Blackjack (or Twenty-one) is one of the oldest and most popular casino games in the world featuring simple rules and attractive odds. The game has a house edge of only 0.5% – 2% making it the fairest game by far. But before you slap some cash on the table and bet big, you should know the complete rules of Blackjack and recommended strategy for success.
You’ll hear lots of casual gambler’s lingo sitting around the table, but these are the core terms you’ll need to familiarize yourself with in order to understand the flow of the game. Don’t worry, after only a few hands and a little help from the dealer, you’ll pick them up quickly.
This isn’t just the name of the game, but it’s also the best hand in the game. A “Blackjack” hand is a two-card hand that totals twenty-one points. If you’re dealt a 21 right from the start, you win instantly unless the dealer himself also draws a 21 on the first two cards.
When your hand exceeds 22 points, you’ve busted! You can’t bust on just the first two cards, but even your first hit can be an unlucky draw that brings you over the 21-point limit. When you bust, you lose your bet no matter what happens to the dealer or the other players at the table.
Doubling down in Blackjack is another way of telling the dealer “double or nothing.” In particular, it means that you want to double your bet on the next card dealt to you. To raise the stakes, you’re not allowed to take another card after your double down, meaning you’re stuck with the card you get hoping that it’s all you need to beat the dealer. In addition, you’re only allowed to double down on your first two cards, meaning you have to decide to make this play based on your original hand.
Taking a hit simply means asking the dealer for another card from the deck. If your hand is lower than you’d like, you can hit as many times as you want to try and draw closer to twenty-one. Just remember, if you draw past 21, you’ll go bust and lose your wager.
While the cards dealt with you and the other players come out face-up, the dealer only shows one card in the face-up position. The face-down card you can’t see is called the hole card.
When a dealer’s shown card is an ace, representing a 1 or 11, most casinos will give you the option to purchase insurance. For an additional side-bet equal to half of your original bet, you can insure yourself against a dealer Blackjack. If the dealer’s downcard turns out to be a 10, you’ll lose your original bet, but you’ll be paid out 2-to-1 on the insurance. This means that you break even for the hand. Caution: Insurance has a very low success rate. Many players advise that you should never, ever buy insurance. The choice, however, is yours.
A push is a standard gambling term that means a “tie.” In 21, if you and the dealer finish the hand with the same point total, your bet is a push and you simply get back what you gambled. It can also refer to a null result, which can occur if there is a misdeal during play or another interruption that forces the end of the hand. In these cases, the rule is “all bets push” and every player gets their original wager back from the dealer.
While dealing errors are uncommon, particularly with professional dealers, they occasionally happen. Don’t be surprised if other players at your table vocally express their frustration or even disgust that the game has been cut short.
You’ll occasionally hear people refer to “the shoe” as the tall deck of cards used by the dealer to disperse each hand. However, the term “shoe” more accurately refers to the automatic dealing machine that most casinos use to dispense the cards. This confusion doesn’t mean that a player isn’t educated about the game, but rather it’s another colloquialism you’ll hear around the table particularly with the dealer and frequent players.
In the event that the dealer gives you two cards with the same value, you may split your single hand into two separate hands. Effectively, this means you get to play two games at the same time against the single dealer hand.
A stand is the opposite of a hit meaning that you don’t want to draw any additional cards from the dealer. Standing ends your turn and can be done at any time, be it on the original two-card deal or after any number of hits.
If you’ve decided your luck has run out on a particular hand, you can surrender the game before seeing the dealer’s downcard (or any other cards dealt with subsequent players, for that matter). If you choose to surrender, you get to keep half your bet, meaning there are certain situations where choosing to lose can save you in the long run.
Twenty-one is played with a standard deck of cards with jokers removed and shuffled once. However, in a vast majority of casinos, Blackjack is dealt using an expanded deck (sometimes called the shoe) that’s actually comprised of two or more decks. Most automatic dealing machines can hold up to six decks stacked on top of each other, so you’ll usually be playing with a six-deck pack of 312 cards. This is particularly important to understand if you learn how to count cards in Blackjack, but that’s an advanced (and controversial) subject we aren’t going to teach you quite yet.
Tables don’t exactly come in a standard form, but they all share the same elements. Typically, they seat between five and seven players, but the game can go on with even a single-player and the dealer. Tables are lined with soft felt, usually in the same attractive green shades of poker and craps tables. Some of them will have built-in cupholders, ashtrays, and even slots for your poker chips. Other than cards, chips, drinks, and maybe your cigarettes, you shouldn’t place anything else on the surface of the table in a casino.
Each seat at the table will have a small frame printed on the felt where your cards are to be dealt. Sometimes, this is accompanied by a circular frame where you’re supposed to place the chips representing your bet. If the table doesn’t have these round frames, the typical custom is to place your chips in front of your hand between the cards and the dealer. Many resorts will offer their own side-bets to entice you to throw down more money, and these are often accompanied by another circular frame to keep your primary bet separate from the side bet.
Casino-style tables often have more markings around the dealer position. To the dealer’s left (facing you) you’ll see the shoe, or deck. These days, most casinos use automatic dealing machines to quickly dispense each card when the previous one is dealt. To the right of the dealer, they’ll usually have a small slot attached to a lockbox under the table where they can securely stash the cash they collect as players join the game or existing players buy more chips. Finally, there’s another spot directly in front of the dealer where the dealer’s hand goes.
Most of the time, tables will have arched lettering between the player and dealer hands that inform you of the table’s payout rules. Usually, this will read something along the lines of “Blackjack pays 3 to 2” meaning you get 1.5 times your bet for hitting 21 off the deal. The casino is free to use other payout schemes, but this is by far the most common payout you’ll see.
The game is called Twenty-One because, well, you want your cards to add up to 21 points! However, your own score isn’t the only one that matters. You’re playing the game against the dealer, and you must exceed the dealer’s point total in order to win your bet. The other players at the table play independently of you, so it’s everybody against the dealer. This typically means there’s some camaraderie amongst players, and the dealer himself will often celebrate your wins or lament your losses right alongside you.
While you don’t play against the other gamblers’ hands, their actions can still influence your hand. Depending on where you sit at the table, everybody who plays before your turn may wind up taking cards that you were hoping for. When other players operate against Blackjack’s basic strategy (more on this below), it’s not uncommon for players behind them in the order to grumble about cards that should have belonged to them, but got “stolen” by someone playing contrary to the strategy that would have the highest odds of winning for their hand.
Like practically all table games, each table will have its own minimum and maximum bets. Sometimes you’ll find discount games with bet limits of $5 to $250, but most tables will have minimums of $10, $15, or $25. High-roller tables will start off at $50-100 (sometimes more, in the bigshot casinos) with a variety of maximum bet limits. Sometimes maximum limits are as high as 50x the minimum, but that multiplier tends to shrink as the minimum bet limit increases.
Once you sit down at the table and buy chips from the dealer, you’ll be allowed to begin playing on the next hand. Players wager in multiples of the minimum bet limit, so at a $10 table, you’ll have to risk $10, $20, $30, etc. To declare your bet, simply place the number of chips equal to your desired wager in the designated betting zone marked on the table, or if there isn’t one, place it between the dealer and the spot for your cards. Once the dealer touches the first card, all bets are final. Touching your wagered chips after this point is forbidden and doing so can result in a warning, forfeiture of your bet, or even ejection from the table at the discretion of the dealer or casino floor manager.
After all players place their bets or abstain from play, the cards come out. Starting to the dealer’s left (facing you), cards are dealt one-by-one to each player with the dealer’s face-down card dealt last. Then the second round of cards is dealt with the dealer’s second card showing face up. The first player in the betting order is the leftmost player who was dealt the first card. Additional cards should be dealt one at a time and only once a player requests a hit.
To deal properly, always deal in the same order from left to right in every game. If the dealer issues a card to the wrong player or deals too many cards, it’s called a misdeal and the entire game is canceled. In these cases, all bets push. This often agitates players, so avoid misdealing as much as possible.
Cards in the game of Twenty-one are worth the number of points shown. Face cards are worth 10 points, meaning there are far more 10s in the deck than any other value. An ace is valued as a 1 or 11.
If the dealer’s face-up card is an ace or a 10 they’ll first check to see if they have a dealer Blackjack. If this happens, the game ends immediately and all player bets are forfeit except those who were also dealt an opening 21. In that latter case, your hand pushes.
If the dealer doesn’t have 21, play begins. On your turn, you may choose to take a “hit” for another card or stand on your existing total. You may also choose to split a pair (described below) or surrender your hand. Your choices are your own and you aren’t obligated to play to a specific strategy even if the other players don’t like what you’re doing.
Once all players have completed their turn, the dealer reveals his face-down card and deals his own turn. In a vast majority of cases, dealers always hit up to 16 and stand on all 17s or higher. Once the game is finished, the dealer pays out to the winners and collects from the losers.
If you’re dealt two of the same value to start your hand, you may split your hand into two. This requires that you double up your bet, but it means that you can win or lose independently on each hand. Face cards must usually match to be split (King and King, Queen and Queen, etc) but some casinos may allow you to split nonmatching face cards.
Splitting is an attractive play, but basic strategy dictates that it’s not always in your best interest depending on the dealer’s face-up card.
While you can simply call out your plays by saying “hit me” or “I’ll stand,” there are universal hand signals in 21 that casino dealers will read as your official play. Make sure not to fool around with your hands if you aren’t using these signals lest you mistakenly signal a play you don’t mean to make.
“Hit” Hand Signal
To signal a hit, simply tap twice behind your cards.
“Stand” Hand Signal
If you want to stand, wave your hand horizontally over your cards.
“Split” Hand Signal
To split a pair, make a triangle with your index and middle fingers behind your cards.
Signaling That You Want To “Double Down”
Since a double down requires an extra bet, placing the additional chips next to your opening bet will signal your intentions. The double down card is placed horizontally on your other cards to signal that your turn is over.
Signaling A “Surrender”
Surrendering is sometimes signaled by lightly scratching your index finger horizontally across the felt in front of your cards. However, this is not a universal signal, so it’s best to vocally declare a surrender to make sure the dealer doesn’t mistake it for a hit signal.
There are no rules that say you must follow a specific strategy, and nobody can tell you not to take a hit when you want one. However, the game has an “optimal” strategy based on the highest odds that you’ll beat the dealer in every given situation.
There are charts you can follow and even carry with you at the table to remind you of the “best” strategy for your cards. However, even basic strategy has some variations to it. For example, some of these charts will never recommend a surrender, but advanced players know that surrender is an acceptable play on hands such as:
Doubling Down – The player should always double down if their total is 11. If your total is 10, then you should always double down unless the dealer is showing an upcard that has a value of 10 or an ace.
Splitting pairs – The rule of thumb here is to always split aces and eights. Ten-cards (10, jack, queen or king), on the other hand, should NEVER be split. Standard Blackjack strategy also recommends not splitting 5s, as these are typically better suited for doubling down.
Basic Blackjack betting strategy is extremely common, and if you appeal to the dealer to tell you whether or not to hit, they’ll advise you according to the best play according to charts. It’s still your hand, and if you take the dealer’s advice, don’t get indignant if the cards don’t go your way.
There’s a lot to learn to play Blackjack like a pro, but don’t be afraid to sit down for the first time with just the basic knowledge from this guide. New players are often welcomed by other gamblers, and experienced players are often willing to help you make choices. Even the dealer is typically willing to help new players make the best call for any given hand. With a lot of practice (and a little luck) you’ll leave the table with a fatter wallet and a new love for this casino classic.