Blackjack – How to Play Blackjack


There’s nothing quite like hearing the dealer’s voice call out “Blackjack!!” after a player’s cards have been dealt. In a casino, blackjack is one of the few games where a player can use strategy to give the house the least amount of advantage. Though no casino game exists where the house doesn’t have an advantage, most forms of blackjack carry less than a one percent advantage to the house.

The game of blackjack started in France under the name of vingt-et-un, or “twenty-one”, around the year 1700. As blackjack made its way to the United States, casinos tried finding ways to make it appealing to their customers. One way was to offer a 10 to 1 payout if a player was dealt an Ace and a Jack of spades or clubs (“blackjack”) for their two cards. Though that offer no longer exists in any casinos today – a “natural” blackjack, or an Ace and a Ten or face card, now commonly pays out 3 to 2 – the name has stuck.

How to Play Blackjack

blackjack 3Simply put, the objective of blackjack is for the player to build a hand that adds up to 21 without going over 21. The player is dealt two cards face up, and the dealer is dealt one card face up (up-card) and one card face down (hole-card). A player can be dealt a “soft” hand (where one card is an Ace and the other is a 9 or lower) or a “hard” hand (where the player is not dealt an Ace at all). The player then must make one of five or six decisions, which are explained below:

Hit – the player takes another card. Again, the objective is for the player to get their hand as close to 21 as possible without going over that amount.

Stand – the player decides to keep the hand they have and let the dealer turn over his down card.

Double down (or “double”) – the player has the option to double the amount of their bet. The player then receives only one more card. Depending on the specific rules, the player may only be able to double on a 9, 10, and 11 or double on any two cards they’re dealt.

Split – if the player has two cards of the same number (a 3 of spades and a 3 of hearts, for example), they have the option of splitting those cards and creating two separate hands. The second (or split) hand will have a separate bet equal to the original bet. Depending on the rules, a player may be able to split anywhere up to four separate hands. Also depending on the rules, the player may be able to double a single hand’s bet. Lastly, a player usually can only split Aces once, even if they usually can split other pairs more times.

Surrender – some forms of blackjack will allow a player to surrender their hand and half their original bet either before or after the dealer checks for blackjack. Late surrender is used when a player can surrender after a dealer checks for blackjack and early surrender refers to when a player can surrender before the dealer checks. Early surrender, which is more beneficial to the player, is obviously very rare to find offered nowadays.

Insurance – when the dealer has an Ace showing, the player has the opportunity to take “insurance.” This means that the player will additionally bet half of their original bet before the dealer checks to see if he has blackjack. If the dealer does have blackjack, the player will then win the “insurance” bet but lose their original bet. This means that the player breaks even, or doesn’t lose any money, if the dealer has blackjack. If the dealer doesn’t have blackjack, the player simply loses the “insurance” bet and the hand is played normally. In most, if not all situations, the player should never take “insurance” since the odds favor the player even if the player themselves has a natural blackjack.

Blackjack table
Blackjack table

After the player has “stood” their hand, or “busted” by going over 21, the dealer will turn over his down-card. The dealer will continue to draw cards until he has reached the amount of 17 or busted. Some variations will allow a dealer to continue to draw cards after having a “soft 17”, or an Ace and a six, while others will have the dealer stand on that “soft 17”. If both the player and dealer end up having the same total (without busting), the hand is a “push” and the player gets back their original bet.

Some rule variations exist

Some rule variations exist in the game of blackjack that can help or hurt a player in lowering the house’s advantage. An experienced blackjack player will look for a combination of the helpful rules listed below:

  • Number of decks – as the number of decks that the house use goes down, the player’s advantage goes up. Typically, the number of decks ranges from eight to two. Some casinos will even offer a blackjack game using only one deck of 52 cards; this feature, combined with some other favorable rules, can sometimes give the player a positive advantage rather than the typical house advantage
  • Double on any two cards – allowing a player to double down on any two cards is better for the player than only allowing them to double on a two-card total of 9, 10 or 11 or 10 or 11 only.
  • Number of times a player can split – some casinos will allow a player to split up to 4 hands, with each available split lowering the house’s advantage. Also, allowing a player to split Aces is beneficial to the player.
  • Dealer standing on soft 17 – the dealer forfeits the opportunity of getting more cards like he can by hitting on a soft 17.

Probability to bust on an extra card

Hand value Probability
11 or lower 0%
12 31%
13 39%
14 56%
15 58%
16 62%
17 69%
18 77%
19 85%
20 92%
21 100%

On the other hand, there are rule changes that increase the house’s advantage. If possible, the experienced blackjack player should stay away from games offering these changes:

  • Blackjack pays 6 to 5 rather than 3 to 2 odds – some casinos offer this rule change with their single-deck blackjack games. The player should stay far away from this since the blackjack payout helps the house much more than the single-deck option helps the player.
  • No-peek rule – otherwise known as “European” blackjack, this means that the dealer does not look at his down card to see if he has a natural blackjack before the player makes any decisions on their dealt cards. This is not helpful to the player because they may double down or split as many times as is allowed, only to find out that all bets are lost because the dealer has a natural blackjack.

Other changes favorable to the house advantage exist, such as blackjack paying 1 to 1 odds or the player losing ties with the dealer, but those are very rarely found when playing blackjack online.

The dealer’s probability to bust

The dealers probability to bust
The dealer’s probability to bust

Basic Strategy Card for Single Deck Blackjack

Lastly, a player should take the time to learn what is called “basic strategy”. When a casino lists the house advantage of their specific blackjack rules, the percentage is given under the assumption that the player is playing “basic strategy”. If a player plays hunches, or incorrect strategies, this only provides the house with a larger house advantage – which translates into the casino taking more of the player’s money.

Basic Strategy
Basic Strategy Card for Single Deck Blackjack

Charts are available giving some basic blackjack rules, but there are some common strategies throughout basic strategy that a player should follow:

  • Always stand on a hard 17 or higher.
  • Always split Aces or 8’s
  • Never split 10’s
  • Always hit on a hard 8 or lower, unless playing single-deck blackjack where the player may double at times with those totals.

As said above, playing bad strategies or hunches only hurts the player. Three of these bad strategies should be mentioned and avoided by players:

  • Never bust – always standing when a player’s total is a hard 12 or more
  • Imitate the dealer – always hitting on 16 or less, along with never doubling or splitting
  • Always assuming the dealer has a ten as his hole-card

Blackjack – A Classic Casino Game

Some play blackjack for the feeling of fellowship that a player can have with the rest of the players at the table. Some play it because the rules, and the basic strategy, are easy to follow after a little bit of practice. Some play blackjack because they can make their money last a long time by playing correctly.

No matter why it’s played, blackjack remains one of the most popular casino games and stands to hold that position for a while to come. The anticipation of seeing an Ace and a Jack as your cards is almost as exciting as hearing the dealer yell “Blackjack!!” right after..