Blackjack 101: A beginner’s guide to playing and winning

If you’re considering trying your hand at blackjack, you have come to the right place. Our detailed blackjack guide will cover the basic rules, the strategies you might want to consider and the blackjack mistakes to avoid along the way. Many think that blackjack is a game of chance, but they’re only partly right. There’s certainly a lot of luck involved, but there are some blackjack tips and tricks you need to know as well. Truly understanding the game will also help you enjoy your time at the blackjack table a little more.

Introduction to blackjack

The game of blackjack is so old that nobody is 100% sure how it originated. It is generally believed that it has been played in French casinos since around 1700, and we know it was once known as ‘Vingt-et-un’ (literally ‘21’ in French). The game became popular in the 18th century, and it’s believed its modern name is due to a special bet that many gambling venues offered. This bet allowed people to bet on a player having a Blackjack (the Jack of spades or clubs) along with an Ace. The bet is no longer offered in modern-day casinos, but the name blackjack stuck. 

Blackjack is played with a standard deck, or sometimes multiple decks, of cards. While there may be several players involved in a blackjack game, you are not actually playing against each other. In blackjack, each player plays against the dealer, so your only objective is to get a better hand than him, as that will be the winning hand.

Each card carries a value in blackjack, and for cards from two to 10, that is simply their face value. All picture cards are worth 10, and Aces can be worth either one or 11. The aim of the game is to get a hand of cards that equals 21 or as near as possible without going over 21. If your cards equal more than 21, you ‘go bust’ and automatically lose.

Initially, the dealer will deal two cards to each player and two to himself or herself. The players then choose to hit (take another card) or stand (stick with the hand they have been dealt). There are a few other options at this time, such as splitting, doubling down or surrendering. You may choose to keep things simple as a new player, but you will still need to know what the concepts are and may want to consider incorporating them into your blackjack strategy.

If you have a pair of cards, you can choose to split them and play them as two separate hands. The dealer will add another card to each of your two ‘split’ cards to make two new pairs. You can then place a further bet and start playing with your two totally independent hands. Both bets are also completely independent of each other, so you can potentially win one and lose the other.

You can choose to double down after your initial two cards have been played, and it basically means you double your original bet and continue to play your hand. 

If you choose to surrender, you can give up half your bet and walk away with the rest. The rules for when you are allowed to surrender are different at different casinos. Some allow you to surrender as soon as you see your cards before the dealer checks his own cards. Others make you wait until after the dealer has checked his hand.

Blackjack table layout

The blackjack table you play at will always look similar. When playing at a physical table, the dealer stands on one side, while the players occupy the spaces around the table. There are usually marked areas for each player that the dealer has to deal their cards into. The dealer will usually have a ‘shoe’, which is a machine that shuffles the cards, on his side of the table. This is particularly necessary when multiple packs are being used as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to shuffle them manually. 

When you are playing blackjack online, you will generally find that the screen mimics a normal, physical blackjack table that you would find in a regular casino. However, there will be controls displayed on the screen that will allow you to place your bets, clear bets and indicate when you are ready for your cards to be dealt. Many online casinos will allow you to play fully automated blackjack or join a live game online if they have a live dealer option. In this case, you are playing online, but the action is streamed live from a remote venue with a real-life dealer.

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Rules of the game

Blackjack rules are fairly simple. Just be aware that the rules may differ a little from one casino to another, and there are also different versions of the game that have slightly different rules. Different versions will sometimes have different odds as well, so always check which version of the game you are playing. The basic blackjack rules we will discuss here are common to all or most variants of blackjack in most casinos, both online and off.

Each player is dealt two cards initially, and they are generally dealt face-up. The dealer’s cards are dealt with one face up and one face down, but he is also allowed to look at the face down card. Players can then decide what their next move should be. They can:

  • Hit – Take another card
  • Stand – Keep the cards they have and decline another card
  • Split – If they have a matching pair
  • Double down – If their hand makes them feel they want to double their bet
  • Surrender – If they feel they don’t want to play that hand

As already stated, the aim is to get a hand where the values of the cards add up to exactly 21, known as a blackjack, or as close as possible without going bust. If neither the player nor the dealer goes bust, and neither gets a blackjack either, the highest hand (that is the one closest to 21) wins. Players get to make their own decisions, but there are some rules regarding how the dealer must play his hand. 

The dealer must usually draw another card if his hand is 16 or less and stand if it is 17 or more. The exception to this is a ‘soft 17.’ As we have already mentioned, an Ace can be worth either one or 11 in a blackjack game. A soft 17 is a hand that includes an Ace that is being counted as 11. So, an Ace and a six is a soft 17, but so is a hand that includes an Ace, a two and a four, or an Ace and two threes. Usually, dealers may either hit or stand on a soft 17, but again, the rules can vary depending on the casino and the version of the game.

Once either the dealer or the player goes bust, the game is over. If nobody goes bust, the one with the highest hand wins. If you win against the dealer’s hand, your initial bet usually pays out at three to two, or six to five in some casinos. 

You are also able to place a side bet, or insurance bet, which is another bet on top of your original one and is half the amount you originally staked. You can do this when the dealer’s face-up card is an Ace. The bet is known as an insurance bet because some players look on it as a bet that “insures” your hand in case the dealer is holding a blackjack. In fact, with insurance bets, you are betting that the dealer does have a blackjack, so even if you lose your main bet, you would still win the insurance bet, which usually pays out at two to one.

Tips for beginners

An animated image of a blackjack table, with blackjack tips of cards which are a hit, double down, stay and split,

Beginner blackjack players cannot guarantee a win, but there are a few things you can do to both increase your chances of winning and ensure that you enjoy the game. Here are our blackjack tips for beginners.

Start small and practice discipline. You will hear talk of all sorts of betting strategies you can use to score yourself a big win, but the best strategy is always to be very disciplined when it comes to betting. This is especially when you are starting to play a new game. Focus on trying to remember all the rules and get a feel for the game, not on placing big bets in the hope of winning big.

While you’re finding your feet at the blackjack table, it is advisable to place smaller bets and manage your bankroll so that you can play for longer and start to get that all-important experience. With any gambling, it is vital to practice discipline. Set a budget for yourself and don’t exceed it. Don’t chase your losses, and never play with money you cannot afford to lose.

Stick to a basic strategy to start with. There is a lot of luck involved in blackjack, but there are also decisions to be made, and brand new players can benefit from having a basic strategy to follow. You can change things up and take more risks as you get to know the game better, but while you are learning, there are some basic blackjack strategy tips you might want to stick to. You can even buy blackjack strategy cards to keep with you during the game. General sound advice for new players includes:

  • Stand on 17 or higher.
  • Stand if you have 12 through 16 and the dealer has two through six, otherwise hit.
  • Double down on 11.
  • Double down on 10 if the dealer has two through nine, otherwise hit.
  • Double down on nine if the dealer has three through six, otherwise hit.
  • Always hit on eight or less.

There is, of course, no perfect strategy that can guarantee a win, but the basic strategy cards you will find all tend to advise similar gameplay, based on what is statistically most likely to happen. As you get used to playing, you will get to know all the basic strategies, but you will also probably start to want to take more risks.

Choose your seat carefully, if you can. The player in the first base chair next to the dealer plays first. Many players have theories about which seat is best, for various reasons. However, for a complete beginner, there’s a simple reason to avoid the first seat. If you sit there, you may feel extra pressure to act quickly. Sitting further down the table will give you more time to review your hand, check the dealer’s up card, remember your basic strategy rules and make a decision.

Common mistakes to avoid 

There are various blackjack mistakes to avoid, and as a beginner, you really need to look out for them. Here are a few to keep in mind.

Taking the insurance bet. The insurance bet can seem like a good deal, but statistically, it isn’t. Blackjack is a game with a very low house edge overall, but when you take the insurance bet, that house edge goes up to almost 6%.

Relying on card-counting strategies. Blackjack card-counting strategies are widely discussed online, and they can work. As a beginner, however, there is a lot going on already. Keeping a mental tally of every card that comes up is pretty challenging. Add to that the fact that most casinos try to guard against card counting by using multiple decks (often as many as six or eight), and things get pretty complex for a new player. If you want to learn how to count cards in blackjack, by all means do, but don’t rely on it.

Using other betting strategies. There are many progressive betting strategies, such as the Martingale and the Fibonacci. Some gamblers use them regularly, not only in blackjack but in many other casino games as well. These strategies really aren’t based on solid mathematical concepts and often do not work. Worse, they sometimes cause you to burn through your bankroll much more quickly than you would want. Avoid these strategies and focus on developing disciplined bankroll management. This will serve you well in blackjack and in any other casino game you play.

Author: Tanya Fields

Campaign Acquisition Manager Length with RC: 1 year, 9 months Favorite Casino Game: Starburst Background in iGaming: Opened the iGaming Department at Hard Rock Atlantic City in 2018 in both Customer Service, and then CRM, prior to moving over to RC in January 2021 Location: Based in NJ at the RC HQ Content: Occasionally, but only as it pertains to RC