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How to Play Blackjack


Blackjack Etiquette and Strategy
There's more to mastering any game than a fundamental understanding of how to play. You must also know the customs of the game and how to finnesse the rules.

Etiquette

When you sit down at a table, wait for the dealer to finish the hand in progress. Then you may buy chips by placing currency on the layout, pushing it toward the dealer, and saying, "Change, please."

Do not leave currency in the betting box on the table. In most newer gaming jurisdictions, casinos are not allowed to accept cash bets. However, casinos in some places allow cash bets with the call "Money plays." Don't leave the dealer wondering if that $100 bill is a request for change or a bet on the next hand.

Once you make a bet, keep your hands off the chips in the betting box until the hand is over.

If you are betting chips of different denominations, stack them with the smallest denomination on top. If you put a larger denomination on top, the dealer will rearrange them before going on with the hand. It's one way the casino guards against someone attempting to add a large-denomination chip to their bet after the outcome is known.

In multiple-deck games, give playing decisions with hand signals. In single- or double-deck games dealt facedown, pick up the cards with one hand, scratch the table with the cards for a hit, and slide the cards under your chips to stand. Turn the cards faceup if you bust or if you wish to split pairs or double down. At the conclusion of play, let the dealer turn faceup any cards under your chips.

If you are a novice, you might want to avoid the last seat at the table, the one all the way to the players' left. This is called "third base," and the player here is the last to play before the dealer. Although in the long run bad plays will help other players as much as they hurt them, in the short term other players will notice if a mistake by the third baseman costs them money. For example, the dealer shows a 6, the third baseman has 12 and hits a 10 to bust. The dealer turns up a 10 for 16, then draws a 5 for 21, beating all players at the table. The third baseman is likely to take heat from other players for taking the dealer's bust card instead of standing. If you don't want the heat, sit elsewhere.

If you wish to use the rest room and return to the same seat, you may ask the dealer to mark your place. A clear plastic disk will be placed in your betting box as a sign that the seat is occupied.

The House Edge

Because the player hands are completed first, the players have the chance to bust before the dealer plays. And the house wins whenever the player busts, regardless of how the dealer's hand winds up. That is the entire source of the casino's advantage in blackjack. Because of this one edge, the casino will win more hands than the player, no matter how expert.

The casino gives back some of this advantage by paying 3-2 on blackjack, allowing players to see one of the dealer's cards, and by allowing the player to double down and split pairs. To take advantage of these options, the player must learn proper strategy.

Basic Strategy

Played well, blackjack becomes a game of skill in a casino full of games of chance. Studies of millions of computer-generated hands have yielded a strategy for when to hit, when to stand, when to double, when to split. This strategy can take the house edge down to about .5 percent in a six-deck game -- and lower in games with fewer decks. In a single-deck game in which the dealer stands on all 17s and the player is allowed to double down after splits, a basic strategy player can even gain an edge of .1 percent over the house. Needless to say, such single-deck games are not commonly dealt.

Compare those percentages with players who adopt a never-bust strategy, standing on all hands of 12 or more so that drawing a 10 will not cause them to lose before the dealer's hand is played, to players who use dealer's strategy, always hitting 16 or less and standing on 17 or more. These players face a house edge estimated at 5 percent -- about 10 times the edge faced by a basic strategy player.

Basic strategy takes advantage of the player's opportunity to look at one of the dealer's cards. You're not just blindly trying to come as close to 21 as possible. By showing you one card, the dealer allows you to make an educated estimate of the eventual outcome and play your cards accordingly.

One simple way to look at it is to play as if the dealer's facedown card is a 10. Since 10-value cards (10, jack, queen, king) comprise four of the 13 denominations in the deck, that is the single most likely value of any unseen card. Therefore, if you have 16 and the dealer's up-card is a 7, you are guessing that the most likely dealer total is 17. The dealer would stand on 17 to beat your 16; therefore, you must hit the 16 to have the best chance to win.

On the other hand, if you have 16 and the dealer's up-card is a 6, your assumption would be that his total is 16, making the dealer more likely than not to bust on the next card. Therefore, you stand on 16 versus 6.

That's an oversimplification, of course, but very close to the way the percentages work out when the effect of multiple-card draws are taken into account.

The most common decision a player must make is whether to hit or stand on a hard total -- a hand in which there is no ace being used as an 11. Basic strategy begins with the proper plays for each hard total faced by the player. You can refer to this simple chart:

 If you have:
And dealer shows:
Do this:
 8 and under
Always hit, regardless of the dealer's up-card
 
9
3, 4, 5, or 6
Double down
  2 or 7 and above
Hit
10
2 through 9
Double down
  10 or ace
Hit
11
2 through 10
Double down
  Ace
Hit
12
2, 3, or 7 and above
Hit
  4 through 6
Stand
13 through 16
7 and above
Hit
  2 through 6
Stand
17 through 21
Always stand, regardless of the dealer's up-card
 


Many players seem to hit the wall at 16 and stand regardless of the dealer's up-card. But that 16 is a loser unless the dealer busts, and the dealer will make 17 or better nearly 80 percent of the time with a 7 or higher showing. The risk of busting by hitting 16 is outweighed by the likelihood you'll lose if you stand.

Basic strategy for hard totals is straightforward enough, but when it comes to soft totals many players become confused. They seem lost, like the player aboard a riverboat in Joliet, Illinois, who wanted to stand on ace-5 --a soft 16-- against a dealer's 6. The dealer asked if he was sure, and another player piped in, "You can't HURT that hand," so the player finally signaled for a hit. He drew a 5 to total 21 and was all grins.

In a facedown game, no friendly advice is available. Once, at a downtown Las Vegas casino, the dealer busted, meaning all players who hadn't busted won. One player turned up two aces and a three. "Winner five!" the dealer called out. Though it worked out that time, five (or 15) never wins without the dealer busting, and the player could have drawn at least one more card without busting. That's too big an edge to give away.

Nothing you could draw could hurt a soft 16, or a soft 15, or many other soft totals. Just as with hard totals, guesswork is unnecessary. A basic strategy tells you to what to do with soft hands.
The hand of ace and 6 is the most misplayed hand in blackjack. People who understand that the dealer always stands on 17 and that the player stands on hard 17 and above seem to think 17 is a good hand, but the dealer must bust for 17 to win. If the dealer does not bust, the best 17 can do is tie. By hitting soft 17, you have a chance to improve it by drawing ace, 2, 3, or 4, or leave it the same with 10-jack-queen-king. That's eight of 13 cards that either improve the hand or leave it no worse. And even if the draw is 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9, you have another chance to draw if the dealer shows 7 or better, and you're still in position to win if the dealer busts while showing 2 through 6, and all you've given up is a chance to tie a 17. You can refer to this chart for soft-hand strategies:

 If you have:
And dealer shows:
Do this:
Ace, ace
Split the pair of aces
 
Ace, 2 or ace, 3
5 or 6
Double down
  All other up-cards
Hit
Ace, 4 or ace, 5
 4, 5, or 6
Double down
  All other up-cards
Hit
Ace, 6
3 through 6  Double down
  All other up-cards
Hit
Ace, 7
3 through 6
Double down
  2, 7, or 8
Stand
  9 , 10. or ace
Hit
Ace, 8 or ace, 9
Always stand, regardless of the dealer's up-card
 
Ace, 10
Blackjack -- smile and take that 3-2 payoff
 

Standing on soft 18 will lose the player money in the long run when the dealer shows 9, 10, or ace. When the dealer shows 3 through 6, the chances of the dealer busting are strong enough to make doubling down the best play here.

The final category of hands consists of those in which the first two cards match. Then the player must decide whether or not to split the pair into two hands. You can refer to this chart for pair splitting advice:

If you have:
And dealer shows:
Do this:
 Ace, ace
Always split.
 
2, 2 or 3, 3
4, 5, 6, or 7
Split
  All other up-cards
Hit
4, 4
Never split. An 8 is a much stronger building block to a hand than a 4.
 
 5, 5
2 through 9
Never split -- double down
  10 or ace
Never split -- hit
6, 6
3, 4, 5, or 6
Split
  All other up-cards
Hit
7, 7
2 through 7
Split
  8 through ace
Hit
8, 8
Always split.
 
9, 9 
2 through 6
Split
  7
Stand
  8 and 9
Split
  10 or ace
Stand
10, 10
Never split. This hand is too strong.
 

Some Strategy Variations: Double Down After Splits Permitted

Many casinos allow the player to double down after splitting pairs. This is a good rule for players -- in fact, any rule that allows a player an option is a good one if the player knows when to take advantage of the option. If you split 8s against a 6, for example, and a 3 is dealt to your first 8, you now are playing this hand as an 11, and it is to your advantage to double down if the house allows it.

If the casino allows doubling after splits, the following strategy variations are necessary:

If you have 2, 2; 3, 3: Split against 2 through 7 instead of 4 through 7.
If you have 4, 4: Split against 5 and 6 instead of just hitting against all.
If you have 6, 6: Split against 2 through 6 instead of 3 through 6.

Single-Deck Blackjack

You can find many single-deck games in Nevada, and they pop up occasionally in other parts of the country. You will need a few variations for single-deck blackjack. Basic strategy is much the same as in the multiple-deck game, with a few twists, given below:

If you have 11: Double down against all dealer up cards.

If you have 9: The difference comes when the dealer shows a 2. In multiple-deck you hit; in single-deck, double down.

If you have 8: Double down against 5 and 6.

If you are holding ace, 8: As good as that 19 looks, it is to the player's advantage to double down against a 6. Stand against all else.

If you are holding ace, 7: Stand against an ace, unless you are playing in a casino in which the dealer hits soft 17. In that case, hit.

If you are holding ace, 6: Double against 2 through 6.

If you are holding ace, 3 or ace, 2: Double against 4, 5, and 6.

If you are holding 2, 2: Where doubling after splits is not allowed, split against 3 through 7 in a single-deck game. Otherwise, follow the same strategy as in multiple-deck games.

If you are holding 3, 3: If doubling after splits is permitted, split against 2 through 8.

If you are holding 4, 4: If doubling after splits is permitted, split against 4 through 6.

If you are holding 6, 6: If doubling after splits is permitted, split against 2 through 7; if not, split against 2 through 6.

If you are holding 7, 7: If doubling after splits is permitted, split against 2 through 8. Also, stand against a 10 in the single-deck game.

In our final section, you will learn the most advanced strategy for playing blackjack -- counting cards.