Blackjack is game of skill and this is part of what makes it so popular. The casino card game, unlike many other games at a casino, has a variable house edge that is affected by how you play the game. The more skill you play with, the lower you can push the house edge, until it is as low as 0.5%.
As blackjack is such a popular card game and since skill plays such a major role in the outcome of the game, the amount of literature published on blackjack is almost overwhelming. Just by looking online, you can find a wealth of information, including expert advice and blackjack software – all available for free.
If you are new to the game of blackjack, it is easier now than ever to learn the Blackjack rules, improve your strategy and boost your skill level so that you can play successfully. Here we will go through anything you might want to know about blackjack.
The Aim of the Game
The aim of blackjack is to achieve a hand whose total value is closer to 21 than the dealer's hand, without going bust (a total of more than 21). Each player at the table plays against the dealer only – not the other players. The dealer must follow the set rules for the house which dictate when he must hit and stand.
In a "shoe" game, 6 or 8 decks of cards are played with. This type of game is ideal for beginners as cards are all placed face-up on the table. As the dealer must play according to the house rules and you are not playing against other players at the table, you are at no disadvantage if your cards are seen. In fact, it could be an advantage as the dealer may be able to answer your questions about how to play the game.
Blackjack is typically played with at least two complete decks of card with a total of 52 cards per deck. In some games, a joker may be included in the deck for a total of 53 cards. You may find short term promotional games that include jokers in the deck, but this will only be with specific approval and with descriptive signage displayed by the licensee that explains all card values and joker play.
Each card in a game of blackjack is worth a specific value and these values are combined to determine your total hand value.
- Cards 2 through 10 are worth their face value
- Face cards (Jack, Queen or King) are worth 10
- Ace is worth 1 or 11, depending on the combined value of the hand. If 11 as the Ace value would make the player go bust, the Ace is given the value of 1
As an example, a simple hand containing the cards (4, 6, 10), would have a total hand value of 20.
To understand how the Ace can count as different values depending on the rest of the cards in your hand, we will look at an example.
If you are dealt a hand of (Ace, 7) your total hand value could be 8 or 18. If you choose to stand (end your turn), your hand will be valued at 18. However, you can choose to draw another card at this stage. If the card that you draw is a 2, your total hand value will be 20 – with the Ace worth 11. On the other hand, if the third card that you draw turns out to be a 5, your hand will consist of (Ace, 7, 5). In this scenario you cannot count the Ace as 11 as it would push your total hand value to 23 – bust. Rather, the Ace is counted as 1, giving your hand a total value of 13.
In your original hand of (Ace, 7) or the second hand of (Ace, 7, 2), your Ace could be counted as 1 or 11 and this hand is then referred to as a "soft" hand. A "soft" total means that the player is able to draw an additional card without the risk of going bust. A hand in which the Ace can only be counted as 1, such as in our third example of (Ace, 7, 5), is referred to as a "hard" hand. In other words, (Ace, 7) would be a "soft" 18, while (Ace, 7, 10) would be a "hard" 18.
Beginning the Game
Cards will be dealt to all players once everyone has placed their bets. Each player, and the dealer, will end up with two cards. The dealer will turn over one of his cards so that it remains face-up. In some blackjack games, the players' cards are dealt face-down and in some games, such as a "shoe" game, all players will receive their cards face-up.
If your cards have been dealt face-down, it means that you will be required to pick up the cards and hold them in your hand. In such a case, there are specific rules that apply to how you hold the cards.
Only one hand can be used to handle the cards
Cards must be held over the table at all times
All additional cards that you are dealt need to remain on the table – separate from the original cards you hold in your hand.
Play begins with first base – the player seated to the dealer's immediate left. Play will move around the table with each player having a chance to play his hand. When all the players have completed their turns, the dealer must play his hand. At this point, all player hands will be compared to the dealer's final hand. The winners will be paid out accordingly and the chips will be collected from those who lost.
There is a slight exception to the order of card dealing in European no hole card (NHC) blackjack. In this case, the dealer's second card is not dealt until all players have completed playing their hands. This means that if the dealer has Blackjack, all players' bets will be lost, including splits and double downs. When playing ENHC blackjack, it is recommended that you do not split or double down if the dealer's up-card is 10, unless you are splitting Ace-Ace.
The Dealer's Rules
The rules for how the dealer plays his hand are clearly set out on the blackjack table. The dealer is not able to make decisions on his own, but must follow the casino's rules for his hand play. Understanding these rules can help you to make a strategy on how to play your hand.
Two common variations for dealer rules in blackjack exist:
- Dealer stands on all 17s – The majority of blackjack games offer this rule. The dealer is required to continue to hit until his hand total reaches 17 or more. In other words, as soon as the dealer's hand total is 17 or more, he must stand, regardless of the players' total hand values. In this case, an Ace is valued at 11, unless it would mean the dealer going bust. For example, if the dealer holds (Ace, 6), the Ace is valued at 11 giving the hand a value of 17 and the dealer must stand.
- Dealer stands on hard 17, but hits on soft 17 – In this case, the type of 17 the dealer has determines whether he hits or stands. If the dealer is holding a hard 17, such as (10, 7) he must stand, but he is holding a soft 17, such as (Ace, 6), he must hit. The dealer hitting on soft 17s adds an additional 0.2 percent to the house edge, creating a disadvantage for players when they play a blackjack game with this rule.
The best hand in a game of blackjack is "blackjack". Sometimes known as a "natural," this is when your two original cards value a total of 21. This situation is only possible when your first two cards are made up of an Ace and any card with a value of ten, such as 10, J, Q or K. It is important to note the stipulation that a "blackjack" can only be with your original two cards as this means that if you split two Aces and one of the new hands draws a 10, this is considered a total value of 21 and not a "blackjack". This may affect your payout as a "blackjack" beats the dealer's hand in all cases, except for a "blackjack" from the dealer and it pays out at 3 to 2. A dealer's "blackjack" would beat a split player's hand of (Ace, 10) while a dealer's "blackjack" and a player's "blackjack" would result in a tie.
A player's Actions
There are a number of different choices that a player can make in terms of how to play their hand.
- Surrender – Blackjack surrender is an option that is available at some casinos, but not all. This is the first action that the player must make if they want to and once you have begun to play your hand, it will be too late to use this option. If the dealer's up-card is an Ace or a card valuing 10, the player may be able to surrender. This is a good option if, after seeing your original two cards, you don't feel you can beat the dealer, as you will only lose half your bet. Players take this action by announcing verbally to the dealer that they surrender.
- Two different types of surrender exist and you need to check the rules at the casino you are playing at to see if this option exists at all and if so, which type of surrender is available:
- Early surrender – This is the best type of surrender for the player as it is allowed before the dealer has checked his face-down card for blackjack.
- Late surrender – In this case, once you announce your plan to surrender, the dealer will place a special chip (lamer) or your chips onto your cards in order to mark them. You will lose your entire bet if the dealer reveals he has blackjack, but will only lose half your chips if he does not.
- Splitting – Splitting is an option that is available on your first two cards. If your original cards are of the same value, you can choose to split them into two separate hands. In other words, if you are dealt (10, 10), you can split them into two hands of 10 plus another card. The hands will be played completely separately, starting with the card on the right. You will need to place a second bet equal to the first bet to be played on the second hand. Many casinos allow splitting after splitting. In other words, if you split two 10s and one hand draws another 10, you can split that hand into a further two hands. Many casinos, on the other hand, will only allow you to draw one card on a pair of split Aces. If you split two Aces and draw a 10 on one of the hands, this will not be considered a "blackjack", but rather a hand total of 21 and this would therefore not tie a dealer's "blackjack".
- Doubling Down – This is another action that is available on your original two cards only. This option allows you to double your bet and draw one additional card. This is an option that is worthwhile if you feel that one additional card will allow you to win. Some casinos may only allow you to double down when your hand totals 10 or 11, while others may allow it any time, except for when you hold blackjack.
- Hitting – This allows you to draw one more card. You can continue hitting until you choose to stop or until your card total goes over 21 (busting or breaking). If you bust, the dealer will collect your cards and put them in the discard tray and will collect your bet. Busting loses even if the dealer busts later. To indicate you want to hit, point to your cards or motion with your fingers. The dealer will then give you one more card.
- Standing – Standing indicates that you do not want any more cards and your turn has ended. You will then wait until the dealer plays his hand to see if you have won or lost. To indicate you want to stand, wave your palm-down hand over your cards or bet.