The very basics of blackjack

Bare-bones blackjack strategy

The following chart is a greatly simplified version of blackjack's basic strategy, but knowing just these few rules will make you better than most new players:

Hard hands
You have Dealer Do this
11 or less Anything HIT
12 or more 2-6 STAND
12 or more 7-Ace HIT
12-16 Anything > 6 HIT
17 or more Anything STAND
10 Anything < 10 DOUBLE
11 Not an Ace DOUBLE
8,8 or Ace,Ace Anything SPLIT
Soft hands
You have Dealer Do this
17 or less Anything HIT
18 Anything < 9 STAND
18 9 or greater HIT
19 or greater Anything STAND

Show, don't tell

The most frequently used instructions -- stand or hit -- must be given to the dealer with physical gestures. Just saying "hit me" isn't enough. To indicate "hit," tap the table in front of you with your fingers. To indicate "stand," hold your hand parallel to the table with your palm down and wave it back and forth.

At table where you are allowed to hold your cards, gently scrape the table with the cards to indicate "hit." If you want to stand, just slide the cards face down beneath your bet. If you have a blackjack, or wish to split or double, place your cards face up on the table just to the side of your bet. And if you bust, just turn your cards face up on the on the table and let lip curl in that disgusted look that will come so naturally.

Hand gestures instead of verbal commands are used to that, in case of any disputes, tapes from the overhead cameras can be reviewed to confirm what instructions the player gave the dealer.

The exception to the "show, don't tell" rule is when splitting or doubling down. After placing the additional bet on the table it is usually clear what your intentions are, but if your hand is such that the dealer is uncertain whether you are splitting or doubling -- if you had a pair of 5s, for example -- they will ask you. In this case a verbal response is required.

Blackjack is a very easy game to understand and learn at a basic level, which is one of the reasons it is second only to slot machines in popularity in casinos. The goal is simple: Compete against the dealer to come as close to 21 as possible without going over. Cards 2-10 are worth their face value; Jacks, Queens and Kings are worth 10; Aces are worth either 1 or 11, whichever is more advantageous to the hand. If you are dealt a 21 with the first two cards you automatically win, and your bet is even paid at better than even money. If additional card(s) push your total over 21 you automatically lose.

If you choose to stand with a total of less than 21, the dealer then begins to either hit or stand. If the dealer goes over 21, you win. Otherwise the result of the round is determined by who has the higher total.

The game in theory

The round begins with the dealer giving everyone two cards, including themselves. The catch is that the dealer only shows one of their cards, keeping the other face down. Your actions should be determined ONLY by two things:

  • What cards you have in your hand
  • What card the dealer has showing

That's it. No hunches, no gut feelings, nothing like that. To be successful players must approach blackjack from a purely mathematical point of view. There is a certain percentage of cards remaining the deck that will help your hand and a certain percentage that will hurt the dealer.

Taking those two factors into account, you will take one of these actions when it is your turn:

  • Hit - Receive another card from the dealer.
  • Stand - Receive no more cards and stick with the hand you have.
  • Split - If you have been dealt a pair, you have the option of adding an additional bet and dividing the cards into two separate hands.
  • Double down - You have the option of adding a second bet in the same amount as the first and receiving one more card -- and one card only -- for your hand.

(Note: There are actually two other possible actions a player could take -- Surrender and Insurance -- but surrender is an advanced move and insurance is mathematically a bad bet, so we'll ignore those options.)

The house advantage comes from the fact that you must play out your entire hand before the dealer acts at all. Meaning you may bust -- and lose your bet -- before the dealer acts at all.

The advantage for players is that the dealer must hit or stand according to a set of rules, hitting on anything less than 17 and standing on anything 17 or higher (rules at some casinos require the dealer to hit on a soft 17, but this makes little difference to basic players). This means there are certain cards that indicate there is a much higher chance the dealer will eventually bust. These "busting cards" are 2-6, and the dealer can be expected to go over 21 about 40 percent of the time their up card is one of these. Therefore you will not hit aggressively against these, because you want to make sure you make sure you don't bust first.

Since blackjack is a game of probability, not random luck, there's no need to overthink things. Just look at your cards and the dealer's and make your decision according to what is listed in the box titled "Bare-bones blackjack strategy." That's a very stripped-down version of the games basic mathematical strategy, but know just this little bit puts you ahead of the majority of recreational players.

The game in reality

If you've never gambled in a casino before you're probably going to be pretty nervous. A low-dollar blackjack table is a good place to start. You may notice some tables where the cards are dealt face down and players hold them in their hand, while at other tables the cards are dealt face up and players leave them on the table. I recommend starting at a face up table if possible. Seeing all the cards and not having to worry about properly handling your own is usually more relaxing for new players.

Buying in and betting

When you sit down place the money you wish to have exchanged for chips on the table, but be careful NOT to place the cash in the little square or circle printed on the table directly in front of your players spot. This area is specifically meant for the placement of a wager. By putting money in that area you are indicating you wish to bet the cash on the next hand. If you make this mistake a good dealer will usually ask, "Money plays?" Meaning, "Are you sure you want to bet this cash?" Just say no and thank the dealer for catching your error.

It's a good idea to ask for a few $1 chips when you buy in, to use for tipping the dealer or cocktail waitress.

To bet, place in your chips in the area marked for them, stacking them with higher values on the bottom. If you doubling or splitting a hand place the additional bet to the side of the original amount, never on top of it.

If you wish to tip the dealer you may push a chip across the table between hands and let them know it's a tip, but the more common method is to place a additional bet for the dealer with your next hand. To do this place your own bet in the usual area, then put an extra chip or chips just above and slightly to the side of your wager, straddling the marked bet-area line. Usually this will be less than the amount of your wager; no matter the minimum bet for the table you may bet whatever you wish for a dealer tip (also called a "toke"), even as little as a 50-cent piece or a $1 chip.

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