How to Play Blackjack

A Crash Course Blackjack Game Basics

Standard Blackjack Table. Photo courtesy of (Angel Fire Press)

The game of blackjack is played with a standard 52-card deck of playing cards. While the game is often referred to as 21, it is most widely known as Blackjack, which also denotes when a player or the dealer is dealt a ten-value card and an ace on their first two cards.

Starting with two cards, each player tries to get as close to 21 as possible without going over. You are a winner when you beat the dealer.

Blackjack Card Values

No jokers are used in a blackjack game. Cards 2 through 9 count as their face value and 10's and all face cards count as 10. Aces are special and may be counted as 1 or as 11, at your discretion.

When you hold an ace, if you can take a 10-value card and not go over 21, then you have a soft-hand. You have a hard-hand when your ace is playing as a 1 and taking an additional card might cause you to go over 21.

If you have an ace and a 7, your total can be either 8 or 18 - a soft hand. If you hold an ace and a 10 and a 7, you also have 18 - but it is a hard hand.

How to Win Blackjack

The main goal of blackjack is to beat the dealer's hand-total each playing round. After you place a bet, the dealer will deal themselves and each player two cards, starting with the first player on their left. The dealer will only expose one of their cards, and based on this limited information, you decide whether to take more cards or stand "pat." Players act first, and if you take a card, or "hit," and go over 21 on a hard-hand, you lose, even if the dealer later busts.

If you don't go over 21 and "stand," you wait for the dealer to finish their hand to see if your total beats theirs or if they "bust." The highest card-total not over 21 wins. If you both have the same total, you tie - nobody wins or loses. You win when you still have your cards and the dealer busts.

Blackjack is played on a half-circle shaped table. The players sit along the rounded edge and the dealer stands on the straight side with a tray of chips in front of them. You can purchase chips from the dealer with cash, or bring chips from other tables. Some clubs allow you to play cash.

Your bet for the upcoming hand goes inside the betting circle located in front of your chair. Your extra chips go right in front of you, next to the padded rail that goes around the table.

Table Limits

Each table has a minimum and a maximum limit for each bet. The limit sign is usually on the far left as you face the table. A limit of $5-$250 means you can bet any amount from $5 to $250 on each hand. Place your buy-in between the betting circles so it is not mistaken for a bet.

Consider sitting at a table where the other players are playing close to what you want to play. You may be uncomfortable playing $5 per hand when the other players are betting $100, and they may feel the same about having you at "their" table.

Game Conditions

Blackjack can be played with a single deck of 52-cards or multiple decks may be used. If four, six, or eight decks are used, once they are shuffled, the cards will be housed in a plastic "shoe" that allows one card at a time to come out.

At some casinos, the cards are placed in a continuous shuffler where the dealer takes out one card at a time.

Once you place your bet in your own circle, the dealer will start the hand. If the game is played with your cards exposed, you do not touch your cards. If your cards are dealt face down, you pick them up with one hand. The dealer will expose just one of their cards but will check to see if they have a blackjack.

Blackjack

If the dealer has a two-card 21, they win instantly, unless you also have a blackjack. If you both have a natural, or blackjack, then you tie, and no chips change hands. If you have blackjack and the dealer does not expose your cards and you will be paid 3 chips for every 2 you bet. A $5 blackjack pays $7.50

There are some games where a blackjack pays just 6 to 5, so check the limit sign to see what you will get on a blackjack.

On this game, a $5 bet wins only $6 and this rule makes the game very tough on the players' bankrolls.

Insurance

Insurance is a side-bet that the dealer has a blackjack. This will be offered when the dealer shows an ace-up. Insurance is rarely a good bet, skip it and you will do fine.

A winning insurance bet pays 2-1. If your original bet is $10 and you take insurance for $5, you get paid $10. If the dealer does not have a blackjack you lose your $5 insurance wager.

If you also have a blackjack, you and the dealer will tie, called a "push." If you have a blackjack and want to take insurance, you can say "even money," which works out the same as far as your payoff goes.

Hitting and Standing

After the dealer checks for blackjack, the player to the dealer's left acts first. If the cards are in their hand, they sweep them towards themselves to signify they want a card. This scratching motion lets everybody know, from the eye-in-sky to the pit boss to the dealer, that the player wants another card - a hit.

If your first two cards are dealt face-up, use your hand in a sweeping motion towards yourself to indicate a hit.

When you want no more cards, or to "stand," tuck your cards under your bet. If the cards were dealt face-up, then make a sideways motion with your hand to indicate "no-more," and your play is finished.

The dealer will always hit until they get at least 17. When the dealer's up-card is 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 they will have to take a card. Hit to improve your hand but try not to go over 21. When you get to 17 on a hard-hand, stop hitting. When you have 12 or more and the dealer has to hit, stand.

Double Down

A double down allows you to bet up to an amount equal to your original wager on the draw of a single card. The table limit sign will tell you what two cards you are allowed to double down on. You need to turn your cards over to indicate a double down, usually done when the player has two cards that total 10 or 11.

You may also be able to double down on soft-hands, where your first two cards are an ace and a small card.

Don't do this against a dealer's up card of 8, 9, 10 or ace, or when you hold 19 or 20.

Splitting

Anytime your first two cards are the same value, such as a deuce and a deuce, you may split them and play two separate hands. While a double down can be played for any amount up to your original wager, a split hand must be for the same amount originally bet.

Match your original bet and the dealer will handle the cards for you and get you started on the first hand. You will get a second card on the hand to your right. You then have the option of hitting, standing, or splitting again. You may split to make up to four hands at most casinos.

Some clubs allow the player to double down after a split, a good option for the player.

You should always split aces, but when you receive a ten on an ace you will have 21, not blackjack. Therefore you will not be paid 3-2.

Surrender

Some casinos offer a surrender option: "early surrender," if you can take the option before the dealer looks under a ten for a blackjack; and "late surrender," if they only allow surrender after the dealer peeks for blackjack.

Either surrender option can be helpful for the player, as you will sometimes find yourself with a terrible hand like hard 15 or 16 against a dealer up-card of 10 or ace. If you use the surrender option, the dealer takes half your bet and your cards - you are done with the hand.

Popularity

Blackjack is the most popular card game found in most casinos. The number of decks used and other house rules change the casino's overall win expectation. However, as long as the casino offers most of the options presented here, you should be able to have a good time playing blackjack.

To improve your chances of winning, read some Tips and Strategy to increase your fun and get the most out of your blackjack experience.​