The Art of Blackjack by Joe Bochynski

The Art of Blackjack

I’ve been playing blackjack for years, decades more specifically, and people keep saying that it is a game of chance. I would have to disagree. Many people approach blackjack as if it was something that you can’t influence and where you only have to wait for the result to pop out for you to know if you managed to win or not.

However, there are so many things that can help you with the game, and it’s not only betting strategies. While I spent quite some time giving lessons and explaining how the game works, I realized that it would be much more effective to simply write the detailed guide on how to play and how to win at the game of blackjack. I will use my knowledge to go through all the details and variations of the game to try to make blackjack a bit more approachable and understandable. And no, you don’t have to be a wunderkind to be able to win at blackjack. 

But before we go deeper into explaining tactics, you should understand how the game works and what you might encounter when you join the table. So let’s start from the beginning.

The History and Rules

The game of blackjack evolved from the game called Twenty-One. Unlike most casino games, you won’t play against other players but against the dealer. This way, even if you find yourself at the table with several other players, you won’t have to pay attention to what they are doing since they aren’t your competition. However, ignoring other players is not the smartest thing you could do, but more on that later. The exact date of blackjack’s origins is not really known, but the game certainly originated in the 19th century. 

Rules for playing blackjack are rather simple. All you have to do is reach twenty-one, and you’ll win. However, it will not be as easy as it sounds. Usually, you will have to try to beat the dealer, and the person who gets closer to twenty-one will win. The catch is that whoever goes over will lose or more commonly — bust. Both the dealer and the player will receive two cards at the beginning. Based on these two cards, you will choose what your next action is.

The History and Rules

When it comes to counting cards or the value of each card, there are several rules that apply to blackjack. Cards from two to nine will count for their face value. Tens and all face cards will count as ten only, and finally, aces can count both as one and eleven. 

Since you will receive two cards at the beginning, if you managed to get ten and ace or any of the face cards and ace, you will instantly win. These combinations are also known as a natural blackjack. Unfortunately, if the dealer also gets blackjack, the result will be tied and you’ll neither win nor lose your money. 

The first two variations of blackjack are European and American ones. While there are several differences between these two, like the number of decks of cards used, the main one is that there is no hole card in European blackjack. In the American version of this game, the dealer will also get two cards at the beginning, but one card will be turned face down. This card is also known as a hole card. In the European counterpart, the dealer will only receive one card, and the second one will arrive when the player completes their hand. 

Do You Have a Hard or Soft Hand?

Hard or Soft Hand

When you receive two cards at the beginning of the game, it is possible to have either a hard or soft hand. But what’s the difference between hard and soft? A soft hand is any hand where there is an ace that can be counted as one. Any other hand is hard. So, for example, if you receive a nine and eight, you will have a total of seventeen. But if you receive ace and six, you will have soft seventeen. 

The main difference between these two is most noticeable when it comes to strategies and when you need to decide the next course of action. One of the main differences is that you can never bust with a soft hand. 

Player’s Choice

Player’s Choice

After you receive your two cards, you will have the first choice before you. We already mentioned that it is possible for the player to win with only two cards or when they receive a natural blackjack. In the American version of the game, it is also possible that the dealer gets a natural, and if this happens, the player loses (unless they have a natural as well). Since one of the two dealer’s cards is turned face down, if the other gives a chance of natural, the dealer will peek and see if they won the natural. 

Hitting

The first option the player can take is to hit. If they have a soft hand or a low two-card value, they can choose to receive an additional card. For example, if the player gets an ace and four, the total sum is soft fifteen, so the player can take an additional card without fear of busting. This way, even if the card is ten, the player won’t bust because the ace will count as one, and the total sum will be back on fifteen. 

Of course, the two-card combination can be something like three and six, in which case an additional card is also welcomed. We will go more into tactics a bit later. 

Interestingly, there is a gesture for each of the actions the player can take. For hitting, the player would gesticulate towards themselves, showing that they want an additional card, or they would simply tap the table with a finger behind their cards.

Standing

If the player receives a high combination with a high risk of busting, it is a good idea to stand. This way, they will continue the game without receiving any additional cards. For example, if the two cards they received at the beginning are a jack and a nine, the total sum is nineteen. There is little chance that they will receive either an ace or two. Since any other card will result in a bust, the player can choose to stand and wait to see the two cards that the dealer has. 

The gesture for standing is waving your hand over your cards, similar to the universal “no” sign. 

Splitting 

While the first two actions are universal and you can always choose to hit or stand (it’s not always smart to do one or the other, but it’s a possibility), splitting is a bit more situational. If it happens that the player receives a pair as their two cards, they will have an option to split them. What this does is that it basically creates two different hands. You will have to place another bet, and you will continue playing with two sets of cards where you have an option to hit or stand for both of them. Furthermore, you can draw as many cards as you like for each of your hands.

Interestingly, it is possible that the player gets a second pair after splitting. If it happens that the player receives two eights, for example, as their first two cards, and they choose to split, they will now have two separate hands (they will have to double the bet). It is possible that they receive another eight or even one for each hand. If this happens, some casinos will allow resplitting with additional pays. Usually, the maximum number of times a player can split is three (which leaves them with four hands and quadruple bet). It is worth mentioning that not every casino allows the player to split pairs. 

The gesture for splitting is simply placing another bet besides the pair to signalize that you want to split them. 

Doubling Down

It is possible after receiving the two cards at the beginning to double your bet. Doubling down will allow you to receive one card, and one card only. You will pay double the original bet, and if you win, you will receive double the reward. But the most important part is that you will receive only one card and no more. So you won’t have a chance of getting any additional cards even if your hand is low. 

The gesture for doubling down is placing an additional chip at the table. 

Surrendering

Finally, some casinos offer a chance to surrender. While this is not as common, it is still a possibility in some casinos across the world. This way, the player will be done with the round, but they will return half of their bet. Not only that this option is not available in every casino, but it is also not available all the time. For example, the player may surrender (if that option exists) only after the dealer checks if they have the natural. 

If the player draws an additional card, they can no longer surrender. Similarly, if the dealer wins a blackjack, the player can no longer surrender. Finally, it is possible that sometimes the player can surrender before the dealer checks for a natural, and this type of action is called early surrender. 

The Dealer’s Choice

Interestingly, the dealer won’t have any of these options. Not only that they cannot split, double, or surrender, but they also have to follow an algorithm. The dealer must take an additional card if the total sum is less than seventeen. While the player can stand on any number between twelve and sixteen, there are casinos where the dealer will have to hit even if they have a soft seventeen. 

While the rules depend on the casino itself (and they will be written on the table), they are usually the same — the dealer has to reach seventeen or higher. 

Odds, House Edge, and Payout

Odds, House Edge, and Payout

We already covered basic rules and what actions a player can take during the game. Now, let’s take a look at the odds and house edge. When you play a round of blackjack, you will usually get one-to-one payout if you win. Since you play only against the dealer, you would bet a certain amount, and if you win, you get your bet back, and you will win the same amount. One of the advantages that the player has is that if they win a natural, they will get three to two payout, while the dealer will simply take your bet if they win a natural. 

Of course, doubling down will double the reward you might get since you will double your bet, and the same works with splitting hands. For each of the hands, you will place the same bet, and if you win all of them, you can get up to four to four payout. 

While many people say that there is no house edge in blackjack, they are wrong. There is a house edge in blackjack, and it will depend on the number of decks used, whether the dealer hits on the soft seventeen, if there is a surrender option, and so on. Besides, the fact that the dealer will receive their two cards (or one in European) and that they will continue to play only after the player finishes with their action puts the player in a slight disadvantage and lowers the house edge. 

Let me explain. Both the player and the dealer have the same sum of their cards, let’s say that’s nineteen. The term for that is “push,” and no one will win. The player will get their bet back, and the result will be tied. However, if it happens that both the dealer and the player bust or go over twenty one (or double-bust), the dealer would win. The reason for this is that the player plays first, and after they bust, the round is over, and they lost. This is what gives the dealer an advantage. There is an 8% chance of both the player and the dealer going over twenty-one, and since the player goes first, this puts an edge for the house. 

Strategies

Strategies

We already went through the details about the rules and house edge. While it seems rather high that the house edge is at 8%, there are several easy tricks that can help you lower it to only 0.2%. These tactics involve correct splitting, standing or hitting, doubling, and that bonus reward from natural blackjack. Since there are not so many things you could do in blackjack except to hit, split, or double, the tactics will revolve around those actions.

For example, knowing when to split and when to ignore the possibility will make a difference between winning and losing. 

Surrendering 

Let’s start with the obvious one. Surrendering is a great way to lose only half of the bet. If the dealer has a ten or an ace as their revealed card, and your hand is sixteen, for example, it might be a good idea to surrender. The reason why we started with this one is that not every casino will offer this option. 

Casinos in the U.S. usually won’t allow late surrender or to surrender before they check their hole card. Since in the American version of the game, they will receive the hole card, and if the revealed one is either ten-valued or an ace, they will have to check if they have a natural. If this is the case, the player will lose without a chance of surrendering. 

However, if this is an option, it might be something that you should consider. Surrendering is something that many people refuse to try or implement in their tactics.

The basic strategy for surrender is if you play a game with several decks. You should surrender if the sum of your cards is five to seven or twelve to seventeen against the dealer’s revealed ace. 

If the dealer’s card is ten, you should surrender hard fourteen to sixteen. Finally, ten-six and nine-seven combinations should be surrendered against the dealer’s nine. 


One of the basic ideas for these strategies is to understand which card you need to win and how probable is that you will get that card. If the answer is not satisfying, then surrender is a great option. 

Pair Splitting

We already explained how splitting works, and while most players understand this, they either split always or never. So let’s get into details and explain when you should split and when you shouldn’t. Of course, this is another rule that might not be applicable to every casino. 

One of the other things I should mention is that the number of decks might also play a role in the decision. You won’t act the same way if you play with one deck as you would if you played with eight. Furthermore, there are casinos that offer doubling but only on nines, tens, and aces, and there are casinos that will allow doubling after split. 

If you play a single deck game with a double after split, you should split twos and sixes if the dealer’s upper card is anything between two and seven. Similarly, you should split threes and sevens if the dealer has between three and eight. Fours are split against four, five, and six. 

While the rules vary on the number of decks, there are a few things that are always important to remember. You should never split tens (including a pair of fives), and you should always split eights and aces. When it comes to tens, you already have twenty, and it is such a strong hand. If you split them, you will get two weak hands where the only thing that will make them better is an ace. If you split tens, the chances are that you will get something a lot worse than twenty.

Similarly, two aces will count as twelve, so splitting them will give you a great chance of winning both of them (since you might get two naturals). Of course, when it comes to a pair of eights, sixteen is rather bad since the dealer will hit until they reach seventeen. Furthermore, there are quite a lot of cards that will bust you if you proceed to hit, so the best idea is to always split them. The idea is to understand how to play each game, and why the basics are the same, the details might vary on the number of used decks. 

Doubling Down

Before we go into details, we should mention that not every casino will allow doubling, and some of them will only allow it on a certain two-card combination. Usually, you will double down if you have eight, nine, ten, and eleven. Furthermore, you should double on a card combination that has an ace and two to eight as the second card. 

Besides, the basic rules may be different when more decks are used. 

When to Hit or Stand

The worst two-card sum you can get is twelve through seventeen. Furthermore, any of these combinations will get you to lose your hand regardless of the dealer’s revealed card unless the dealer busts, but you shouldn’t be counting on that. One of the things that beginners usually miss is that you shouldn’t always hit, even if you have low cards. For example, if you have thirteen to sixteen, you should stand if the dealer’s revealed card is two to six. The reason for this is that you have more to lose, and the dealer is required to reach seventeen. Of course, you’d have to hope that they will bust instead. 

Furthermore, you should always hit if you have five to seven and always stand on seventeen to twenty-one. The other rules can vary on the number of decks, whether it is a soft seventeen or hard, or even on the revealed dealer’s card. 

Card Counting and Penetration

Of course, we should mention that penetration is also an important factor in blackjack. For people that plan on trying to count cards, they should know that most casinos play with fifty percent penetration. What this means is that when the dealer reaches half of the deck, they will take a new one. This way, even if you know which cards are left in the deck, it would be useless since the dealer will either shuffle the deck or take a new one. 

Live vs. Online

Almost every online casino will offer blackjack. The main difference between these two is that the online blackjack is run by RNG or real number generator. Of course, the live casino is more personal, and you can meet new people and get involved with them. You won’t have the same atmosphere at home. Finally, at an online casino, you will probably have more betting options and all of the actions we mentioned before. 

Etiquette

If you are playing a game in a real casino, there are some things that you should know. All of the transactions must be visible to the security cameras. Furthermore, not only that you shouldn’t place anything on the table, but since most of the casinos will place the cards face up on the table, you won’t even need to touch them. Besides, even if you play the game where you are allowed to touch the cards or hold them (using only one hand, never two), you probably shouldn’t move them away from the table. The card should always be visible to the dealer. 

Of course, you should be aware of the order and try not to play when it’s not your turn. Placing things on the table is also something that is frowned upon in the casino world. And finally, we already mention gestures, and they are used to tell your next action. The main reason for this is that the security cameras should record your gesture, and they usually never record sound. This resulted in the so-called no-talking-at-a-Blackjack-table rule. 

Tournaments

Since blackjack is a game played against the dealer, the tournaments will work differently. You will still continue playing against the dealer, but the goal is not exactly to win the money. Your main goal is to have more chips than the rest of the players at the table. Usually, the first (or the first two) player at the table will proceed to the next round. This way, you can proceed to the next round even if you end up with fewer chips than you had at the beginning. 

Comment Section

Douglas L. 

Wow, this is really good. I was wondering how can you play tournaments if blackjack is played against the dealer only. There are so many things to remember, but I love the guide. I thought there will be more math in the guide!

Reply Mario G.

The main problem is that people believe that you’ll need to be a math expert to win in casino thanks to movies and tv. You don’t even have to know how to count!

Reply Joe B. 

Thank you @Douglas L. I’ve been playing blackjack for quite a while, and I really love the game. As for the tournaments, they are usually based on elimination, so whoever fails to meet a certain number, they will be out, and the last man standing is the winner. 

@Mario G. you don’t need to be a math expert, and the dealer will usually announce what you cards you have, but you still need to know how to count, to know the odds of winning the round. 

Reply Mario G.

Hey, I agree. I wasn’t thinking literally. Honestly, the guide is great. @Joe B.

Reply Mario G.

And keep up with the good work! Hope there will be more articles focusing on online games. @Joe B.

Reply Joe B.

Thank you for the kind words. I will certainly add more, since I’ve been playing online blackjack too (at least recently). I might do a guide on live vs online, with all the differences and variations. @Mario G.

Louise M.

Can you find all of the actions at the casino? Or is it only some of them? I understood that not every casino offer splitting and such?

Reply Joe B.

That is correct. However, you can find a casino that offers all of the actions I mentioned. Of course, there are casinos that won’t allow splitting, or will only let you split nines and higher. Others will allow all, but won’t let you double after split, and so on. There are however, casinos that will allow you to use any of the actions we mentioned. Furthermore, there are casinos that might even let you place an insurance if the dealer’s visible card is an ace. This way you can win some money even if they have a natural lurking underneath that hole card.

Reply Louise M.

Oh, I see. Thanks! And btw, I really enjoyed reading your guide. I might try my look next week in Atlantic City!

Reply Joe B.

Thank you @Louise M. and good luck in Atlantic City!