How to Play Blackjack

Blackjack cards and chipsSavvy gamblers tend to start their discussions of casino games with an examination of blackjack. Part of the reason for the appeal of blackjack is that in almost every casino throughout the world, it is the game that gives the smallest statistical advantage to the house.

Casinos don’t stay in business by offering games that favor the players over the house, and it’s a safe bet that every game in every casino is going to favor the house by a certain margin. In the game of blackjack, the edge of the house often comes to less than 3% even for players who make terrible choices. That edge can usually be shaved to something less than 1% for players who know what they are doing.

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Simply put, blackjack is the closest that most gamblers will ever come to playing an evenly matched game against the house. With certain promotions and rule modifications, it is even possible to find blackjack tables where the players enjoy a tiny statistical advantage over the house–if only for a few hours or days at a time. However, for the purposes of this overview, we will stick strictly to the basic choices that players can make to minimize the house advantage under ordinary circumstances.

If the minimal unfairness inherent in blackjack isn’t enticing to your inner gamer (who just wants to have fun, after all!), then the best thing about blackjack is probably the amount of control that players exert over their own destiny in the course of a game. Players get to make choices about their cards and about their bets.

For some people, it is thrilling to put tokens into a slot machine, press a button, and find out if they are lucky enough to win. For others, the thrill of gambling stems from shaping the outcome of the game through a series of choices. If you’re the kind of gambler who likes to be in the driver’s seat, blackjack is the game for you.

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The Basics

Blackjack basicsBlackjack is often called “twenty-one” because 21 is the magic number in the game. Blackjack is really nothing more than a simple game of addition in which players accumulate cards in an effort to come as close as possible to that magic number without going over (or “busting”).

In blackjack, all cards have a specific value tied to their rank. Twos through tens are all worth their face value; all face cards (jacks, queens, and kings) count as tens; and aces can count as one or eleven. Suits do not matter in blackjack. A five of clubs and a five of spades are both worth five points towards the total score for any hand.

Starting Hand

Players start with two cards, and there is roughly a five percent chance each hand that a player will be dealt a “natural” (an ace plus a ten or face card, for a perfect score of twenty-one). It is not possible for anyone at the table to “bust” when the first two cards are dealt. If you are dealt two aces, you do not have a score of 22.

You could count one ace as an 11 and the other as a 1 (for a total of 12), or you could make the smarter choice of splitting the aces into two separate hands. (We’ll talk more about splitting pairs later on.)

Multiple Winners; Playing Against the House

It is possible for multiple players at the table to win on the same hand, for players compete against the house, not each other. If the woman to your right is dealt a natural, you can congratulate her.

Her win has no bearing on how you will do against the dealer. This is one of the most appealing aspects of blackjack. The players at the table can all imagine each other wearing white hats. When the dealer busts, everyone at the table who is still in the game is a winner, and you will probably develop a sense of community with your fellow players as you come to regard the dealer as the villain.

Dealer’s Hole Card

Dealers hole cardThere are endless variations on the way blackjack is dealt. In some casinos, you may receive one hole card (dealt face down) and one up card (dealt face up), or you may have both of your cards dealt to you face up so that everyone at the table (including the dealer) can see your total. The only hole card at the table that should concern you is the one that belongs to the dealer, which keeps you from knowing for certain what the dealer’s total is when you are deciding whether to take additional cards (“hits”) to bring your total as close to 21 as possible (without “busting,” of course!).

It doesn’t really matter whether your second card is a secret or not because you have to make all of your decisions before the dealer has a chance to take any cards, and the dealer’s choices are dictated in advance by plainly posted rules. Dealers will universally take a hit on a score of 16 or lower and stand pat (which means to refuse any further cards) on a 17 or higher (see the next section for the distinction between a “soft” and a “hard” 17). If your dealer begins the hand with a 9 and a 10, he will not take additional cards no matter what happens with your hand or any other hand at the table. However, since one of those cards will be hidden from you, you won’t know the dealer’s total until the end of the hand.

Soft Hands and Hit Strategy

You’ve just sat down to your first hand of blackjack, and the dealer has dealt you a four and an ace. Your total is either 5 or 15 depending on how you count the ace.

Most gamblers will call your hand a “soft 15” because of the wiggle room the ace gives you. The dealer has a king showing. If his hole card is a deuce, then he has a total of 12, and he will have to take a hit after all the other players at the table have made their decisions about their hands. If his hole card is a six, then his score is already better than yours, but he will still have to take a hit at the end of the hand because of the rules of the game. Dealers cannot stand pat on a sixteen or less, but players can stand pat whenever they want to and simply hope for the dealer to bust.

If your two cards were a 9 and a 6, then you might be nervous about taking a hit on your 15 because any card worth 7 or more would cause you to bust. But your ace + 4 has given you flexibility.

If you take a hit and draw a 7, then your score is not 22. You simply revalue your ace as 1 plus 4 plus 7 for a total of 12. Now if you choose to take another hit, only 10s and face cards will result in a bust. (Incidentally, your hand has now gone from a “soft 15” to a “hard 12” because the ace can no longer be used as an eleven without causing you to bust.) This is where card-counting comes into play for many serious gamblers. Knowing how likely that next card is to have a value higher than 9 helps some folks decide whether to take that next hit.

But card-counting is not essential to that decision-making process.

There’s a smart way to play in this situation (and all situations) whether you have been counting cards or not, and understanding just a few fundamentals can help you make that decision with confidence, hand after hand.

Blackjack Strategy table

*One of the most important details to understand about soft hands concerns the way dealers respond to “soft 17s.” In virtually all casinos, dealers are required to stand pat on “hard 17s.” Some casinos require dealers to take a hit on “soft 17s”; others require dealers to stand pat on all 17s.

The Fundamentals

In future additions to this website, we hope to have time to explore the role of statistical analysis in blackjack and other games in greater detail. (If you’re in the right frame of mind, probability theory is really a lot of fun to study.) However, since most readers run screaming from complex equations, all you need to know for now is that the fundamentals of sound blackjack play are based on reliable principles that can be traced back to the brilliant French thinker, Blaise Pascal.

Since the advent of the computer age, scores of books have been published that feature highly accurate calculations based on refined versions of Pascal’s principles. The math can get so tricky that at times it takes a genius to understand it. But you don’t have to be a genius to apply the principles. You just have to decide not to be a fool, for it is foolish to ignore these fundamentals of blackjack.

Split iconSplitting

When you receive a pair on the initial deal in a game of blackjack, you will have the option to split the pair into two hands. (This will involve placing a second bet, equal to your first bet, for your new hand.)

  • Aces ALWAYS split
  • Twos Split (unless dealer’s up card is 7 or higher)
  • Three’s Split (unless dealer’s up card is 7 or higher)
  • Fours NEVER split
  • Fives NEVER split
  • Sixes Split (unless dealer’s up card is 7 or higher)
  • Sevens Split (unless dealer’s up card is 7 or higher)
  • Eights ALWAYS split
  • Nines Split (unless dealer’s up card is 7 or higher)
  • Tens (and face card pairs) NEVER split

One mnemonic device that might help you remember these guidelines is to think of the ‘A’ sound at the beginning of “aces” and “eights” as standing for “always.” If you can handle a little implied profanity, you can also remember the phrase “F that” as meaning no splits on fours, fives, and face cards (including tens). For all other pairs, just remember that 7 is the dealer’s lucky number and that you should split unless he has a 7 or higher showing.

Double down iconDoubling Down

When it is your turn to decide whether you want to add more cards to your hand, you will have the option to double down, which means that you can double your original bet while limiting yourself to just one additional hit from the deck (no matter what card you receive).

  • If you have a hard hand (i.e. a hand without an ace), there are only two point totals that should prompt you to double down.
  • If you have a total of ten (say 4 + 6), double down unless the dealer is showing a ten or an ace.
  • If you have a total of eleven (say 8 +3), double down unless the dealer is showing an ace.
  • For soft hands, double down whenever the dealer’s up card is a five or a six and your own total ranges from 13 to 18.

Otherwise, do not double down.

Taking Hits

You will want to know when to take a hit, as this will be the crucial third or fourth card that could get you closer to 21, or at least beat the dealer’s hand.

  • If you have a hard count of 11 or less, it doesn’t matter what the dealer is showing. Take a hit. (Obviously, you cannot bust from taking a single card if your total is only 11.)
  • If you have a hard count of 12 to 16, take a hit only if the dealer’s up card is 7 or higher. (This one is hard for new players. 12 seems like a long, long way from 21. But remember that 16 out of 52 cards have a value of 10 points, which means that taking a hit on a twelve means busting just about 30% of the time. Don’t take that risk unless the dealer’s up card warrants it.)
  • If you have a hard count of 17 or higher, stand pat. (Casinos have their dealers do exactly this–for good reason!)
  • If you have a soft count of 17 or less, take a hit no matter what the dealer is showing.
  • If you have a soft 18, take a hit only if the dealer’s up card is a 6 or lower.
  • If you have a soft 19 or higher, stand pat regardless of what the dealer has.

Insurance; or the Sucker Bet

When the dealer is showing an ace, it’s easy to assume that he is sitting on a natural. There are sixteen cards in any deck that are desirable matches for an ace (all 4 tens, all 4 jacks, all 4 queens, and all 4 kings). Many players look at that ace and cannot help contemplating the likelihood that the hidden card is worth ten, and they get scared.

Some of them get scared enough to buy insurance, which is sort of like the warranty option that a lot of retailers try to push on customers at the time of checkout. It may seem like a good value because it means paying a little money now so as not to lose more money later, but usually, it’s just a waste.

In blackjack, taking insurance means placing an additional wager (exactly half of one’s original bet), but it’s a way for you to bet on the dealer, not on yourself. If the dealer really is sitting on a natural, then the player wins the insurance bet two to one.

However, if the dealer doesn’t have a natural, then the player loses the insurance bet.

Never take insurance. Dealers showing an ace will only have a natural 30% of the time. (The psychology of fear that leads players to think that the hidden card is “probably” a ten is discussed in a sidebar on probability.)

Summary

Playing smart blackjack comes down to knowing four things:

  • When to split pairs;
  • When to double down;
  • When to take a hit; and
  • When to buy insurance (never!).

The guidelines discussed above are not perfect. You can improve on them by learning about additional exceptions and wrinkles. You can also improve your chances by learning how to count cards. Realistically, however, once blackjack players have mastered the fundamentals, they have reached the point of diminishing returns.

You’ll have to learn a lot of additional guidelines (or learn a lot about card counting) to improve your odds by just a few tenths of a percentage point.

Start with these fundamentals, and come back to this website when you’re ready for more details. If all goes according to plan, we’ll have more to share with you then!

The “Rule of 10” and Relative Probability vs. Absolute Probability

The word “probably” is problematic–especially in discussions of probability.

rule of 10Some readers may benefit from learning to think about two kinds of probability: relative probability (which concerns outcomes that are statistically more probable than other, similar outcomes) and absolute probability (which concerns outcomes that occur more than 50% of the time).

If I have a “hard 19” in a game of blackjack, then I know that taking a hit will “probably” result in a bust in the absolute sense. In other words, only 8 cards in the deck (four aces and four deuces) will not result in a bust. That leaves 44 cards that will put my total over 21. If a gambler says that I will “probably” bust if I take another hit, he means that taking another hit is a losing decision more than 50% of the time. And he’s obviously right.

But when a seasoned gambler tells me to assume that the dealer’s hole card is a 10 because it “probably” is, he is now speaking in terms of relative probability. Since all face cards (jacks, queens, and kings) are counted as 10s, the dealer’s hole card is four times as likely to be a 10 as it is to be an ace or a five or any specific number up to nine. It is, therefore, correct to think of the hole card as being “more probably” a ten than any other specific rank.

Don’t Use Rule-of-10

However, only 16 of the 52 cards in a deck count as tens and 16 is certainly NOT more than half of 52. In fact, it’s less than a third.

Many uninformed gamblers use the “rule of 10” as a convenient excuse for ignoring this very simple fact. When they think to themselves, “The dealer’s hole card is probably a 10,” they believe that it will turn out to be a 10 more often than not, which simply isn’t the case. More than two-thirds of the time, the dealer’s hole card is NOT a ten.

A whole litany of mathematical errors can be avoided by casual players once they realize that even though the hole card is more likely to be a 10 than it is to be an ace or a 9, it is more than twice as likely to be anything from an ace to a nine than it is to be a ten.

So the next time you find yourself thinking, “The cards I can’t see are probably 10s,” just remember that they probably aren’t!

They’re simply more likely to be 10s than they are to be any other specific rank.