Blackjack: Betting Your Bottom Dollar

On the felt in front of you is a betting circle or betting box. Place your chips in this spot to indicate how much you want to bet on the upcoming hand. You must make all bets before any cards are dealt.

After you make your bet, you aren’t allowed to add, take from, or touch the wager again. After the hand is resolved (the dealer has paid out the winners and collected chips from the losers), you may change the amount you wager for the next hand.

Ah, but of course, exceptions apply to every rule. And in Blackjack you may alter your bet in two ways:

Doubling down: You double your original bet.
Splitting: You break your original hand into two separate hands.

For more information about these two lucrative options as well as other playing options, check out the next section, “Playing Your Hand.”

Playing Your Hand

After dealing, the dealer addresses the players from left to right, asking them to take action. At last — the moment of truth. Now your skill and understanding can improve your chances of beating the dealer.

Unlike many of the casino’s games, Blackjack isn’t based entirely on luck. Skill and strategy play a significant role in who wins at the Blackjack tables — and part of the fun and challenge is weighing the various options you can use in a hand.

Exercising your options

Depending on your hand and the dealer’s upcard (the one you can see), you have a number of options to consider. The great appeal of Blackjack lies in the many decisions available to you, and each hand presents a wide range of choices. The two most common ones are the following:

Hitting: Taking another card to improve your hand.
Standing: Passing up the opportunity for another card if you’re satisfied

with the total you already have.

The following sections explore your other options. (You can also check out “Identifying Common Mistakes” later in this chapter for help with some specific Blackjack circumstances.)

Act natural: Holding 21

If your first two cards total 21 (an ace and a 10 or a face card), you’re the proud owner of a natural, also referred to as a Blackjack. A natural is as good as it gets — you no longer have any agonizing decisions over whether to hit or stand. (Check out “Drawing the dealer’s curtain,” later in this chapter to find more information about whether you win.)

Stand and deliver: Staying put when your total is high

If you don’t have 21, but your total is still pretty high — 17 or more — your best strategy normally is to stand.

Communicate that you’re standing by waving your hand over the top of your cards in face-up games or by tucking your cards gently under your bet in face-down games.

Hit me, baby: Asking for another card

If you don’t get a natural and your hand total is very low — say a 5 and a 4 for a total of 9 — you should hit. Even if you get a 10, you won’t bust, so you’re safe to request another card. Signal you’re hitting either by motioning with your finger in face-up games or by scratching your cards on the felt behind your bet in face-down games.

Anytime your hand totals 12 or higher, there is a risk in adding another card. If your hit card is a face card, your hand now exceeds 21 and you lose, regardless of what happens to the dealer’s hand. (I provide correct basic strategy for all hands in “Strategizing in the computer age.”)

Get two for one: Splitting pairs

If you hold two cards of equal value — such as two 8s — you have the option of splitting, or making two separate hands from the pair. With this tactic, you must match your original bet. In other words, if you bet $10, you increase your bet by $10 more for the new hand. You then play two separate hands, each starting with one of the original 8s. You play these two hands out, one at a time, with the normal options of hitting, standing, splitting, or doubling down. Splitting is one of the rare opportunities you have to alter your bet in the middle of a hand.

Double the fun: Increasing your bet

Doubling down is an option that allows you to double your original bet. The tradeoff is that you receive only one more card, which the dealer traditionally deals face-down. Most casinos permit doubling down on any first two cards.

Going beyond Lady Luck

Most new players have two primary goals for their first session of Blackjack: Win money and avoid looking like a rookie at the table. But to become a Win money and avoid looking like a rookie at the table. But to become a successful Blackjack player, you need to master the principles of basic strategy. And relying on Lady Luck or a rabbit’s foot isn’t a basic strategy that works in Blackjack.

In this section, we simplify and condense basic strategy down to six bite- sized blocks — tactics that help you reduce the house edge to approximately 1 percent. If you want even better odds, then we suggest you skip this simplified version and learn regular basic strategy (see the section “Strategizing in the computer age”).

Basic strategy for double downs

Doubling down permits you to double your original bet but restricts you to receiving just one more card. The following are the best times to use this strategy:

On 11, double if the dealer’s upcard is a 2 through 10; otherwise hit. On 10, double if the dealer’s upcard is a 2 through 9, otherwise hit.

A starting total of 10 or 11 is the best time to double down because you have approximately a 30 percent chance of receiving a 10 or a face card.

Basic strategy for pair splits

When you hold two cards of equal value, you can split your cards and make two separate hands from the pair by matching your original bet. You play the hands out one at a time.

Keep the following strategies in mind for pair splits:

Always split aces and 8s. Aces are great to split because of the chance to make 21; you split 8s more for defensive reasons (16 is a poor starting hand).

Never split 5s or 10s. Never split 5s and 10s because their totals (10 and 20, respectively) are great starting hands.

Basic strategy for stiff hands

Stiff hands are any hard totals between 12 and 16. Stiff hands are obviously your worst nightmare because any 10 busts your hand. Follow these strategies for stiff hands:

Stand when the dealer is weakest (upcard of 2 through 6). Hit whenever the dealer is strong (upcard of 7 through ace).

Basic strategy for pat hands

Pat hands are any hard hands of 17 to 21. Because of their high starting total, pat hands deliver most of your winnings. Whenever you have a hard hand of 17 or more, stand.


Once upon a time, craps was king of all casino games, and Blackjack lagged far behind in popularity. That pecking order changed dramatically when Dr. Ed Thorp, a professor from MIT, developed a system for counting cards in 1961. His work showed that Blackjack is a game of skill; how you play the cards and vary your bets can dramatically affect the outcome. Thorp’s powerful pen set off a stampede of players eager to make their fortune at the Blackjack tables. Unfortunately, very few got rich. The reason they failed was simple: Most of them couldn’t master Thorp’s complicated strategy.

This history lesson should provide one clear insight — players can beat the game of Blackjack, but the complexity often proves more than players can comprehend. Far too many gamblers still don’t know how to correctly play their hands. Therefore, the first step for any budding Blackjack pro is to study basic strategy, a computer-simulated model, for the optimal way to play each and every hand of Blackjack.

There’s only one way to consistently win at Blackjack — by learning to count cards. Anyone with average aptitude can become a card counter — but this skill takes discipline and drive, and most players don’t want to get that serious about their hobby.

Strategizing in the computer age

After you have a little experience under your belt at the Blackjack tables, I recommend studying the complete version of basic strategy in this section. Mastering basic strategy definitely takes a little work, but the additional gain is very worthwhile. Following basic strategy (rather than the simplified strategy offered earlier) cuts the casino edge against you in half — to a half percentage point or less — by far the best odds of any table game played against the house.

If you aren’t able to memorize Tables 5-1, 5-2, and 5-3 right away, you can always buy a basic strategy card at most casino gift shops and use it right at the tables.

TABLE 5-3 Strategies for Soft Hands

Making a side bet

Occasionally you may sit down at a Blackjack table that offers side bets. You can make these bets in addition to your basic wager (typically before the hand is dealt) in a separate, distinct betting box. The appeal of side bets is their huge payoffs for certain card combinations (up to 1,000 to 1 in Lucky Ladies, for example).

Although several popular Blackjack side bets exist (you may have heard of some, such as Super Sevens and Royal Match), only one — insurance — is generally available at all Blackjack tables. Insurance is a hedge bet you can take whenever the dealer’s upcard is an ace. You wager up to half of your original bet that the dealer’s hole card is a ten (that the dealer has Blackjack). If the dealer does have Blackjack, your side bet pays back 2 to 1.

Side bets are almost always bad, and you should avoid them. Unless the bean counters in the backroom make an error on their slide rules, every side bet in a casino favors the house with odds far worse (for you) than regular Blackjack. The insurance bet is a good example; it’s just another tactic to separate gullible gamblers from the contents of their wallets.

Drawing the dealer’s curtain

Now the dealer…drum roll, please…reveals that mysterious face-down hole card that can make or break your successful outcome (see Figure 5-2).

FIGURE 5-2: The dealer’s hand is revealed.

The following possible scenarios can result:

If the dealer has a natural (21), the game is over — you lose (unless you also have a natural; then you tie).

If the dealer’s total is 16 or less, the dealer has to hit.

If the dealer busts (exceeds a total of 21), the game is over — you win if you haven’t also busted.

If the dealer’s hole card reveals a total of 17 or more, the dealer must stand. Your hand must beat the dealer’s hand to win.

The dealer is bound by these rigid rules. For example, if the dealer has 15, she can’t choose to stand, even if doing so is beneficial, because she must always hit until reaching 17 or higher. And the dealer doesn’t have the options that are available to players, such as doubling down or splitting.

Looking at payouts

After the dealer has completed her hand, you know whether you win, lose, or tie. The following are some of the payout possibilities:

You’re dealt a natural (your first two cards equal 21). The house pays you 3 to 2 — at least in most casinos — which means that a $10 bet wins $15 ($25 total, for a profit of $15).

You bust, exceeding 21. You lose, no matter what happens with the dealer’s hand, and the casino wins your $10 bet (a loss of $10).

Your hand is higher than the dealer’s hand. For example, your hand totals 20, and the dealer has 18. You win even money on your wager — $10 for every $10 bet ($20 total, for a profit of $10).

Your hand is lower than the dealer’s hand. For example, you have 17, and the dealer has 19. You lose, and the dealer keeps your chips (a loss of $10).

You and the dealer tie, or have a push. Nobody wins, and no money changes hands.

Mathematically speaking, the casino game of Blackjack is the best table game to play because of its favorable odds. The small house edge comes from the simple fact that the dealer goes last and that many players bust out and lose their money before the dealer even acts on his hand.

Blackjack protocol: How to avoid trouble

When playing Blackjack, you want to ensure that you don’t make any faux pas. Just like in other casino games, etiquette is important when playing Blackjack.

Blackjack is a fairly social game, and talking openly about your hand with other players is common. But make no mistake, Blackjack — along with poker — boasts a long history of innovative or desperate players who cheat in order to get an edge. And modern casinos are vigilant about stopping any suspicious activities that suggest card-marking or other nefarious techniques. Consequently, you want to be careful, especially as a rookie, how you handle

yourself — not to mention your cards and chips. For example, you can easily bend cards without realizing you’re doing anything wrong.

Here are some tips to help you be a good citizen of the Blackjack table:

If you’re uncertain as to what behaviors draw suspicion, explain to the dealer that you’re new to the game and ask him to inform you if you’re making any mistakes.

Follow the game protocol by turning over your cards when you bust or have a natural (in a face-down game).

Remember that you aren’t competing against other players at the table, so don’t feel like you have to hide your cards like you do in poker.

Lastly, don’t give any advice. Although you have good intentions, other players rarely welcome your help, which can backfire if they follow it and lose. Telling other people how to play or how to spend their money is also poor etiquette.

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