Blackjack is one of the classic casino games, instantly recognisable across the world. Synonymous with high rollers and big payoffs, it is a game of strategy, discipline and mathematical nous.
Those that practice and develop their blackjack skills will improve their results, and gain a distinct advantage over beginners in terms of their return per hand.
Fortunately for new players, it’s a game that’s played directly against the dealer, who often has limited discretion in how to play each hand. So even if you’re a totally new player, you don’t have to square off against much more skilful opponents like in poker, for example.
The premise of blackjack is pretty simple: by attributing a numerical value to each card, players compete to build a hand worth 21, or as close to 21 as possible without breaching the limit.
But how does the game flow, when and how should you bet, and what techniques can you adopt to improve your game?
How The Game Works
Players are dealt two cards by the dealer. Each game is conducted simultaneously between individual players at the table and the dealer’s hands, so for the purposes of calculating your own hand, it’s the dealer’s hand that counts.
- The numerical cards 2-10 are ascribed a points value based on their number – so the 6 of Diamonds is worth 6 points, the 8 of Clubs is worth 8 points and so on.
- Face cards are worth 10 points each, and the Ace is worth 1 or 11, depending on the value of your hand.
- Players can choose to hit or stand at each round of cards, deciding whether to stick with their current total, or whether to draw another card.
- Any player who breaches 21, including the dealer, automatically loses the hand.
- In the event of a tie between a player and the house, the bets are pushed and neither is up or down.
- Depending on the specific variation you are playing, there are also benefits to drawing seven cards of exactly 21 – a “7 Card Charlie”, as it’s known. This is a prime winning hand which will topple a straight 21.
- Blackjack occurs when you hit a face card and an Ace in your starting hand, and this cannot be beaten – only matched by the dealer holding the same hand.
Players are invited to bet on the strength of their two-card hands, with other opportunities available depending on the game version. In some instances, for example, it is possible to split pairs into two equivalent hands, or take on alternative bets and insurance – particularly prevalent in some online versions of the game.
Blackjack Best Practices
In blackjack there are some helpful best practices you should factor in to your game to make sure you’re playing the odds in the most effective way.
There are a total of 340 possible configurations of hands you can hold in blackjack, of which 100 have obvious “next actions”. For example, two 6s means you need to hit at least one more card. Strategies generally focus on the other 240 hands, to determine the best moves in different scenarios.
People study for years to improve their blackjack game, but it still helps if you’ve got a good understanding of the mathematics at play to effectively assess your options.
At a broad stroke, here are a few principles you can stick by to reduce house edge and win with deserving hands more often.
- Don’t do the Dealers’ Work for Them: Don’t rush to bust yourself if the dealer has a chance of breaching 21. It’s easy to get carried away and end up eliminating yourself, when even a low standing hand triumphs over a dealer going bust.
- Ace & 6 Hit, Ace & 7 Stand: As a rule of thumb, hit on a hand containing Ace and 6. You’re at 17 already, and an additional card can only help improve your position, with the Ace reverting to 1 point if you would otherwise breach 21. At Ace and 7, it’s time to stand – the chances of busting on the next card are too high, and given the option to stand at 18, you’re already in a comfortable position mathematically.
- Split a pair of 8s or Aces: If you draw two Aces, your hand is worth 12. If you split the hand, you have two chances of developing a really good hand, with plenty of tens floating about to give you a blackjack score (and ample near-miss hands to boot). Similarly two eights is just a hand of 16, one of the most difficult hands to play – too low to stand and win, but too high to comfortably draw another card. Two separate hands with 8s play much better, so take the split.
- Surrender Rarely: Surrender allows the player to give up on their hand and keep half of their bet. It’s not offered as an option too often, but when it is, there are very few occasions when it’s worth using, such as when you hold a hard 16 versus the dealer’s 9, 10, or Ace.
- Double down: This option allows you to double your bet, but you have to stand, no matter what, after taking one more card. You can check out the strategy table on this page for more guidance on when exactly to use this option. But as a rule of thumb, you want to double when the dealer has a poor hand and you have a hand with good potential that can’t go bust.
- Avoid Insurance: Some people favour the insurance option, but it’s not a good bet. This increases the house edge against you relative to its payoff, so it’s not really worth it. Stay clear.
- Stand at 17: Don’t gun for 21 all the time. If you hit 17, feel comfortable standing. This is mathematically your best bet. While you won’t win every hand, drawing another card will bust many more times than not, so it’s safer to stick at 17 and play through the odds across every hand you are dealt.
For a quick guide of when to hit and when to stand see our hit or stand table below
While there is clearly a chance element in the cards and the hands you draw, Blackjack is far from a game of chance. Instead, there are practical strategies players can follow to get more information ahead of betting on a given hand, and serious players devote hours on end to learning and practising these techniques. Card counting is perhaps the most well-known of these skills, a feat memorably displayed by Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man.
There’s a lot of myth around card counting, and strictly speaking, it’s not allowed in most land-based casinos. Certainly, any explicit attempts to count or record the cards drawn will land you in difficulty with the management, so it’s not a great idea to try it out in a land-based environment. In the online space, no such restrictions exist, but the practicalities of counting cards make it impossible anyway. Successful card counting requires careful observation of the dealer’s actions when it comes to shuffling the deck. Since this is impossible in virtual casino games, not to mention that the deck is shuffled after every hand, online card counting is, sadly, a no-go.
Most blackjack games involve a number of decks played simultaneously, so keeping track of which cards have come out and which are remaining in the deck is incredibly difficult. Some players like to make approximations based on the cards on the table and their recollection of previous hands, to influence whether they should play tight or aggressive in terms of their bets.
Blackjack – When the first two cards received equal 21. An unbeatable hand. Also known as a “natural”.
Bust – When the total contained in your hand exceeds 21.
Double down – When the player elects to double his or her bet in exchange for one more card. The player must stand after taking the additional card.
Hard hand – A hand that does not contain an Ace. Or a hand that has an Ace being counted as one, not 11.
Hit – To take another card.
Hole card – The second card dealt to the dealer. It remains face down until the player has completed his actions.
Insurance – In some (but not all) blackjack games the player is given the option to make a side bet worth half their original bet, but only when the dealer shows an Ace as their up card (see below). If the dealer’s hole card completes a blackjack (also known as a natural), the player receives the insurance wager and original bet back.
Push – The player and dealer have the same hand, so it’s a draw.
Soft hand – A hand containing an Ace, which is being valued at 11. This means it’s impossible for him or her to bust.
Split – When the player holds a pair, she may choose to split the hand into two separate ones, with a bet on each one.
Stand – The player chooses to stick with his hand total, electing to take no more cards.
Surrender – The option to surrender your hand in return for half your stake back.
Up card – The dealer card that is showing from the beginning of the hand.
Phew. That’s a lot to take in, but we think it’ll stand you in good stead as you take on the virtual blackjack tables. Check out our other Academy articles for more game guides, or you can head over to our online blackjack site ranking for the best places to play blackjack online.