Beginners Guide to Blackjack
The purpose of this "blackjack for beginners" page is to provide a detailed buy also easily understood introduction to the game. Too many guides to the game get really complicated really quickly. We're going to avoid that here.
The first section covers the card game and how it works in actual play. We follow that with an explanation of the appropriate strategies for getting the best odds. Finally, we conclude the page with some comments on advantage play and how to get an edge over the casino.
Introduction to Blackjack
Blackjack is a card game played in casinos. You play against the dealer, not the other players. Since this page is for beginners, we're going to go into a little bit of detail about card games in general and how they work to star this off.
Blackjack uses a traditional deck of cards. (Actually it often uses multiple decks, but we'll go more into that later in the page.) Here's what you need to know about a traditional deck of cards.
Let's start with the suits. A traditional deck of cards has 52 cards total, but they're of 4 different suits:
As you can see, the clubs and spades are colored black while the hearts and diamonds are colored red. Every card of each suit includes the symbol for that suit (i.e., all the cards that are designated "hearts" have a heart symbol on them, all the cards that are designated "diamonds" have a diamond symbol on them, and so on).
Now let's look at the ranks. A traditional card has 13 ranks, as follows.
All the cards shown here are clubs, but each suit contains one card of each rank. So there's an ace of clubs, of diamonds, of hearts, and of spades in every deck. There's also a two of each suit, and so on. The number or letter in parenthesis after each ranking is the shorthand form that's used to describe that card when writing about blackjack.
The ace is the "1", but it is also often considered the highest card in the deck. It's not just a "1", in other words—it's an ace!
The jack, queen, and king are all called face cards.
In blackjack, the suits only matter in certain rare variations of the game. For the most part, you can almost always ignore the cards' suits. It is important to realize that there are only 4 cards of each rank in the deck, though. (4 suits, 4 cards of each rank).
In blackjack, hands are given a score based on the ranks of the cards in the hand. These scores are given as follows:
- Ace – Worth 1 or 11 points.
- Face cards – Worth 10 points.
- All other cards – Worth their rank in points.
- For example, the 3 is worth 3 points, the 4 is worth 4 points, and so on.
To calculate the score for a hand of blackjack, you simply add the points up for all the cards in the hand. The hand with the HIGHER total is the winner.
Notice we use the word "higher", not "highest". That's because you only use the superlative ("highest") when comparing 3 or more items. In blackjack, you're ALWAYS only comparing 2 hands'the player's hand versus the dealer's hand. Other hands might be in play, but for purposes of calculating a win, there are only 2 hands that matter.
There's one other catch. Any hand with a total of 22 or higher is considered a bust, which is a dead hand and automatically loses immediately.
All casino games have a built in mathematical edge for the house. Blackjack is no exception. But if you know how to play well, the game has the lowest house edge in the casino.
It's also one of the most fun games in the casino.
It's expressed as a percentage. Over the long run (thousands of hands), the house edge is the percentage of each bet that the casino mathematically expects to keep. This number can range as high as 40% for some games (like keno) to as low as 0.5% or less for other games (like blackjack).
You're playing slot machines, and these games are programmed with a house edge of 15%. (They're at the airport, which offers some of the worst odds in town.) You're playing for a dollar per spin, and you're making 600 spins per hour. That means you're putting $600 per hour into action.
15% of $600 is $90. That's how much the casino expects you to lose every hour while playing that game. That number takes into account the occasional wins and payoffs you get. If you play long enough, you will certainly go broke.
Any casino bet can be looked at in terms of an expected hourly loss. This is how casinos make projections and plan their floor space. They want to maximize the amount of revenue they generate per square foot.
Roulette is another good example. The house edge for this game is 5.26%. You'll rarely find a roulette game which will accept a bet of less than $5 per spin. Let's assume you're playing at a roulette table where you're able to place 60 bets per hour. (Notice how much slower a game than slots roulette is.)
60 bets per hour at $5 per bet is $300. 5.26% of $300 is $15.78, which is your expected hourly loss. Even though the house edge for this game is almost 1/3 that of the slot machines we discussed earlier, and we're placing bets that are 5x greater than we were placing on the slots, we're still losing a considerably lower amount of money per hour. That's because the lower speed of the game limits your exposure.
When we say that blackjack offers a house edge of around 0.5%, we're assuming a good set of rules options. Different casinos and different tables within the same casino offer different options to their blackjack games which affect the house edge. For example, a game that uses 8 decks has a higher house edge than a game which only uses one deck.
Assume you're playing for $5 per hand. Let's also assume that you're playing 100 hands per hour. You're putting $500 into action each hour—almost as much as when you were playing the airport slot machines in the earlier example.
But you only expect to lose 0.5% of that. That means your expected hourly loss is only $2.50.
Compare $2.50 with $90, or even with $15.78. It's clear to see which game offers the best odds.
And the other beautiful thing about blackjack is that you can get an edge over the house through multiple advantage play techniques. Most of these are too much trouble for the casual blackjack player, but we'll cover the basics of those later on this page, too.
Blackjack is played at a blackjack table, which usually seats around 7 players on one side and a dealer on the other. You'll see some words printed on the table, or on a sign sitting on the table. These words will usually include the following:
- Blackjack pays 3 to 2.
- Dealer must hit soft 17.
- Insurance pays 2 to 1.
- $5 minimum, $500 maximum.
Here's what those phrases mean:
A blackjack is a 2 card hand that totals 21. That's an automatic winner, unless the dealer also has a blackjack. In the latter case, the casino considers this result a push, so you don't lose or win any money. Your bet is returned to you.
But if you don't have a push, you win, and your bet is paid off at 3 to 2. So if you had placed a bet of $20, you'd receive a payoff of $30.
On most blackjack hands, if you win, you'll get paid off at even odds. You bet $20 and win, you get a $20 payoff. But blackjack almost always has a better payoff.
You'll find many casinos which offer a 6 to 5 payout instead of a 3 to 2 payout. That significantly changes the odds in favor of the casino. Our recommendation is to avoid such games.
The dealer in a blackjack game has to play his hand in a prescribed fashion. Hitting is one of the actions available to both the player and the dealer. Dealers always stand (another available action) on a hard 17 or higher and must always hit a 16 or lower.
This is a rules option that favors the casino, not the player. It adds about 0.2% to the casino's expected edge. We'll get into these terms and what they mean later in the gameplay section.
If the dealer doesn't hit a soft 17, the table will usually read "Dealer must stand on all 17s or higher".
Insurance is an optional side bet on whether or not the dealer has a blackjack. It's considered a sucker bet by people in the know, as the house edge is high. Dealers encourage players to take this bet, but it's best to skip it unless you're counting cards.
You bet $10. You get dealt your cards, and so does the dealer. The dealer has a possible blackjack and offers you the option of taking the insurance bet, which costs another $10. If the dealer has a blackjack, you lose your original $10 bet, but you win $10 on insurance, which results in a net loss of 0.
That sounds like a pretty good deal on the face of it, but you have to also consider what happens when you lose the insurance bet.
If the dealer doesn't have a total of 21, you lose the $10 insurance bet. This is going to happen more than half the time. Also, you still might lose on your main hand, which means you have a greater than 50% chance of losing your insurance side bet and your original bet.
You're better off just skipping the insurance bet and just playing your hand.
These refer to the minimum and maximum bets you can place at this particular table. You'll rarely find a casino which offers a minimum bet of less than $5 anymore, although sometimes you'll find a game where you can bet $1 per hand—especially if you're playing online.
How to Play Blackjack
The dealer is a casino employee who deals the cards and runs all the action at the blackjack table. He starts the game after the players at the table place their bets.
Blackjack games use chips instead of cash. You'll buy your chips from the dealer. You lay the money on the table—you never put it in the dealer's hand. He'll give you the chips in exchange. You should buy your chips between hands—don't try to interrupt a hand that's being played to get chips.
You place your bet by putting your chips in the designated spot in front of your seat. It's a circle drawn onto the table. Once you and the other players have placed their bets, the dealer starts the game.
The game begins when the dealer gives each player 2 cards. In some casinos these cards are dealt face up; in others, they're dealt face down. The game plays out the same either way.
The dealer also deals himself a 2 card hand, but he deals himself one card face up and the other card face down. This is important, because that face up card gives the player a lot of information about how she should play her hand.
Since you're starting with a 2 card hand, the highest possible total you could have is 21—that's an ace (which counts as 11) and a ten. That's a blackjack, which usually pays off at 3 to 2.
If the dealer's face up card is an ace, you're given the opportunity to take insurance. We talked about that side bet earlier. It's a sucker bet. Just say no, ever time, and you'll be fine.
Once all the cards are dealt, the dealer peeks to see if he has blackjack. If he doesn't, then the players get to decide how to play their hands. You have several options, but 2 of those options are the most important:
Hitting is when you take an additional card, increasing the score of the hand. Remember that if your total goes to 22 or higher, you bust and you lose. Hitting is almost always a calculated risk.
Standing is when you decide to keep the hand you have and not take any additional cards. This is also a calculated risk, as the dealer might have a better hand than you do. He might also hit his hand until he has a better hand than you.
Those are the 2 basic "moves" in this game. Taking cards or not taking cards. Hitting or standing.
Later on this page, we'll discuss how to make that decision intelligently. There's a single correct play for every situation in blackjack mathematically, and that list of correct decisions is called "basic strategy". It's easier to learn than you might think, too.
Those aren't the only 2 options you have, though. In some situations, you have other choices, too. These include:
- Doubling down
Splitting can only be done if and when you have two cards of the same rank. When you split a hand, you take each of the 2 cards from your hand and start 2 hands. You have to place an additional bet in order to get that 2nd hand. These 2 hands are played independently of each other. They also pay off independently of each other.
You bet $10. You're dealt 2 aces. You decide to split, so you place an additional $10 bet.
You now have 2 hands. The first card of each of these hands is an ace. The dealer gives you an additional card on each of those 2 hands so that you have 2 2-card hands. You play each hand independently, win or lose. It's possible to win both, lose both, or lose one while winning the other.
The basic strategy table we keep referring to includes a list of all the possible hands that could be split, and provides the mathematically correct decision about whether or not to split based on the dealer's upcard.
Doubling down means that you're placing an additional bet and simultaneously agreeing to take one more (and ONLY one more) card.
You bet $10. You're dealt an 8 and a 3, so you have a total of 11. You double down, putting $10 more into action. You're dealt a card worth 10, so you have a total of 21 with $20 in action.
Surrendering is when you agree to give up half your bet and just drop out of the hand. It's comparable to folding in poker. It's the correct move in some rare situations. Some casinos have early surrender, while others have late surrender.
In a casino which offers early surrender, you have the option of dropping out BEFORE the dealer checks his hole card to see if he has a blackjack. Casinos which offer early surrender are giving up a good bit of their house edge, which is good for the player. It's a generous rules option. It's also rarely found.
In a casino which offers late surrender, which is far more common, you only have the option of dropping out AFTER the dealer checks for blackjack. That means if the dealer has a blackjack, you don't have the option of surrendering at all. Everyone at the table loses when the dealer has a blackjack—unless you too have a blackjack, in which case you've tied.
Here's how the game plays out:
How the Dealer Plays His Hand
Players can take any allowable action with their hands. If a player has a total of 20 and wants to take a hit because she feels lucky, then she's allowed to do that.
But the dealer has to play his hand according to a prescribed strategy based on the casino's rules.
In all blackjack games, dealers always have to hit any total of 16 or below, no matter what kinds of cards the players have.
Dealers also always stand on an 18 or higher.
The only difference is when the dealer has a soft 17. (A "soft" 17 is a total of 17 that includes an ace. Since the ace can count as 1 point or as 11 points, there are more possibilities with that total than with some other totals.)
In some casinos, a dealer is required to hit a soft 17. In others, the dealer is required to stand on a soft 17.
You'll notice a couple of interesting things about these rules for how the dealer has to play his hand.
The first is that the dealer always acts last, which is a factor in the casino's favor. Since a player loses her bet immediately when she busts, she doesn't have the chance to see how the dealer's hand plays out. You can bust out and lose even if the dealer eventually busts out and loses. That's because you act first.
The next is that the dealer doesn't get to make decisions.
Here's an example of why that might matter:
You bet $10. You're dealt a total of 15. The dealer has a 6 as his upcard.
The dealer has you beat, but he can't decide to stand. He MUST take a hit because of the rules of the game.
He has a total of 16 as it turns out, but he deals himself a 10, so he busts.
You win $10.
If he were allowed to make decisions, he could decide to stand on the total of 16. But he doesn't have that option. This gives a player what we like to call "a fighting chance".
Blackjack Strategy for Beginners
The first thing to understand when thinking about blackjack strategy is the difference between a hard hand and a soft hand.
A hard hand is a hand with no aces in it. It's also a hand with an ace in it where the ace has to count as 1, not 11, in order to avoid going bust.
Think of a hard hand in blackjack as a hand with no wiggle room.
You'll play hard hands differently from soft hands, for reasons which will soon become obvious.
A soft hand, on the other hand (ahem), is a hand with an ace in it which can count as either a 1 or as an 11. The total used is the higher of the 2 options, but you have some wiggle room in case you're dealt a high value card.
Here are 2 examples of hard hands:
You have a jack and a 5. That's a hard total of 15.
You have an 8, a 3, and an ace. That's a hard total of 12. (If you count the ace as 11, you have a total of 22, which would make you bust.)
Here are 2 examples of soft hands:
You have a 9 and an ace. You have a "soft total" of 20. You COULD take a hit here without going bust. The highest value card you could receive would be worth 10, which would still leave you with a total of 20.
You have a 5 and an ace. You have a "soft total" of 16. You could take a hit here, too, and it would be impossible for you to bust. Even if you were dealt a 10, which is the highest value card in the game, you could just count the ace as 1 and avoid going bust.
When deciding how to play each hand, you'll take into account whether it's hard or soft.
The second thing you need to understand about blackjack strategy is the importance of the dealer's up card. You'll look at the dealer's up card to see how likely you think it is that the dealer will go bust.
The "breaking point" for the dealer's up card is between the 6 and 7. When the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, you will generally play your hand more conservatively, because the dealer is more likely to go bust. When the dealer has a 7 or higher showing, you will generally play your hand more aggressively, because the dealer is more likely to wind up with a high total that you'll have to beat.
When reading pages about "common blackjack myths", you'll occasionally see people complain about the idea of assuming that the dealer has a 10 in the hole. And it's true that your strategy won't always be correct if you assume that.
But the reality is that there are more cards in the deck worth 10 than any other value. You have 16 cards out of 52 which are worth 10 points, so the chance that the dealer has a 10 in the hole is usually 30.7%. That's almost 1/3 of the time.
But you should also consider that cards of 7, 8, and 9 are often in the hole, too. So if the dealer has a 6 or lower showing, he has a good chance of having a total of 16, 15, 14, or 13. All of those hands are apt to go bust when the dealer takes a hit.
Because there's always an excellent chance of the dealer getting dealt a 10 on the next. Heck, with any of those totals, even an 8 or a 9 is going to bust the dealer.
That's why the correct strategy, when you have a hard total of between 12 and 16 versus a dealer's 6 or lower, is almost always to stand. You want to stay in the game to maximize your chances of still being in the game when the dealer busts.
There are exceptions to this. A lot of times, if you have total of 12 or 13, you'll take a hit against the dealer—not always, but some of the time.
At the same time, if the dealer has a 7 or higher showing, he's likely to have a 10 in the hole, which means he's going to stand on a pretty good hand.
That's why, if you have a hard total of 16, if the dealer is showing a 7, you should take a hit. Even though you're likely to go bust, it's more likely that the dealer has a hand total of 17 or better, and he'll beat you if you stand on that 16.
There are exceptions to all these rules, but these are the considerations and thought processes that go into creating a correct basic strategy for the game.
The dealer's up card will also inform your decisions about splitting and doubling down. These will also often assume that the cards you don't see have a value of 10.
Here's an example:
If you have a pair of aces, you basically have a total of soft 12. If you take a card, and you get a 10, you now have a hard total of 12, which is not a great hand.
But if you split the aces, you have a chance of getting a 10 as the 2nd card of each of your 2 new hands. That gives you the opportunity to get 2 blackjacks, in fact. That's an obvious good decision.
If you have a pair of 8s, you have a hard total of 16, which is likely to go bust if you hit it. It's also likely to lose if the dealer doesn't bust. It's just a lousy hand.
On the other hand, if you split those 8s, you have a chance of getting 2 hands totaling 18. That's a respectable total that has a good chance of beating the dealer even if he doesn't go bust.
Here's another example:
Let's just look at one of those examples.
You're dealt a pair of 5s, so you have a hard total of 10.
If you split that hand, you have 2 new hands, each of which starts with 5. If you're dealt a 10, you've got 2 hands of 15, which are lousy hands. They'll get beat most of the time if you stand on them, and they'll bust most of the time if you hit them.
On the other hand, if hit a hard total of 10, a good percentage of the time you'll get dealt a 10 or an ace, in which case you have a total of 20 or 21. Either of those hands is a likely winner against most dealer hands.
Doubling down is also fun, but it's a move you'll probably only get to make rarely. If you have a total of 10 or 11, you'll almost always double down. In fact, the only time you WON'T double down is if and when the dealer has an ace showing. In that case, the dealer has such a high chance of winning that it isn't worth getting the money into action.
Doubling down on other totals makes sense sometimes, although many casinos restrict the totals that you're allowed to double down on to 9, 10, or 11. But if you can double down on a hard total of 8 against a dealer 5, you should do so.
Most people learn a complete basic strategy using a chart or a table. In fact, you can buy such a chart or table in the casino gift shop and use it while you play. As long as you're not slowing down the game, the casino doesn't mind. After all, using the correct basic strategy doesn't eliminate the casino's edge or even give you an edge. It just reduces the house edge to a more reasonable level.
We're fans of learning basic strategy a little more holistically. You can visit our basic strategy page for a text version of basic strategy which explains some of the reasoning behind some of the decisions.
Either way, keep in mind that game conditions do affect the correct strategy in certain situations. You can find customizable basic strategy generators that take into account the rules in place where you're playing. If you don't bother with these customizations, you're not giving up much to the house.
In fact, the most dedicated basic strategy players don't stop with basic strategy. They start getting interested in advantage play techniques. We offer an introduction to advantage player for beginners in the next section.
Advantage Play for Beginners
"Advantage play" is a phrase used in the gambling niche to describe a method of gambling that puts the edge on the side of the player. These techniques are distinct from cheating, as they don't go outside the prescribed rules or game conditions. The most commonly known advantage play technique in gambling is counting cards in blackjack.
This entire page is aimed at beginners, so learning how to count cards might seem like an advanced topic. But we're only providing an introduction to the subject here. We have extensive sections on how to count cards and get an edge in blackjack elsewhere on the site. You can review those pages when you're ready.
Some people think that counting cards is beyond what their puny brains can handle, but we can attest that even the puniest of minds (ours included) can learn how to count cards in blackjack. That's because you don't really have to memorize which cards have been played.
Card counting uses a heuristic system for determining the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck. When the deck has a relatively large number of high cards in it, a card counter raises her bets. When it has a relatively low number of high cards, a card counter lowers her bets.
Think about which hands offer the biggest payout—the blackjack. The ace and the 10 are required to get a blackjack, and those are the 2 highest cards in the deck. If a deck had lots of aces and 10s compared to lower cards, you'd have a better chance of getting that 3 to 2 payout, wouldn't you?
Think about it this way. If you're playing blackjack, and all the aces have already been dealt, your odds of getting a blackjack are 0%. That means you won't see a 3 to 2 payout until the deck gets re-shuffled.
Card counter have simple and complicated ways of tracking this ratio. Most of them use a simple count called the "hi lo" count. It works like this:
- Every time you see an ace or a 10, you subtract 1 from the count.
- Every time you see a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, you add 1 to the count.
If the total count is highly positive, you bet more. If it's negative or 0, you bet the table minimum.
This might seem like it's hard to do, and it is, but it's achievable with practice. We recommend practicing extensively at the kitchen table before trying to count cards at the casino. If they think you're counting cards, they'll start shuffling every hand, eliminating the possibility of getting an edge.
They might even ask you to stop playing blackjack there.
Some casinos even ban card counters from the premises altogether.
That's why card counters use a technique called "camouflage". They make sure to not look like they're paying attention. They'll sometimes make basic strategy mistakes. They'll tip the dealers. They won't stay at the same casino or at the same table for more than an hour or 2 at a time.
If you can't play, you can't get an edge, by definition. So get good at counting cards without looking like you're counting them if you want to try it.
Max Rubin, the author of Comp City, suggests using just enough card counting basic strategy to play at even odds with the casino. You don't even need to get an edge over the casino, because you'll get rewards from the casino just for playing. You'll also be less likely to risk getting banned or barred.
Other advantage gambling techniques exist for blackjack, but they're beyond the scope of an introduction to blackjack for beginners. Go to the appropriate page on our site for details on other advantage blackjack techniques like shuffle tracking, hole carding, and dealer tells.
Blackjack is the best game in the casino for multiple reasons, even if you're a total beginner. With just a little bit of practice, it's the easiest card game to learn how to play besides War. But the house edge is so much better than War that it would be silly to ever even try War.
Also, blackjack is one of the few games in the casino which offer players "agency". That's a fancy word that philosophers use to describe having some control over the outcome of your activity. When you're playing slot machines, you put your money in and passively wait to see if you've won. When you're playing blackjack, you're making decisions on every hand which increase or decrease your chances of walking away a winner.
It's easy to learn, fun to play, and offers the best odds in the casino. You can even learn how to get an edge over the casino if you're dedicated to studying some simple advantage gambling techniques like card counting.
We can't recommend blackjack highly enough. If you're going to play casino games, this is the best one on the floor.