Everyone should want to know how to play blackjack in a casino. So I’ve written this blackjack tutorial to get you started.
And it doesn’t matter if you want to play in Atlantic City, Reno, Las Vegas, or online. The rules are mostly the same.
Why should you want to know how to play blackjack?
Simply put, it’s the best table game in the casino. It’s more fun than any other game except maybe craps. And it has the best odds in the casino.
Most people played some rudimentary version of 21 with their mom at the kitchen table when they were growing up. If you did, you’re partially prepared already.
But there’s more to knowing how to play blackjack in a casino than trying to get close to 21 without going over.
1- The Rules for Playing Blackjack
To start a game of blackjack, you first must buy in. At a land-based casino in Las Vegas, you’ll put money on the table that the dealer will convert to chips. (Don’t hand the money to the dealer.) In an online casino, you’ll deposit money into an account and draw off that as you play.
The dealer deals you (and the other players) 2 cards each. The dealer also takes 2 cards. One off the dealer’s cards is dealt face up.
Blackjack is a comparing game where you compare your score to the dealer’s to see who wins. The cards are worth a certain number of points each:
- Aces are worth 1 or 11.
- Face cards are worth 10.
- All the other cards are worth their ranking.
The suits don’t matter, and your hand’s score is calculated by totaling the point value for each card.
Your goal is to have a higher total than the dealer, OR to still be in the game if and when the dealer busts. Your goal is also to not go bust yourself.
What is this expression “bust”, and what does it mean?
Some people know that the game is also called 21. That’s a magic number for multiple reasons:
A 2-card hand with a total of 21 is a “blackjack” or “natural”. It pays off at 3 to 2 in most casinos.
Any hand with a total of 22 or higher is a bust, which is an immediate loss.
Any hand that hits 22 or higher loses at that instant. Since the dealer acts last, it’s possible for you to bust AND for the dealer to bust, and you’ll still lose.
Also, at the end of each round, if you and the dealer have the same score, you have a tie. This is called a “push”. You get your bet back but no winnings.
2- Your Options for How to Play Your Blackjack Hand
You have a limited number of decisions you’re allowed to make.
- You can “hit”. This means you take an additional card from the dealer. This will increase the point value of your hand by whatever the additional card is worth. You can hit your hand as many times as you want.
- You can “stand”. This means you opt to take the total you have now and take no additional cards. Once you stand, you don’t get to make any decisions. You just have to wait to see how the rest of the hand plays out.
- You can “split”. You can only split your hand when it consists of 2 cards of the same rank. Not only that, but you have to put up a new bet for the 2nd hand, then you get to play 2 hands. The starting card for each hand is one of the 2 cards from your original hand.
- You can “double down”. You put up another bet, the same size as the first one, doubling the amount of money you have in action on the hand. Then you take one more card. You cannot hit after getting that one additional card.
- You can “surrender”. When you surrender, you give up half your bet. Your hand ends immediately. This is occasionally–but rarely–the correct play, mathematically.
The dealer also gets to make decisions, but she has specific rules related to what she can and can’t do.
3- The Dealer’s Rules for Playing Each Hand
The dealer doesn’t get to make decisions about how to play her hand. She plays according to a prescribed set of rules. She doesn’t have options like splitting, doubling down, or surrendering. All she can do is hit or stand.
At most casinos, the dealer must hit or hand until she has a total of 17 or higher. Then she must stand.
At this point, it probably makes sense to discuss the difference between “soft hands” and “hard hands”. (The dealers at some casinos hit a soft 17, but at other casinos, they must stand on a soft 17.)
4- Soft Hands versus Hard Hands
A soft hand is a blackjack hand that includes an ace. Since an ace can count as a 1 or as an 11, you’re less likely to bust when you have a soft total.
Let’s look at an example:
You’re dealt a 5 and an ace. Your total is 16, but it’s soft. If you hit and get a 9, you can count the total as 25 or as 15. Since you’d bust with a total of 25, you’d count it as a 15.
A hard hand, on the other (ahem) hand, is a hand where the total isn’t flexible. In the previous example, that 2nd total is a hard total of 15.
Here’s another example:
You have a 5 and a king. That’s a total of 15. There’s no wiggle room. The cards are worth what they’re worth, so that’s a hard total.
The appropriate strategy for whether to hit or stand varies based on whether you have a hard or soft total. It also varies based on what the dealer’s face up card looks like.
In some casinos, the dealer hits a soft 17. In others, the dealer stands on a soft 17.
You’re better off playing in casinos and at tables where the dealer stands on a soft 17.
5- The Little Details Related to Playing Blackjack in a Casino
Knowing how the rules work is one thing, but actually being able to play requires a little more knowledge and skill.
For one thing, you need to know the appropriate hand signals for the various decisions you make. You can say “hit” or “stand” out loud.
But don’t be surprised if the dealer asks you to use the appropriate hand signals. The camera above the table records all the action. If you’re using hand signals, it’s impossible for you to lie about whether the dealer made a mistake.
The hand signals vary based on whether you’re playing in a face up or face down game. In casinos dealing from a shoe with multiple decks in it, you get your cards face up. When you’re playing in single deck games, it’s traditional for you to get your cards face down.
In a face up game, you’re not allowed to touch the cards. You signal the dealer what to do with hand motions.
To take a hit, you point at your hand with your index finger. To stand, you wave your hand face-down over the cards.
And if you want to double down or split, you place your 2nd bet next to your original bet. Do not place it on top of your original bet, though.
If you’re playing in a game where the cards are dealt face down, you’ll actually be allowed to hold your cards. To ask for another card, scrape the cards gently on the table. If you want to stand, place the cards underneath your tips. To double down or split, you’ll turn your cards over and place your 2nd bet next to the first one. Never place your 2nd bet on top of your original bet.
And, of course, if you’re playing online, you’ll just use the appropriate animated buttons to make your decisions.
6- Then Learn Basic Strategy
It’s pointless to play the one game in the casino with the smallest house edge if you don’t take advantage of that low edge. And in blackjack, your decisions matter. There’s one mathematically best decision in every situation.
Experts call all those correct decisions and situations combined “basic strategy”.
You have the following information in each hand:
- Whether you have a pair or not.
- Whether you have a hard or soft total.
- What that total is.
- One of the dealer’s cards.
If you have a pair, you get to decide whether or not to split. This decision varies based on the dealer’s upcard. In some situations, like when you have aces or 8s, you”ll always split. In others, like when you have 4s, 5s, or 10s, you’ll never split.
With the other pairs, you need to memorize the basic strategy for splitting based on the dealer’s upcard. For example, if you have a pair of 2s, 3s, or 7s, you’ll split if the dealer has a 2 through 7 showing. If the dealer has an 8 or higher showing, you’ll treat your hand as whatever hard total it is (4, 6, or 14).
With hard totals, you’ll usually be gauging how likely it is that the dealer will have a stiff hand. (A stiff hand is one that’s likely to go bust.) You usually assume the dealer has a 10 in the hole, but not always.
There are more 10s in the deck than any other value, because of the jacks, queens, and kings. If the dealer has a 6 showing and a 10 in the hole, she has a hard total of 16. She’s required by the rules to hit that hand. Most of the cards in the deck will cause her to bust.
So if you have a hard total of 16 in that situation, you’re better off standing than hitting. You’ll probably win if the dealer busts. And if you take an extra card, you’re likely to bust.
The strategy is different for a soft 16 in that situation. It’s impossible to bust that hand, so you should try to improve it. The only soft totals you’ll always stand on are soft totals of 18 or more.
Plenty of sites offer detailed explanations of basic strategy. Most of them also include a table to help you memorize the correct moves. My favorite is the basic strategy generator at Ken Smith’s site. It’s configurable by the rules that you input, which means it’s more accurate than most basic strategy charts.
7- Remember How the House Edge Works
The house edge is the mathematical advantage that the casino has over the player in the long run. For most blackjack games, the house edge is between 0.5% and 1%.
What does this mean?
You’re mathematically expected to lose AN AVERAGE of 50 cents or $1 every time you place a $100 wager. This is a long term expectation, though. In the short run, you might win or lose much more than this.
If you’re not using basic strategy, the house edge goes up. Really bad players at the blackjack table face a house edge closer to 4%.
If you take nothing else way from this post, learn this:
You should always play according to basic strategy.
The only time you deviate is if you’re counting cards at an expert level. That won’t apply to most of my readers here.
Ignore your hunches. They’re meaningless. You’re not psychic. I promise.
Also, even though the house edge for blackjack is incredibly low, it’s still there. If you play blackjack long enough, the casino will win all your money.
Learning how to play blackjack should be mandatory for any serious casino gambler.
That’s why I wrote this blackjack tutorial.
It’s one of the most entertaining games in the casino. And even though the house has an edge, it’s one of the lowest in the casino. That means you get more entertainment for your money.
The best way to learn how to play blackjack is online, by the way. You can play free games where you don’t have to risk any money at almost any reputable online casino. The only exceptions are those online casinos offer live dealer games via webcam. They’d be fools to let you play for free while they have to pay an actual dealer.
Now that you know how to play blackjack, get started right away. Good luck at the tables!