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Basic Blackjack

Is it possible to "beat the odds" at casino gambling? Jerry L. Patterson, author and gambling expert, shares strategies that can help you win more often
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Before we get into a basic strategy for blackjack, let's consider the objective first. Many blackjack books define the objective as getting a hand as close as possible to 21. This is not always true. Your objective is to beat the dealer, and learning this lesson is your first step on the road to becoming a winning blackjack player.

It is possible to beat the dealer by holding a hand that totals less than 21-a 12 or 13, for example. Remember, there are two ways to win: by holding a higher hand than the dealer, and by not hitting a breaking hand and waiting for the dealer to break. This is a decision that many beginning players seldom make. Thinking they must always get as close as possible to 21, they hit more often than they should, thus breaking, losing more often and contributing to the casino edge of up to 6 percent over the non-system player.

Standard blackjack terms are defined here to describe how to play the game.


After receiving your initial two cards from the dealer, you determine their value by simply adding them together. A 5 and 3 is S; a king and 6 is 16; and an ace and 7 is either 8 or 18. If your first two cards consist of an ace and a 10 or any picture card, the hand is a perfect one-a "blackjack"-often called a natural. Unless the dealer ties you with another blackjack, you have an automatic winner, and instead of the usual even-money, payoff, you are immediately paid one and a half times your bet. For example, if you have $10 up, you receive $5. With a tie, called a push, no money is exchanged.

Hard and Soft Hands

All hands not containing an ace are known as hard hands, and any hand including an ace that can be valued as 11 is called a soft hand. For example, an A, 5 is a soft 16; if hit with a 2, the hand becomes a soft 18. If another card is drawn (for instance, a 9), the ace is revalued as 1 (if it were valued as 11 you would break) and the final hand now becomes a hard 17. Any hard hand of 12 through 16 is known as a stiff or breaking hand, because it is possible to go over 21 with the addition of just one more card.


The player always has the option of standing (refusing additional cards) at any time. The usual procedure is to give a hand signal rather than a verbal one. To indicate to the dealer that you wish to stand, simply wave your hand palm down over your cards. Just remember that in Atlantic City and many other places where rnulti-decks are used, you are never permitted to touch your cards or your initial bet. The dealer will then move on to the next player. In many Nevada games the cards are dealt face down and the players pick them up to play the hand. A standing signal in this game is given by tucking your first two cards dealt (the ones you are holding in your hand) under your chips.


If you are not satisfied with the total of your hand, you may draw one or more cards, as long as you don't break, or go over 21. To call for a hit, either point at your cards or make a beckoning motion with your fingers. In the Nevada facedown game, scrape your two cards toward you on the felt to call for a hit. When the hit card breaks your hand, the dealer will automatically scoop up your bet and place your cards in the discard tray, as you have lost, even if the dealer subsequently breaks. If you break in the Nevada facedown game, just toss your two held cards to the dealer-face lip.

Splitting Pairs

When the first two cards you receive are of equal value, your may elect to split them and play each as a separate hand, drawing until you are satisfied or break. You play the card on your right first and then the card on your left. Two 10-value cards such as a king and jack can also be split, but when aces are split, most casinos permit drawing only one card to each split ace. If a 10-value card is drawn to a split ace, or vice versa, the resulting hand is considered as 21, not a blackjack, and is paid off at 1 to 1. This 21 would tie any dealer 21 but would lose to a dealer blackjack. In many casinos, if a pair is split and a third card of the same rank is drawn, the hand may be resplit. To indicate to the dealer your desire to split, merely slide up another bet of equal value next to your first wager, touching neither your cards nor the original bet. In the Nevada facedown game, just turn over your pair and put out the extra bet.

Doubling Down

When you think that with just one more card in addition to your first two you will beat the dealer, you are allowed to double your original bet and draw one, and only one, more card. While many casinos will permit you to double down on any initial hand except two cards totaling 21, some restrict this option to hands that total 10 or 11. To signal the dealer your intention to double down, place another bet up to the amount of the original wager alongside your first bet. In the Nevada facedown game, turn your two cards over and put out your extra bet. Since you will always have the advantage when you take this option, you should double for the full amount. Again, to minimize the chances for player cheating, you are not permitted to touch either your cards or your original bet (except to turn the cards face up). When you split a pair, many casinos will permit you to double down after you draw the first card to each of the split hands.


Whenever the dealer's up-card is an ace, before proceding with the hand, she will ask, "Insurance, anyone?" If you believe the dealer's hole card is a 10 for a blackjack, you are permitted to place a side bet up to half of your original wager on the Insurance line in front of you. If, indeed, the dealer does have a 10 in the hole, you are immediately paid 2 to 1 on your insurance bet, but lose your original wager unless you too have blackjack and tie the dealer. You are not really insuring anything; you are simply betting that the dealer's unseen card is a 10. The only time I recormmend taking insurance is when you have a blackjack and are past the third level of a winning progression (a succession of winning hands). I'll discuss winning progressions in a later chapter.


A few casinos offer the option of surrender. If you arc not satisfied with your chances of beating the dealer after seeing your first two cards, you may announce "Surrender" and the dealer will pick up your cards and collect half your bet, returning the other half to you. 'This is the only decision in blackjack that is indicated verbally. When the dealer is required to first check his hole card for blackjack, the option is called "late surrender." if you are permitted to turn in your hand before the dealer checks for blackjack, the decision is termed "early surrender." In some casinos, you must an-nounce your surrender decision before the dealer deals to the first hand.

Dealer's Play

Image: Casino Gambling

Exerpted from "Casino Gambling: A Winner's Guide to Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Baccarat, and Casino Poker", @2003 Perigee Press.