The Easiest Game to Beat: Blackjack

Blackjack is the most popular table game in casinos because it offers the best chance for beating the house. Rather than relying on the cold, mechanical whim of slot machines, you make decisions at Blackjack that help determine your fate. Each hand of cards at the Blackjack table offers several options, and the choices you make with your cards affect whether you return home a winner or a loser.

You may have avoided Blackjack in the past — because you felt as out of place as a ballerina at the Super Bowl. But Blackjack is a fairly simple game to understand, and with just a few lessons and strategies, you can feel comfortable and confident at the tables. This chapter lays out the basics and gives you the tools you need for your first venture into the world of Blackjack.

Dealing Out Blackjack Basics

Blackjack, or 21 as it’s also called, is a card game with a very clear-cut objective: You try to beat the dealer. Not your neighbor to the left. Not everyone else at the table. Just the dealer. And you have three — count ’em, three — ways to win:

The dealer deals you a Blackjack, any starting hand consisting of an ace and a 10 (10s and all face cards — jacks, queens, and kings), equaling 21 points. However, this is a tie if the dealer also has a Blackjack.

The dealer’s hand busts — or exceeds 21 points — and your hand doesn’t.

Your hand — which doesn’t exceed 21 — is higher than the dealer’s hand. For example, you have 19, and the dealer has 18.

The news gets even better — the dealer must stick to some restrictive rules that favor the players.

And following a number of simple strategies helps you improve your odds of beating the house.

In this section, we set the stage for your game of Blackjack. We explain the arena in which you play and the cards’ values. We also provide a brief script on how to play the game.

Setting the scene

You play Blackjack on a semicircular felt table that seats up to seven players on the curved side of the table, while the dealer stands opposite (see Figure 5- 1). These Blackjack tables are clustered together into pits, which you usually find in the middle of a casino. The only other accoutrements to the game are the cards — the game uses anywhere from one to eight decks (more about that in “Dealing what’s in the cards” later in this chapter) — and the chips, which you use to make your bets. In addition, small placards indicate the table limits and minimum and maximum bets allowed. (Check out “Eyeing table bet levels” later in this chapter for more information about bets.)

Valuing your cards

In Blackjack, the cards are normally worth their face value, or their pip number. A 4 counts as four points, an 8 is equal to eight points, and so on. The only exceptions are that 10s and face cards all are worth 10 points, and an ace can count as either 1 or 11 points, depending on how you want to use it. The ace is also the most important card in the deck — the combination of an ace and any ten-point card (10, jack, queen, or king) on your original two cards results in a natural, or a Blackjack.

Unlike games like poker, individual suits — clubs, hearts, spades, or diamonds — make no difference whatsoever in Blackjack.

Preparing to Play

Yes, understanding the basics of Blackjack is relatively easy. But before you can walk away a winner, you need a deeper understanding of the nuances of the game and casino protocol. In the previous section, we briefly discuss how you play Blackjack. In this section, we delve a little deeper and plumb the many facets that, when mastered, lead to Blackjack success. We begin with the warm-up acts — getting seated, purchasing chips, and placing bets — all of which are important steps before you actually begin playing the game.

Finding a table: Strategic seating

Blackjack begins by selecting a seat at the table. Typically, a Blackjack table allows for five to seven players. Whenever you see an empty seat at a Blackjack table, you may assume it’s for your taking (unless chips or a coat are holding the spot for a player who just stepped away for a moment or unless some player is playing two hands). In most cases, joining a game in progress is okay, although some tables have a No-Midshoe Entry policy (usually marked by a sign at the table), which means you have to wait until the shuffle before playing.

For your first trip to the tables, you’re better off finding a nearly full table. Although the number of players at the table has no effect on the odds on your hands, the game is much quicker with fewer players. A fuller table gives you more time to think about each hand without being rushed or pressured.

ABRACADABRA: CAN A CERTAIN SEAT GIVE YOU AN EDGE?

Unfortunately, nothing is magical about seat selection. Despite some popular myths, no spot at the tables gives you more of an edge over other seats. Some players like to sit in the last spot (commonly called third base), thinking that they can somehow control the cards right before the dealer acts. But unless they’re psychic, this position won’t improve their chances of winning.

The following sections provide a few more pointers to keep in mind when looking for a seat. Ideally, you want to search for a table with fewer decks and favorable rules.

Seeking single-deck tables

Without getting into a lot of math, here’s a good rule to follow: The fewer decks the casino uses, the better for you. Your chances for success increase if you can find a single-deck game. Most casinos worldwide have gone to six or more decks in an attempt to thwart card counters (skilled players who keep track of cards). But some places still deal Blackjack the old-fashioned way — with one deck of 52 cards. Most of the casinos in northern Nevada (Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Wendover) still use one deck of cards at many of their Blackjack tables. If you aren’t sure how many decks the casino is using, just ask.

Spotting tables with favorable rules

When searching for your table, you also want to know which rules favor you. Some rule changes are beneficial and help players — dealer standing on soft 17 and surrender are good examples (look at “Homing in on house rules” later in this chapter for specifics on these rules). Sometimes these rule variations are spelled out at the table, but if you’re unsure, just ask the dealer what the specific rules are.

STAYING ORIGINAL

Blackjack has undergone many revisions and changes over the years. Some of these variations have stuck, and others have disappeared. Our advice: Steer clear of the hybrids and stick to plain, old basic Blackjack. One of the more popular hybrid games is called 6-5 Blackjack. It may look like a normal game, but, because it pays only 6 to 5 on Blackjacks ($12 for every $10 bet), this variation doesn’t provide the return that a traditional game offers. Stay clear of it.

Other more-common new breeds of Blackjack are Spanish 21, Super Fun 21, and Double Exposure. If you’re ever unsure of the rules at your favorite casino, just ask because games and rules often change.

Eyeing table bet levels

Before you actually sit down, look for the table’s minimum and maximum betting limits. Every table has these fixed limits, which the casino usually posts on a small sign located on the table to the right of the dealer.

For example, you may sit down at a table where the placard says $5–$500, which means you have to bet at least $5 on every hand and can never bet more than $500 on any one spot. Typically, the higher the minimum starting bet, the higher the maximum bet for that table. (Check out “Eyeing table bet levels” later in this chapter for more about bets.) When you’re starting out, find the lowest minimum table in the casino and begin there. Making smaller bets keeps you out of trouble until you understand the game better — and you’re less likely to end up sitting next to a high roller (who may not appreciate a novice at his table).

Purchasing chips

After you select your seat, you need to buy chips from the dealer. Select the amount of money you want to start with and lay your cash on the felt in front of you. The dealer changes your cash into chips and slides them across the felt to you.

Don’t hand your money directly to the dealer; doing so is a breach of etiquette and brands you as a greenhorn.

After you receive your chips, leave them on the table in front of you. Chips come in several denominations and are color-coded. Although every casino uses distinctive chips, most colors are standard.

Start off with a small amount of chips. A good approach is to cash in no more than 25 percent of your daily bankroll for chips. For example, if you budget $400 for the day, buy in for no more than $100 to start. This way, when you’re losing, you minimize the temptation to bet more than you planned. You can always buy more chips later if necessary.

Homing in on house rules

Blackjack rules are fairly similar worldwide — with a few variations. Sometimes a small placard sitting on the table indicates where the casino stands in regard to certain scenarios. If you don’t see a placard, you may ask the dealer what the house rules are, even when you’re in the middle of a hand.

Does the dealer hit on a soft 17?

A soft hand is any hand that counts an ace as 11 rather than 1. The hand is soft because it can’t bust on the next card. For example, if you hit (take another card) a soft 18 (an ace and a 7) with a 6, the ace automatically reverts to 1 (rather than 11), and the hand total is now 14 (rather than 24, which would be a bust).

Whether a dealer hits or stands on a soft 17 is usually spelled out in bold white letters right on the felt.

Is doubling down restricted to certain card combinations?

In Las Vegas, casinos typically allow doubling down, an option that allows you to double your bet, on any two cards, but other places may restrict this move to just totals of 10 or 11. The placard probably won’t list restrictions to doubling down. If you aren’t sure whether restrictions are in place, don’t be afraid to ask the dealer, even if you’re in the middle of a hand.

Can you surrender?

A playing option known as surrender is an extremely profitable option for you as a player, but not many casinos offer it. When you surrender, you lose half of your initial bet and give up your hand. For example, if you bet $10 and are dealt a 16, you can surrender and only lose $5 (half your bet) rather than risk the entire $10 on a bad hand. Once again, the placard may not readily advertise this rule variation, so always ask if surrender is available.

Dealing what’s in the cards

All right, you’re situated at the table, you’ve made your bet in the betting box, and your heart is pumping like a jackhammer. The dealer flashes you a warm smile, wishes you good luck, shuffles the deck, and asks you to cut the cards.

If you’re playing a one-or two-deck game, the dealer holds the cards in his hands and deals you two cards face-down. You can pick up these cards, but make sure you only hold them in one hand.

However, the majority of Blackjack games today use six or eight decks. In these cases, the dealer deals your two cards face-up from a shoe (a boxlike device that houses the cards).

Whether your cards are dealt face-up or face-down really doesn’t matter — dealers follow strict rules, and seeing the values of your cards doesn’t influence them. Dealers’ hands always start off with one card exposed and one card hidden, regardless of the number of decks.

CUTS AND BURNS: ENSURING SHUFFLING SAFETY

Cutting the cards is a time-honored tradition in gambling that helps protect the honesty of the game. In Blackjack, the dealer places the shuffled deck or decks in front of one of the players to cut the cards. (This job rotates, and you can decline.) You cut the cards by placing a plastic cut card into the middle of the deck or decks. The dealer then takes the bottom section of cards and places it on top of the other half.

To further ensure the integrity of the game, the dealer takes the top card, known as the burn card, and removes it from play.

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