Going To Vegas
How to Play Blackjack
How to Play Blackjack

How to Play Blackjack

Mon, Nov 26, 2012

Basic Blackjack Strategy

The companion index cards summarize the "basic strategy" for playing blackjack. This strategy will give you your best chances of winning short of card counting. (Note: Unless your are very good at card counting you will likely get caught, and getting caught means getting banned from the casino. For my money, games are supposed to be fun. Card counting is too much like work.)

These color-coded index cards cover every possible hand that can be dealt, separated by the player (that's you) having a hard total, a soft total (i.e. one of the cards dealt is an Ace which can have a value of either 1 or 11), or a "pair".

On the index cards:

  • The numbers in the Player column indicate your card total
  • The numbers in the Dealer column indicate the dealer's single up-card
  • A "---" by itself in the Dealer column means it doesn't matter what the dealer's single up-card is
  • "10v" means a 10-value card - 10, Jack, Queen, or King
  • When two numbers are separated by a dash (-) it means all numbers in that range inclusively. Ex: "3 - 6" means 3, 4, 5, and 6.
  • When two or more numbers are separated by commas (,) it means only those individual numbers, no in-between numbers. Ex: "2, 7" means only 2 or 7. It does not include 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Some gambling books say that you cannot refer to written material while playing. Because of this, these index cards serve as "flash-cards" to ease memorizing the information. However, dealers have told me that it is perfectly acceptable to have written material, as long as you don't delay the game referring to it. (This is at the individual casino's discretion so ask the dealer.)

The most common mistake people make playing this strategy is not playing the strategy. In other words, they won't hit when the strategy says to hit, etc. Don't deviate from the strategy. While it doesn't guarantee you'll be a winner, it has been proven to offer you your best odds of winning.

Blackjack Notes

It's helpful to take a chair that is farther to the left (dealer's right). This will give you time to total up your cards, look at the dealer's up-card, and recall the appropriate play to make (or review the flash-cards if allowed) while the other players are playing their hands. Whichever chair you take, don't feel rushed. Take your time and if you can't remember the appropriate play to make, ask the dealer. They're more than willing to help.

After taking a seat, lay your cash down on the table in front of you and ask the dealer for "red" ($5 chips) or "green" ($25 chips). Never try to hand your cash to the dealer directly. If it's a low-limit table where the minimum bet (as indicated on the placard in the back corner of the table) is between $1 and $4, you can also ask the dealer for "dollars" ($1 chips). The dealer will put your chips on the table layout in front of you and put your cash in the "drop box" (a slot in the table-top). Place your bet (chips) in your bet area on the table layout, which is usually indicated by a small circle or square directly in front of you. Placing a bet in this area indicates to the dealer that you want to participate in the upcoming "hand".

A new "hand" begins with the dealer dealing each player, and themselves, two cards. Both of the players' cards are dealt face up while one of the dealer's cards is dealt face down (the "hole card"). The dealer then goes in a clock-wise direction around the table, basically playing one-on-one with each player until they decide to stand or bust. Once all of the players have played their hands, the dealer flips over their hole card and stands if their two cards total 17 or more, or hits (and hopefully busts) trying to get to 17 or more.

Multi-deck Blackjack (Three or more decks)

6-deck blackjack is the most common game in casinos and is easy to spot because the dealer deals the cards out of a plastic "shoe". In these games the players' cards are dealt face-up and the players never touch the cards. The dealer deals and collects the cards. When the dealer indicates it is your play, use the following hand signals to indicate what you want to do:

  • Indicate you want a "hit" by tapping your fingers on the table
  • Indicate you want to "stand" by waving your hand horizontally over your cards
  • Indicate you want to double-down or split a pair by placing an equal bet to the left of your current bet

If taking a hit causes you to bust, the dealer will take your cards and your bet.

Single-Deck and Double-deck Blackjack

The more decks the dealers use the higher the house edge. You can improve your odds of winning somewhat by playing "single-deck" (hard to find these games) or "double-deck" blackjack. It's easy to spot these games because the dealers deal the cards out of their hands rather than using a shoe. In addition, players' cards are dealt face-down and the players handle their cards (although I have seen a couple single-deck tables where the cards were dealt face-up like a multi-deck game). When the dealer indicates that it is your play, use the following signals to indicate what you want to do:

  • Indicate you want a "hit" by dragging the edge of your cards on the table in a sweeping motion towards you
  • Indicate you want to "stand" by sliding your cards, face down, under your chips
  • Indicate you want to double-down or split a pair by placing an equal bet to the left of your current bet

If taking a hit causes you to bust, lay your cards down face up next to your chips.

Be careful! Some casinos are now offering single-deck blackjack games that have a reduced payout of 6:5 rather than the usual 3:2 which is a ripoff for blackjack players. Given that a 3:2 multi-deck game is better than a 6:5 single-deck game, there's no reason to ever play 6:5 single-deck blackjack.

Special Plays

A "double-down" simply means you want to double your bet because your initial two cards have given you a favorable hand against the house. The casino allows you to double your bet in this fashion but there's a catch. When you do double-down you only get one hit so you're hoping for a 10-value card.

For example, let's say you're dealt an 8 and a 3 (total of 11). If you were to double down and the dealer hits you with a 10-value card, you've got a card total of 21. The only way you wouldn't win is if the dealer's cards also totaled 21. (If both you and the dealer have the same card total it's a tie, called a "push", and no money is exchanged.) Note that getting a card total of 21 is not a "blackjack". A "blackjack", also called a "natural", is getting a card total of 21 on the first two cards dealt, which requires an Ace and a 10-value card.

When you are dealt a "pair" (two 6s, two queens, etc.) "splitting" allows you to split the two cards into two separate hands. If the value of an individual card in your pair gives you a favorable hand against the house, splitting lets you play that advantage twice. Unlike a double-down, you can take as many hits as you like on each hand.

Insurance and Even Money

When the dealer's up-card is an Ace, they will ask you if you want "insurance". I won't go into what an insurance bet is because every blackjack book I've ever read says the same thing; Never take insurance (unless you're card counting and the deck is 10-heavy). In other words, just say "no".

When you are dealt a "natural" (blackjack) and the dealer's up-card is an Ace, they will ask you if you "want even money". This is taking an even money payout as insurance against the dealer also having a natural, in which case you'd "push" (tie) and get nothing. The strategy says don't take even money. Over time you'll win more than you'll lose by not taking even money. Again, just say "no".

See the Tips page for information on ways to tip a blackjack dealer. You may also want to take a look at the "Good Software" section back on the Gaming page to see a screen-shot from the Cardoza blackjack game.

Using The Flash Cards

Whether using the flash cards at the table, or while practicing with the Avery Cardoza computer game, the following sequence will help you narrow down the correct play quickly. When your cards are dealt:

  • Do you have a pair ? - go to the SPLIT card

    • Not pairs of 4s, 5s, or 10-value cards ? - Split according to the SPLIT card.
      After splitting, use the HARD or SOFT card as appropriate to play both hands
  • Is there an Ace in your hand ? - go to the SOFT card

    • Is your non-Ace card 8 or 9 ? - Stand.
    • Is your non-Ace card 6 or less ? - Hit, checking the SOFT card to see if you should double-down
    • Is your non-Ace card a 7 ? - Play according to the dealer's hand
  • If no Pair or Aces - go to the HARD card

    • Do your cards total 17 or more ? - Stand
    • Do your cards total 11 or less ? - Hit, checking the HARD card to see if you should double-down
    • Do your cards total 12 through 16 ? - Play according to the dealer's up-card

To summarize:

  • Pair ? - SPLIT card

    • Not 4, 5, or 10v - Split according to SPLIT card

  • Ace ? - SOFT card

    • Non-Ace an 8 or 9 ? - Stand
    • Non-Ace 6 or less ? - Hit (possible double-down)
    • Non-Ace a 7 ? - Play according to the dealer's hand
  • Else - HARD card

    • 17 or more ? - Stand
    • 11 or less ? - Hit (possible double-down)
    • 12 - 16 ? - Play according to the dealer's up-card

As mentioned earlier, most casinos will allow you to refer to the cards while at the table as long as you're quick about it. However, with a little practice it's not that hard to memorize the plays on the cards.

Strategy Basis

The "basic strategy" is based on two simple facts:

  • the dealer has to hit to 17 or more
  • that nearly 1/3 of the cards are 10-value cards

You're assuming that:

  • the dealer's "hole card" (the one dealt face-down) is a 10-value card
  • that if you or the dealer take a hit it will be a 10-value card

Naturally this won't be the case a lot of times, but the basic strategy has been tested through millions of computer simulations and has been proven to give you your best odds of winning. (So much so that it caused the casinos to change their rules when it was developed back in the late '50s.)

Given the above two facts the flash-cards start to make sense. If the dealer's up-card is 6 or less, they're going to have to take at least one hit to get to 17 making it more likely they will bust. That's why the flash-cards indicate that even if your cards only total up to 12, you don't want to hit if the dealer's up-card is 6 or less. If you hit and get a 10-value card that's 22 and you bust. Better to sit tight with your 12 and hope the dealer busts.