Blackjack is the most popular table game in the casino, and offers excellent odds. The house edge is a tiny 0.5% if you learn the basic strategy (covered below). That’s just about the best odds on any game as you’re likely to find, making blackjack very attractive for those willing to put in just a little bit of work to learn the strategy (a couple of hours or so).
Amazingly, most players won’t make this effort. I’ve played hundreds of hours of blackjack, and have rarely seen anyone who knew proper basic strategy. By guessing at the proper strategy, they’re willingly giving the house a 2% advantage — meaning they lose four times as much. It’s throwing money away. Don’t be one of those people.
This objective of blackjack is commonly misstated as “trying to get as close as you can to 21 without going over”. But 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 his/her bet (chips) in the circle in front of him/her. 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.
You’ve seen the movie 21 or Rain Man so you’ve heard about counting cards. Card counters turn the odds in their favor by keeping track of the cards that have been played. When they see that the odds are in their favor (there are lots of 10′s and aces left), they bet big. They also vary their hit/stand decisions according to the count.
But the advantage they get is tiny. Counters enjoy only a razor-thin edge over the house of about 1%. It’s still nearly a coin toss. The odds are so close that even with an advantage, a counter could still lose for even weeks or months at a time. A counter will come out ahead in the long term, but has to survive into the long term without going broke beforehand.
And that’s why more people don’t count cards. Just like with everything else in life, it takes money to make money.
To ensure that you don’t go bust, you have to have a huge bankroll to weather losing streaks. To make $25 an hour, you’d need $25,000 in capital. If you have that kind of cash lying around, you’re probably already making more than $25/hr. In short, if you can afford to count cards, you probably don’t care to.
Of course, even if you don’t pursue card-counting as a career, if you’re playing blackjack while on vacation anyway then you might as well learn how to count so you can put the odds in your favor.
For more on counting cards see the Wizard of Odds’ Intro to Card Counting.
Play begins with the right-most player (“1st base”) and continues player by player to the left. Your objective is to beat the dealer’s hand; the higher hand wins, as long as it doesn’t go over 21 (bust). If both of you bust, you still lose. This is why the casino has the advantage in blackjack.
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.
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, 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.
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 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), that’s called a natural or a blackjack, and pays 3 to 2. That means if you bet $10, you win $15. But if the dealer also has blackjack, it’s a push. If you’re dealt three or more cards that total 21, that’s just a plain 21, not a natural, sorry. If you or the dealer has a blackjack and the other has plain 21, then blackjack beats plain 21. Do not play the fake single-deck blackjack on the Strip where naturals pay only 6:5! More on this 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 yell at you. If you want to hit, tap the table (between you and your cards) 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 your cards, 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 guaranted $10, no matter what the dealer has. If you decline the even money, then you’ll get the 3:2 payout ($15) 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 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 even the dealer will be 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 even knew 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.