament. But you’re
required to report any income from winnings, even if they’re
smaller than those amounts.

If you itemize, you might not have to pay taxes on your
winnings. You’re able to offset your winnings by reporting your
incurred losses, too. You have to fill out the itemized tax
return in order to do this.

Laws relating to taxes on blackjack winnings vary in other
parts of the world.

What Is the House Edge?

The house edge is the percentage of each of your bets the
casino expects to retain over the long run. For example, if the
house edge is 1%, the casino expects to win 1% of every bet you
make in the long run.

Of course, the casino doesn’t just pay you $99 every time you
bet $100. You’d have to be crazy to play a game where that was
the outcome.

Instead, they have the game rules set up so that over the
long run the results mirror the mathematical probabilities.

Example

You’re playing 100 hands of blackjack per hour at $100 per
hand. You’re putting $10,000 per hour into action. You’re on a
hot streak one night, and after 3 hours of play, you’re up by
$500.

But if you keep playing, eventually your results will get
closer to the expected results. If you play long enough, your
results will start to get close to having lost $100 per hour
that you’ve played. (That’s $10,000 multiplied by the house’s 1%
edge.)

On the other hand, if you can get an edge over the casino,
you can expect to win at that rate in the long run. If you’re
counting cards and you have a 1% edge over the casino, you can
expect – in the long run – to win $100 per hour.