Blackjack is one of the most popular casino games, and it’s a game that recreational players enjoy for its slow pace and the more generous odds that it offers. Blackjack requires the player to take meaningful actions that impact the outcome of the game, yet beginners can still play without much prior knowledge. It’s important to understand the game so that you can reduce the house edge from the typical 1 – 2% to as low as 0.5%.
Rules of Blackjack
Blackjack uses a traditional deck of playing cards, with 52 cards and 4 suits. Casinos may use multiple decks in order to make card counting more difficult, whereas online casinos use random number generators to replicate shuffling.
In most variations of blackjack, the suits do not matter. Each card is given a value based on its number. Aces are worth 11 points, face cards are worth 10 points, and the other cards are worth the number that they state (e.g., a three is worth three points, a five is worth five points, etc.).
The aim of the game is to beat the dealer by scoring closer to 21 points, without going over and going ‘bust’. The hand with the highest total wins the bet, but a score of 22 or higher will automatically lose. A ‘blackjack’ is a hand that scores 21 with the first two cards, and this usually pays more generously than a normal win.
The player buys into the hand by placing their bet and can then decide whether to hit, stand, or take a number of other options. We’ll have more on this soon…
It’s important to recognise that the basic rules of blackjack change according to variations, and different tables can have different rules—even within the same casino. For example, there may be a number of side bets available, such as ‘insurance’ and ‘surrender’. There may be different rules about how the dealer has to play her hand, such as when the dealer has to hit or stand, although the dealer commonly hits on totals of 16 or under.
Let’s take a look at how a hand plays out, and what you have to do as a player.
How to Play Blackjack
When you approach a blackjack table (or online table), there will always be a minimum or maximum bet that you can place. To play a hand, you have to place at least the minimum bet, and then the dealer will deal you, and the other players who have placed their bet, two cards each.
The dealer will also have two cards, one of which will be face up. In blackjack, you play against the dealer’s hand, so the other player’s hands do not matter. You can decide what to do based on your own two cards and the information you have about the dealer’s hand from the single card that they are showing.
The one most basic decision you have to make in blackjack is whether to ‘hit’ or ‘stand’. If you hit, you will be given another card to add to your total. If you stand, you will not be given any more cards. It is this simplicity that makes blackjack one of the popular casino games.
You can also choose to ‘double-down’, which means doubling your bets and taking one (and only one) more card. You can also ‘split’ your hand when you are holding two cards of the same value. Splitting will turn your hand into two independent hands that are played separately, and doing so will cost you another bet. Some tables give you the option of ‘surrendering’ half of your bet at this point—a bit like folding in poker.
Remember, the aim of the game is to make close to 21 points without going over and to beat the dealer. To do this more often, players make use of what is known as ‘basic strategy’.
Intro to Basic Strategy
The basic strategy in blackjack is to make the correct plays to reduce the house edge as much as possible. It is all mathematical, and it’s been worked out to give the player the best odds according to the situation—their own hand compared to the card that the dealer is showing. If you want to play blackjack often, learning basic strategy will be very useful. You can get blackjack charts to help. For now, here are a few tips taken from the known optimal strategy.
Stand when your hand is 12 – 16 and the dealer has 2 – 6.
Hit when your hand is 12 – 16, and the dealer has 7 – Ace.
Always split 8s and Aces, and never split 4s, 5s or 10s.
Double on 11 when the dealer has 2 – 10 (anything but an Ace).
Only surrender 16 if the dealer is showing 9 – Ace, and 15 if the dealer is showing 10.
Never play insurance, as the house edge is 6%. This goes for other side bets.
When you learn and play basic strategy, you will reduce the house edge to as little as 0.5%. Professionals learn to card count to gain even more of an edge, hoping to gain advantage plays and make a profit. Card counting doesn’t have to be very complex. There are simple methods available. But, for the recreational player, learning basic strategy is enough to allow you to enjoy the game and minimise the edge.