How to Play Blackjack for Beginners | Blackjack Basics
Blackjack is arguably the most famous casino game of all time. But, do you know where blackjack originated? Do you understand the nuances and strategy behind playing blackjack and winning?
We’ll cover these answers and many more in our ultimate guide to blackjack.
How Blackjack Got Its Start
Blackjack’s origin story is up for debate, but many experts believe that blackjack started in the 1700s from French casinos. In those days, it wasn’t called “blackjack” — it was known as “vingt-et-un” which translates to “21” in French.
That card game likely originated from French Ferme and Chemin de Fer, other popular French card games at the time. Interestingly, it’s believed that vingt-et-un was popular with the people in court of King Louis XV!
As French colonists came to North America, primarily Louisiana, they brought many new traditions and customs with them — blackjack included. With French influence spreading throughout North America, the love for blackjack grew, too.
At this time, blackjack was played much differently than the game we know now. For example, the early forms of blackjack only let the dealer double, not the player. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “doubling” in blackjack, don’t worry — we’ll cover it shortly.
Blackjack in the U.S. gained a lot of momentum in the 1800s, particularly in New Orleans, where legalized gambling halls were popular for locals and travelers alike. The simplicity of the game made it easy for new gamblers to learn and play blackjack.
Moving into the 20th century, land-based casinos, such as the ones in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, helped propel blackjack even further. At that time, the card game was still known as “21” rather than “blackjack.” The rules were also not standardized, which created some inconsistencies in how the game was played among different casinos. It was this way until gambling became fully legalized and the Nevada Gaming Commission intervened to establish clear and consistent rules for playing blackjack.
Blackjack is most commonly played according to the casino or legalized gambling rule set, which is what we’ll define below. These conditions for playing blackjack are the rules used by most land-based and online casinos.
To begin, blackjack requires at least one standard deck of cards, which consists of 52 individual cards divided into four unique suits: Hearts, Diamonds, Spades, and Clubs. Each suit is divided into 13 ranks — this is another term for the card type.
For instance, a “2” is a lower rank than a “King” or a “3.” For most blackjack games, the suit is irrelevant. In other words, a 3 of Hearts has the same value as a 3 of Clubs.
Note: There may be variations of this rule that use suits to determine applicable bonuses.
With the rise of card counting in blackjack (gaining a mathematical advantage on card probability by counting the cards used while playing blackjack), many land-based and online casinos have started using multiple decks of cards to mitigate the edge — we’ll discuss this later — that is given to players in blackjack games played with only one (1) deck. The more decks used in blackjack, the greater advantage the dealer has of winning.
Because most land-based casinos and online blackjack games use multiple decks, this guide will focus on the rules and strategy of blackjack with more than one deck.
The blackjack table is usually a half-moon shape with a dealer on one side and a series of five (5) to seven (7) seats for gamblers on the other side facing the dealer. Players will often find the table limits (betting minimums and maximums) displayed somewhere on the blackjack table.
If you’re playing blackjack in a land-based casino, you’ll need to convert your cash to chips — which is typically the currency used at a blackjack table. You’ll also notice marked circles on the table that designate where you should place your chips. If you play blackjack at an online casino, you’ll recognize a similar layout with the interface.
Before you can receive any cards, you’ll need to place a bet. This initial bet is the “buy-in” for the upcoming round of blackjack and is required for you to participate. You can skip rounds by not placing bets if you’d like to watch a round or take a break, but you will need to place this first bet if you want to play a hand of blackjack.
The dealer needs at least one player to wager a bet for a round to begin. Once you or another player’s bet is accepted by the dealer, the game begins. The game will ensue and players will either win, lose, or push — meaning tie.
If a player wins, they get a payoff. If the dealer wins, they take the bet of the player. A “push” is another term for a tie, meaning that you neither lose nor win any money.
To start a round of blackjack, the dealer will distribute two (2) cards to every player as well as two (2) for themselves (“the house”).
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The first round of cards are dealt face up from left to right with the dealer getting the last card face down. The second round of cards is dealt left to right also face up to everyone, including the dealer this time.
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The object of blackjack is simple — get closer than the dealer to 21 without going over.
Each card has a point total or value. Numeric cards are valued as you’d expect. All face cards (Jack, Queen, King) are worth 10 points. Aces are worth either 1 point or 11 points; it’s up to the player’s discretion.
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Because the goal of blackjack is to land on 21 exactly, the dealer always checks if they or any players have hit 21 with the first two dealt cards. If so, this is known as a “natural.”
When the dealer hits a natural 21, the round is automatically over unless another player has a 21, too — which would indicate a push between those two. When a player hits a natural 21 and the dealer doesn’t, that player will typically receive a payout of 3:2 or 2:1 on their initial bet. So, if you wagered $100, you would receive $150 (3:2) or $200 (2:1). This payout can vary, so consult the dealer before wagering to find the exact payout for your blackjack game.
If the dealer and players do not have 21, the round continues. The player will sum the value of the two cards they were originally dealt and decide whether to receive more cards to help them achieve a combined total that is closer to 21 than the dealer without going over.
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The dealer moves from left-to-right asking each player what action they would like to take. You have one round to make your decisions, and once the dealer moves to the next player, you cannot take any further action.
In blackjack, your actionable options are to:
- Stand: Occurs when a player decides to take no other cards and keep their current total.
- Hit: Occurs when a player decides to take another card. A player can “hit” until they reach 21 or “bust” — this is an automatic loss condition that occurs when they go over 21.
- Double down: This happens when a player takes one more card, stands, and doubles their bet at the same time.
- Split: This can only occur when a player has two evenly ranked cards. This blackjack action involves placing an additional bet and playing two hands. The first card of each separate hand will be the original two that were dealt.
- Surrender: Occurs when the player decides to forfeit half of the bet and leave the table.
Once all players have finished their rounds, the dealer flips over their second card revealing their starting total. Leaving the dealer until the end is one of the main factors in giving the House the edge in blackjack.
With that said, most land-based and online casinos do have specific rules for a blackjack dealer’s available actions. In most casinos, blackjack dealers must “hit” (take a card) if their total is under 17. If they land on a 17 or higher (but not over 21), they must stay.
A sound blackjack strategy is based on knowing the available actions of your dealer, so it’s important that you understand your blackjack dealer’s options.
If you’re playing blackjack at a land-based casino, you will also want to understand the common hand signals associated with the actions above.
The common blackjack hand signals are:
- Hit: Point at your hand with your finger, or tap the table.
- Stand: Wave your hand over your cards.
- Double down or split: Move your chips or cards appropriately.
When a player wins a hand, they are paid at varying rates. Many casinos pay out at rates of 3:2. In other words, for every $2 bet, the winning player will receive $3, or 1.5x the initial wager.
Some blackjack tables have additional payoff rules in place — like the natural 21 explained above.
The “House Edge” in Blackjack
An “edge” is, essentially, an advantage. In blackjack, the edge is given to the dealer (house). There are many factors that give the dealer an advantage, but the biggest is arguably the bust rule.
As we mentioned earlier, each player goes around and has the option to receive more cards (hit) or stay (stand). If the player takes another card and goes over 21, they bust and are no longer in the round.
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Once it’s the dealer’s turn, they are only competing against the remaining active players. Therefore, if the dealer also busts, they only lose to the active players left in the round — they win against the previously busted players.
This “last player” advantage is a big part of why the house “always wins” in blackjack.
Now, blackjack wouldn’t be arguably the most popular casino game in the world if there wasn’t an advantage for players, too. Players can gain an edge by understanding the probabilities of the game along with the limitations of the dealer (i.e. unable to hit beyond a 17). Moreover, the traditionally high payouts and additional betting options (i.e. double down or splits) for players make blackjack an enticing table game.
If you’ve ever played blackjack with someone who has been playing for a while, you’ve probably heard about blackjack etiquette or the unwritten rules of blackjack. It’s essentially a set of norms and an understanding between blackjack players and dealers.
If you want to avoid any headaches while playing blackjack, remember to:
- Only use one hand when picking up cards.
- Make all your bets obvious and visible to the dealer.
- Keep your cards in full view; don’t put them on your lap or below the table.
- Leave any extra objects off the table, like purses or wallets.
- Use hand signals whenever possible.
- Leave your chips alone once you place your bet; don’t touch them until the round is over.
- Keep your chips organized by placing higher denomination chips at the bottom of the stack.
- Keep a clean game and don’t take out your losses on other players.
- Be respectful if you are joining a table in the middle of a round.
- Don’t tell other people how to bet.
- Be aware of smoking regulations and the presence of others.
How To Win at Blackjack
One of the best strategies to help you win at blackjack involves counting cards and calculating the probability of future cards left to be dealt.
For example, if you’re playing with two (2) decks and see four (4) Jacks come out in the first hand, you know that there must only be four (4) left for the next hand because there are only eight (8) of each in the entire deck (assuming they don’t reshuffle the cards back into the deck). As more cards are dealt, you can determine the cards left and increase your bets when you expect to receive higher starting cards (an increased chance for a natural 21).
If you’ve watched the movie “21” or any other casino-oriented films, you’ve likely heard of counting cards. While it’s not technically illegal, it’s frowned upon by casinos and can lead to getting banned if the land-based casino feels like you’re cheating the house.
Card counting is easier and more valuable when there are fewer decks in the game. However, the basic principle with counting cards is understanding probabilities, which is a crucial piece of winning at blackjack.
If you’re playing blackjack at a land-based casino, you can also consider reading the body language of your dealer and looking for tells. If you can determine the value of their face down card based on previous hands, you can make strategic decisions about whether to hit or stand with your own hand.
As more and more people are moving to online casinos to play blackjack, finding an edge can be more difficult. Some players resort to sitting at multiple seats on the table to control the entire game — since other players at your table can impact your strategy (i.e. they hit when you want them to stand, thereby taking a card that would make the dealer bust out of play).
Why Should You Play Blackjack?
Blackjack can be a fun and strategic table game that has the potential to pay off big if you’re patient, strategic, and of course, lucky. It’s also a viable option for players who want to grow their bankroll slowly, without competing against other players.
Moreover, compared to other casino games like slots, blackjack gives you more control and predictability. You can develop your own blackjack strategy and use historical evidence and probability to make the best strategic decisions for your own game.
This isn’t to say that luck isn’t involved, because it is. But, blackjack is much more predictable for players who understand the game and its varying outcomes. With the right circumstances, players can mitigate the house’s edge in blackjack more than in many other casino games.
Playing Blackjack Online
Blackjack online is a little different from in-person games because the human element is removed — although many online casinos are moving to Live Dealer Blackjack tables which offer a virtual interface with a video stream of a real human blackjack dealer. This hybrid of in-person and online blackjack gained a lot of popularity throughout the US in response to the COVID-19 closing of land-based casinos. You can expect to see more live blackjack tables online moving forward.
The differences between in-person and online blackjack are pretty distinct, hand signals and other physical signals at the table are replaced by designated action buttons on your screen. You also will not be able to read any tells or have personal conversations easily with other players or the dealer.
However, the actual rules, actions, and process explained above are the same whether you play online or at a physical casino.
With the rise of online casinos, virtual blackjack is becoming more popular every day. Whether you’re playing online blackjack to practice your skills or hoping to build a bankroll, consider the rules, tips, and strategy mentioned above.