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 decks.
The Basics of Casino Blackjack
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.
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.
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 dealer.
- 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 winnings.
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.
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.)
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.
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 them.
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 hand.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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 showing.
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.
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 total.
- You always have a hard total if you have no ace in your hand.
- 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.
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.