How to play blackjack: An idiot’s guide

Blackjack is one of the most common casino card games of all time, and for good reason: it’s easy to learn the rules and basic strategy, and is incredibly fun to play. Usually played with a six or eight deck shoe, the object of the game is to beat the dealer by getting a count as close to 21 as possible without going over.

Blackjack at its core is an easy game to play. Picture: Thinkstock
Blackjack at its core is an easy game to play. Picture: Thinkstock

Let’s begin the lesson

To help you, all the key terms used link through to our dictionary pages, giving you full definitions.

Each card counts as face value, face cards all count as 10, and an ace can be counted as either 1 or 11.
At some blackjack tables, players are not permitted to place their first bet mid-shoe, but at others, it isn’t an issue.

If there’s any ambiguity, it’s always a good idea to ask the dealer for clarification. After all players have placed their bets, the cards are dealt. Each player receives two cards, both face up. The dealer also receives two cards, the first one is face down and the second is face up.

If any player is dealt a natural blackjack, the dealer pays it now, provided that the dealer doesn’t have a natural blackjack himself. If the dealer’s upcard is a ten-valued card or an ace, he checks his downcard to see if he has blackjack, and if he does, all natural blackjack hands push (tie), all other hands lose, and the hand is over. Otherwise, play proceeds, and players can now try to raise their point total to beat the dealer.

How the game gets started and key fundementals

Play begins with the player sitting at the far right of the table. He can either hit and receive another card or stand and keep his current hand as is. When a player hits, he signals the action to the dealer by tapping the felt with a fingertip, and when he stands, he waves his hand above the table (palm down in a slight side-to-side motion).

If his cards are of identical rank, he can split them by doubling the bet and separating the two cards. He can also double down, or double the bet and receive exactly one additional card. If a player’s point total exceeds 21 at any time, they’ve gone “bust” and the dealer collects his bet.

The dealer’s point of view

After each player has acted upon their hand, the dealer flips his downcard face up. If the dealer’s point total is 17 or higher, he stands, and if it is 16 or lower, he draws a card. If his point total ever exceeds 21, he goes “bust” and the players win.

Simple guide to blackjack
It pays to follow a few basic rules before embarking on playing blackjack.

If the dealer’s point total is 17-21, he pays players with a point total higher than his own and collects the bets from players with point totals lower than his own. Any player with the same point total as the dealer will always push.

When the dealer’s upcard is an ace, players can opt to purchase “insurance” for their original bet. The amount of the insurance bet can be up to half of the amount of the original bet.

In the event that the dealer has blackjack, players who have bought insurance will be paid out according to the table odds. However, the table odds are rarely favorable to the player, so it’s usually best to pass it up.
When a player gets dealt to cards of identical point value, he has the option to split them.

A good rule of thumb is to always split aces and eights. New players are sometimes tempted to split tens, but doing so is problematic because the chances of improving upon a 20 are incredibly slim. A player splits his hand by doubling his bet and signalling to the dealer to separate the cards, usually by tapping the felt with the tips of his index and middle fingers about an inch apart from each other.

Let’s get into some strategy

Basic blackjack strategy dictates that players stand on 17 and higher, and sometimes hit with worse point values depending on the point total and the dealer’s upcard. If the dealer is showing a small card, namely, a 6 or lower, it is often best to stand with any hand unless the point value is less than 12 (in which case, it is always best to hit).

If the dealer is showing a 7 or higher-valued card, players with 16’s and worse should always hit. The big idea is that the player should always assume the dealer has a 10-valued card face down, and play his hand accordingly.

There are more advanced strategies, but this will serve as a good grounding in the game.

Simkha Blank is a qualified blackjack dealer and freelance writer.

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