How to Play Blackjack
A typical blackjack table has six or seven seats for players. The seat closest to the dealer's left is sometimes known as “first base,” while the seat closest to the dealer's right is called the “anchor seat” or “third base.” The anchor seat often gets a lot of attention — and pressure — from other players, because it is the last position to get cards before the dealer works on his or her own hand.
The “anchor” seat, or “third base,” is considered by many gamblers to be critical to the outcome of a game, because the last player's decision to hit or stand affects the dealer's hand. If you don't follow basic strategy in this position, other players may blame you for the outcome of a game. Avoid this seat unless you intend to follow basic strategy strictly.
Bets are placed before the cards are dealt. Most blackjack tables have a minimum bet of $5 to $100 per hand. Once in a great while you might find a $2 table. Minimum bets are posted on or near the table; if the table has a maximum bet per hand, that will be posted, too.
▲ A typical blackjack table layout. Most will indicate dealer rules, blackjack payout, and insurance payout.
Each player, beginning with the one on the dealer's left, is dealt one card, face-up; the dealer's first card also is dealt face-up. Each player is dealt a second card, also face-up, and the dealer's second card, called the “hole card,” is face-down. Then, beginning with the player on the dealer's left, each player either taps the table to indicate he wants a hit (an additional card), or holds his hand palm-down over his cards to indicate that he wants to stand. Each player can take as many cards as he wants until the total is close to or equals 21, or until the player “busts” by going over 21. When all players have either indicated they wish to stand or have busted, the dealer reveals his hole card and plays out his hand.
The dealer's choices are controlled by the house rules. At virtually all casinos, dealers must draw on any total of 16 or lower and stand on totals of 17 or higher. So, for example, if the dealer's up-card is a 2 and his hole card is a 10, he must take cards until his total hand is at least 17. If his third card is a 3, he has to take at least one more card, because his total now is only 15.
On the other hand, if the dealer's up-card is a 7 and his hole card is a 10, he must stand. A player whose hand is more than 17 (but not more than 21) wins; a player whose hand also is 17 is in a standoff, where no money is exchanged.
Some casinos require dealers to stand on a soft 17 (an ace and a 6), and others require them to hit in that situation. Generally speaking, the house has more of an edge when a dealer is required to hit on a soft 17.
The player has many more options than the dealer. You can request a hit or stand. If your first two cards are a pair, you can split them, place an additional bet, and play each half of the pair as a separate hand, hitting and standing as warranted. You can “double-down,” where you increase your bet — usually by no more than a total of double your original bet — but agree to accept only one more card.
If the dealer has an ace showing, you can make an insurance bet before the hole card is revealed. You put up half of your original bet on the assumption that the dealer has blackjack; if you're right, insurance pays 2:1, which means you win twice the amount you bet. If you're wrong and the dealer doesn't have blackjack, you lose your insurance bet, and the rest of the hand is played out as usual.
Insurance is considered a “sucker bet” by most experts. Unless you've been counting cards, it's hard to know whether the dealer has a 10 in the hole. In general, the house advantage on insurance bets is around 6 percent. If you follow basic strategy, the house's edge can be as low as a fraction of 1 percent, so you're better off pretending there's no such thing as insurance.
Finally, some casinos allow bettors to surrender. Rules on surrender vary; some casinos allow early surrenders (before the dealer looks at the hole card) only if the dealer's up-card is a 9, 10, face card, or ace, while others allow you to surrender no matter what the dealer is showing. If you choose to surrender, you lose only half of your original bet. Some casinos also allow “late” surrenders, after the dealer looks at the hole card. According to some experts, you'll lose the hand three times out of four when the dealer has an ace or 10 showing, so a surrender bet can help you cut your losses. On multiple-deck games, basic strategy recommends surrendering when you hold a hard 15 and the dealer shows a 10, or when you have a hard 16 and the dealer shows a 9, 10, or ace.
The Magic Number
Experts in blackjack theory have determined that the average winning hand in blackjack is 18.3. Since you can't get fractions in blackjack, and since most casinos require their dealers to stand on 17, the true “magic number” in the game is a hard 17, both for the player and for the house. There's a very good reason for this: the chances of going bust on a hand of 17 are high, because only an ace, 2, 3, or 4 can improve this hand. Anything higher than a 4 — and there are many more of the higher cards in the deck — means losing the hand. This is why most casinos require the dealer to stand on 17.
It makes sense if you think about how the cards' values are spread throughout a deck. In a single fifty-two-card deck, there are only four aces, four 2s, four 3s, and so on, right up to the 9 cards. But there are four cards that count as 10 — the 10, jack, queen, and king — and there are four of each of these cards in a single deck. So, there are sixteen cards whose value in blackjack is 10, or more than 30 percent of the total cards in a single deck. By contrast, only about 7 percent of the cards in a single deck are 3s. This ratio remains the same no matter how many decks are being used.
At best, when you hold a hard 17, only 31 percent of the cards can help your hand (ace, 2, 3, or 4, each representing a little over 7 percent of the total cards). That leaves 69 percent of the cards as hand-busters, and that figure only goes up if your hand is an 18, 19, or 20. The odds are against you every time.
There are a number of card-counting methods that, theoretically, allow the player to determine the ratio of high and low cards left to be played and to adjust the betting accordingly. Though technically this is not cheating, most casinos dislike the practice and, if they catch you, will ask you to stop playing, limit the amount you can bet, or change the shuffle to remove the advantage card-counting can give you.
If you have an ace and a 6 for a soft 17, you have more options. You might double-down, increasing your bet and hoping you draw a 3 or 4, which would give you 20 or 21, or a 10, which would give you a solid 17. Or you might opt for a hit, anticipating a series of smaller cards. In this situation, as always in this game, your best choice depends on what the dealer is showing. The dealer's up-card is the only clue you have in blackjack as to what your next move should be, and basic strategy differs according to the dealer's up-card.