The Rules of Blackjack

The Basics:blackjack-229x169 The Rules of Blackjack Playing blackjack is easy. The hardest part is being able to count to 21, which most gamblers can handle (even if they have to use all their fingers and toes).
Despite what most beginners think, your goal isn’t to get as close as you can to 21. Your goal is simply to have a higher total than the dealer without “busting,” or going over 21.

Blackjack is played with a standard 52-card deck (no jokers), but all face cards count as 10. So if you have a Ten card and a Jack and the dealer has a King and a Queen, both of your hands equal exactly 20. An Ace counts as either 1 or 11, whichever is better for your hand. So if you have two Fives and an Ace, they add up to 21 instead of 11. But if you have a Five and a Six and then draw an Ace, you’ll have 12 instead of a busting 22. An Ace that gives you two nonbusting totals is “soft” – for example, a Seven with an Ace is a soft 18, because the hand could total either 8 or 18; a face card with an Eight would have a hard 18.
In the most popular form of thee game, the dealer gives you two cards face up and also gives himself two card – one face up, the other face down (the hidden card is called the dealer’s hole card).

Let’s take you through an actual blackjack hand to show you how it’s done. You enter the casino and go to a table with a sign that says $5-$500, which are your minimum and maximum betting limits. You take a seat and set a $100 bill on the table (at most casinos, dealers aren’t allowed to take anything directly from your hand to curb cheating). She gives you chips, you place $10 worth in the betting circle, and the round begins. The dealer deals you a Five card a Four card (for a total of 9) while she shows a Seven. A 9 is pretty small, and since there’s no possibility of busting no matter what card you take next, you go ahead and scrape your forefinger toward you to signal “hit me.” The dealer gives you a Queen, making a grand total of 19. This is a pretty good hand, so you wave over your bet, signaling you want to stand, or stay.
The dealer has certain rules that she has to follow no matter what, but you’re free to do whatever you want. When the dealer turns over her other card, she has to follow the rules set by the casino, which means she takes a card (or hit) anytime her cards add up to 16 or less. At some casinos, she stands on all totals of 17, while others make her hit if she’s got a soft 17, such as an Ace-Six or Three-Three-Ace. She must stop when she has a total of at least 17 no matter what; you, on the other hand, can play however you want, regardless of your total.
So now the dealer flips over her hole card to reveal a Jack, which gives her a total of 17. Even though she can see that you have 19, clearly higher than her 17, house rules force her to stay. She slides your winnings next to your original bet, then scoops up the cards and gets ready to deal another hand.

Sure, it looks like it’s an even match against the dealer, especially since you get to make all the decisions and she’s stuck following the exact same strategy every single time. But because you have to act first, while the dealer waits until everyone else is done, she gets the advantage: You’ll bust first and lose, regardless of whether or not the dealer would have busted.

Let’s play another pretend hand. In this one, you’re dealt a pair of Tens while the dealer shows an Ace. If the dealer has a blackjack, everyone at the table automatically loses their money, unless another person also has a blackjack (in which case, it’s a push, or a draw, and the bet is neither won or lost). But before the dealer checks her hole card, she asks if you’d like to buy “insurance.” Here you have the chance to place a side bet that she has a blackjack, by betting up to half your original bet. If you place the insurance bet and she does have a blackjack, you lose your original bet but still get paid 2 to 1 on your insurance bet, so you end up with what you started with. But that’s only if she has a blackjack. If she doesn’t you lose your insurance bet, and play resumes. Unfortunately, all side bets are sucker bets, and insurance is no exception. The dealer will have a blackjack less than one third of the time. You should almost never, ever take insurance, whether you have 12 or 20.
However, when you have a blackjack and the dealer shows an Ace up, she’ll offer you even money before she checks for a blackjack (which would be a push). If you take her offer, she’ll pay you even money instead of the usual 3 to 2, whether she ends up with a blackjack or not. The odds are still the same that she doesn’t, but I’m telling you to take even money. Psychologically, it’s much better to win something when you finally get a blackjack than when you just get a push. I know, I know, mathematically, in the long run, you won’t make as much money, but I say better a bird in the hand (now) than two in the bush (tomorrow).

The house almost always has you over a barrel when you play blackjack, but you can do some things the dealer can’t. Not only do you get paid 3 to 2 on a blackjack (the dealer only makes even money), you can also do what’s called splitting and doubling. Since in the long run you win only 44 hands out of 100 while the dealer wins 48 (the other eight hands are pushes), this is where most of the money you can make at blackjack comes from. If you couldn’t split or double, blackjack would be one of the worst bets in the casino.

Whenever your card totals tell you you’re more likely to win and the dealer is more likely to lose, you want to double. You get to increase the size of your bet by any amount up to twice your original bet, but in exchange for doing so, you get only one card. That’s okay because the odds tell you you’re going to win enough times to make it worthwhile in the long run.

Another basic blackjack rule is the ability to split pairs. If you’re dealt a pair of Eights on your $10 bet, you can choose to throw up another $10 to split them, essentially creating two hands of 8 each. But unlike doubling, you can take as many cards as you want on either hand and hopefully win twice as much. However, just because you can split a pair doesn’t mean you should. Some pairs you should never split, and others you should split only when the dealer has a certain card up. I’ll tell you how to recognize good splits later in this chapter.

The math nerds would have us believe that there is no way, no how that blackjack can be beaten without counting cards, and they use billions of computer-simulated hands of blackjack to prove it. Sure, they say, you may experience a little random variation now and then (that is, a winning streak), but in the long run, you’re going to lose two cents of every dollar bet.
So how have I personally watched what feels like billions of actual, real live hands of blackjack and seen people win, sometimes more than the odds say they should? The key is to do all you can to increase your chances of experience that random variation a bit beyond what simple chance would allow.

There was a time when things like “strategy,” “plans,” or “general concept of what the hell I’m doing” weren’t big buzzwords among blackjack players. But today, people with far more brains, far more computing power, and far more free time than you or I will ever enjoy have analyzed every angle and every possible combination to calculate the best moves for blackjack. The fruits of their Pentiums have given the world “basic strategy,” a relatively simple chart that shows in graphic detail how you should play each and every hand.
Now, I know I’ve pooh-poohed many a math nerd who can’t see beyond his perfectly calculated world, but I’ve also seen basic strategy applied (and more often ignored) in any number of casinos, every single day. Casinos love people who ignore basic strategy because they know they’ll eventually get all these people’s money. In short, there is no way you can expect to win more than a session or two if you don’t religiously follow basic strategy.
Are you guaranteed to win with basic strategy? Of course not. Only solid money-management techniques can guarantee consistent winning. But if you don’t use basic strategy, you might as well not even go to the casino – just write out a check for how much you planned on spending and send it to the owners. That way, you cut out the middleman.

There are strategy charts for every possible rule variation you’ll ever encounter at a casino, and they all promise to boost your winnings over basic strategy by as much as a whole one-tenth of a percent! But you could drive yourself nuts memorizing every rule change and the appropriate strategy. For a tenth of a penny, it’s just not worth it.
You’re better off memorizing this one chart and applying it to every regular blackjack game you encounter, whether single deck or multideck.
The chart below tells you how to handle each and every hand you get in blackjack. You simply look at your card total – whether you have two, three or more cards, or even a split – and line it up with the dealer’s up card to find out what action to take. So if you split a pair of Eights (which the chart says you should always do), and hit the first Eight and got a Three, reconsult the chart to see that you should double your 11 against any dealer up card except an Ace.
It may be confusing at first, but when you practice at home, you’ll see that most basic-strategy decisions make sense. If you have problems memorizing charts, simply take it with you. Most casinos don’t have a problem with you consulting a basic-strategy chart (some casino gift shops even sell them).
One last thing: A few casinos allow players to “surrender” half their bet when they’re in a near no-win situation. Unlike most casino offerings, this is actually a good thing, as long as you stick with the chart.

• Playing bonuses. Remember, side bets are sucker bets. No matter how good it sounds or seems, trust me: They wouldn’t be there unless the casino made a ton of money off them.
• Splitting Tens. Why would you want to take a near-perfect, almost-guaranteed-winning hand and muck it up? What are you hoping for? To get another Ten? Are you going to split that one, too? Never, never, never!
• Splitting just because you can. For some reason, people think that just because they have a pair, they have to split them, even if it’s a pair of Twos against my Queen. Congratulations! You’ve just turned one crappy hand into two crappy hands!
• Not doubling when you should. People hate to double against any high card, even if billions of computer simulations, mathematicians, and the world’s greatest gambling minds say other wise. But hey, maybe you know something they don’t.
• Standing on a 16. You pray that the dealer will deal himself 16, knowing it’s the absolute worst hand to have, but when you finally get one, you panic and won’t take a card, even if he has a Ten card showing. Face it: The odds are you’re going to lose this hand anyway, so you’re better off going down swinging, with the chance of hitting a good card, than counting on the dealer busting.

Despite what books, movies, and TV would have you believe, card counting is hard, hard, hard. It’s not something Joe Average could master in an evening or even a week.
The infamous MIT team proved that card counting works – with a heavy emphasis on “work.” First you have to spend numerous hours in practice, practice, practice counting down multiple decks. Then you have to find those few casinos that might have an exploitable game. Then you have to look like you’re a clueless tourist while you perform fairly advanced math, all the while hiding the fact that you do know what they hell you’re doing. And do you know how much you’re supposed to make at most?
Two cents for every dollar!
That’s it! Even if you can master the most sophisticated and complicated card-counting systems ever devised, your advantage is – in the most perfect of circumstances – only 2 percent. True, the MIT team made a bit of money, but they had to bet millions of dollars to see any kind of decent return, and they suffered through some brutal losing streaks.
After all I’ve seen, I really think that if you want to count cards, you do it for the intellectual challenge and not because you think you can get rich. Even Professor Thorp didn’t make his fortune playing blackjack (he got rich in the stock market). If you’re willing to put in that much effort, there are better and easier ways to win at blackjack.

By far the biggest fallacy I see every day is people getting upset that someone took a card when they “shouldn’t have.” And it doesn’t matter whether the player is playing first base (the first seat) or third (the last seat). If the person at first base hit his 12 against my 3 (the correct basic-strategy play, by the way), he’s ruined the “flow of the cards,” created a disturbance in the Force, and may well have ripped the very fabric of space-time itself. People forget that basic strategy was not calculated using one top-of-the-deck hand and reshuffling after every play. There is no sacred order of the cards. Take it from me: That person who doesn’t “play right” saves the table just as often as he takes the dealer’s bust card.

If you want to win, don’t just sidle up to any old blackjack game and start betting. Look for casinos that offer the blackjack rules that’ll help you win.

Every casino offers some type of blackjack, but rules vary from one casino to the next – sometimes even from one table to the next. Most rule changes not only increase the house edge, but they can also make the game a lot less interesting. You want as many of the following rules as possible at your table but within the table limits your bankroll will allow.

• Stick with Vegas-style blackjack. Never play any of the fancy offshoots, such as twenty-first-century blackjack (found in noncasino card rooms), double exposure blackjack, Spanish 21, California blackjack, or any other goofy variation you might find. Trust me, they’re bad bets cleverly designed to take more than the usual amount of money.
• Blackjacks pay 3 to 2. Never play a game that offers anything else, especially not those sucker 6 to 5 or straight even-money payouts. The casinos are using smoke and mirrors to convince you that anything but 3 to 2 is a good thing – it’s not!
• Dealer stands on soft 17. Very hard to find but worth it if you do.
• The fewer decks, the better. Single decks are better than multiple decks.
• Double on any two cards. Some casinos will allow you to double on any two cards, not just 10 or 11.
• Double after splitting. If you split your Eights and get a Three, you want to be able to double.
• Surrender. You can surrender half your bet when you’re in real trouble.
• Resplitting your Aces. When you split Aces in most casinos, you’re only allowed one card per Ace, no matter what. Look for a casino that lets you split them again if you’re dealt another Ace.

Back in the day, blackjack was a single deck game in which the dealer would “pitch” the cards to the player. When counters started winning, the casinos added more decks and had dealers deal the cards face up from a shoe. Nowadays, continuous shuffle machines (CSMs) are in. Here, four to six decks are loaded into a machine that continuously shuffles them as the hands are dealt. These devices make card counters and cheating dealers a thing of the past. But which type of dealing fives you the best chance of winning? Obviously, if the rules are favorable, you should always try to find a single-deck pitch game. The house edge is smaller, mainly because the fewer cards mean you get dealt more blackjacks. If you can’t find a true single-deck game (and they’re becoming rarer and rarer), it doesn’t much matter whether you go with shoes of CSMs. You’re looking for that elusive run, and I’ve seen them in both. I’ve seen CSMs that get cold and dump the tray to the table, and I’ve seen customers get clobbered playing shoes, and vice versa. If you follow my other guidelines in this chapter, it really won’t matter.

The math nerds say that, in the long run, you can’t win at blackjack without counting – all you can hope for, they say, is to lose as little as possible. But you’re not looking to lose as little as possible, and you’re not looking to play a billion hands of blackjack. You’re thinking short term, and you want to win now. The only way to do that is to catch a hot streak, to experience some of the random variance that separates the losers form the winners. You need to track down the hot tables and cold dealers.

Casino dealers have good days and bad days, just like everyone else. There are “hot” dealers and “cold” dump trucks (so named because they are dumping the casino’s profits out to players). These dealers aren’t card mechanics; they’re just experiencing good or bad trends. A customer could be doing everything right, but a hot dealer will scoop his money faster than the math nerds say he should.
Dealers are always asking one another during breaks: “How you running?” To which they usually reply: “Man, I’m on fire today, nobody can beat me,” or they’ll say, “I’m practically dumping my tray today, the cards are so cold.” Of course, there are plenty of dealers who are just trending average, going through the usual ups and downs that we all experience from day to day.


For dealers, the pencil is the most powerful person in the casino. The pencil decides what dealer goes to what table, whether it’s the high-limit blackjack or the low-limit roulette tables.
But it’s not as simple as merely pulling names out of a hat and sending someone to this or that table. The pencil knows who’s skilled and who’s a novice, and especially who’s running hot and who’s cold, not only from day to day but just in general.
When you have a house dealer who always seems to take the players’ money, where do you think the pencil will send him? Over to the low-roller table where the highest bet is five bucks, or to the $100 table where Mr. Moneybags is taking the casino for tens of thousands of dollars?
As for the dump trucks, you can rest assured that the pencil is going to put them where they can do the least amount of damage, at the $1 or $5 minimum tables.

The first thing you’ve got to do is find a table and a dealer. If you’ve read my advice on bankroll, trends, and the pencil, you’ll be paying particular attention to low-limit tables first. Generally speaking, the higher the limit, the better the rules – but the tougher the dealer.
If the dealer’s standing by herself, just ask her if she’s killing ‘em or not. If the dealer’s on fire, she’ll tell you, in which case you should heed her warning. I’ve seen scores of players ignore these warnings only to get smoked within minutes.
If, on the other hand, a dealer offers some encouraging words, pull up a chair and give it a whirl. Sure, some people don’t like to play one-on-one with the dealer, but the biggest winning streaks I’ve seen have happened when a customer is playing heads up (one-on-one against the house).
If there are no empty tables, by all means look for a busy one. Just find out whether it’s trending good or bad.

• Watch a few hands to see how often the dealer’s busting. Is it take-take-take, a bit of back and forth, or are the players winning one hand after another?
• What’s the dealer’s typical up card? Is it always a face or an Ace? If so, the dealer’s probably destroying the table and you’ll want to look somewhere else.
• How do the players look? Are they having a good time? Or do they look like they’re witnessing their own funerals?
• How many chips do the players have? Is anyone down to his last stack?

If everything indicates you’re watching a good table, then sit yourself down and buy in. Just don’t get too comfortable.

In an ideal world, you’d slip a dealer a small tip, and he’d tell you who the hot and cold dealers are. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way very often. So you’ve got to keep in mind this rule when playing blackjack:

{ Your Butt Is Not Glued to That Chair }

Every day I hear players constantly complaining about the dealer absolutely killing them, taking all of their money. And then, after losing eight hands in a row, they reach into their wallet and pull out another hundred.
In this case, you’ve obviously run up against a hot dealer, a hot able, or a hot shoe, any of which is bad for your bankroll. You need to find a cold dealer, cold table, or cold shoe. You need to go on the proverbial run and ride that winning streak, and you ain’t gonna do it leaning into the punch that a hot dealer is doling out. So you must adopt this policy if you want to survive:

{ If You Lose 3 Hands in a Row, You Must Change Tables, Period }

Why would you continue to throw good money after bad? Do you think you can will yourself better cards? The only way you’re going to get a good run of cards is to find another table, another dealer, another casino, anything! Just get the hell out of there.
Hopefully, you’re playing in a large casino with lots of blackjack tables. If you can’t find another table, be patient. Take a short walk around the casino. Play a slot machine. Try a different game. Then come back when there’s a new dealer, a new shoe, or new people who’ve been playing. Discipline is the name of the game.

So you finally find a table that meets all the right criteria, and you decide to sit down to play. You’ve memorized basic strategy, and you’re going to play it religiously. The biggest question now is: How are you supposed to bet?
The math nerds would say that it makes no difference whether you flat bet or change it up; it’s all exactly the same in the long run. But years of real world experience tell me that how you bet is the most important thing! I cannot emphasize enough that the only way to win consistently is by using sound money management.

To win at any table game, you’ve got to take advantage of that random variation, those trends that we’ve spent so much time talking about. You’re fighting the house edge with every bet, and everything up to this point has prepared you to find the table, dealer, and shoe that’ll hopefully let you catch the lucky run that’s essential to winning. All your work up to this point has been in preparation for the positive trends. Now that you’ve found one, you’ve got to take advantage of it.

1. Decide on your minimum comfortable bet, which will be one unit. Whether it’s $3, $10, or even $100, simply continue to bet that one unit until you win a hand.
2. When you win, increase your next bet by 50 percent. So if your base unit is $10 and you win, your next bet would be $15.
3. Keep increasing the amount of your winning bets by that same amount until you’ve won three hands in a row. Then cap your bets until you lose a hand. For example, a winning progression would look like this: $10, $15, $20, $25, $25, $25, and so on.
4. Once you lose a hand, go back to betting your minimum until you win again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Now you’re minimizing your losses but taking advantage of the streaks when they do come along.

Of course, not everyone is going to start at $10. Just adjust the progression according to your minimum bet. For example, if you start with a $2 unit, the progression would go: $2, $3, $4, $5, $5.

Here’s some advice to keep in mind as you calculate the progression: Regardless of whether you double, split, or push, increase or decrease your bet based on the net win or net loss on each hand.
If you split your pair, then win one but lose the other, you broke even for a push, so you keep the next bet the same. If you lost both splits, you revert back to your base bet. If you split, double, and split some more and you end up ahead, you step up the bet. If you lost money, you revert to the base bet. If you surrender, it’s a loss, so go back to the beginning.

And don’t forget: If you lose three hands in a row, get up and find another table!

Back during the “good ol’ days” of Vegas, when the Rat Pack was in full swing and every casino was run by professional hoodlums, you’d be lucky to find a blackjack game, roulette wheel, or craps table that wasn’t fixed in some way. And if you nevertheless walked out with a nice chunk of change, the pit boss would often send some of his goons to “escort you to your car.”
But ever since Uncle Sam swaggered into Vegas and busted Mafia chops, casinos went corporate, then legitimate, and Vegas’s cheating ways became a thing of the past. Nowadays, casinos from here to hoedown have all figured out tricks for taking your money that are entirely legal. Watch out for these common tactics.

The cheap paper cards that casinos use get beat up pretty fast when they’re being shuffled 24/7, especially if the customers’ grimy mitts have been fondling them for hours, so most casinos change their cards about once a day. Unfortunately, some casinos change them a lot more often.
I remember dealing at a small Indian casino in California when the whole table started winning – a lot. I wasn’t doing anything special, just dealing out a strong run of cards. But it didn’t take long before my pit boss came over and announced that, even though we’d only opened the game a few hours ago, and that it was the middle of the day, it was time to change the cards…all six decks!
So we emptied out all of the fairly new cards, cracked the cases of six fresh decks, shuffled them, and reloaded the CSM. The boss hoped this would change the flow of the cards as well as get impatient players to move to a “winning” table.
Of course, some pit bosses didn’t like the hassle of putting in new cards, so they would ask me to “accidentally” hit the power switch on the shuffle machine. This would make it reboot and spit out all the cards, and you’d then have to reload them all over, again changing the flow of the “good” cards. Another nearby Indian casino had quite the reputation of having dealers “accidentally” drop the deck of the whole shoe, spilling the cards everywhere so they’d have to reload them all over again.
So what do you do if you think something is up? Simple: Change casinos, or at the very least, change tables. Just be on the watch.

Every casino has what’s called a house shuffle, a certain routine that every dealer follows to ensure a consistent, across-the-board shuffle. But if a player or a whole table is winning a lot, some pit bosses discreetly tell the dealer to “change up your shuffle,” such as putting in an extra riffle or two, or “scramble them extra good” next time, all in an attempt to get the players to start losing.

If a dealer is dumping, pit bosses have been known to pull that dealer off the table and put in one of their hot “house dealers.” The dealers aren’t cheating; they’re just running hot for the day and seem to be taking everyone’s money. One time, I was stuck on a table for three times longer than normal because I had the hot hand that day and was allowed to go on break only after I’d “won” enough money back from the customer. Another time, I was yanked after five minutes because it happened to be my luck day and I was giving away too much money. If you notice that a hot dealer has been there longer than the rest or that they’re changing dealers every ten minutes, watch your money and follow the three-strikes rule.

changing-dealers-229x229 The Rules of Blackjack