Blackjack Guide

Blackjack is a simple game, it really is -- despite the length of this treatise. (When you take pains to leave no question unanswered, anything can sound complicated.) Best advice: Read my guide through once and try to memorize the basic strategy, but play alongside a friend or loved one who knows the game until you have it mastered. The casinos don't care if players coach each other, and a friendly dealer will even offer some help (most of 'em are friendly).

Blackjack is well known as the only casino game in which a skilled player, under the right circumstances, can actually gain an edge over the "house." "Skilled," of course, is a euphemism for "card counting," but even without keeping track of the cards played, a player using the correct basic strategy can whittle the casino's advantage to almost nothing, and Jacqueline and I have found that we generally break even over the long haul. Take into account the free drinks and you could say we've found a pastime that's profitable as well as entertaining.


The suit of the cards means nothing in blackjack, though it's fun to say "Hey, look, a flush!" and watch the dealer roll his eyes. Numbered cards are worth their number, and face cards are worth 10. Aces are worth 1 or 11, your choice. If the first two cards a player (or the dealer) is dealt are an ace and a 10 (or face card), that's a blackjack (sometimes called a "natural"), and it pays players (but not the dealer) 3-to-2 instead of the usual even money. So if you're at a $2 table, you win $3 if you get a blackjack, assuming the dealer doesn't also have one.

The stated object of blackjack is to draw a hand that totals 21, or as close to 21 as possible without going over. That definition leaves out a very important component, however: The real object is to beat the dealer. Think of it that way and it's easier to understand why in some cases you should stand with a hand of 12, even though 12 is a long way from 21 and only a 10-value card would bust such a hand. You stand with a 12 when the dealer is showing a 4, 5 or 6 because 4s through 6s are lousy cards that indicate a good likelihood the dealer will bust. And you don't want to risk messing that up by drawing a 10, especially considering that there are 16 10-value cards in a deck, compared with only four nine-value cards, four eight-value cards, etc.


Blackjack is played on a lazy-U-shaped felt table with the dealer inside the U and one to six or so players seated around the outside. A dealer starts each hand by ensuring that each player has placed a bet (usually casino chips, but sometimes "money plays") on the appropriate little box, circle or casino logo at each position. Each table has a posted minimum and maximum bet, and these stakes vary even within a casino. Minimums can be as low as a dollar and as high as, well, at least $100, but at most casinos in Las Vegas you'll find $5 tables for the low rollers. When you find a table whose limits and conditions (Single deck? Double deck? Shoe? Special rules? Non-smoking?) are to your liking, and a chair is empty, plop your butt down and get out your wallet. Your "buy-in" can be whatever you like, but Jacqueline and I tend to start with $40 each at $3-minimum tables. You may set your money on the table at any time for your buy-in, but be prepared to wait until a hand is concluded before the dealer pays attention to you. Be sure to place your money in front of the betting box, between the box and the dealer. You're not likely to be called on it unless the dealer is a real jerk, but technically a bill placed in the box is considered a bet. A polite "Change, please!" is a nice touch, once you have the dealer's attention. The dealer might ask you how you want your change. "Some silver" is always a good answer. At most casinos, silver-dollar-like slot-machine tokens are used as $1 chips (Kennedy half-dollars and regular old quarters then suffice when needed for those odd 3-to-2 payoffs when you get a blackjack). The Horseshoe downtown, a blackjack mecca, is one exception -- it uses beige $1 chips. The other denominations you'll see in the claylike plastic chips are $5 (red), $25 (green) and $100 (black). Even if you're at a $5 table, you'll probably want some silver for the occasional $6 or $7 bet, or to tip the cocktail waitress. (Yes, the drinks are free, but tips are pretty much expected.) It's strictly optional, but if your dealer is particularly nice or helpful or fun, it's nice to tip him or her. You can hand over a coin or chip directly, but it's more fun to place a bet on the dealer's behalf. Simply place that bet (a $1 chip is customary) in front of your bet when placing your bet for a hand. That way, the dealer is rooting for you. If you win, the dealer gets $2 instead of the $1 (or $2.50 for a blackjack). If you lose, the dealer will still thank you, and you can try again later. (I don't tip dealers very often, but I'm a cheap bastard.)


The dealer deals one card to each player (face down in a hand-held single- or double-deck game but face up in a multiple-deck "shoe" game) and one card to himself (always face down, at least in conventional, non-gimmick blackjack), then another card, face up, to each player and to himself. If the players were dealt a face-down card, they pick up their hands at this point to see what's there. Handle your cards with one hand, not two, or else the dealer will yell at you (bad people who tamper with or switch cards are more able to do so if they're working with two hands). This isn't poker, so don't worry about other players seeing your cards. Casinos vary on this, but if the dealer's "up" card is an ace or sometimes a 10, he might check at this point to see if he has a blackjack. This is a good practice, because otherwise you waste time playing out hands that are moot. By the same token, if you're playing a hand-held game, you should set your cards face up on the table as soon as you discover you have been dealt a blackjack.

Now the game begins in earnest. The dealer turns to "first base," or the player to his left (the player farthest to the right of the table, from the players' perspective), to play out that player's hand. In a shoe game, the player points to the table with an index finger to signal "hit" (one more card), motions with a flat hand, palm down, to signal "stand" (no more cards), and moves more chips into the betting box to "double down" or "split." You can hit as many times as you like as long as you stay under 21. You double when you are so confident that a hit will put you in a winning position you want to maximize your winnings. Splitting is similar, though it's not always a confidence move -- if you have a matching pair (two 8s or two aces are considered ideal splitting hands), you have the option of turning it into two hands, which requires another bet. When you double, or when you split aces, you get only one more card. When you split cards other than aces, you play out each hand with further "hit" or "stand" signals until you are satisfied with your total or you bust (go over 21).

In a hand-held game, the signals are different. You make a light scratching motion on the table with the corners of your cards if you want to hit, or you tuck the cards, face down, under your bet if you want to stand. To double or split, you set the cards in front of your bet, face up, and put more chips in the box. (The dealer will always rearrange the cards as though you set them down wrong, but don't be bothered by this.) Split hands are then played out using the hand signals you would use in a shoe game.

Anyway, if player No. 1 stands, the process is repeated with the rest of the players. Each player must either stand or bust before the dealer plays out his hand. Players are paid off immediately after the playing of their hands only in the case of a blackjack. Players who bust are immediately relieved of their bets. Players who simply stood must wait until the dealer plays out his hand. The dealer makes no strategy decisions and cannot split or double. The dealer simply draws until he passes 16 or until he busts, whichever comes first. (Rules differ on how dealers handle "soft 17" -- a 17 in which an aces is counted as 1. Generally, dealers hit soft 17 downtown but stand on soft 17 on the Strip. It is advantageous to the player if the dealer stands in such a situtation.) The dealer then pays off all remaining players if he busts, or pays off those who have higher totals if he has drawn to 17, 18, 19, 20 or 21. It's important to note that a non-"natural" 21 -- that is, one composed of more than two cards -- is not a blackjack. If you beat the dealer by drawing 7, 7 and 7, for example, you are simply paid even money. If you end up with the same total as the dealer, it's a "push." Dealers usually signal a push by tapping or knocking on the table in front of your bet when it's time to pay or collect. Your bet simply stays there -- you neither win nor lose. If the dealer busts after you've already busted, tough luck. You already lost.

All of the above can go very quickly, especially in a shoe game. And once it's completed, you place your bets and it starts over again. Time is money, and the dealers don't dilly-dally.


Because such a large proportion of cards are 10s (that is, 10s, jacks, queens and kings), basic strategy in blackjack is based on the assumption that the next card you get (and the next card the dealer gets) will always be a 10. This is why, for example, the guideline is to always double down when you have 11 (11 + 10 = 21). And because 20 and 19 are also very good hands, it's considered a good sign to have a 9 or 10 showing. You never stand on anything less than 12, of course, because with a total lower than 12 there aren't any cards in the deck that could bust your hand. You should stand with 17 or better (at least a "hard" 17, one that contains no aces counted as 1), because drawing another card is too risky. If you're looking at 12 or 13 or 14 or 15 or 16, however, you must weigh the lousiness of those totals against the relative probability that the dealer will bust. Well, actually, it would be stupid to weigh this choice with each hand; though you should understand this theory, it's better to memorize and follow the basic-strategy tables that professional gamblers have compiled through computer simulations. Basic strategy seems counterintuitive to a lot of people. It seems defeatist and weak to stand on 12, but the fact is that, if the dealer is showing a 4, 5 or 6, you'll end up with more money by standing on 12 than by hitting on 12. On the other side of the spectrum, hitting on 16 seems to be inviting a bust, but 16 is simply too weak if the dealer is showing 7 or better. Sure, you will bust a lot, but in the long run you will do better than if you sat there and let the dealer beat you. Sometimes the best you can do is minimize your losses.


An ace can be counted as 1 or 11, so hands containing an ace take on a completely different complexion than other hands. In fact, it's best not to think of, for example, A6 as 17, or even as "7 or 17." For the purposes of memorizing basic strategy, I think of it as "ace/six." Keep this in mind when looking at the basic-strategy table, where you'll see that the soft hands become aggressive vehicles for doubling down against a weak dealer up-card.


The phrase is a misnomer, as only a "Rain Man" type could truly keep track of every card played. What card counters do is follow one of a countless (!) number of systems of keeping track of high cards, low cards or both. Some counters count only 10s. And the way a card counter uses his knowledge isn't so much a matter of changing strategy (though there is some of that) as of varying bets -- increasing them when lots of aces and 10s remain, decreasing them when few remain. That's the way casinos police card counting: They can and will throw you out if they see you varying your bet too much in an apparently systematic fashion. More commonly, dealers simply throw in an early shuffle to foil such a move -- and even the "normal" shuffle often comes far too early in the deck(s) for counting to really be effective. My only bow to the art of card counting is to occasionally toss in an extra dollar or two, betting $4 or $5 instead of $3, after seeing a hand in which the number of 4s, 5s and 6s played seemed to greatly exceed the number of 10s and aces played.


The single-deck game, for obvious reasons, is the game of choice for card counters. For less-obvious reasons that I don't pretend to understand, the single-deck game is said to be advantageous for even the non-counting players. (And sure enough, I always seem to do worse at shoe games.) Another reason to prefer a hand-held game is its slower pace. Shoe dealers can whip those cards out at lightning speed, whereas hand dealing requires finesse and accuracy (and often gets slowed down by bad dealer throws). So beginning players are far more likely to be intimidated by the quick decisions required in a shoe game -- where, to compound the potential embarrassment, everybody can see your cards. Although, as I said earlier, there's no real reason to play your cards close to your vest in this game, it is nice to be able to decide without the pressure of having better players rolling their eyes at how long you're taking to make an obvious play. Low-limit single-deck blackjack games are hard to find, and seats at those tables are harder still to get. You're more likely to find double-deck games, which for non-counters are essentially the same, only with the added attractiveness of less shuffling. Another fun thing about the hand-held game (OK, I'm easily amused) is the opportunity to smugly and quickly tuck those cards under the bet when you have a 19 or a 20, or to flip them over with a flourish when you have a blackjack. You can also toss them in disgust when you lose, but this move should be done sparingly and with a smile, lest you tick off your dealer and fellow players.


It's important to remember that it's not their money. Dealers are employees of the big bad casino that's trying to take your money, but by and large the dealers themselves are rooting for you. I've seen dealers practically give lessons to novice players. It's tempting to demonize dealers when they hit a hot streak (it won't be long before you witness this phenomenon), but that scenario is as bad for the dealer as it is for the player: It means there won't be tips. There seem to be two main categories of Las Vegas blackjack dealer: (1) Young-ish Asian woman. (2) Old-ish Midwestern-looking man. The (1)s at the Golden Gate downtown, our favorite blackjack spot, often appear to be right off the boat, very nice but not exactly English-speaking. Tom, a man of many smiles and few words, is our favorite (2), and the last time we checked he was still dealing, rather slowly, at the Golden Gate. Also at the Golden Gate, we met the nastiest dealer ever. True, the idiot frat-boy types next to us were making boneheaded plays, but it wasn't necessary for the dealer to berate them. For dealers with attitude, though, downtown's Las Vegas Club is the best place to go. The dealers there wear baseball uniforms instead of the usual quasi-tuxedos, and that sartorial release seems to bring out the sass in them. Sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not. But it's always interesting.


It takes all kinds, and, lordy, if you hang out at enough blackjack tables you'll see all kinds. People who look like they'd be lucky to live in a double-wide trailer slapping down $100 bills and saying "Money plays!" People who look like $100 is chump change to them betting a black chip or two per hand and making incredibly stupid plays (usually followed by the sound of a casino host saying "Your room is ready, sir"). The blackjack player you want to be especially wary of is the type who thinks any mistake you make is taking money out of her pocket (sorry, but they're usually women). The great thing about these people is that they don't usually have basic strategy down pat, so you can find yourself being glared at for making the right play. It is tempting to blame the schmuck next to you if his bonehead play "changed the cards," but keep in mind that this is all random. That bonehead play could just as easily have saved you. Yes, you'll run into this, but it's not the norm. Heck, I hate people, and yet my blackjack experiences, if anything, have tended to restore my faith in humanity. Find a table of fun people, though (not as hard as it may sound), and you won't want to leave.


If the rote nature of memorizing basic strategy and following it bores you to death, here is where to entertain your sense of adventure. Feel free to follow hunches and bet a dollar or two more when you feel a blackjack coming, but don't follow that hunch that tells you to stand on 16 against an ace.

Or you could try a "playing with their money" strategy: If you win a double-down or split hand or a blackjack, raise your bet a little on the next hand.

An ill-conceived but popular betting strategy is to double your bet each time you lose a hand. That way, the theory goes, you eventually get your money back -- the worst you can do is break even. This is known as the "gambler's ruin" fallacy. The problem is that, even at a lowly $3 table, even a modest losing streak will quickly see you betting a rather large sum. Lose six hands in a row (and you will, just as you'll have six-hand winning streaks) and you're betting $192. Seven, $384. Eight, $768. Even if you have the bankroll and the stomach to handle this, keep in mind that the upper limit for bets at $3 tables will likely be less than $768.

Even some reputable, generally myth-debunking blackjack gurus will advise you to bet more during hot streaks and less during cold streaks. That would be brilliant advice, if you knew when these streaks began and when they ended. Trouble is, you don't. Do two winning hands in a row mean you're going to win the next hand? How about three? Four? Five? Streaks don't appear until AFTER THE FACT, and by then it's too late to alter your betting strategy to take advantage of them.


The ideal table, for me, would have a $1 minimum, just one deck and a non-smoking sign -- and be in one of the beautiful casinos. Not gonna happen. So my holy grail has become $3, double deck and not too smoky. You can still find that without sinking to the level of the Gold Spike, a downtown joint where a toothless and homeless person serves as the greeter. Most of our low-stakes meccas are downtown -- the Golden Gate stands out for its excellent cocktail service and its live piano music (as opposed to pumped-in Muzak) in addition to easy availability of $3 double-deck tables. Second best is the Las Vegas Club across Fremont Street, a pleasant casino with a baseball theme. This place made its name by dealing low-stakes shoe games with very liberal rules, which are fun but sometimes confusing; it also offers a good number of double-deck games.

Near the wedding venues, your best bets for low-stakes games are Casino Royale, O'Shea's (an annex, of sorts, to the Flamingo Hilton), the Barbary Coast and the Imperial Palace. We haven't spent much time in these places, but we'll report back after our October trip.

If you don't mind risking $5 a hand, of course, you'll find no shortage of blackjack options at some pretty nice places. We had a very nice $5 session at the very nice Luxor, for example.


Just say no. If a dealer is showing an ace, the dealer will offer you "insurance" against a dealer blackjack. This isn't really insurance -- you're putting up half of your original bet amount and betting that the dealer does have a blackjack. He usually doesn't, and so this is a bad bet.

And don't be fooled if you have a blackjack and the dealer offers you "even money" -- a guaranteed 1-for-1 payoff, as opposed to the 3-to-2 payoff you'd usually get. Even money is another way of saying "insurance," and you should not take insurance.


The minor rule variations among casinos change optimum strategies, but the differences are minor and you're better off memorizing one chart well than five or six charts shakily. This is a good, all-purpose basic strategy, but if you want to get technical it is most specifically the optimum strategy for the game you're most likely to encounter: Double-deck, dealer stands on soft 17 (Strip rules), doubling allowed after splitting, no surrender. By the way, the casinos don't really care if you use "cheat sheets" like this. Just be discreet, and don't prop it on the table. If I draw a blank on basic strategy, I usually make an educated guess, take my licks, then check the cheat sheet in my pocket to see if I was right.

The omissions on this table are for reasons that should be obvious: You simply hit if you have a hard, non-splitting hand of 8 or less, no matter what. You always stand on 19 or better, or on a hard, non-splitting hand of 18 or better. Other absolutes, indicated here: Always split aces and eights, always double on hard 11.

    Dealer Shows 
 You Have    2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10     A  
8 Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
9 Double Double Double Double Double Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
10 Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Hit Hit
11 Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Double
12 Hit Hit Stand Stand Stand Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
13 Stand Stand Stand Stand Stand Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
14 Stand Stand Stand Stand Stand Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
15 Stand Stand Stand Stand Stand Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
16 Stand Stand Stand Stand Stand Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
A2 Hit Hit Hit Double Double Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
A3 Hit Hit Hit Double Double Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
A4 Hit Hit Double Double Double Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
A5 Hit Hit Double Double Double Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
A6 Hit Double Double Double Double Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
A7 Stand Double Double Double Double Stand Stand Hit Hit Hit
AA Split Split Split Split Split Split Split Split Split Split
22 Hit Hit Split Split Split Split Hit Hit Hit Hit
33 Hit Hit Split Split Split Split Hit Hit Hit Hit
44 Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
55 Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Double Hit Hit
66 Split Split Split Split Split Hit Hit Hit Hit Hit
77 Split Split Split Split Split Split Hit Hit Hit Hit
88 Split Split Split Split Split Split Split Split Split Split
99 Split Split Split Split Split Stand Split Split Stand Stand

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