The basics of blackjack
Blackjack is a very simple game. You want to make a hand with a higher total than the dealer but still less than or equal to 21 points (when player or dealer goes over 21, they "bust" and lose the hand).
Cards are valued as follows:
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 – worth that number of points.
Ten, Jack, Queen, King – all worth ten points.
Are worth 1 OR 11, whichever is better for your hand at that time (aces can and do change from 11 to 1 to avoid busting.
A hand including an ace counted as 11 is known as a soft total (because you can hit without any risk of busting).
Play starts by you making a bet and then recieving two cards. If these are an ace and a ten-point card (ten, jack, queen, king) then be smile, you have a Blackjack and will be paid out at 1.5 – 1 (3 to 2) unless the dealer also has a blackjack, in which case the hand is a "push" (tie) and your bet is returned.
You'll get a blackjack about 1/21 times. The rest of the time you have to decide what to do with your hand based on its value and the dealer's upcard (one of the dealer's cards is dealt face up).
If the dealer's face up card is an Ace then you will be offered "Insurance". This is a 2:1 bet that the dealer has blackjack (his face-down card is a ten pointer). This is a sucker bet unless you are counting cards, so just decline it and we can move on.
The dealer also checks for blackjack if he has a ten showing, but insurance is not usually offered (since he would have to have an ace as his other card to make the blackjack).
If the dealer has a blackjack (whether or not you took insurance) and you do not have a blackjack, then you lose. If you both have blackjack then you tie.
But most of the time, the dealer will not have blackjack and you will get to play your hand.
The first decision to make (if the casino offers it) is "Surrender". Like the name suggests, this choice allows you to escape the hand by forfeiting half your bet. It is only a good idea to surrender hands which have a less than 25% chance of winning. Our basic strategy table includes advice on which hands to surrender.
If you have been dealt a pair, then you have the option of splitting the pair. You match your original bet and then create two new hands, each with one card of the original pair and one new card. This is a way of escaping bad totals (16 and 14) and getting more money on the table against unfavourable dealer cards (especially a 6). There are slight variations about how many times you are allowed to split and whether you are allowed to double after splitting but the basic idea is the same. Although you are allowed to split any two ten value cards, this is a bad idea – 20 is too good a total to give up. Our basic strategy table will tell you which pairs to split.
If you don't want to surrender or split, you have the option of doubling down. This play allows you to double your initial bet but you must take one (and only one) more card. Our basic strategy table tells you when the double down is the right play.
Assuming none of these special options appeal to you, you are left with the basic choice of blackjack – Hit or Stand.
Hitting means drawing one more card to try and improve the total of your hand. If you hit and go over a total of 21, then you bust and lose regardless of what the dealer holds.
Standing means that you are happy with your total, and want to see what happens when the dealer plays.
So, now that you are done with your hand / hands, it's the dealer's turn. The dealer will look at his hand and follow the house rules. Generally these are "dealer hits on 16 [or less] and stands on 17 [or more]". Some casinos allow the dealer to hit a soft 17 (a soft total is one that includes an ace that counts as 11) but either way, the dealer has strict rules to follow.
This guide has used the term "basic strategy" a few times. Basic strategy is a set of rules designed so you can make the best possible play on every decision you make. It has been perfected over dozens of years, and minimizes the house advantage.
How to interpret the basic strategy table:
- h = Hit
- u = Surrender, otherwise Hit
- s = Stand
- d = Double (If doubling is not allowed then hit instead, except Ace-Seven)
- p = Split
- ph = if doubling is not allowed after splitting, then just hit
This is the standard basic strategy table for the best set of rules commonly available (four decks, dealer stands on soft 17). If you are interested in refining the strategy for different situations, and what effect different rules have on your game, then you should definately check out the advanced guide. Just this basic strategy is very good though, and makes the house edge about 0.5%.
So there we have it, not just how to play blackjack, but how to play blackjack well.