Blackjack Rules & How to play 21

Blackjack is an incredibly popular casino card game, which can trace its history back to 17th century Spain! The aim of Blackjack is to attain a 21 point hand, or a hand with a higher score than the dealer, without exceeding 21 points.

Blackjack is a game where strategy can affect your results. When played properly Blackjack can have a house edge as low as 0.5%, but this can vary depending on the exact rules of the game and the way you play.

Before we explain the rules of the game we will discuss card values in Blackjack, which can be confusing to new players: 

  • In Blackjack all numbered cards (2-10) are worth face value.
  • Face cards (jacks, queens and kings) are given a value of 10.
  • An ace can be worth either 1 or 11.

Soft hand explanation

A soft hand is one which contains an ace which can still act as 1 or 11: 

  • Ace-6: Soft 17
  • Ace-10-6: 17

As shown above, if a hand contains an ace which can only take a value of 1 then the hand is no longer soft. Soft hands are better for the player because they allow you to hit without risk of going bust. 

How is Blackjack played?

Blackjack is generally played on a semi-circular table with boxes printed on the felt. These boxes are where players place their bets and where cards are dealt. At the start of a game the dealer will shuffle four or eight decks of cards together and place them in a plastic shoe, to facilitate dealing.

After players have made their bets, the hand begins. The dealer will give each player two cards face up, before dealing a final card to himself (also face up).


Being dealt Blackjack

Blackjack isn’t just the name of the game, it is also the name of its most popular hand. A Blackjack (or natural) consists of any 10 value card and an ace such as Ace-Queen or Ace-Ten. Being dealt this hand means you automatically win, unless the dealer also gets Blackjack, and are paid out at a higher rate of 3:2, rather than 1:1 for most wins.

Player decisions

It is now the player’s turn to act. There are four possible actions in a hand, as shown below:

Stick/Stand: If you are satisfied with your initial score then you are not required to take any further action. Standing indicates that the player wishes to take no further cards and their participation in the hand is over.

Hit: If you wish to take a further card to try and improve your score then you can hit. The dealer will give you another card, and you can continue to hit until you are either satisfied with your score or ‘bust’ (exceed a 21 point score). If you bust the dealer will take your cards and bet as you automatically lose the hand.

Double: In some situations it may seem favourable to ‘double down’. If you choose to do this then you will have to double your initial bet and will be dealt only one further card. The third card is sometimes placed horizontally, to indicate that the player cannot hit again. Doubling is only the best option when your first two cards give you a good score (9,10 or 11) and the dealer’s upcard is a 5 or 6, meaning he is quite likely to bust.

Split: If you have two cards of the same denomination, like 8-8 or Q-Q then you can choose to split. Once again you will have to double your bet but this time your paired cards will be split and played as two separate hands. Each of the new hands will be dealt a new card and they can be played separately of one another, for example you could hit on one hand and stand with the other.

The dealer’s actions

After all players have made their decision it is the dealer’s turn to act. The dealer plays to fixed rules, hitting until their score is 17 or greater and standing otherwise. In some casinos the dealer will also hit if their hand is soft 17, but this increases the house edge. If the dealer busts then any players who have not already busted win the hand. Wins are paid out at 1:1 in Blackjack (apart from the special case of a natural).

If the dealer does not bust then he compares his score to the player’s. If the dealer has a higher score then he wins and vice versa. If player and dealer have the same score then the hand is a push, the player keeps his initial bet but does not win anything.

The Surrender rule

The ‘Surrender’ rule in Blackjack was introduced in Las Vegas casinos and has spread around the world, as well as to some online casinos.

Under the rule, players have the option to give up on the hand after they have viewed their initial two cards and the dealer’s upcard. If a player surrenders then they lose half their initial bet and the hand is over.

Before a player is able to surrender then the dealer, if his first card is an ace or a ten value card, will check to see if he has Blackjack. If that is the case then the player is unable to surrender and loses their entire bet.

You may also see Blackjack with an ‘early surrender’ option, where the dealer does not check for Blackjack before accepting surrender. This situation is much better for the player because surrender is generally only the best option if the player has a terrible score like 16 and the dealer has a ten or ace showing.

Rules to look out for

Although the format and action of a game of Blackjack will be the same wherever you play, there are some rules to look out for, which can increase or decrease the house edge. Even small differences in house edge can make a big difference in the long run, so make sure to find the best game you can!

Dealer hits Soft 17: As we mentioned earlier if the dealer hits on a score of soft 17 the house edge is increased. Almost all online casinos offer Blackjack where the dealer does not hit soft 17, which is better for the player.

Low number of decks: The fewer decks used in a game of Blackjack the lower the house edge. With just one deck the house edge can be almost 0%, but with eight decks the house edge will be higher.

Double after split: Some casinos allow players to double after splitting (DAS). This is a good rule for the player, as there are some situations where this option is useful. For example if you split a pair of eights and were dealt a two (to give a score of 10), doubling would often be a good option.

Resplitting: Some casinos allow players to split to create a third or even fourth hand if they once again have a pair after splitting. This is beneficial for the player because, naturally, if spitting was the right option the first time it is likely to be so again!

Hitting split aces: In a few Blackjack games players are only dealt one additional card if they split a pair of aces. Having the option to hit split aces is preferable and reduces the house edge.

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