Intro to Blackjack
Last update: March 2022
- Top 10 things to know
- Basics of Play
- Rule variations
- Blackjack spinoffs (Spanish 21 & Double Exposure)
Top 10 things to know
- The odds are great. The odds on blackjack are among the very best among all casino games.
- Strategy is important. If you don't learn the strategy, you don't get the great odds, you'll lose money hand over fist. If you don't want to spend an hour or so learning the strategy, play craps or baccarat instead.
- Rules vary from table to table. These rule differences affect the odds. Tables which say "Blackjack pays 6 to 5" are three times worse than tables that pay "3 to 2". However, the 3 to 2 tables usually have higher table minimums, so unless you're a high roller, or are willing to seek out the better casinos, it's better to play 6:5 at lower stakes.
- Low stakes 3:2 is available downtown. $5 a hand: Downtown Grand. $10 a hand: California, Golden Gate, Plaza, El Cortez. (VegasAdvantage, Jan. 2022)
- Tip the dealer $6/hour. The casinos pay only minimum wage, or barely more. The bulk of dealers' earnings come from tips. You might not like it, but that's the culture. You can tip $1 at a time or $6 all at once.
- Counting cards isn't worth it. To make $25/hr. safely, you have to have $25,000 in the bank (to weather losses). So, if you can afford to count cards, you don't need to.
- Figure your expected loss. For every $5 bet, your average hourly loss is about $2 an hour for 3:2, and $6 an hour for 6:5 (assuming proper strategy, and before tips). For more, see my Average Loss Calculator.
- Get a player's card and use it. Sign up for a free card at the player's club desk, and put it on the table with your money when you buy in. The casino will rebate you about 1/3 of your expected loss in comps.
- Beware of side bets. Side bets have very bad odds. Even worse, some downtown casinos require that you bet on the side bet. Don't play those games, unless you're in love with the side bet.
- If you play online, bet less. Online games can be played at lightning speed versus at land casinos. If you'd bet $5/round in a land casino, bet only $1/round online. Or, play the fake-money games so you're not risking anything. Bovada offers both fake-money and real-money blackjack.
Basics of Play
This objective of blackjack is commonly misstated as "trying to get as close as you can to 21 without going over". The real objective is to beat the dealer. You can beat the dealer with a total of just 12, which is pretty far from 21, since the dealer could bust. Once you start playing you will often do just that. For now, it's enough to remember that you want to beat the dealer's hand.
The Bets and The Deal
Between one and seven players can play at the same table. Each player places their bet (chips) in the circle in front of them. The dealer deals the cards, two cards to each player, including herself. One of the dealer's cards will be face-up, so you'll have a clue as to how strong her hand is. The other players' cards don't matter because you're not playing against them, you're playing against the dealer.
Play begins with the right-most player ("1st base") and continues player by player to the left. When it's your turn, you have the following choices:
- Hit. Take a card. You can hit as many times as you want.
- Stand. End your turn and pass to the next player.
- Double Down. Double your bet, take exactly one more card, and then end your turn.
- Split. If you have two of the same card (like two 8's), you can split them and play each as a separate hand. You'll get one more card for each, and then you hit or stand on each hand. You have to put up another bet since now you're playing two hands.
- Surrender. Most casinos no longer offer this option. Surrender allows you to bow out of your hand and lose half your bet. This is a good option when you'd likely lose your whole bet if you stayed in, such as when you have a total of 16 vs. a dealer upcard of 10.
If your total goes over 21, you've "busted", and you've lost.
Once you've played your hand, that's it; play will not come back to you. Each player gets only one turn per hand. You can hit as many times as you want, but once you're done hitting (or you bust), that's it.
After each player has played, the dealer plays her own hand. She flips the hole card over first so everyone can see both her cards. The dealer must hit (take cards) until she has 17 or higher. That's the rules; the dealer isn't allowed to make decisions on whether to hit or stand depending on what the players' cards are. If the dealer could vary her play depending on what the players have, the house edge would be so high that no one would play.
Note that on most tables, the dealer will hit her 17 if it's a soft 17, meaning that it has an ace that counts as 11, and is therefore unbustable.
If the dealer busts, all the players who are still alive, win. But if you've already busted, it doesn't matter that the dealer also busted later, you still lose. This is one of the reasons the casino has an advantage in blackjack: if you both bust, you still lose.
Face-cards (J, Q, K) count as ten. An ace counts as 11, unless an 11 would cause a bust, in which case the ace counts as 1.
So here's what can happen:
- Bust. If you go over 21, you've busted, and you lose. Even if the dealer also busts.
- Win/Lose. Providing that you didn't bust, then you win if your total is higher than the dealer's, or if the dealer busted. (If you bet $10, you get another $10.) You lose your hand (and your bet) if your hand is lower than the dealer's (assuming the dealer didn't bust).
- Push. If you and the dealer have the same total, it's a push, or a tie, and you neither win nor lose your bet.
- Natural. If you're dealt an ace plus a ten (or a
face card, which is worth ten) on your first two cards, that's
called a natural or a blackjack. If you're
dealt three or more cards that total 21, that's just a plain 21,
not a natural. Likewise, if you split aces and get a ten as
the next card, that's just a plain 21 and not a natural, it has to
be the very first two cards. If you or the dealer has a
blackjack and the other has plain 21, then blackjack beats plain
If both you and the dealer has blackjack, it's a push (tie) and you win nothing. If you have blackjack and the the dealer doesn't, then how much you win depends on whether you're playing at a 6 to 5 table or a 3 to 2 table. On a 6:5 table a $10 bet wins $12, and on a 3:2 table, a $10 bet wins $15. Whether a table is 6:5 or 3:2 will be printed on the table felt. It pays to seek out the 3:2 tables; more on that below.
- Remember, it doesn't matter what the other players have. You're not playing against them, you're playing against the dealer.
You indicate your desire to Hit or Stand differently depending on whether the cards are dealt face-up or face-down. If the cards are dealt face-up, don't touch them, or the dealer will reprimand you. If you want to hit, tap the table (between you and your cards) twice with your finger. To stand, wave your hand over your cards. To split or double down, place a second bet next to your original bet.
In a face-down game, hit by scratching the table with the bottom your cards (scratching towards you) and stand by sliding your cards under your bet. To double down or split, turn your cards over and place your additional bet next to your original chip(s). When you get a natural or you bust, turn your cards over right away so the dealer can pay you or take your losing cards.
When the dealer's up card is an ace, she'll ask if you want Insurance. This is a side bet on whether the dealer has a natural (a 10 in the hole). This bet has a high house edge so you should never take it.
If the dealer shows an ace and you have a natural, the dealer will offer you "even money". This is really just another way of taking insurance, so you should refuse it. Don't take even money.
Here's how even money works: Say you had bet $10. If the dealer shows an ace and you have a natural, and you take even money, the dealer will pay you $10 and then it's over. You got a guaranteed $10, no matter what the dealer has. If you decline the even money, then you'll get the 6:5 or 3:2 payout if the dealer doesn't have a natural, and you'll push and win nothing if the dealer does have a natural.
Most players (and most dealers) think you should take the even money because it's a guaranteed payout, and if you refuse the even money then you risk winning nothing. What they're missing is that 69% of the time the dealer will not have a natural and you'll get the higher 6:5 or 3:2 payout, which more than makes up for the times that you push and make nothing. In fact, the house edge on insurance is a whopping 6% or more.
You might not be confident about refusing even money when the dealer is aghast that you're refusing it, since surely the dealer should know what she's talking about, right? Wrong. I've rarely met a dealer who knew proper basic strategy. Dealers are trained to deal the game, but that doesn't mean they know the odds. Most dealers have never cracked a book or a website about the game. If you don't trust me, then note that the Wizard of Odds (who was a professor of gaming math at the University of Nevada Las Vegas) says the same thing.
Never take insurance. Never take even money.
It's such a big topic, I have a whole separate article on blackjack strategy.
Blackjack rules differ from casino to casino, and even from table to table within the casino. The main ones are:
- Number of decks (1, 2, 6, or 8).
- Naturals pay 3:2 or 6:5.
- Dealer hits or stands on Soft 17.
- Whether you can double down after a split.
- Whether you can re-split aces.
In theory, rule variations means a different Basic Strategy table. In practice, the differences are so slight that your odds won't be meaningfully different even if you use the "wrong" table.
Tip the dealer $6/hour
Casinos pay dealers only minimum wage, or scarcely more. Dealers' livelihood comes primarily from tips. You might not like that system, but that's how it works. Consider tipping to just be part of the cost of your gambling entertainment.
To tip (or "toke") the dealer, place a $1 chip in front of your regular bet (outside the betting circle, due north of your chips). If you win the hand, the dealer wins double—your chip plus a winning chip. And by toking the dealer this way, you're kind of bonding with them—they want you to win, because then they win the toke. I suggest tipping at least $6/hr. That's dollar every 10 minutes or so. My reasoning is that $6/hr. x 3 players x 40 hrs./wk. x 50 wks/yr. + the dealer's $14.5k minimum wage salary = $50,500/yr., which is reasonable earnings for a job that doesn't require any college. (Though maybe a little low considering they have to stand all day, work in a smoky environment, and deal with abuse from players. Considering that, you might want to tip more.)
Some casinos offer spinoffs of Blackjack, the most popular being Double Exposure and Spanish 21. Double Exposure was devised by the legendary Bob Stupak, the man behind the building of the Strat Tower. (Stupak was then pushed out of the company which owned the then-financially troubled Strat in the late 90's.) Stupak also devised "Crapless Craps". But we digress.
In Double Exposure, both the dealer's cards are dealt face-up. Naturally this gives you an advantage. To counter that advantage, naturals pay only even money instead of 3 to 2, and the dealer wins all ties (except Naturals). Just as with blackjack, different casinos have different rule variations. A small survey by The Wizard of Odds showed a house edge ranging from 0.33-1.45% in various casinos.
Spanish 21 also has its own special weird rule changes, but unlike Double Exposure it has a low a low house edge—0.40%. However, its basic strategy table is very complicated and difficult to learn. When I was in Atlantic City with the Wizard of Odds, probably the world's leading expert on Spanish 21, and even he was consulting his printout table on certain plays! Either laboriously memorizing the table or keeping the table handy while you play seems like a lot to ask for an edge that's not that much lower than blackjack (0.43% in Atlantic City), but if you're tired of playing blackjack, or if every hundredths of a percent of edge is important to you, then you might like Spanish 21. To learn more about Spanish 21, visit The Wizard of Odds.
More blackjack stuff
My other blackjack articles
You can practice
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Calculating Your Risk
Check out the site of the Blackjack Outcome Calculator; it tells you the probability of winning or losing a certain amount of money from playing Blackjack. Very useful!