Blackjack Tips

Only after all players sitting at a table have had a chance to pay a buy-in (and therefore signal that they’re in for the next deal) the cards are dealt, with the dealer dealing each betting player one card beginning at his left and “sweeping” across to the right, then dealing himself a card and returning to the left to repeat the process a second time.

Depending on which type of deal is being offered, shoe or “pitch,” the nature of the deal itself varies: If the deck is in a shoe, the cards are dealt face-up and a player may not touch them, while if it is a “pitch” game—meaning that the dealer holds two decks in his hand and deals from them as opposed to from a shoe—the cards are dealt face-down and players may hold them as if they were playing poker. After the deal, the action begins at the dealers left. Each player who was dealt in has a chance to appraise his cards and make one of several decisions (see how many you can pick out that Ben and his crew used in “21”):

  • Hit: (Signaled in pitch-style by scraping the cards against the table, and in shoe-style by tapping the table with your finger)* The dealer deals you another card; this can be done until you “bust” (i.e., go over 21 points) or until you have five cards without going over at which time you win in some formats.
  • Stand: (Signaled in pitch-style by sliding your cards face-up beneath your bet, and in shoe-style by waving your hand horizontally over your cards) Nothing happens. You now go into a showdown with the dealer.
  • Double Down: (Signaled in both variations by placing a second bet beside your original chips and sticking up one finger—no, not that one) You increase your wager to up to twice the original amount, and the dealer deals you one more card. A typical play for those who either feel lucky—or know what’s coming next. (Note: any double down that is less than your original bet is called “double down for less”—just thought ya’d like to know).
  • Split: (Signaled in both variations by placing an additional bet beside your original chips and sticking up two fingers) You double your wager and have each card in your original hand become the first card in two separate hands. More often than not, you can only do this if your opening hand is a pair (i.e., two cards of the same rank/number). You can continue to split as long as you continue to be dealt pairs, though in pitch games, there’s usually a limit of four splits because of the number of matching cards in a deck.
  • Surrender: (Signaled by making a karate chop over your bet or just saying “surrender”) You poon out, give up and the house takes half of your chips for their trouble.
  • Buy Insurance: (Special: before the action) In American-style blackjack, if the dealer has an ace showing after the second deal he will offer the players insurance before the action begins. A player can buy insurance by placing up to half his original bet on a special spot in front of his seat, marked “insurance.” Usually insurance is a 2:1 bet, so if the dealer does end up with blackjack, the player who doesn’t push will lose his original bet but win back its equivalent because of the insurance. (See Section IV, “Bits and Pieces” for more on this).
  • Even Money: (Special: before the action) Kind of like insurance for the dealer, “even money” means you just got dealt a natural and the house is willing to pay you 1:1 to muck it. Sometimes this is a good idea, and sometimes it isn’t (See: Section IV, “Bits and Pieces” for a more detailed explanation).

*By the by, you MUST signal no matter what action you take because casinos record these hand motions in order to determine what actually happened in contested play. They, therefore, require that all players use them. Sorry, bub, you ain’t got no choice in the matter.

In most versions and permutations, the dealer deals the first “house card” (the cards he deals himself) face-down, and after the action has passed through all betting players and returns to him, he reveals it. Often, you’ll find that the dealer will also hit before the game goes into a showdown. This is because house rules generally dictate that if the dealer’s hand is 17 or less, he must hit. If he busts, all the players who haven’t done likewise win. If not, his revealed hand is compared in a showdown to each of the players’ hands. The highest hand wins, unless a player and the dealer both have blackjack in which case there’s a draw (See: “push” above).

Really, that’s all there is to know about how blackjack works. There are, however, a few finer points to keep in mind when you approach your first table. If you’re playing in Europe, for instance, the dealer will not deal himself a hole card until all the players have played their hands. Other times, a dealer’s hard natural will automatically trump a player’s, which can be devastating to say the least. The only way to be sure of what you’re getting yourself into when you sit down at a Blackjack table—as well as payout rates for straight bets, doubling down and splitting—is to ask. John Law says a casino has to tell you what its rules are if you ask, and doing so will help you make sure you’re sitting down at the kind of table you can actually win at.