BLACKJACK RULES: A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO PLAYING 21
On this page, you can learn the fundamentals of blackjack gameplay and gain an understanding of the various steps you will encounter when playing this classic card game, which is also known as 21.
Blackjack’s popularity boomed in the early part of the 20th century, but its roots go all the way back to 18th century France. Now you can find blackjack being played in every casino all around the world.
With a good understanding of the rules of blackjack, you can walk confidently up to any table where it is being played and be in with a chance of winning.
Objectives of the game
The objective of blackjack is to have a hand value closer to 21 than the dealer’s cards, without your hand value exceeding 21.
You might be sat at a blackjack table with several other players, but your objective is to beat the dealer.
Basic rules of blackjack and gameplay
There are some rule variations to be found in blackjack, which is also played with different numbers of card decks from casino to casino.
Most casinos shuffle six or eight decks of cards together, although single and double deck games can still be found.
Blackjack tables typically accommodate up to seven players, but some feature as many as 12 spots.
Playing your hand in blackjack involves choosing whether to ‘stand’ by not asking for another card, or to ‘hit’ and request another card in your quest to get closer to 21.
If your hand value exceeds 21, you have gone ‘bust’.
Step 1: Place a bet
Taking a seat at the table, you will see a designated betting area in front of you. This is where you can place your bets by placing chips.
You will need to buy your chips before you can play at the table. You can do this by placing money on the felt of the table – not into the hand of the dealer – allowing the amount to be verified before the dealer pushes the appropriate number of chips towards you.
Upper and lower limits on betting will be made clear to all players at the table, usually by a sign. Once you have your chips you can place your wager. You must not touch your bet once the cards have been dealt.
Step 2: Deal the cards
The dealer will deal clockwise around the table, dealing each player a card facing up and dealing themself a card facing down. The dealer then deals each player another card facing up and themself one facing up.
As such, each player can see the total of their own hand, but they can only see the value of one of the dealer’s cards.
Step 3: Play your hand
Once you have been dealt your hand, you can add together the value of your cards to get your hand value.
Assuming neither you nor the dealer have a blackjack, the dealer will point to you when it is time to play your hand.
Step 4: Dealer plays their hand
Once each player at the table has been served, the dealer will turn their face-down card up. The dealer must take a card if their total is 16 or under. The dealer must stand once their total is 17 or higher.
Step 5: Determine the winner
If the dealer does not go bust, then their hand value is established and compared with the value of each player’s hand. If your hand value is higher than the dealer, you win. If you are tied with the dealer, your original bet is returned. If you cannot beat the dealer, you lose your bet.
Card values and scoring
Aces can be treated as 1 or 11 in blackjack, and it is up to you whether you treat any aces you are dealt as being worth 1 or 11. All face cards are worth 10, and all other cards are worth their pip value.
Crucial to your blackjack strategy and the decisions you make during a game is the concept of hard and soft hands. Understanding whether you have been dealt a hard or soft hand can affect your odds of beating the dealer, so it is worth taking a moment to familiarise yourself with the idea.
The key distinguishing factor between a soft hand and a hard hand is an ace. If the first two cards you are dealt include an ace, you have a soft hand and this means you have greater choice over what to do next, because your ace can be treated as being worth 1 or 11.
If you are dealt a hand without an ace, this is a hard hand with a fixed total value, offering you less flexibility.
How to play hand
You have various options available to you when it is your turn to play, and these are described below.
Making a decision on how to play your hand will depend on the value of your cards and the known value of the dealer’s face-up card.
To ‘hit’ and request another card, tap the felt of the table with your finger. You can hit as many times as you like unless you go bust (your hand value exceeds 21).
You can choose not to receive another card by signalling ‘stand’ by waving your hand or putting an open palm over the table.
The option to double down allows you to double your bet after you have been dealt your first two cards. If you choose to double down, you can only receive one further card after your first two.
If you are dealt a pair of matching cards, you can choose to split them into two separate hands. To do this, you must place a second bet of equal value to your first. Some casinos will allow you to make multiple splits in a game, but in some casinos limits apply.
If you are not confident of beating the dealer’s hand, you can fold your hand at the point where you have been dealt two cards. This is known as ‘surrender’ and means that you only lose half your bet. You cannot surrender if you have been dealt more than two cards.
The dealer’s first task is to shuffle the cards thoroughly, and then designate a player to cut the pack. A plastic card is inserted at the cut, and any cards below it discarded from the game.
The dealer must wait until all players have placed their bets before dealing, and when dealing they must give each player one card face up, followed by one face down for themselves. They must then deal a second face-up card to each player, followed by one face up for themselves.
The dealer’s play takes place when all players have been served. The dealer’s play begins when they turn their face-down card up. If the dealer’s total is 17 or more, they have to stand. If their total is 16 or under, they must take a card. They must take cards until their total is 17 or more, after which they must stand.
If the dealer has an ace that would bring their total to 17 or more (but not higher than 21) if counted as 11, the dealer must count the ace as 11 and stand.
Winning and losing
The quickest way to win a blackjack game is to be dealt an ace and a 10-value card in your first two cards. That’s a blackjack, and you win 1.5 times your wager immediately, as long as the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack.
If the dealer has a blackjack too, you keep your original wager but don’t win anything in addition. This is called a ‘push’.
If neither you nor the dealer have a blackjack in your first two cards, it’s time to play the hand. If you play your hand without it busting, and without surrendering, then it’s the dealer’s turn. They will first flip their face-down card (known as the ‘hole card’) and then take further hit cards if their total is lower than 17.
Once the dealer’s total is 17 or higher, a winner is established based on whether you or the dealer has the higher hand value.
Basic blackjack strategy
You can build a basic blackjack strategy by being able to recognise when the dealer’s face-up card is strong and when it is not. Your aim should always be to never take a card if there is a chance you may bust.
If the dealer has a 7, 8, 9, 10 or an ace as their face-up card, you need to aim for a total of 17 or higher. If the dealer has a poor card, such as a 4, 5 or 6 facing up, then you stand a chance of winning with a lower total of 12 or above. If the dealer has a face-up card of 2 or 3, a total of 13 or higher should be your aim.
If you are dealt an ace in your first two cards, you have a soft hand and should aim to reach a total of at least 18.
Doubling down is advisable if your first two cards have a value of 11. You should double down on 10 unless the dealer has a 10-card or an ace facing up. If you have a total of nine, only double down if the dealer’s card is a 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.
Always split a pair of aces or 8s, and you can split pairs of 2s, 3s or 7s unless the dealer is showing an 8, 9, 10-card or ace. You should not split identical 10-cards or pairs of 5s (two 5s are more useful for doubling down). Do not split 6s unless the dealer’s card is a 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6, and do not split a pair of 4s as 8 is a good hand value to hit on.
Variations of blackjack
Popular variations of blackjack that you may come across include European blackjack, in which the dealer does not receive a hole card until the player has made a playing decision and surrendering is not allowed.
Vegas Strip blackjack is widely popular and includes a rule whereby the dealer can peek at their hole card if their face-up card is an ace.
In Atlantic City blackjack, eight decks are shuffled together and the dealer can peek if their face-up card is an ace or a 10-value card. The minimum bet in Atlantic City blackjack is $1.
Sam is passionate about all things bingo and has more than 10 years’ experience of writing about the game in its online and land-based forms, as well as casino, sports betting and gaming. When he’s not testing and reviewing the latest online bingo sites, Sam stays abreast of developments in the industry through his extensive network of contacts around the world.