How to play blackjack

By far the world’s most popular casino card game, blackjack stands out from most other games of chance in that you can use strategy during gameplay to increase the likelihood of a win. Every decision you make, every new card dealt, can change the situation radically and forces you to pick a new way forward. That constant thrill and suspense is no doubt why this game has been around for so long.

How long, exactly? The family of card games known as Twenty-One, of which blackjack is a member, dates back at least at least 400 years. The earliest mentions of it come from Spain, where it appeared in a novella written in 1601-1602 by none other than Miguel de Cervantes of Don Quixote fame. The game later spread to France and Britain under the name Vingt-Un and eventually made its way to the US in the early 1800s.

It was there that the version of the game now known as ‘blackjack’ arose. Most myths about the origin of the name are tied to supposed casino promotions that paid out extra for a hand containing an ace of spades and a black jack. More recent historical research has debunked that claim, however, tracing the name’s birth to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. ‘Blackjack’ was another name for zincblende, a mineral ore miners turned up during their hunt for gold and silver.

Blackjack isn’t difficult to learn but does have nuances that newcomers should become familiar with. For a quick overview of the game, have a look at our video explainer, ‘Vinnie Jones: Blackjack in 60 Seconds’. If you prefer a more detailed tutorial, read on.

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The basics

Every hand at the table is played individually, directly against the dealer’s hand.

The object of the game is to bring the sum of your hand as close to 21 as possible without going over and beat the dealer.

Jacks, Queens and Kings are worth 10. Aces can be either 1 or 11. All other cards are worth their face value.

Since an Ace can count as either 1 or 11 depending on your needs, Aces are especially valuable in this game. A hand with an Ace and a 4, for example, is called a ‘soft 15’ since the Ace can still change its value from 11 to 1. With a regular ‘hard 15’, if you hit and get an 8, you’ve gone over 21. But with a soft 15, you can hit with less risk. If you hit and get an 8, the Ace becomes a 1, your total is now 1 + 4 + 8 = 13 and you can play on.

Getting a 21 (that’s an Ace plus a 10, Jack, Queen or King) when the cards are first dealt is called a ‘blackjack’ and it’s an automatic win, typically paying out 3:2 – better than the 1:1 straight win.


Blackjack has a lot of variations – Atlantic City, Vegas Strip, Classic, European, etc. – each with its own set of rules and common game components. These affect, for example, how many decks are used, how the cards are dealt, when you’re allowed to double down, when you can split, and how many cards you get after a split Ace. Additionally, each casino can set their own house rules. It’s important to know the specifics of your game before starting. 

A key variation in this game is whether the dealer stands on any 17, soft or hard, or stands only on a hard 17. This difference has a big effect on the house edge and your optimal strategy.


The dealer will give you two cards, face up, and deal themselves two, with the second one face down.

If you’re really lucky, your first two cards total 21 and you win with a blackjack. But if the dealer also has a blackjack, that’s a tie.

Otherwise the game continues. At this point, there may be options to split, double down, or buy insurance, as explained below.

Your next move is deciding whether you want to ‘hit’, meaning take another card, or ‘stand’. You can hit as many times as you want, but if you pass 21 you bust, meaning you immediately lose, and the round is over.

Once you stand, it’s the dealer’s turn.

The dealer doesn’t make any decisions and is required to hit on any total up to and including 16 and stand on 17 or higher. (As mentioned above, they can hit on soft 17s in some game variations).

If the dealer busts, you win.

If not, whichever of you has the higher score wins.

Any round ending in a tie is a push and your bet is returned.

Doubling down

Right after the initial cards are dealt, you have the option to double down. This means doubling your bet and is usually something you do when you feel you’ve got a good chance of winning. But there’s a catch: You will be dealt one more card and only one more card. This will be placed on the table horizontally.

Many casinos and game variations allow doubling down only on a total of 9, 10 or 11. Real Dealer’s games let you double down on any initial total. In either case you should always consider that you might risk busting, or getting a low total, with that third card.   


If your first two cards have the same value, you can split them into two separate hands that you’ll play individually, one after the other. The same bet you made on the initial hand will apply to each of the new hands.

A few specifics of splitting to keep in mind: With a split hand, getting a 21 with your first two cards isn’t considered a blackjack. In some games, like Real Dealer’s, you can split a hand only once, and if you split an Ace, you get only one extra card on each new hand. In other variations, you can only split actual pairs like J + J, not different cards with the same value like J + 10.

Charlie rules

A Charlie rule is an attractive game feature where, if player’s hand reaches a certain number of cards in the round without going over 21, it’s an automatic win. With a 6-card Charlie rule, for example, if you keep hitting until you end up with six cards and haven’t busted, you’ve won and the round is over.

Side bets

Here are some of the more common side bets available in blackjack. These are played independently of the main game.


When the initial cards are dealt, if the dealer’s first card is an Ace, you’ll be offered what’s called ‘Insurance.’ This is insurance against the dealer getting a blackjack. The idea is that the Ace means there’s a higher probability that blackjack coming up, so this is a way to hedge that risk.

The insurance bet is automatically set at half the amount of your initial bet and pays out 2:1 if it turns out that the dealer indeed has a blackjack.

21 + 3™

Made at the time of the initial bet, this popular side bet is based on the first two cards of player’s hand and the dealer’s face-up card. The bet wins if the three cards combine to make one of these poker hands: flush, straight, three of a kind, straight flush and suited triples, with the last paying out 100:1.

Perfect Pairs™

Also made at the time of the initial bet, this bet wins if the first two cards of player’s hand have the same face value, making up either a mixed pair, a coloured pair or a perfect pair. These pay out 6:1, 12: 1 and 25:1, respectively.

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