Playing blackjack, also known as 21, can be a fun and rewarding experience at the casino. The game’s origins trace back to 18th-century France where it was called vingt-et-un or “21.” It gained popularity as a casino game after Edward O. Thorp published his bestselling book, “Beat the Dealer,” in 1963, outlining his Basic Strategy for winning at blackjack. Thorp’s work helped establish blackjack not just as a form of entertainment but also as a potential means of making a living.
The game is deceptively simple and played with one, two, four, six, or eight decks of cards, which are traditionally shuffled by the dealer. However, most casinos now use continuous shuffling machines. In single- and double-deck games, the dealer holds and deals the cards. In multi-deck games, the cards are dealt from a tray-like box called a shoe. Some casinos feature a shoe that both shuffles and holds the cards.
In handheld games, the cards are dealt face down, and players are allowed to pick them up. In a shoe game, the cards are dealt face up, but players are not permitted to touch them. Whether you call it blackjack or 21, learning how to play the game in the casino is essential to having a good time and possibly beating the house.
Basic Rules and Strategies
Whether playing a handheld or facedown game, the objective of blackjack is to beat the dealer by achieving a point score of 21 or as close as possible without going over. If your card total is higher than the dealer’s without exceeding 21, you win. However, if you go over 21, you “bust” and lose your bet. If the dealer busts, you win.
It’s worth noting that the house, or casino, always has the advantage in blackjack, as is the case with all casino games. In blackjack, the house edge is typically around 5%, which means for every dollar bet, the casino keeps an average of five cents. One interesting aspect of blackjack is that the dealer’s likelihood of busting is usually lower than that of the players.
Blackjack Card Values: A Key to Winning
In blackjack, only the numerical value of the cards is relevant, and not their suits, as is the case in poker. Cards 2 through 10 are worth their face value. In other words, a two of hearts, spades, diamonds, or clubs is worth two points, and so on up to the 10. All face cards, including kings, queens, and jacks, are worth 10 points. An ace can be counted as either one or 11 points, depending on which value would be more advantageous for the hand.
For example, if you are dealt a queen and a five, your total would be 15. However, if you were dealt an ace and a five, your total would be either 6 or 16, depending on whether you count the ace as one or 11 points. If a hand does not contain an ace, it is referred to as a hard hand because it has only one possible value. On the other hand, if a hand includes an ace, it is referred to as a soft hand because the value of the hand can be changed.
If you draw cards to a soft hand and the total exceeds 21 if the ace is counted as 11 points, then the hand becomes a hard hand. For example, if you are dealt an ace and a three, your total could be either 4 or 14. However, if you draw a 10, your total would be 14 if you counted the ace as one point. If you chose to count the ace as 11 points instead, your total would be 24, which would be a losing hand, and the ace would be counted as one point instead, making your total a hard 14.
Playing Blackjack at the Table
When playing blackjack at a casino, you’ll find the game is dealt on a special table that is semi-circular in shape. Each player has their own circle or square in which to place their bets. Before play begins, you’ll need to purchase chips from the dealer or bring them from another table. Once you have your chips, you place your bet in the betting circle in front of your space. Any chips you place within this circle count as your bet.
Assuming you’re playing a multi-deck game with cards dealt from a shoe, the dealer will deal each player two cards face up. The dealer will also receive two cards, one face up and one face down (known as the “hole” card). Once all the cards are dealt, the dealer will ask each player in turn to make their decision on how to play their hand.
The player sitting to the left of the dealer (known as “first base”) acts first, and the last person to act is the player sitting at “third base.” When it’s your turn, you’ll need to decide how to play your hand based on the dealer’s up card and the two cards you were dealt. A common rule of thumb for beginners is to assume the dealer has a ten in the hole, which can help you make more informed betting decisions.
Blackjack Using Hand Signals
In a game of blackjack, using hand signals is important to communicate your decisions clearly without touching the cards. This is especially important in games dealt from a shoe. Hand signals also help to keep the game moving smoothly and reduce the risk of verbal misunderstandings. Here are the standard hand signals for blackjack:
If you want to draw another card, you need to signal the dealer for a hit. You can do this by tapping the table in front of you or by making a beckoning motion with your hand. If you wish to draw more cards after the first one, you can use the same hand signal again.
If you are satisfied with your cards, you need to signal the dealer that you wish to stand and not receive any more cards. You can do this by waving your hand over the top of your cards.
When you double down, you can double your bet after receiving your first two cards and receive only one additional card. Most casinos allow you to double down on any two cards (DOA), but some limit your doubling to hands that total 10 or 11. To signal that you are doubling down, you will need to place an additional bet next to your original bet. Most casinos will let you double down for less than your original bet, but it is always best to double for the maximum in favorable situations.
Split a Pair
If you are dealt a pair of cards with the same rank, you can split them into two separate hands. You will need to make an additional bet equal to your starting bet and signal the dealer by placing your second bet next to your first bet in the betting circle. Do not separate the cards or put the bet on top of the original bet. The dealer will do this for you. After you play out the first hand, you will move on to the next split card and repeat the process. Some casinos allow you to double down on your first two cards after splitting, which is favorable to the player.
Achieving a Blackjack
A blackjack, or a natural, is when you or the dealer are dealt an ace and a 10-value card, which equals 21. If you get a blackjack, you will be paid 3-to-2 for your bet, unless the dealer also has a blackjack. In the case of a tie, called a push, your bet is returned to you. If only the dealer has a blackjack, all players will lose.
If the dealer’s up card is an ace, the dealer will offer insurance, which is a side bet where you wager half your original bet that the dealer has a 10 in the hole. If the dealer has a 10, you will be paid 2-to-1, but you will lose your original bet. If you have a blackjack and the dealer has an ace, you will be asked if you want even money for your blackjack instead of the 3-to-2 payout. If you decline the even money, and the dealer has a blackjack, it’s a push. Both insurance and even money bets are considered sucker bets. Dealers do not have 10 more often than they don’t.
Some casinos allow you to surrender your hand and give up half your bet on your first two cards after the dealer checks for a blackjack. This is known as late surrender, and not all casinos offer it. It is to the player’s advantage when used correctly, but some players surrender more hands than they should, which reduces the advantage.
There are many decisions to make when playing blackjack, but if you play your hand properly, you can reduce the house edge to less than 1 percent by learning basic strategy, a mathematically proven method to determine when to hit and stand.
Here is a simple strategy to get you started:
If your first cards total 12–16, you have a “stiff” hand (one that can be busted with a hit).
If the dealer’s up card is a 2–6, it is a “stiff” hand for the dealer.
If you have 17 or better, it is a pat hand, and you should stand.
If the dealer shows a 7–ace, he or she has a pat hand.
If you and the dealer both have a stiff hand, you should stand.
If you have a stiff hand and the dealer has a pat hand, you should hit.
While this simple strategy will work for your first few games, you should make an effort to learn more basic strategy. If you don’t want to memorize it, you can bring a basic strategy chart to the casino. Most casinos allow them at the table if they don’t slow down the game.
If played correctly, blackjack can be the best game in the casino with the lowest house edge. However, playing by hunch can lead to frustration and depleted funds.