A Crash Course in Blackjack

Blackjack Table With Cards And Chips

You know the game's name. You may even know some of the basic rules. But odds are, you have no idea how to play blackjack. And who can blame you? If you're not a gambler and you've never spent time in a casino, there's no reason to know anything about this modern American take on an old French card game.

Want to learn how to play blackjack? We'll get you there by the time you reach the end of this page. We wrote this article in such a way as to prepare you to play blackjack like a seasoned vet, regardless of how much you knew before you started. In fact, we wrote this page for people who have zero knowledge of the game at all. The goal is to turn you into a blackjack player over the course of a few thousand words.

Let's start with a crash course in the basics of the game.

An FAQ for Blackjack Beginners

What is blackjack?

Blackjack is a card game. It's almost always played for real money, usually in a casino or card room. Blackjack is sometimes referred to as a "house banked" game. The phrase house banked refers to any game in which the casino participates by competing against all players, collecting money from losers and paying out to winners. We like to think of these games as any in which the casino can win.

In blackjack, players don't compete against one another, as in poker. Instead, players are competing individually against the house. How do they compete? With a simple card comparing game. Cards are dealt to each player and to the dealer's hand based on both a strict set of rules and the player's preferences. We cover these rules in greater detail below.

Blackjack offers players three ways to win - you can win by being dealt cards worth a point total of 21 on the first deal, you can win by reaching a final point total higher than the dealer's (without exceeding 21), or you can win by letting the dealer draw additional cards until his point total exceeds 21. Accordingly, you can lose a few different ways - you lose if the dealer is dealt a point total of 21 on the first deal, you lose if the dealer reaches a higher point total than you (without going over 21), and you lose if you draw to a point total higher than 21.

Where does the name "blackjack" come from?

We dig deeper into the history of the game below, but the story behind the name is interesting, and we figure we should share it up top. The games that influenced blackjack followed a simple naming convention - to the Spanish, the game was called "thirty-one." For the French, it was "twenty-one." Where did Americans get the name blackjack from? Why don't we call the game 21?

The name comes from the rules of the game - "blackjack" is slang for any hand made up of an ace and a face card. It's the most powerful hand in the game. But since it has nothing to do with jacks per se, and since the cards don't have to be black, where did the name come from?

Before the game was codified in American casinos, the rules were a bit different. One rule occasionally added to entice more players was the addition of special payouts for specific card combinations. A hand made up of the ace of spades and either of the black jacks earned a particularly high payout. Analyze that hand again - a black ace and a black jack. The fact that the black-jack hand was more valuable than any other point total of 21 made this hand stick out. Casinos took this rule and ran with it, eventually changing the rule so that any hand made up of an ace and a face card resulted in the special payout.

In other words, we got rid of the rule but kept the cool name. Maybe the reason this name has lasted so long is the simple fact that it's easy to remember and it rhymes?

Why is blackjack so popular?

Blackjack is by far the most popular table game. You'll find blackjack games in casinos that have literally no other table games available. Variants of blackjack for smart phones and laptops are incredibly popular, even those that don't offer real money prizes.

But why is this weird hybrid game so popular? If you skimmed over the first part of this page, we hope you stop and pay attention here. The reasons for blackjack's popularity are an integral part of the game's identity.

Blackjack is popular because it is one of the best games in any casino in terms of player odds. Blackjack is also considered "beatable," thanks to the efforts of a lot of really smart people who figured the game out in the 60s and 70s. Blackjack strategy cards make it easy to play like a pro, and these cards are available all over the place, even in casino gift shops. Don't forget that blackjack is cool - it's a sophisticated game allowing for big wagers and even bigger payouts.

But if you forget everything else about the game, we hope you remember that blackjack offers great odds. Blackjack is beatable. If you learn the information on this page and follow basic strategy, the casino's edge against you could be as small as 0.28%, depending on the rules of the game. At those odds, you should expect to lose only about a quarter of every $100 you bet. In terms of casino entertainment, it doesn't get much cheaper than an educated round of blackjack.

A Crash Course in Blackjack Rules

Blackjack is dealt from a collection of standard 52-card decks of playing cards. This collection of decks is called "the shoe," and may contain any number of decks from 1 to 8. The rules of blackjack require that each of the cards in the deck have a numerical or point value. Here is a chart displaying the point values of the different cards used to play blackjack:

Blackjack Table With Cards And Chips

The game begins with a wager from each player who wants to participate. The minimum and maximum betting amounts vary from one game to another - you'll need to find this information beforehand. Blackjack tables allowing bets as low as $5 per hand are still occasionally available in the big gambling halls of America, though most casinos have upped the minimum bet to $15 or $20.

Once players make their ante wagers, each player and the dealer is dealt two cards. All player cards are dealt to each player in a manner where only they can see them. Under standard American blackjack rules, the dealer gets one card face-down (this is known as the "hole card") and one card face-up, known as the "upcard".

Right away, everyone should check for blackjack. If any player or the dealer has a blackjack, the game ends pretty quickly. A blackjack is any hand made of an ace and a ten-point value card. A blackjack is the best possible hand - it's worth 21 points, sure, but it's also worth more than any other combination that forms a total of 21. That means you can beat the house even if the dealer manages to form a hand worth 21 points. Most games reward this hand with a payout of 3:2, rather than any even-money payout, which is what you'd normally win. Be on the lookout for casinos paying 6:5 for blackjack - the house is counting on you seeing the number 6 and figuring that's a bigger payout. But a 6:5 payout is actually significantly smaller than a 3:2. You should avoid 6:5 payout games entirely if you can.

If the dealer is showing an ace for his upcard, indicating that he might have a blackjack, you can choose to "buy insurance" against a dealer blackjack. Buying insurance is actually just an additional wager that pays out if the dealer has a blackjack. Your insurance bet is limited to half the size of your ante wager, but it pays out 2:1 if the dealer does indeed have a blackjack. Buying insurance is a sucker bet, since the payout would have to be 5:1 in order to pay even money. Since the actual payout is 2:1, you know you're getting a rotten deal.

If no one has a blackjack, and if buying insurance isn't an option, it's time to continue play. Once you've seen your cards and the dealer's upcard, it's time to make the game's most important decision:

Hit Stand Split Table

*Take note - if you want to split your hand, you have to place a wager equal to your ante, and take one additional card.

Once all player hands are complete - meaning either the player stands or busts - the dealer reveals their hole card and continues play according to a specific set of rules established by the casino. Usually, that means the dealer will keep drawing until they've reached a point total greater than 17 or busted in the process of trying to get there.

If the dealer busts, all players who are still in the game earn an even money payout on their ante wager. If the dealer doesn't bust, his point total is compared to each player's point total, and the higher hand in each heads-up competition is the winner.

Our description of the game's rules may make it seem like the game takes forever to play a single round. This isn't necessarily true. Some rounds move quickly. The same goes for dealers - some are quick, some are slow. Generally speaking, you'll probably play between 60 and 120 hands per hour at a live blackjack table.

A Crash Course in Blackjack History

Why is it important to know the history of blackjack? Some of the game's rules and traditions are best understood in historical context. We also think it makes for good cocktail conversation. Either way, read on for a crash course in blackjack history.

Two games popular in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries are the traditional ancestors of modern blackjack. These games (Chemin-de-fer and Ferme) are now all but lost to history. Also important - if you learned the rules of these games, you wouldn't necessarily know how to play blackjack.

Like we said - the story of this popular table game is complicated.

The Early Days

Between 1569 (the year of the first mention of a game called "twenty-one") and the year 1700, the modern game of blackjack was born. It wasn't yet called blackjack, of course - that name came later, once the game made it to America. Originally, blackjack was called "vingt-et-un" which is French for 21. This little game proved popular enough to become a mainstay among the French. It was also popular enough to travel to new lands in the minds and gambling habits of traders, immigrants, soldiers, and stowaways.

A motley crew, to say the least. But that's actually how it happened. Little by little, Americans learned the game. Some learned it in ports, some in the gambling halls of Europe while on vacation. Some writers on the subject pin the spread of 21 in America on the traditions of the Acadians, French nationals who settled in Newfoundland and other parts of Canada. When the Acadians were forced out of Canada by the British, they headed south, mainly settling in Louisiana, and becoming Cajuns along the way. Cajun traditions, including their unique variety of herbs and produce, can be traced all the way back to the French mainland. The same is true for the game we know as blackjack.

What made blackjack stick around? We think it stayed popular and spread so rapidly from one culture to another because of the strong element of skill. Luck-based gambling games are fun, and they're popular, but they don't have the same magnetic appeal as games like blackjack and poker, where skill is rewarded with cash. The fact is, blackjack players can improve their skills and also improve their chances of winning. You can't say that about dice games, slot machines, or the lottery. When people can improve with practice, they tend to. That also gives the game staying power.

The American Influence

Leave it to the United States to create a game that is as beatable as it is addictive. American casinos added two rules to entice people to play this new oddball card game - these two seemingly minor rule changes are entirely responsible for blackjack's status as a winnable game. The first rule allowed the player to see the dealer's first card before making his decisions. The second rule forced the dealer to follow specific rules in-game.

These rule changes created the possibility of strategy. You'd never find these rules in the casinos of Europe or in the docks of Louisiana. Forcing dealers to follow rules of strategy established by the house created just enough wiggle room for players to devise strategic ways to fairly consistently beat the house. Understand that for the first time in history, blackjack dealers were forced to take a hit at 16 and stand on 17. That one shift in the rules made it possible for a set of strategy tips to be created.

By the time these rule changes were made, house banked blackjack games were a big part of the Nevada gambling landscape. That means that dealers and players familiar with the old house-favoring rules were forced to learn and practice the new game, en masse. As early as 1931, Vegas casinos were following these two landmark rule changes.

Okay, so we keep talking about strategy, ideal strategy, strategy charts, and card-counting. What are these things? What do we mean when we say that blackjack is beatable?

A Crash Course in Blackjack Strategy

We say blackjack is "beatable" because it is based on things known as "dependent events."

A dependent event is any event that's influenced by an event or influences another event. An easy way to understand this is to think of it as the opposite of an "independent event," such as the flip of a coin. Independent events aren't influenced by anything else, and don't influence anything else on their own.

We say a round of blackjack is a dependent event because of the fact that each drawn card affects the probability of drawing another card. In layman's terms, the outcome of any draw in blackjack IS DEPENDENT ON the card or cards that were drawn before it.

Blackjack strategy is all about knowing when to make certain moves, based on what upcard the dealer is showing and what your current point total is. Blackjack strategy is also a set of codified rules for player behavior based on the cards showing on the table. It gives players the mathematically-ideal play for every game situation. It has even been modified over the years to include various new rule changes and iterations of the game. This set of essential tactics for playing 21 exist mostly in the form of charts today. We'll get more information on those charts a bit later, but first let's look at how this optimal strategic system was devised.

A man named Ed Thorp (now enshrined in the Blackjack Hall of Fame) published a book called Beat the Dealer in 1962. This was the first book to mathematically prove that blackjack could be beaten using basic strategy and card-counting techniques. This is generally recognized as the birth of blackjack strategy - but the truth is, the real eggheads who figured the game out had already long since retired.

The men who really created basic blackjack strategy are named Roger Baldwin, Herbert Maisel, Wilbert Cantey, and James McDermott. They were mathematicians and gambling enthusiasts who used old-fashioned desktop calculators and good old pencil and paper calculating to devise the earliest form of what we recognize today as basic strategy.

Known even today in certain circles as The Four Horsemen, these men were mathematical analysts who first worked out that an optimal strategy for playing the game of 21 could be created. All this happened during the 1950s, long before modern mathematical techniques (not to mention computers and software) were available to them. Put simply, they were geniuses, and decades ahead of their time.

Thorp gets the credit for "inventing" basic strategy, but what he really did was use The Four Horsemen's research and his own access to MIT's state-of-the-art computer systems to prove that their strategy was truly optimal. Thorp codified work that had already been done about a decade before he published his seminal book.

We said all that to say this - following basic blackjack strategy is as easy as following a blackjack strategy chart. These charts were designed based on the work of Thorp and The Four Horsemen. They're readily available and easy to use, once you know how.

How to Read a Blackjack Strategy Chart

Looking at a strategy chart is like looking at any chart with an x and a y axis.

Generally speaking, these charts show one column labeled "Player's Hand" and one row labeled "Dealer's Card." To use the chart, players simply take the action written at the intersection of their hand and the dealer's up-card on the chart.

Depending on the complexity of the strategy chart you use, you may have just a few options in terms of what action to take (Hit, Stand, Double) or several different options. These are usually color-coded to make the charts easier to read.

So - does following basic strategy mean you'll win every time? Of course not. Following these charts give you the best mathematical chance at beating the dealer, plain and simple.

Where to Find Blackjack Strategy Charts

Thanks to the Internet, finding ideal play charts is about as easy as finding a photo of a celebrity's latest wardrobe malfunction. By far the quickest and cheapest way to get your hands on a strategy chart is to find one on the Internet. Here's an example of a blackjack strategy chart I found online in about ten seconds. I found it by typing "blackjack strategy chart" into Google, and then browsing the resulting images.

You can buy all sorts of blackjack strategy guides in casino gift shops, but the downside of these compared to online versions is the lack of customization. These cards are usually two-sided and contain basic charts for "standard rules" games. Unfortunately, these standard rules don't apply to most online games of blackjack, so the physical cards available for purchase at any land-based casino isn't nearly as useful as the free ones available online.

Why Use Basic Blackjack Strategy?

The main answer to this question is simple - basic strategy makes it theoretically more likely that you'll beat the dealer. Using basic strategy, players reduce the house's theoretical advantage from around 8% to as low as 0.5%. Remember that these are theoretical percentages, and the actual percentage of the game you play depends on rule variations and the number of decks in the shoe.

Other reasons for using these tactics exist - simplifying the rules of the game, practicing good betting policies, unit bet sizing, etc. None of them are as important as the fact that, playing according to these rules worked out years before you were born by people much smarter than you, you'll probably win a little bit more.

A Crash Course in Blackjack Etiquette

Now that you understand the blackjack basics, the rules of the game, and a little bit about game strategy, it's time for you to walk up to a blackjack table and start playing.

But, wait.

Casinos are intimidating places. If you're new to blackjack, you're probably new to casinos as well. Casinos can be confusing, smoky, loud, and inebriating. The buildings themselves are designed to disorient you and keep you playing. It can be a dangerous place to be unaware of the rules, too, since casinos reserve (and regularly avail themselves of) the right to kick people out for any or no reason at all.

This section is designed to bring you up to speed on blackjack etiquette. We've prepared it as a series of five steps to follow when you prepare to walk up to a blackjack table in a live casino:

First, figure out the rules and betting range.

We've identified ten rules that are likely to vary between each blackjack table you come across:

  1. Number of decks used
  2. Dealer hits or stands on a soft 17
  3. The ability to double after split
  4. The ability to double on any two cards
  5.  Number of hands you can split to
  6. The ability to re-split aces
  7. The ability to hit split aces
  8. Amount of loss versus dealer blackjack
  9. Surrender rule
  10. Blackjack payout

The good news is - you don't need to know the ins and outs of each of these rules (or be able to identify them at a blackjack table) in order to enjoy yourself and play blackjack with confidence. Still, if you learn these rules and how to identify how they're played, you'll be giving yourself a huge leg-up.

If you're a beginner, start by identifying the number of decks in the shoe. Most casinos use the same number, and that information is publicly available. Next, find out if the table pays out 3:2 or 6:5 for a natural blackjack. Avoid those 6:5 tables.

As for the betting range, this will be displayed prominently on the table surface or on a placard somewhere near the table. If you're in Vegas, you're likely to find tables with a minimum bet anywhere from $10 to $50.

Second, learn and use proper hand signals.

Many casino games have their own set of jargon and hand signals. These were developed because casinos tend to be cramped, noisy, smoky, and distracting. Blackjack hand signals communicate everything you need to communicate to the dealer during play. To take a hit, you should tap or brush your fingers on the table immediately behind your cards. In casinos that allow you to handle your cards, you can tap or lightly brush your actual cards on the table. Doing so is actually preferred. When you want to stand, wave your hand over your cards. Over time, you'll learn other hand signals, and some specific to your favorite casino, table, or dealer.

Third, learn what to do with your hands.

As with any casino game, what you do with your hands is extremely important. You're generally not allowed to touch your wager once the game is in play, and doing so could get you booted out. This extends throughout each round - if you want to double down, you have to place that wager beside your initial ante, and not on top of it. Placing your bet on top of your ante is seen as illegal touching and could get you tossed out. The same goes for the insurance bet. Most blackjack tables have special spaces where you're meant to place these wagers. Follow those conventions or you may be asked to leave. For the most part, you should leave your hands entirely to yourself, holding your cards and only using your hands to signal the dealer and place bets before play begins.

Fourth, be a good table companion.

Just because you're not competing against the other players doesn't mean you shouldn't consider them. When your fellow players win, congratulate them. When they lose, share in their suffering. If they make a good move or land a natural, you should lean in and let them know you're impressed. The trick here is to keep any nastiness to yourself. Casinos have been known to ask people to leave simply for being rude or for being a stench in another player's nostrils. Remember that everyone is at the table for the same reason you're there - to have a good time and (maybe) win a little cash.

Fifth, respect (and tip) your dealer.

Respecting the dealer is all about remembering that they're doing a tough job. If you aren't getting good cards, or if you hit a losing streak, it has nothing to do with the dealer. As for tipping the dealer, you don't have to make their day, but if you're on a winning streak or you feel like you're getting good service for any reason, showing the dealer your appreciation with a cash tip is totally appropriate. In fact, as a beginner, we recommend that you tip by rote. A good rule of thumb - tip the dealer 20% of the cost of a round. If you're playing for $25 a hand, tip your dealer $5 every now and then. It won't kill your bankroll, and remember, a happy dealer makes for a better time at the casino.


We timed it. It takes about half an hour to read this, absorb it, and walk away satisfied. We just saved you hours of frustration, lost bets, and embarrassment. And all because we love this weird little European game. We love the fact that it offers the player good odds in exchange for a little skill. We love that it makes us feel cool and sophisticated. And we love that it's an inexpensive way to kill an hour or two, cheaper than a night at the movies or a dinner at a casual restaurant.

Now that you're ready to play blackjack, it's time to consider a trip to some of America's gambling hotspots. If you're specifically looking to practice your new blackjack skills at a live table, consider skipping Las Vegas and its high bet minimums and checking out Atlantic City or the Gulf Coast or the casino-rich state of Oklahoma. Blackjack is a popular game, available all over the place, and in such a variety that it's easy to get too close and become obsessed.