How to Play Blackjack
Blackjack is a lot of fun, but it has fairly complex rules which vary from game to game and casino to casino. But no worries, with a bit of practice and by knowing the standard rules (the very basic rules, used in most games) you’re bound to learn how to play.
The object of a hand of Blackjack is to beat the dealer. Even if several players sit at the same table, you play against the dealer, not each other. You win a hand if your cards are closer to 21 than dealer’s hand. If you go over 21, you lose automatically.
The card values in Blackjack are:
- Numbered cards: their numerical value (2-10)
- Face cards (jacks, queens, kings): 10
- Aces: 1 or 11, you choose
Each hand of Blackjack begins with you betting and receiving two cards.
What happens next depends on your and the dealer’s hand:
- If your two cards’ value is 21 and dealers are not, you win a Blackjack. A Blackjack pays 3:2.
- If the dealer’s first two cards are 21 and yours are not, you lose.
- With any other point values, the game continues.
If the hand continues, you have several options:
- Hit: Take another card
- Stand: Don’t take any more cards
- Double*: Double your wager and get exactly one more card
- Surrender*: Take half your bet back and lose the hand
- Split: If your first two cards have the same value, you can split them into two hands. You add a new wager to the table, and the split cards both get one new card. Then you play the split hands as if they were normal starting hands just dealt.
* You can only double down or surrender as the first action of the hand.
If you go over 21, you bust and lose your bet. If you don’t go bust and stand instead, it’s the dealer’s turn.
The dealer will take new cards until his hand value is at least “soft 17″. Soft in Blackjack parlance means “a hand with an ace counted as 11.” For example, the dealer would stand if their hand was Ace-2-4. If the dealer goes bust (over 21), you automatically win. Your win pays out 1:1.
If the dealer doesn’t go bust, your hands are compared.
- You are closer to 21 than dealer: you win 1:1
- Dealer is closer to 21: you lose
- Your hands are of the same value: it’s a push, and you get your bet back
Special situation: Insurance
If the dealer’s first card is an ace, you will be offered an option to buy insurance. Insurance is a side bet, where you bet that the dealer’s second card gives him a Blackjack. The maximum you can wager on insurance is half the size of your original bet.
If you take insurance and the dealer’s hand is a Blackjack, you are paid 2:1 on your insurance bet. So if you bet the maximum on the insurance, you essentially get back the wager you lose on your normal hand.
Blackjack is the most played card-based casino game in the world, so endless numbers of rule variations exist. Here are some things to keep an eye on:
- No splitting cards of different ranks:
Usually splitting can be done with cards of same value, for example, a jack and a queen (both are valued 10). Sometimes, however, only cards of the same rank can be split, so a jack-queen split would not be allowed, but a jack-jack split would be ok.
- Splitting again:
Splitting a hand that’s already been split once is not always possible.
- Doubling a split hand:
Depending on the casino, you may not be allowed to double a hand that has been previously split.
- The number of decks:
The number of decks used can go from one to seven.
Often allowed only right after receiving the first two cards.
This option is often not available at all.
Blackjack has inspired a whole group of card games, which are similar to traditional Blackjack. Here’s some of the more popular new Blackjack variations.
You play two hands with the option of switching the top cards from one hand to the other. Dealer wins ties. This is the most popular Blackjack variation.
You can “zap” any starting hand of 15, 16 and 17 (the worst starting hands) and get two new cards instead. By the same inventor as Blackjack Switch. This game is only available at Bodog online casino.
Pontoon and Spanish 21
Traditional casino games that are very similar to modern versions of the game. The similarity is no coincidence, Blackjack is partly based on Pontoon.
Strategy of Blackjack
Blackjack is a highly mathematical game of skill. What makes playing it complex is that even the smallest rules variations affect the correct strategy of a game.
Instead of trying to memorize a perfect Blackjack strategy, there are a few options for simple Blackjack strategy cheat sheets. We are in the process of making our own Blackjack strategy sheet, so stay tuned for more helpful tools for online Blackjack. Before that’s done, below are some generic tips for every occasion.
Game selection tips
For the best possible odds of winning, try to find a game which has as many as possible of the following rules:
- Single deck only
- Can double on any number of cards
- May split aces again
- Can surrender
All these rules work in players favor, for example surrendering decreases the house edge by about 0.08%. It’s not much, but even if you only bet $5 per hand that 0.08% per hand will add up to essentially give you a “free hand” every hour or so.
Insurance: Odds and Perfect Strategy
The right strategy for taking an insurance is simple: don’t do it. Insurance pays 2:1 and you win. This means that for the insurance bet to have a positive expected value, there should be more than 1/3 winning cards in the deck. There are not.
Full explanation of insurance strategy:
Let’s say you are offered insurance on a one-deck game, and neither of your first two cards is valued 10. This means you have seen 3 cards (dealer’s ace, your two cards) and 49 cards of the 52 card deck are unknown to you.
Out of the 49 unknown cards tens, jacks, queens and kings win the bet for you. There are four of each, meaning there are 4 x 4 = 16 winning cards. So your odds of winning are 16/49.
Since insurance pays 2:1, it would require you to win 1/3 of the time to break even. You can figure this out as follows: Imagine you are betting $10 on a bet that pays 2:1 and wins every third time. The two losing times you lose -$20, the one winning time you win +$20 to break even.
Unfortunately, taking insurance does not offer good enough odds to break even. The chance of winning in the best possible situation in a one-deck game (the situation described in our example) is 16/49 = 0.3265, not the 1/3 = 0.333 required for breaking even or winning.
What Is “Card Counting” in Blackjack And How Does It Work?
Card counting is a strategy where a player keeps track of each card that is dealt in a game of Blackjack. An advantage player (a player who wants to switch the odds to his favour) does this because a high number of high-valued cards in the shoe is advantageous for the player.
Card counting is done by keeping a running count of cards that come out of the shoe, not by memorizing each exact card.
Good cards (ten-valued cards, aces) are given minus values (like -1), bad cards are given plus values. When the plus count reaches a certain value, the game is advantageous for the player. At this point, it should be played with bigger bets, as what is won with the larger stakes wins more than what is lost with smaller bets used while waiting for the positive odds opportunity.
Casinos are very aware of card counting. This is not surprising, as there are a lot of books (and even a card counting app) available on the topic.
Nowadays it would be impossible to go to a casino and simply start counting cards. Casino bosses would notice you altering your bet according to the running count and kick you out (card counting is not against the law, but casinos can ask customers to leave).
As the casinos have gotten smarter, card counting has evolved into a team effort. One team member enters a table and plays with minimum stakes. When the count is positive, the counter signals the team leader, who in turn signals a high roller. The high roller enters the positive odds table and starts playing with maximum stakes, while the counter keeps on playing with minimum stakes. Even team playing is very difficult to pull off nowadays, so card counting is slowly dying.
Most famous of all the card counting teams was a group consisting of MIT students. To see a fun, fictionalized version of their story, check out the film 21.
Questions & Answers
Send your own questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and get an answer from our casino game experts!
Q&A: Strategy & Rules
What is Blackjack’s house edge?
This depends on the rules being used. Depending on the game you are playing, it can go from 0.5% to up to 15%. Usually, it is around 0.8% though.
The terrible 15% house edge games are rare. Only games where house wins all ties are this bad, and very few casinos or gambling establishments dare to use this rule.
What is “hard” and “soft” in Blackjack?
Hard and soft are two handy terms to know. They refer to aces and if they are currently counted as 11 or 1. Here’s the explanation:
- Hard: Hand that doesn’t have an ace that counts as 11
- Soft: Hand that does have a 11
- 7-4-2 = Hard
- Ace-8-8 = Hard (the Ace counts as 1)
- Ace-3-1 = Soft (the ace counts as 11)
What is the worst hand in Blackjack?
The absolute worst hand is getting a 16 when the dealer has a 7 or higher showing. No matter what you do, it’s a difficult situation to be in.
Should I hit or stay on 16?
So what should you do in the worst starting position. It depends on if you have a hard or a soft 16, what the dealer has and if surrendering is allowed in the game you’re playing.
Your 16 vs dealer’s hand of 2 to 6:
- Always stand
Your 16 vs dealer’s hand of 7 to 11:
- Surrendering allowed: Hit all soft hands & surrender all hard hands
- Surrendering not allowed: Always hit both hard and soft hands
Oh, and know that whatever you do you’re screwed. You’re likely to lose at least 75% of hands in this spot, so if there ever was a time to get lucky it’s now.
Can you get a Blackjack on a split hand?
This varies a bit from game to game, but in general no. A split hand is usually not considered “first two cards” when it comes to getting a blackjack.
Q&A: Playing Online
Can I count cards online?
This is the single most common Blackjack question we get asked. The answer is no; you can’t count cards at an online casino.
The reason for card counting not working online is that internet casinos shuffle the (virtual) decks after each hand, so card counting is useless. As shuffling machines are getting better, it is more and more common to even see land-based casinos to shuffle their decks after each hand also.
Can I get a bonus for Blackjack from some online casino?
Casinos are not very keen on giving out bonuses for Blackjack players. The game has a high payout percentage, so a high-value bonus could see the online casinos taking a heavy loss – something they’re not too keen on doing!
All that said, you’re not completely out of luck. A couple of online casinos still have Blackjack bonuses in 2024. I recommend you start by checking out Bodog, which has a special bonus for table games.
What are the minimum and maximum stakes?
Most online casinos allow betting as little as $0.10 to $0.50 per hand. The maximum stakes vary a lot, but especially live dealer games can have maximum bets as high as $10,000. If you wish to play with ultra-high stakes, it never hurts to ask from the casino’s customer service if the stakes can be bumped up (they usually can).
What are some good sites to play for fun?
You can play Blackjack for free literally at every online casino you can find. For our picks of Canada-friendly gambling sites see the list at the start of this page.
What is live online Blackjack?
Live casino games are streamed to your computer or phone from a real-life casino. Then you can bet and play these games like any online games: with your mouse or finger. A clever system sends your decisions (hit/stand, etc) to the dealer, who plays the situation accordingly.
Especially high rollers enjoy live games. There’s just something luxurious playing with real-life human beings instead of looking at a simulated game.
Note that live dealer Blackjack is never available for free. The dealers have to eat like everybody else, so they need their salaries and tips (yes, you can tip in a live game btw).
Can I play mobile (phone or tablet?
Go to one of our recommended casinos and you can play there for real-money with any device you own. There’s no need to download a Blackjack app, which is great since all the Blackjack apps available for Canadians at both Apple App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android) are for play-money only. So for real-money Blackjack play directly at the casino’s website.
Can I play with no bonus?
Many high-rollers especially don’t want bonuses, as playing with a bonus means that you need to wager a certain amount before you can cash out. Without a bonus you can cash out any time. Playing with no bonus is easy. Simply refuse the casino’s welcome offer (easily done by contacting customer support live chat) and you’re good to go.
What’s the best site for playing online Blackjack?
You can find a selection of Blackjack games on all of the online casinos listed on CasinoGames.ca. If you are looking for live dealer action at a mobile casino (like most of us are) then I recommend Leo Vegas.
Leo Vegas is the best mobile casino for Canadian gamblers. You can play Blackjack and other casino games with your phone, tablet and computer & enjoy a $100 welcome bonus. Visit LeoVegas Now.