Blackjack Basics

In this section the game of blackjack is described. In order to keep this explanation brief and clear, this description is based on the most popular set of rules (information on different variants can be found here) and strategy and player decisions are disregarded (information on strategies can be found here).

The environment

Blackjack is a game that is commonly found in casinos. Most casinos will have multiple blackjack tables where players can enjoy the game. This section will only provide information about the environment at the blackjack table, more information on the whole casino environment can be found here.

Blackjack tables regularly have the shape of a half circle. A table can usually host a maximum of five to seven players, who will sit at the curved side of the table. The dealer will stand behind the straight side of the table, facing the players. A blackjack table will generally have a standard layout (see picture). Although the color of the tabletop might be different from the color in the picture, it is usually colored in a single color and all white markings are instructions for players.

At the straight side of the table there is an area that is meant for the dealer and the game equipment. In general the items that are found in this area, such as the chip rack, the deck of cards and the discard tray will not move. There is an exception however, cards and chips that are required in the current game may be moved.

The curved edge of the table can be used by players to keep their belongings. Most of the time players will put their cheques (or chips) and beverages as well as items such as ashtrays on the outside of the table.

At the center of the table there are usually some game rules that are printed on the tabletop and form a line. Players can place their bets in the area between this line and the curved edge of the table. All chips that are not in this area are considered out of play in the current game.

The equipment

The most important piece of equipment that is required to play a game of blackjack is a 52-card deck. This deck should include the number-cards (two to ten), jack, queen, king and ace of hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds. All jokers will be removed from the deck. Blackjack is most often played with multiple decks to prevent card counting. The most played forms of blackjack use two, six or eight decks. In games with multiple decks a plastic device with the name ‘shoe’ is frequently used to store cards.

Chips or cheques also play a vital part in the game of blackjack, as they are used to place bets and pay off winners. Chips usually have both a written marking and a specific color that indicates their value. In most casinos, white chips have a $1 value, red chips have a $5 value, green chips have a $25 value and black chips have a $100 value. The color-coding may be different, depending on the table or casino; chips on high-limit tables usually have higher values and some casinos might use pink chips with a $1.50 value and silver $0.50 chips.

Players will keep their chips in front of them near the edge of the table, while the dealer will keep the casino’s chips on a chip rack that is placed on his side of the table. All players have a dedicated spot for placing bets and they should put chips in that spot to place a bet. After each round, the dealer will pay winning players with chips from the rack or return losing players’ chips to the rack.

The last piece of equipment that is commonly used while playing blackjack is the cut card (a transparent plastic card used to cut the deck) and the discard tray. In rare cases other equipment is being used in casinos. An example of such equipment is a paddle that is used to deal cards to players.

The goal of blackjack

There is only one goal in blackjack: beat the dealer. Beating the dealer can be done in two ways:

  • The first way of beating the dealer is beating the dealer’s hand. The rules for beating the dealer’s hand are simple: the total value of the player’s hand must be equal to 21 or lower and at the same time it has to be higher than the dealer’s hand. If the total value of a player’s hand exceeds 21, the player ‘busts’. This means his hand immediately ends and the player loses.
  • The second way of beating the dealer is letting the dealer ‘bust’. This requires the player’s hand to have a total value of 21 or less and the dealer’s hand having a total value that exceeds 21.

When playing to win, it is of utmost importance to consider both options while playing. Most beginners have the tendency to want to beat the dealer every single hand, which is a big mistake. By taking too many cards they often bust and lose hands that they could have won by forcing the dealer to take extra cards and bust.
The focus of this page is teaching the basics of blackjack and more information on how blackjack hands are played will follow below. Detailed blackjack strategies can be found elsewhere.

Card values

In blackjack, the suit of a card has no significance and only the value of a card matters. The number-cards (two to ten) all have a value that equals the number shown and the face cards (jack, queen, king) have a value of 10. An ace has two possible values, 1 or 11. It is counted as 11 if the total value of a player’s hand is less than 21. It is counted as 1 if the total value of a player’s hand exceeds 21.

The start of a round

When a new round of blackjack starts, the dealer will start by dealing 1 card to everyone that participates in the game. The cards are dealt in clockwise order starting from the player on the dealer’s left.

The dealer will receive his first card when all players have a card and this card is placed face down on the table. This card, the so-called “hole card”, will remain face down and it will only be revealed at the end of the game.

Thereafter, a second card will be dealt to all players and the dealer and the game will start. In almost all games of blackjack, one of the dealer’s cards will be face up (the “up-card”) and one card will be face down (the “hole card”). This is done, so that players cannot see the exact value of the dealer’s cards, but they can make an estimate based on the card that is placed face up.

Drawing blackjack

The term "blackjack" means that an initial hand, consisting of two cards, has a total value of 21: one ace and a card with value 10. When a player or the dealer has a blackjack hand it is an “instant win”.

If the second card of the dealer, the face up card, is an ace, then players will get the option to take "insurance" before the dealer checks the card that is placed face down (the hole card). Players that want to make use of insurance will have to pay an additional fee that is equal to half the amount that they bet. Players with insurance will not lose their wager (the original bet + insurance fee). If the dealer does not have blackjack, the insurance fee is lost, but the player will still play with the original bet.

Players that got a blackjack themselves will get the chance to take “even money”. This means they will get paid their original bet 1:1, while other players will be offered insurance. Players that choose to take even money will be paid out directly, no matter what the hand the dealer holds. The bet of the player taking even money will no longer be in play.

If the dealer does in fact have a blackjack (his hole card has a value of 10), the hole card will be shown immediately and the game will end. In this case, all players that have chosen not to take insurance will lose their bets. Players that have blackjack, but didn’t choose even money, will tie (“push”) against the dealer’s hand and have their bet returned.

If the dealer’s card that is placed face up is a card with value 10, players can’t get insurance or even money. The dealer will check the card that is placed face down and if it is an ace, the card will be turned and the hand will end. Players with blackjack will tie (“push”) against the dealer’s hand and all other players will lose their bets.
If the dealer’s hand is not blackjack, players who do have blackjack will be paid out immediately. Blackjack pays three-to-two, meaning that players with blackjack will win one-and-a-half times their bet. The hand will be removed from play after the payout.

The game will continue as normal for players that do not have blackjack and the players will get their turn in the normal order – starting at the player on the dealer’s left.

Game Options

Aside from taking an extra card (hitting) or not taking extra cards (standing), players may also execute several other options directly after everyone has received their cards:

Surrender

Players have the choice to surrender at the start of the game at the cost of half their bet. Although they lose half their bet, the other half is returned to them. If a player chooses to surrender, the dealer will collect half the bet and the player’s cards. The player will have to wait for the next round to play again.

Double

A player can also choose to double his bet after receiving his hand. Most of the time, this is done to double the original wager. A player that chooses to double will receive exactly 1 extra card. If the card makes the total value of the player’s hand exceed 21, the bet is immediately lost. If the total value of the hand does not exceed 21, the player is forced to stand. Double is a definitive decision, the player cannot get extra cards or regain the extra money that is bet.

Traditionally, the extra card was placed face down on the table (people still often call it "doubling down") and it would only be revealed at the end of the round. This still happens in hand-dealt games, but the card is usually placed face up in games with multiple decks that are dealt from a shoe. (For more information on the difference, check our casino play section.)

Split

If a player receives two identical cards (two sixes, two jacks, etc.), he gets the option to "split" these cards into two separate and independent hands. Normally the player will have to place an additional bet equal to the initial bet (tough in some cases it can be less) and the cards are moved apart into two separate hands.

When splitting hands, there are a number of rules that usually apply:

  1. If the second card of a split card also has an identical value, then players get the option to split them again, which leads to a third hand for the player. Most casinos allow players to play a maximum of four hands at a time.
  2. A player that splits aces will only receive one extra card for both aces and he has to stand. The player cannot take any additional cards.
  3. Blackjacks that are completed by splitting cards with value 10 or aces will not be treated as blackjacks. They will count as hands with a total value of 21 and players will not be paid out three-to-two. Players that win a bet with such hands will be paid one-to-one.
  4. Usually players can use the double or surrender option on split hands.

If none of these options are used by players, the hand will be played normally, as follows.

Playing a Hand

Hands that are not surrendered or doubled are being played. When a hand is played a player has the choice to either hit or stand.

When a player chooses to hit, one extra card will be dealt to the player and the total value of the hand will be increased by the value of the card that is dealt. If the total value of the player’s hand is still below 21, the player can take extra hits (one at a time) until the hand reaches a satisfactory value or the hand exceeds a total value of 21. If the hand has not exceeded a total value of 21 and the player is satisfied with the value, he can choose to stand. This means the player will not receive any more additional cards. Standing is a definitive decision.

If the total value of a player’s hand does exceed 21 and the hand contains an ace that is counted as 11 (a “soft hand”) then the value of the ace will be reverted to 1. If the player’s hand does not contain any aces or if the value of all aces has already been reverted to 1 (a “hard hand”), then the player will bust and lose the bet. The player’s hand and bet will be collected by the dealer and the round is over for that hand.

If a player did not bust and has chosen to stand, the hand and the wager remain at the table until the game is finished. When all players and the dealer have finished their hand, the result of the hand is known.

The Dealer’s Hand

If the dealer does not have blackjack, the dealer’s hand will be played at the end of the game, when all players have finished playing their hands. The dealer can only hit or stand.

Furthermore, there are certain rules that the dealer has to follow. Normally, the dealer has to take hits until the total value of his hand is at least 17, although some games force the dealer to hit at a “soft” 17.

If the total value of the dealer’s hand exceeds 21, all remaining hands win against the dealer’s hand. In this case all players are paid even money (one-to-one) for bets that are still on the table, and the round has ended.

One note: players that have already exceeded 21 and busted are out of the game. They do not get any compensation for their losses, even if the dealer exceeds 21 and busts. This is done to give the casino the edge in blackjack, for more information see "Chances of Winning".

Endgame

If the total value of the dealer’s hand exceeded 21 and the dealer has busted, the last step is to pay out all players that are still in the game, regardless of the total value of their hand.

If the dealer’s hand is successfully completed without exceeding 21, the round finished and the hand values will be evaluated (normally counter-clockwise from the dealer’s right to the left). Wagers are collected or paid as the hands are being evaluated. After all hands have been evaluated the cards will be collected by the dealer.

The result of a game is determined in the following manner:

  • The total value of a player’s hand is higher than the total value of the dealer’s hand. The player has won and is paid out one-to-one for the hand.
  • The total value of a player’s hand is lower than the total value of the dealer’s hand. The player has lost the bet and the bet is collected by the dealer.
  • The total value of a player’s hand is equal to the total value of the dealer’s hand. The hand has ended in a tie or “push”. The bet will remain on the table and the player can choose to use it in the next round or take it back and leave the game.

Repeat

After the chips and cards that were in play are removed from the table, the next round will start. If there are still enough cards left in the deck and the cut card hasn’t shown, a new round will start. If the cut card has shown or if there are insufficient cards in the deck, the dealer will shuffle the cards before resuming the game.

Some good advice for starting blackjack players: blackjack is a game that is all about the long run and playing a large number of hands – you win some, you lose some. It’s impossible to win every single hand when playing blackjack, but the goal should be to win more than lose over a large number of hands.

The blackjack description above is applicable to most casino blackjack and based on the rules that are most commonly used. For more information on different rule sets and variations, check this section. Aside from information on the rules, it’s also important to use the right strategy in order to increase your chances of winning.