Learn How to Play Blackjack
HowToPlayBlackjack.org's goal is to help beginners learn how to play blackjack, but I also have a goal of helping people to win more often. Getting started can be the hardest part. This page includes the basic instructions for how the game runs, including brief looks at the different variations in rules a player might come across.
The sections of this page are, by necessity, short and to the point. Other sections of the site will expand on some of these topics. For example, I've included some definitions for the most common jargon used in the game, but an entire page of definitions is forthcoming.
The best way to learn how to play blackjack is through a free game at an Internet casino or other free games site. Almost all Internet casinos allow you to try their games for free, and many of them now offer free, no-download, instant-play versions of their games that run in your browser window. You'll learn a lot faster in the privacy of your own home than you would in a land-based casino setting.
Blackjack falls into a category of card games called "banking games". In these games, the players compete against a banker--in this, a casino dealer. The game is played using a standard deck of 52 cards with any jokers removed.
Playing cards have two attributes--a rank and a suit. The suit doesn't affect most blackjack games, and the rank of the cards is the most important factor. The rank is the numeric value of the card. Aces count as either 1 or 11, whichever is more advantageous, while the face cards (the jack, queen, and king) count as 10. All other cards (the 2-9) have point values equal to their rank.
Everyone stars with a two card hand. The game is sometimes called "21", because that's the critical number in the game. It's the highest possible total you can have with a two card hand. If your point total goes over 21, you automatically lose.
Gameplay is deceptively simple. Everyone places their bets. They're then dealt two card hands. The dealer also receives a two card hand, but one of her cards is dealt face up, so the players have some information about the dealer's hand when they make their decisions.
The players always make all their decisions first. The dealer acts last. If someone has a "natural", which is a total of 21 on the first two cards, she wins and is paid out immediately. This hand usually pays out at 3 to 2 odds, but in some games, it only pays out at 6 to 5 odds.
If she has any other total, she has to decide whether to take additional cards or stick with the hand she's been dealt. Taking an additional card is called "hitting". "Standing" is the term used when someone decides to stick with the hand she's been dealt. If someone hits and reaches a total of 22 or higher, she automatically loses before the dealer acts.
Gamblers have a couple of other options, too, like splitting, surrendering, or doubling down. I'll cover what each of those means in the definitions section below.
After everyone has finished the play of their hands, the dealer plays her hand. She doesn't get to exercise any judgment. The casino has rules for how her decisions must be made. When she finishes her actions, the remaining players compare each of their totals with the dealer's total. If the dealer "busts" (winds up with a total of 22 or higher), anyone who's still in the game wins.
Otherwise, the dealer wins if her hand is closer to 21 than the players, and vice versa. These bets pay out at even money.
In the event of a tie (which is called a "push"), the player's bet is returned to her, but she doesn't win anything. She doesn't lose, either.
I've include some brief definitions of the most common terms you'll come across while you're learning:
Basic strategy - The statistically correct way to play every hand.
Bust - To wind up with a total of 22 or higher.
Double down - To double the size of your original wager and take only one more card.
Face card - The jack, queen, or king. Worth 10 points.
Hard hand - A hand that contains no aces, or if it contains an ace, the ace has to count as 1 point to avoid busting.
Hit - To draw an additional card.
Hole card - The dealer's face down card.
Insurance - A side bet on whether or not the dealer has a blackjack.
Natural - A two card hand that totals 21.
Push - A tie.
Rank - The numeric value of a playing card.
Soft hand - A hand with an ace in it where the ace can count as an 11 without busting.
Split - To divide a hand that's made up of two cards of the same rank into two hands. This is done by placing an additional bet for the new hand.
Stand - To refuse any additional cards.
Stiff hand - A hard total of between 12 and 16. A stiff hand is likely to lose no matter what.
Surrender - To give up half your bet because you think the dealer will win. This is only allowed in certain situations.
Upcard - The face up card in the dealer's hand. (The other card is the "hole card".
Most rules variations are based on what the house guidelines are for how the dealer has to play her hand. For example, in some casinos, a dealer must stand on a soft 17, while in others she has to hit a soft 17. In some casinos, a bettor is allowed to double down on any two cards, while in others, the player is only allowed to double down on a total of 9, 10, or 11. Some casinos allow doubling down after splitting; some don't.
Another major variation is the number of decks used. A single deck game offers better odds, while a game with multiple decks favors the casino.
The payouts for a natural change from game to game and from casino to casino. Most casinos offer a 3 to 2 payout for blackjack, but 6 to 5 payouts are becoming increasingly common. The 6 to 5 payout changes the odds dramatically in favor of the casino.
Still other variants have different rules. Some of them are so different that the games have different names. For example, in "Blackjack Switch", everyone gets two hands at a time, and they have the option of switching the top cards of each hand. In "Double Exposure", both of the dealer's cards are dealt face up. In "Spanish 21", all of the 10s (but not the jacks, queens, or kings) are removed from the deck, and bonus payouts apply in certain situations.
Those are just a few examples of the rule variants found in various casinos throughout the world. New games are being rolled out every day, it seems.
Strategy and Tactics
It's a popular truth that blackjack is one of the only casino games where a smart gambler can get an edge over the casino. This is only partially true. There is a mathematically correct decision in every situation. It's called "basic strategy", and serious bettors memorize the basic strategy and never deviate from it. Basic strategy isn't enough to get an edge over the casino, though. In most situations, the house edge for the casino is between 2-4%, but using correct basic strategy reduces the house edge to between 0.5% and 1%. That's a dramatic difference when you're playing an average of 80 hands per hour.
There's been a lot of ballyhoo about counting cards as a strategy for getting an edge over the casino. This is a legitimate advantage player technique, but it requires more work to learn how to do than most casual gamblers are willing to put in. Even though it's not illegal, casinos hate it, so card counters risk getting barred from the game or from the casino if they're suspected of using this technique. Future articles on this site will cover the subject of counting cards in more detail.
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to be a savant or genius at memorization to count cards. Anyone with an average intellect can do it. Counters use a heuristic system that tracks the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck.
You can get started with a friend, a deck of cards, and some just-for-play chips at your kitchen table, but it's probably better to just use one of the many free games that are available on the Internet. This page covers enough of the basics that you can easily being your journey of learning how to play blackjack.
by Randy Ray, March 31, 2013
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