Rules and Hand Signals in Blackjack

Most pages on the Internet about blackjack rules cover the
really basic stuff like trying to get a hand as close to 21 as
possible without going over. That’s good information to have,
but there are subtleties to playing blackjack at a real casino
that playing online doesn’t prepare you for.

This page explains the rules of the game along with how they
vary by casino. It also explains the difference between how you
use your hands in a single deck game versus a game with multiple

The Basics of Casino Blackjack

Banking Games

Blackjack is one of the best examples of a type of card game
called “banking games”. These kinds of card games don’t involve
player versus player competition. Instead, each player competes
separately against a banker—in most cases, the casino dealer.

Banking games aren’t exclusive to casinos. Home card games
can also feature banking games, but the players have to figure
out who’s going to act as the banker. When these games are
played at home, they’re often played without money involved—my
mom and I used to play blackjack for toothpicks.

The Deck, the Cards, and the Table

You play blackjack with one or more standard decks of cards.
A standard deck has 52 cards and no jokers. There are 13 cards
in each of 4 different suits, but the suits usually have no
effect on the outcome of your hand.

In some casinos, you’ll play with only a single deck. It’s
more common, though, to play blackjack with multiple decks. In
single deck games, the dealer holds the deck and deals from it,
but in multiple deck games, the decks are placed in a machine
called a “shoe”.

You’ll play at a specifically labeled table which will
include notices for the specific rules in the casino. For
example, casinos usually pay 3 to 2 for a “blackjack”, but
sometimes they only pay 6 to 5 or (worse still) even money. In
any of those cases, this payoff is posted at the table.

Blackjack Table Layout

Blackjack Betting and Possible Outcomes

The betting limits are also posted at the table, along with
what rules the dealer has to follow while playing.

Casino blackjack games use chips to bet with. You buy those
from the dealer. In order to play, you place your chips (your
bet) in the appropriate circle on the table.

You have the following possible outcomes for each hand.

  • You can lose, in which case the dealer takes your bet.
    You can lose by busting or by having a worse hand than the
  • You can win, in which case the dealer pays off your bet.
    You win by having a better hand than the dealer.
  • You can get a “blackjack” or “natural”. This counts as a
    win, but it usually features a 3 to 2 payout.
  • You can tie the dealer, which is called a “push”. When
    this happens, you keep your bet, but you don’t get any

Victory Conditions and Points

Even though you’re playing at a table with multiple other
gamblers, you’re only playing against the dealer. The other
players’ outcomes have no effect on your hand. It’s not an “us
versus them” game, either. You have no opportunity to “team up”
with the other players in order to beat the dealer.

Your goal is to get a point total that’s greater than the
dealer’s, but if you get a point total of 22 or greater, you
automatically lose. This is called “going bust” or “busting”.

The point totals for a hand are determined by the cards’
ranks. An ace is worth either 1 or 11 points, depending on which
is better for your hand. All of the face cards (the jack, queen,
and king) are worth 10 points each. And all of the other cards
are worth their rank—for example, a two of spades is worth 2
points, a three of hearts is worth 3 points, and so on. Suits
don’t matter for this calculation.

Gameplay and Decisions

A round starts when the players place their bets. The dealer
gives each player (and herself) two cards. The dealer gets one
card face up and the other card face down. The face down card is
called the dealer’s “hole card”.

If a player gets an ace along with a 10 on his first two
cards, then he has a “blackjack” or a “natural”. This is an
instant win UNLESS the dealer also has a natural. If the dealer
and the player both have blackjacks, you have a “push”, in which
case the player gets his bet back but no winnings.

The dealer checks for blackjack before any additional action.
If she has a blackjack, then all the players at the table who
don’t have blackjack automatically lose. They don’t even get a
chance to play their hands.

But most of the time, the players will have decisions to make
about their hands. Players make all their decisions before the
dealer, and players can make any decisions they like. The
dealer’s decisions come after the players have all acted, and
the dealer has no latitude in deciding how to play her hand. She
has to follow the rules for playing her hand set by the house.

The players act one at a time, starting with the first player
to the dealer’s left. Players have the following options.

Take Insurance

This is a side bet that’s only available if
the dealer has an ace showing. The bet is the same size as your
original bet. If the dealer has a 10 in the hole, you get paid
even money on this bet and lose your original bet. If the dealer
doesn’t have a 10 in the hole, you lose your insurance bet and
play the rest of the hand normally.


This gives you the option of just giving up half
your bet and keeping half your bet. You don’t have to play out
the rest of the hand. Different casinos have different rules
about when and if surrender is available.


If you’re dealt two cards with the same point value,
you can split your hand into two hands by placing a 2nd bet of
the same size as your initial bet. Each of the 2 cards you have
become the first card in two new hands. (You could split a king
and a jack, for example, even though they’re not the same rank.
They have the same point value.)

Double Down

This is an option to double the size of your
bet and take one—and only one—additional card.


To hit a blackjack hand means to take an additional
card and increase your point total by the corresponding amount.


To stand means to refuse to take any additional cards
and move forward with the total you have.

The dealer doesn’t act until all the players have finished.
Any player who busts during his turn loses his bet immediately.
When all the players have finished their actions, the dealer
flips over her hole card and plays her hand according to the
casino’s rules.

The dealer is required to take additional cards on any hand
with a point value of 16 or below. She is also required to stand
on any hand with a point value of 18 or higher. But if she has a
total of 17, she has to make an additional distinction—is she
playing a soft hand or a hard hand?

A soft hand is a hand with an ace in it. A soft 17, for
example, might be an ace with a six or an ace with a four and a
three. A hard hand is a hand without an ace in it or a hand
where the ace has to count as 1 to avoid going bust.

Soft 18 vs. Hard 18

In some casinos, and indeed, at some different tables in the
same casino, the rules for whether or not a dealer hits a soft
17 differ. At some casinos and tables, she’s required to hit. At
others, she’s required to stand. This is one of the rules
variations that’s always posted at the blackjack table.

If the dealer winds up with a hand that busts, any player
still in action wins even money. If the dealer winds up with any
other total, she wins the player’s money if she has a higher
total. If she has a lower total, the player wins. Ties result in
a push—the player gets his bet back but no additional winnings.

Handling the Action at the Table

How you handle the cards and signal the dealer vary according
to whether or not you’re playing in a game with a shoe. In
single deck games, the dealer holds the deck in her hands. You
receive both your cards face down and hold them in your hand. In
multiple deck games, the dealer keeps the cards in a shoe. You
receive both your cards face up, and you’re not allowed to touch

You can always just tell the dealer what you’re going to do.
If you want to take an additional card, say, “I hit” or “hit
me”. If you want to stand, say, “I stand”.

But if you want to look like a seasoned player, learn how to
communicate your preference via hand signals. These vary
according to whether or not you’re holding the cards in your

In a single deck game where you get to hold the cards in your
hand, you signal a hit by scraping the cards gently on the
table. To stand, you place the cards underneath your chips.

In a multiple deck game, where the cards are face up in front
of you, you signal a hit by pointing at your hand with your
finger. To stand, you wave your hand, palm down, over the cards.

You’ll probably have more fun by incorporating the hand
gestures into your game. This is one of the aspects of the game
that often gets lost in online explanations, because you don’t
use hand gestures or words to play your hand on the Internet.
You just click on buttons labeled “hit”, “stand”, etc.

Example Blackjack Hands

Below we’ve included several examples of how various
blackjack hands might play out. We’ve included several because
we wanted to demonstrate how the various rules work in play.

A Player Takes Insurance

A player bets $50 on a hand of blackjack. The player gets a
jack and a deuce for a total of 12. The dealer has an ace
showing face up.

Hand to Take Insurance

The player decides to take insurance. He posts another $50.
The dealer checks her hole card, and sure enough, she has a 10
in the hole, so the player wins $50 on the insurance bet, but he
still loses his initial $50 bet. Any other players at the table
also lose their bet unless they have a total of 21, in which
case they tie the dealer for a push.

A Player Surrenders

A player bets $50 on a hand of blackjack. The player gets a
ten and a six for a total of 16. The dealer has a 10 showing
face up.

Hand for a Player to Surrender

The player decides to surrender. The dealer takes $25 from
the player and the hand is over for that player.

In this case, surrender makes sense, because the player faces
a higher than 50% chance of losing with a total of 16 regardless
of his move. He figures he’s better off with a 100% chance of
losing half his bet than a 54% chance of losing his entire bet.

A Player Splits

A player bets $100 on a hand of blackjack. He gets two aces.
He splits his hand, so he puts up an additional $100, and now he
has two hands going, with $100 wagered on each hand.

On hand #1, he gets dealt a ten for his additional card, so
he wins $150 on that hand.

Hand to Split

On hand #2, he gets dealt a nine for his additional card. The
dealer winds up with an 18 at the showdown, so the player, with
a total of 19, wins even money on this hand: $100.

A Player Doubles Down

A player bets $100 on a hand of blackjack, and he’s dealt a
nine and a two for a total of 11. The dealer’s showing a six.

Hand to Double Down

The player announces, “Double down” and adds another $100 to
his bet.

He is dealt a ten, for a total of 21. The dealer busts, so
the player gets a payoff of $200.

A Player Hits

A player bets $100 on a hand of blackjack, and he’s dealt a
nine and a seven for a total of 16.

The dealer has a nine showing as her up card.

The player hits and gets a five. His total is now 21. He
stands on this total.

Example of When Player Hits

The dealer flips over her hole card to show a ten. Since she
has to stand on all totals of 18 or higher, she loses, and the
player wins $100.

A Player Stands

A player bets $100 on a hand of blackjack, and he’s dealt a
nine and a seven. He has a total of 16. The dealer has a five

The player stands. The dealer flips over hole card and shows
a ten, so she has a total of 15. She hits and gets another ten,
making her total 25. She busts, and the player wins.

Example of When Player Stands

Soft Hands versus Hard Hands

We mentioned the difference between soft hands and hard hands
earlier. It’s important to recognize the difference between
these hands, because your decisions for how to play these hands
will differ based on whether you have a hard total or a soft

Remember this:

  • You always have a hard total if you have no ace in your
  • You sometimes have a soft total if you have an ace in
    your hand, but not always.
  • A soft hand becomes a hard hand when the ace has to be
    counted as 1 in order to avoid going bust.

Generally speaking, you’ll play soft hands more aggressively
than the same value hard hand.

The basic strategy page on this site provides more details
about how to play hard hands versus soft hands.

Some Final Advice

Blackjack is one of the easiest and most straightforward
casino card games available. It’s also a lot of fun and offers
some of the best odds in any casino. Learning how to play is
just a matter of studying the rules and maybe playing a few
practice hands at home.

We recommend playing some of the free games online to get a
feel for how everything works. You can also play with some
friends at the kitchen table. If you learn the proper hand
signals for the different decisions, you can look like an old
pro at the casino in no time.

Recommended Reading

Your next step after learning the rules
is to memorize basic strategy. Please read our introduction to
basic blackjack strategy
to find out how to do this.