How to play Blackjack

In this guide, you will learn how to play Blackjack basic strategy, which you can put into practice with our free online training app.

We recommend that you read this guide all the way through once and then get practicing!

In this guide, you'll learn:

  • What are the rules of Blackjack?
  • What is "Basic Strategy" and how do you play it?
  • How to read a blackjack strategy chart
  • How to memorize basic strategy quicker
  • What are your odds when using basic strategy?
  • Can you actually "beat the dealer" with basic strategy?
  • How to survive your first trip to the casino
  • What are some common betting strategies?

Who is this guide for?

This guide is for two types of people:

  • Complete beginners who have never played Blackjack before
  • Moderately experienced players looking to gain an edge on the house by playing perfect basic strategy

What is Blackjack?

Dating back in its earliest form to the 17th century, Blackjack is a card game played with a 52 card deck where 1-7 players compete against the "house" (the dealer), attempting to end with a higher hand total than the dealer without going "bust" (going over 21).

A "blackjack" is a scenario where the first two cards dealt to a player are an Ace and some other card with a face value of 10 (10, Jack, Queen, King).

Blackjack!Hand total: 21

Each player is dealt 2 cards to start, while the dealer only shows 1 card to start. The dealer goes around the table asking each player to either hit or stand, and in many casinos, players also have the option to double, split, and in rare cases, surrender depending on the player's hand.

The player can hit as many times as they wish as long as their hand is below 21. Once a player "stands", their turn is over.

When every player has played their turn, the dealer will flip over their second card and will continue hitting until they reach a count of 17 or they "bust" (over 21).

If the dealer "busts" (goes over 21), every player that has not gone over 21 will be paid 1:1 according to their original bet. Players who have "bust" themselves lose their bet immediately.

If the dealer does not "bust", only players that have a higher hand total less than or equal to 21 will be paid 1:1 of their original wager. Players with a blackjack will be paid 3:2 of their original wager (or whatever payout ratio the casino is offering). Players who tie the dealer will "push" (no money won, no money lost).

What is "Basic Strategy" in Blackjack?

Blackjack basic strategy has a long history dating back to four U.S. Army Engineers dubbed the Four Horsemen. These men studied the game of Blackjack and developed the first iteration of "Basic Strategy" all the way back in the 1950s. Since that time, many notable figures including Ed Thorp, a legendary mathematician and investor, have studied the game with the aid of computers and have refined "Basic Strategy" to a succinct set of basic strategy charts.

By playing perfect basic strategy, a player can reduce the house edge from 6% down to less than 1% (varies depending casino-specific rules, deck sizes, and payouts).

The following sections will explain each component of basic strategy and why these strategies work.

Blackjack order of operations

When it is your turn to play, there is a specific order of questions that you'll ask yourself to figure out the best action. By looking at the two cards you are dealt alone, you should be able to answer these questions:

  1. Is the dealer offering insurance or even-money? (hint: never take it)
  2. Do I have a pair? If so, do I split it?
  3. Is my hand a "soft total"? (i.e. Ace + other card)
  4. Can I surrender? If so, should I?
  5. If you answered no to all the above questions, you have a "hard total"

While following the basic strategy charts alone can help you make this decision, the following sections will explain these scenarios in more detail.

Hard totals vs. Soft totals

A key component to understanding how to play basic strategy is knowing the difference between a hard and soft total.

A "hard" total is easy to remember. If you do not have an Ace in your hand, you have a hard total.

"Soft" totals represent player hands that include at least 1 Ace and have a total of 20 or less when the Ace is counted as high. That's a mouthful, so let's look at a few examples.

Example 1Soft 18 (i.e. S18)

In the example above, we have a "Soft 18" total. The reason we call it "soft" is because depending on our valuation of the Ace, the hand could equal two different numbers:

  1. Ace "high": 11 + 7 = 18
  2. Ace "low": 1 + 7 = 8

In this case, when we value the Ace at 11, our total is 18, which is where we get the S18 designation.

Now, let's add a card.

Example 2Soft 20 (i.e. S20)

Even though we have 3 cards, this is still considered a "soft" total. Let's add it up:

  1. Ace "high": 11 + 7 + 2 = 20
  2. Ace "low": 1 + 7 + 2 = 10

In both scenarios, we are still at a total less than 21.

Let's add one more card:

Example 3Hard 15 (i.e. H15)

One more time, let's add up the totals and figure out why this has suddenly changed to a "hard" total:

  1. Ace "high": 11 + 7 + 2 + 5 = 25
  2. Ace "low": 1 + 7 + 2 + 5 = 15

As you can see, when we treat our Ace as "high" (11), our hand total goes above 21 (25) and is no longer playable. Now that we only have one option, we consider this hand a "hard total" of 15.

Hit / Stand strategies

Deciding whether to hit or stand in blackjack is largely a matter of memorizing the basic strategy charts, which is why we recommend that you practice with our free online training app until you're confident that you have the charts 100% memorized.

Split strategies

A split is when you take a single blackjack hand of two cards and split them into two separate hands, each with their own bets. To split, first place your chips in equal value to your original bet next to your existing chips. Then, indicate that you want to split by holding two fingers behind your cards (like a "peace sign"), which indicates to the dealer, "I would like to split".

Doubling strategies

A double happens after you are initially dealt two cards and is a way to double down on your original bet when your hand is favorable. To double a hand, place an equal number of chips as your original bet next to your original chips and then point at the dealer with your index finger to indicate, "I want 1 more card".

Surrender strategies

A surrender is when you give up exactly half of your original bet and withdraw from the current hand. While it is rare that a casino allows this rule, in the rare cases it is allowed, this is a good strategy for minimizing your loss on a hand that has a low probability of beating the dealer.

To surrender, drag your index finger in a horizontal motion, from left-to-right across the table, beneath your cards and verbally say "surrender" to the dealer.

A surrender comes in two forms:

  1. Early surrender - the player is allowed to surrender before the dealer has peaked at their second card (when the first up-card is a 10+)
  2. Late surrender - the player cannot surrender until the dealer has peaked at their second card. If that second card produces a blackjack, the surrender option is no longer available to the player.

An early surrender is much more favorable to the player than a late surrender, and therefore is rarely offered in casinos.

What next?

Finished the guide? Looks like you're ready to start practicing with our free online training app! Practice with the app until you can play with 100% accuracy. After that, you can scroll through the glossary to pick up on some common jargon, then you're ready to hit the casino!