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Best of Henry Tamburin
Crash course in blackjack, part I10 August 2013
Of course, he was right. Even if you're a dedicated machine player, learning how to play blackjack is not as difficult as you think it is. Moreover, think about this: Blackjack has been the most popular casino table game for over 50 consecutive years, and even today, more folks play blackjack than poker (yep, that’s true). In short, blackjack is popular because it's easy to play, it’s fun and it offers the best odds of winning.
I’ll review, in plain English, the basics of how to play blackjack, show you a simplified playing strategy that you can learn in minutes (no kidding) and give you tips on how to overcome your jitters when you're ready to sit down and play.
The objective in blackjack is to beat the dealer’s hand. You can do this in one of two ways: by either having your hand total higher than the dealer’s hand, or by not going over 21 when the dealer subsequently goes over 21 (going over 21 is known as “busting” or “breaking”). Therefore, if you have 18 and the dealer has 17, you win. If you stand on 12 and the dealer busts, you win.
There are many blackjack tables in a casino with minimum betting limits that often vary from one table to the next. Check the signage located somewhere on the table that indicates what the table minimum and maximum betting limits are. As a beginner, I would strongly suggest you get your feet wet at the lowest minimum-bet table that you can find.
The cards count their face value in blackjack. Picture cards count as 10, and an Ace counts as either 1 or 11 (initially the Ace counts as 11, but if you draw more cards and the hand totals more than 21, then the Ace can be counted as 1). The total of any hand is the sum of the card values in the hand. For example, a hand containing a 4-5-8 totals 17 and Ace-5 is a 16. The highest-value starting hand in blackjack (because it receives a bonus) contains an Ace and a 10-value card, and it is known as a blackjack or natural.
When you win a hand at blackjack, you are paid even money (i.e., if you bet $5 and win, you are paid $5). The only exception is a player’s blackjack, which is paid either 3-2 or 6-5 (avoid all 6-5 games!) if the dealer doesn’t also have a blackjack. If your hand and the dealer’s hand have the same total, this is known as a push, or tie, and you neither win nor lose your wager. Card suits have no meaning at blackjack.
Some blackjack tables use a single or double deck of cards, which is dealt by the dealer from his hand (he “pitches” the cards to the players). Others use four or, more commonly, six or eight decks of cards that are dealt from a device known as a dealing shoe. In most pitch games, the cards are dealt face-down to players, who must pick them up to look at them (with one hand only). In shoe-dealt games, the player’s cards are dealt face up, and players are not permitted to handle the cards. The first two dealer’s cards are always dealt one card face down (hole card) and the other face up. The latter card is the most important card on the table, because it is one of the variables that determine how you will play your hand.
Some hands in blackjack are known as soft hands and others as hard hands, and it’s important to know the distinction. Any hand that contains an Ace counted as 11 is known as a soft hand. For example, Ace-6 is a soft 17. Likewise, 2-3-Ace is a soft 16. A hard hand is any hand that either does not contain an ace, or if it does, the Ace is counted as 1. For example, 10-5-Ace is a hard 16. Oftentimes, a hand can start as a soft hand, and after receiving one or more cards, turn into a hard hand (Ace-5 is soft 16; if you hit and draw a 10, you now have a hard 16).
The dealer must act on his hand by house rules (i.e., he has no playing options). If his hand totals 16 or less, he must draw another card or cards. If his hand totals 17 through 21, he must stand. In some casinos, the dealer must stand on soft 17, and in others, he must hit (it will say so on the layout). The odds are slightly better for players when the dealer stands on all 17s, including soft 17.
The built-in house edge in blackjack arises from the simple fact that players act before the dealer, and if they bust they automatically lose, even if the dealer subsequently busts. In fact, this double-bust rule creates an initial 8 percent edge for the house, assuming the rules for dealer and player are the same — but they are not the same! You are paid a bonus when you get a blackjack and beat the dealer (when the dealer gets a blackjack, he isn’t paid a bonus). In addition, you have several playing options that are not available to the dealer, such as standing or hitting on any hand total, doubling down, pair splitting and, in some venues, surrendering. By using these playing options optimally, you can reduce the house edge to about one-third of a percent!
Part 2 will be published on Aug. 24.
Henry Tamburin is a blackjack and video poker expert. He hosts the smartgaming.com website and is the editor of the Blackjack Insider newsletter.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best of Henry Tamburin