Blackjack can in fact be beaten (having a player edge instead of a house edge), but only by experts who have spent a lot of time learning how to count cards.
The main reason that everybody isn’t raking in the cash from the casinos is that it takes money to make money: You have to have a large bankroll to make sure you can weather losing streaks. To make $20/hr., you’d need a bankroll of at least $13,000, and even then you’d have a 5% chance of losing all your money. Of course, even if you don’t pursue card-counting as a career, you can still count cards even on a once-a-year trip to Vegas. As long as you’re playing, you might as well have the odds in your favor, right?
Learning to count cards is well beyond the scope of this website. For beginners I recommend the book Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder.
Blackjack is the most popular table game, and has a very low house edge (0.5%) if you learn Basic Strategy (covered below). Hundreds of books have been written about this game, but this page will tell you everything you need to know to play well enough to get the low 0.5% edge (meaning a 99.5% return). That’s just about the best odds on any game as you’re likely to find, making Blackjack very attractive for those willing to put in just a little bit of work (a couple of hours or so).
Amazingly, most players won’t make this effort. I’ve played hundreds of hours of สล็อต 168bet blackjack, and have rarely seen anyone who knew proper Basic Strategy. By guessing at the proper strategy, they’re willingly giving the house a 2-5% advantage. It’s throwing money away.
This objective of blackjack is commonly misstated as “trying to get as close as you can to 21 without going over”. But this is not the best description. Your true objective is to beat the dealer. Theoretically, you could beat the dealer with a total of only 4, if the dealer busts. For now, it’s enough to remember that you want to beat the dealer’s hand.
The game starts with each player placing his/her bet (chips) in the circle in front of him/her. The dealer won’t deal until everyone has placed a bet. Newbies often forget to put in another chip after losing the last round, and it’s embarrassing once you realize that everyone else is waiting for you to bet.
Up to seven players sit at the table. The dealer deals the cards, usually from a plastic shoe, which holds up to eight decks. The dealer gives two cards to each player, including herself. (Let’s a assume a female dealer so I don’t have to keep saying “him/her”.) Depending on the casino, the players’ cards are dealt face-up or face-down. This has no bearing whatsoever on basic strategy; it doesn’t matter to you what the other players’ cards are. You’re not playing against the other players; each of you is playing your hand against the dealer’s hand. It also doesn’t matter whether the dealer can see your cards, because the dealer plays the same way every time regardless of what your hand is.
No matter whether the players’ cards are dealt face up or face down, the dealer will always have one card face up (the up card), and one face down (the hole card). It definitely matters to you what the dealer’s up card is. More on that later.
Play begins with the right-most player (“1st base”) and continues player by player to the left. Your objective is to beat the dealer’s hand; the higher hand wins, as long as it doesn’t go over 21 (bust). If both of you bust, you still lose.
When it’s your turn, you have the following choices:
Hit. Take a card. You can hit as many times as you want.
Stand. Don’t take a card.
Double Down. Double your bet and take only one more card.
Split. If you have two of the same card (like two 8’s), you can split them and play each as a separate hand. You’ll get one more card for each, and then you hit or stand on each hand. You have to put up another bet since now you’re playing two hands.
Surrender. Most casinos no longer offer this option. Surrender allows you to end your hand and lose half your bet. Of course, you’d only do this in cases in which you think you’re likely to lose if you don’t surrender. More on this later.
Once you’ve played your hand, that’s it; play will not come back to you. That is, each player gets only one turn per hand. You can hit as many times as you want, but once you’re done hitting, that’s it.
After each player has played, the dealer plays her own hand. She flips the hole card over first so everyone can see both her cards. The dealer must hit (take cards) until she has 17 or higher. That’s the rules; the dealer isn’t allowed to make decisions on whether to hit or stand depending on what the players’ cards are. (If the dealer could vary her play depending on what the players have, the house edge would be so high that no one would play.)
Here’s how the scoring works. First, understand that face-cards (J, Q, K) count as ten. Aces count as 11, unless an 11 would cause a bust, in which case the Ace counts as 1. You don’t have to “declare” an Ace to be 1 or 11. (That is, if you have an Ace and a 3, you don’t have to decide whether you want the Ace to count as 1 or 11; just take another card and don’t worry about it.)
So here’s what can happen:
Bust. If you go over 21, you’ve busted, and you lose. Even if the dealer busts.
Win/Lose. Providing that you didn’t bust, then you win if your total is higher than the dealer’s, or if the dealer busted. (If you bet $10, you get another $10.) You lose your hand (and your bet) if your hand is lower than the dealer’s (assuming the dealer didn’t bust).
Push. If you and the dealer have the same total, it’s a push, or a tie, and you neither win nor lose your bet.
Natural. If you’re dealt an ace plus a ten (or a face card, which is worth ten), that’s called a natural or a blackjack, and pays 3 to 2. That means if you bet $10, you win $15. But if the dealer also has blackjack, it’s a push. If you’re dealt three or more cards that total 21, that’s just a plain 21, not a natural, sorry. If you or the dealer has a blackjack and the other has plain 21, then blackjack beats plain 21.
Remember, it doesn’t matter what the other players have. You’re not playing against them, you’re playing against the dealer.
You indicate your desire to Hit or Stand differently depending on whether the cards are dealt face-up or face-down. If the cards are dealt face-up, don’t touch them, or the dealer will yell at you. If you want to hit, tap the table (between you and your cards) with your finger. To stand, wave your hand over your cards. To split or double down, place a second bet next to your original bet. To surrender, flap your arms like you’re doing the Funky Chicken and…. (okay, sorry, we got carried away).
In a face-down game, hit by scratching the table with your cards, and stand by sliding your cards under your bet. When you want to Double Down or Split, turn your cards over and place your additional bet next to your original chip(s). When you get a Blackjack or you bust, turn your cards over right away so the dealer can pay you or take your losing cards.
When the dealer’s up card is an Ace, she’ll ask if you want Insurance. This is a side bet, and has a high house edge so you should never take it. If you take Insurance, then you’ll win the side bet if the dealer has Blackjack and lose it if she doesn’t. This has no bearing on whether you win or lose your hand, which is played normally. Insurance is a very bad bet, with a house edge of 6% or more. Never take insurance.
There are many rule variations that slightly change the house edge. For example, in some casinos you can’t double down if you have an Ace. In some games you can’t double down after you split. In some games the dealer hits a Soft 17 instead of standing. (A Soft hand is a hand with an ace which can’t total more than 21 if the ace is counted as 11. All two-card hands with an Ace are considered Soft hands. A hand becomes Hard when extra cards are drawn and counting the Ace as 11 would bust the hand, requiring it to be counted as 1 instead. Anyway, in most Blackjack games, the dealer stands on all 17’s, including Soft 17’s. But in some games, the dealer hits on Soft 17. This increases the house edge.)
I’ve said on this page (and throughout this site) that the house edge on Blackjack is 0.5%, but that’s just shorthand; the actual edge depends on the game being played, and can be as low as 0.18% or as high as 0.65% for common games. Here are some excellent resources about the house edge and rule variations:
Blackjack Conditions. List the different rule variations (and the resulting house edge) for most casinos in Nevada and some other states. An invaluable reference.
The Wizard of Odds. A professional actuary (i.e., math geek) explains exactly how different rule variations affect the house edge. Blackjack Conditions has something similar, but I trust the numbers on this one more.
Blackjack Advantage Calculator. Select a combination of rules by clicking the various checkboxes, and the calculator will tell you the house edge for that set of rules.
Expected Loss. Once you know the house edge you’ll be playing under, don’t forget to calculate your expected loss for a session of play. Here’s our guide to how to do that.
The Dealer is your Friend
Although you’re playing against the dealer, the dealer isn’t playing with her own money, she’s using the house’s money. So while you’re playing against her, she’s not playing against you. She doesn’t care if she loses, it’s not her money. In fact, if she’s a good dealer, she’s hoping she loses, so she can enjoy some camaraderie with you when you win. Technically, you’re playing against the house, not the person paid to deal the cards. But some people have a hard time making that distinction. (One player threw a drink in the face of a dealer friend of mine when the player was losing.)
Consider tipping part of the cost of your entertainment. Whether you’re playing at one of the finest casinos or one of the seediest, the dealers are usually making minimum wage, and the IRS takes almost 1/3 of their tips. To tip (or toke) the dealer, place a white chip in front of your regular bet (outside the betting circle, due north of your chips). If you win the hand, the dealer wins double — your chip plus a winning chip. And by toking the dealer this way, you’re kind of bonding with them — they want you to win, because then they win the toke. I tip out about $5/hr. when I play.
So how do you know how to play, whether to hit or stand? Fortunately, you don’t have to put much thought into it: Experts have analyzed the game mathematically and developed tables that will tell you how to play every possible hand. Playing according to such a table is called using Basic Strategy. You have to use Basic Strategy for the house edge to be small (0.5% or so), and if you don’t use it then the house edge will be much higher.
A Basic Strategy table is big and will take an hour or so to memorize. We’ll get to that later, but first let’s start with something much more simple. The small table below will cover more than 80% of all hands, so learning this first will help you learn Basic Strategy easier once you get to it.
When Dealer’s Up Card is…
…then Hit until you have at least:
When you have…
…Double down when dealer shows:
Always Split when you have
2-10 (not Ace)
2-9 (not Ace or 10)
3-6 (not 7 or higher)
Interestingly, you don’t even have to understand why you’re doing this for it to work. but it’s worth learning, because it will help you to memorize it (and help to memorize the bigger Basic Strategy table when you get to it). So let’s look into it.
When the dealer shows 6 or less
Remember that the most common card in the deck is a 10, since Jacks, Queens, and Kings also count as 10 in addition to the actual 10’s. Also remember that the dealer has to hit until she has 17 or more, meaning she has to hit any total of 16 or less. Also consider that a hand as low as 12 can bust, since drawing a 10 will result in 22. All this means that if the dealer’s upcard is 6 or less, the dealer has a good chance of busting. Say the dealer’s up card is 5. The dealer’s hole card is more likely to be 10 than any other card, giving her a total of 15. She has to hit a 15, and she’s likely to draw another 10, for a 25 — bust! So when the dealer has a 6 or below, the dealer is likely to bust, so we’ll be content to keep our hands low as well to avoid busting our hands. We’ll hit to only 12 or 13. Notice that by doing this we’re counting on the dealer to bust — it’s the only way we’ll win the hand. We’ll definitely lose if the dealer doesn’t bust, because the dealer’s hand will be 17 or higher if she doesn’t bust.
Why don’t we keep our hands even lower? Because there’s no risk in hitting to 12. You can’t bust by hitting an 11 or lower, so we always hit an 11 or lower, no matter what.
Interestingly, it’s possible to hit and get a higher total, but still be no better off than you were before the hit. Let’s say you’ve got a 12 facing a dealer 3. The chart says you need to hit to at least 13, and you’ve got less than that, so you hit, and the dealer gives you a 4. Now you’ve got 16, and since that’s more than 13, you stand. But you’re no better off now than you were when you had the 12! That’s because the dealer’s final hand will always be in the range of 17-21, or it will be a bust. If the dealer “makes” her hand (meaning she doesn’t bust), she’ll have 17-21, which will beat either a 12 or a 16, so it didn’t matter that you went from 12 to 16. If she busts, then it doesn’t matter whether you had 12 or 16 since you win either way.
This doesn’t mean that it was a bad move to hit your 12; you hit because you were hoping (and expecting) to get a bigger card than a 4. But once you got the 4, it became too risky to hit again because you’d be likely to bust, so you just sat pat and hoped the dealer busts.
When the dealer shows 7 or higher
Let’s say the dealer shows a 7 or higher. The most common 2nd card will be a 10, giving her a total of 17 or more. Put another way, when the dealer shows 7 or higher (7+), we expect her to wind up with 17 or more. If the dealer has 17+ and we have less, then we lose. Therefore, when the dealer has 7+, then we want a hand of 17 or higher as well. So we hit until we have 17 or higher when the dealer shows 7+.
When the dealer shows a high up card (like a 10), many amateur players won’t hit their 16, because they think they’re likely to bust. But this is bad strategy. Yes, they are likely to bust, but they’re even more likely to lose the hand, because the more likely outcome is that the dealer will have 17+ which will beat the player’s 16. Put another way, the chance of busting by hitting might be 70%, but the chance of losing by not hitting might be 80%. (I don’t know the actual numbers, but I’m probably not far off and this is a good way to look at it.) That’s why you’ll see players groaning when they get a 15 or a 16 — they’re doomed. The point is, when you’ve got a 16 facing a 7+, you’re probably going to lose no matter what you do. So you pick the play that gives you a slighter better chance of not losing, although you expect to lose either way.
By the way, the Wizard of Odds has a good table showing the likelihood of the dealer achieving various hand totals depending on what her up card is.
Doubling Down means placing a second bet on the same hand. Why do you double down on certain totals? Because you’re most likely to win with those totals, and when the odds are in your favor you want more money on the table. If you have an 11, and you draw a 10, then you’ve got a 21, a perfect hand. Since an 11 gives you the best chance of getting a 21, you want more money on the table when you start out with an 11. There are other cases when you double down, as explained further down.
When you’re dealt two cards of the same value (like two 7’s), you can split them and play them as separate hands. The two cards are moved slightly apart from each other, and then you’re dealt one more card to each hand. You then play each hand one at a time.
When you want to split, put up a second bet (since you’ll be playing two hands). You always split Aces, because each of those hands is likely to total 21 since a 10 is the most common second card. You also always split 8’s, but not because the expected total of 18 is such a great hand, but rather because if you don’t split them, you’ve got a 16, which is likely to lose either way whether you hit or stand. A mediocre 18 is better than a probable bust.
You should never split 10’s. Sure, the most common 2nd card is a 10, giving you a 20 on each hand, but it’s not guaranteed, and if you don’t split, you’ve got a guaranteed 20. Splitting 10’s is screwing up a good hand. Keep your 20.
There are other times when you split, and they’re covered below.
Here’s a Basic Strategy table for Blackjack under normal house rules (multiple deck, dealer stands on Soft 17). If you’re playing a game with rule variations, you’ll need a different table. (All the different tables are mostly the same, but using the wrong tables will increase the house edge). You can get specific tables for all the different kinds of Blackjack rules at BlackjackInfo.com.
Here’s how to read the table:
The dealer’s up card is shown on the top row (2-A). Your hand is shown in the left-hand column.
= Double Down
= Double if allowed, otherwise Stand
= Double if allowed, otherwise Hit
= Split if you can double down after split, otherwise Hit
= Surrender if allowed, otherwise Hit
Surrender is no longer offered in most casinos. With Surrender, you give up half your bet and end your hand immediately. As you can see from the table, it’s useful only in situations where you have a 15 or 16 facing a high card, in which you’d probably lose whether you hit or stand. Of course, this is really irrelevant, since you’re unlikely to find Surrender at the casinos anyway.
If you’d like to print out the table, click on it to go to a page that has the table and nothing else.
If you haven’t memorized the table by heart by the time you go to the casino, take it with you and use it while you play! Casinos don’t mind if you do this, as long as it doesn’t slow down the game. Don’t feel guilty and try to hide it if the dealer or Pit Boss wants to see it; it’s not against the law or against casino rules to use your table, and it’s not like you have some special secret that the casino has never heard of. This table has been around for decades.
I used this table at a Blackjack table when I was getting started and didn’t trust my memory, and it was no problem. The other players ridiculed me, but I walked away from the table with an extra $150 while they were all losing, so I had the last laugh. Not that you should expect to always get ribbed by the other players for consulting your table — most probably either won’t care or know that you’re making the proper plays. And not that you should expect to win just from using the table — the odds are still against you when you use basic strategy, though not by much.
If you learn this table, you not only will have an almost even game with the house, but you’ll be playing better than 90% of the blackjack players out there!
HitOrStand.com has a a game which tests your knowledge of Basic Strategy. Very nicely done.
Venetian-Resort.com has a free online Blackjack simulator, very beautifully done. It’s a great way to practice before you hit the casino. The game offers Surrender, but that’s because you’re not playing for real money so they can afford to give you an edge. You probably won’t find Surrender at the casinos.
Calculating Your Risk
Check out the site of the Blackjack Outcome Calculator; it tells you the probability of winning or losing a certain amount of money from playing Blackjack. Very useful!
Expert players can get an advantage over the house by counting cards. They note which cards have been played and keep track of the ratio of high to low cards. (More high cards left in the deck favor the player, and more low cards favor the house.) They bet more when the count is good, and they vary their playing strategy (hit or stand) according to the count. I learned to count on my first trip to Vegas, and won $1200 at a single 3-hour session of Blackjack at the Stratosphere.
So now you’re probably excited about learning to count, so let’s get a few things straight first. Number One, you absolutely must have learned Basic Strategy down pat before learning to count. Counting is useless if you don’t know Basic Strategy.
Second, it takes money to make money. If your objective is to make money, you have to have a large bankroll to weather losing streaks. To make $20/hr. you’d need a bankroll of at least $10,000, and even then you’d have a 1 in 20 chance of losing it all.
Third, if you’re a casual player, it’s not necessary to learn how to count cards. Basic strategy alone will let you play at a tiny 0.5% house edge, which is ten times better than your Roulette, which carries a 5% edge.
If you’re hot to learn how to count cards, I recommend Blackbelt in Blackjack by Arnold Snyder, and the online card counting tutorial at Blackjack Center.
Some casinos offer variations of Blackjack, the most popular being Double Exposure and Spanish 21. Double Exposure was devised by the legendary Bob Stupak, the man behind the Stratosphere Tower. (Stupak was pushed out of the company which owned the then-financially troubled Strat in the late 90’s. It’s now controlled by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.) Stupak also devised “Crapless Craps”. But we digress.
In Double Exposure, both the dealer’s cards are dealt face-up. Naturally this gives you an advantage. To counter that advantage, Naturals pay only even money instead of 3 to 2, and the dealer wins all ties (except Naturals). Just as with Blackjack, different casinos have different rule variations. A small survey by The Wizard of Odds showed an edge ranging from 0.33-1.45% in various casinos. (Check there for more on Double Exposure.)
Spanish 21 also has its own special weird rule changes, but unlike Double Exposure it has a low a low house edge — 0.40%. However, its basic strategy table is very complicated and difficult to learn. Once I was in Atlantic City and saw Michael Shackleford, probably the world’s leading expert on Spanish 21, playing the game, and even he was consulting his printout table on certain plays! Either laboriously memorizing the table or keeping the table handy while you play seems like a lot to ask for an edge that’s not that much lower than Blackjack (0.43% in Atlantic City), but if you’re tired of playing Blackjack, or if every hundredths of a percent of edge is important to you, then you might like Spanish 21. To learn more about Spanish 21, visit The Wizard of Odds.