Blackjack for Beginners

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 2, 2007

Blackjack is one of the most popular table games on the casino floor. Players like it for its simplicity and player-friendly odds, and the house likes it because it's a huge moneymaker. Relying on strategy instead of hunches can turn a casual player into a smart player.

Blackjack—or 21, as it is commonly referred to in American casinos—derives from an eighteenth-century French casino game appropriately named Vingt-et-Un. The simple object of the game is to beat the dealer with a hand whose total cards add up to 21 or less.

Its simplicity is a large part of the game's popularity through the years. The basic deal and draw are easy to understand, and there are few rules when played at the kitchen table to complicate matters. Many people learn it as a children's game, playing one-on-one with a friend.

Odds/House Edge

Another major reason for blackjack's popularity is that the game sports one of the lowest house advantages on the casino floor. As a result, it offers even the casual player a reasonable chance of breaking even or walking away a winner. For a seasoned veteran, the odds improve even more. That said, the house generally makes a majority of their table games take on blackjack, mostly on volume and novice misplay.

Although many factors come into play (e.g., the number of decks used, shuffle frequency, house rules), the house edge starts at around 3-5%. That means the house pays out roughly 90-94 cents on each dollar bet. By employing a basic strategy, a player can reduce that edge to 0.5% (the house pays 99 cents on each dollar bet). An expert player using card counting techniques can reduce the house edge to zero—or even shift the odds to player-positive.

Initial Bankroll

Be prepared with your bankroll when you come to play blackjack, because even the best players can run into a losing streak. As a rule of thumb, you should bring at least 20 times the minimum bet to the table to withstand the highs and lows. That means as little as $100 for a $5 table, but up to $2000 for a $100 table.

Also—and this can't be stressed enough—don't walk into the casino with any more money than you can afford to lose. Of course, the house is willing to take whatever cash you're willing to throw at it. If this means you should leave your wallet or credit cards behind before walking onto the casino floor, do it (just bring your driver's license and cash bankroll with you). Proper planning will, at the very least, keep you from rushing an ATM during a losing streak, which is the worst thing you can do.

Rules of Play

Each card has a point value in blackjack. Tens, jacks, queens, and kings are worth 10 points. Aces can be worth either 1 point or 11, depending upon how the player wants to play the hand. All other cards are worth their number value (2-9) respectively. The players all compete individually against the dealer; the object is to have the hand closest to 21 without going over (called a bust).

The highest possible hand is a blackjack—also called a "natural"—which is when a player is initially dealt an ace and a ten-point card. If a player holds blackjack, it's an automatic win with a payout of 1.5 times the player's stake. A dealer blackjack is declared immediately as an automatic win for the house (except for players holding a blackjack, which results in a push).

Players at the table make a bet before their hand is dealt. Cards are then dealt in rotation from the dealer's left to right. Each player and the dealer receive two cards in the initial deal; in the overwhelming majority of casinos, the player's cards are dealt face up and must remain on the table at all times. The dealer is dealt the first card down (the hole card) and the second face up (the up card).

Based on the initial deal, each player either hits by asking the dealer for another card, or stands by staying put. Players can hit as many times as they wish, trying to get as close to 21 as they feel they can get. If a hit puts the player over 21, however, the player loses and forfeits the bet. This goes around the table in turn.

Once the players have all taken their turns, the dealer shows the house's hole card. The house is forced to hit on a 16 or less and stand on anything 17 and higher. If the dealer's hand is higher than the player's, the house wins. If the player has the higher hand, the player wins an amount equal to his or her initial bet. If the hands tie, it's a push, and the player gets back the bet and nothing more.

Basic Strategy

There are certain things even the most casual player can do to play more smartly and keep the respect of the other players at the table. The single most important thing to remember is to stand on a hard 17 or higher (a hand is described as soft if it includes an ace; otherwise, it's hard). On any hand between 12-16, the player should hit if the dealer's up card is 7 or higher and stand if the dealer shows a 2-6.

On soft hands, the player should always stand on a soft 19 or higher. On a soft 18, the player should stand if the dealer shows 8 or less; if the dealer shows 9 or higher, the player should hit. On any other soft hand, the player should hit if the dealer's up card is 7 or higher.

Splitting

During a turn, a player who is dealt a pair may split the cards to create two separate hands with a matching bet on each. The turn is then played normally, with the player either hitting or standing, and both hands compete against the dealer.

The basic guide to splitting is:

  • Always split aces and eights
  • Never split tens, fives, or fours
  • Split nines unless the dealer shows a 7, 10 or ace
  • Split sevens if the dealer shows 3-7
  • Split sixes if the dealer shows 3-6
  • Split twos or threes if the dealer shows 4-7

Doubling

In certain situations, the player can elect to double down. This consists of doubling the wager at the start of the player's turn, and the player commits to receiving one card from the dealer and standing on the result. Obviously, this is a move that should only be done when the player is at a situational advantage against the dealer's hand.

The basic guide to doubling down is:

  • Double down on 11 unless the dealer shows an ace
  • Double down on 10 unless the dealer shows an ace or 10
  • Double down on 9 if the dealer shows 4-6

With some soft hands, strategy dictates doubling down as well:

  • Double down on a soft 13-14 if the dealer shows 5-6
  • Double down on a soft 15-16 if the dealer shows 4-6
  • Double down on a soft 17-18 if the dealer shows 3-6

Insurance

When the dealer shows an ace, the players may be asked if they want insurance. By accepting, the player offers up half of the original wager as essentially a 2-1 side bet that the dealer has blackjack. Most basic strategy guides suggest that players avoid insurance, as its situational probability favors the house.

Surrender

Some casinos also offer a surrender option when the dealer shows an ace or ten. The player electing to surrender forfeits half the wager for the turn (which, in theory, is better than losing the entire wager). Most casinos feature a late surrender, which means that the surrender is not immediate—if the dealer has blackjack, the player loses the entire bet anyway. If the house features an early surrender, then the dealer takes the half-wager as soon as the player declares it.

Basic strategy dictates that the player only surrender on a 15 (if the dealer shows a 10) or on a 16 (if the dealer shows 9, 10, or ace). You should ask the dealer about the house rules if you intend to employ surrender as a tactic.

House Rules

Casinos have their own house rules about betting, basic play, splits and doubling, etc. Make sure you understand the rules at any table before you play. For instance, most casinos outside Las Vegas deal the players' cards face up on the table; players aren't supposed to handle the cards, and they should use hand signals for hitting and standing.

A Final Word

Blackjack is enjoyable for its simplicity and the camaraderie a good game can induce amongst the players. Remember to plan your bankroll and wager only with money you can afford to lose. The casino table isn't the best place to learn from scratch, but it's the only real way to put theory into practice. However, by making your worst mistakes at home—and learning from them—you'll be better able to enjoy the table experience and reduce your risk. You may even walk away a few chips in the black.

Sources:

Hoyle's Rules of Games (Morehead and Mott-Smith, 1995), Basic Blackjack (Wong, 1992), How to Win at Casino Gambling (Gros, 2000).