Blackjack Rules

Blackjack may have given way to slots in terms of popularity but nevertheless, remains the most played casino-banked card game in the world. The game yields a rather small house edge and follows relatively simple rules although mastering it to the tee and becoming a pro is no picnic. You can find it in landbased casinos across the world but playing blackjack online is also a viable option these days.

Joining a blackjack table for the very first time can be slightly intimidating for unseasoned players. The game is incredibly dynamic, not to mention it often seems as if all other players at the table are well-versed in blackjack (although this rarely is the case).

Whether you are new to the game of 21 or simply need to revise the rules and refine your play, the following article is just the thing you need. The game is simpler than it initially appears so read on to learn about blackjack’s basic premise, the rules, and their most common variations.

The Main Premise of Blackjack

Blackjack 21First and foremost, blackjack is a game banked by the casino which means you are playing against the house instead of against fellow players. The main premise of blackjack is that the player needs to have a hand whose total is closer to 21 than the dealer’s but without exceeding this value.

The player wins when they have a hand with a higher total than the dealer’s, when they get dealt a blackjack (the strongest hand in the game consisting of two cards, an Ace and a ten-value card but more on this later) or when the dealer goes over 21, which is referred to as “busting”, “breaking a hand” or “one too many”. When both the player and the dealer have the same hand total, they push, i.e. nobody wins or loses.

The decisions of fellow players have absolutely no impact on the outcome of a round as everyone is competing against the house. We shall tackle the basic player decisions later on in the article. For now, it suffices to say that unlike players, blackjack dealers have no say in how they play out their hands.

Instead, they follow fixed rules laid down by the house but these may vary greatly at blackjack tables in different casinos. Because of this, cards in blackjack are normally dealt face-up – there is no issue in other players or the dealer seeing your hand. An exception is made for single and double-deck games where players’ cards are dealt face-down. Now, let’s take a quick look at the equipment that is typically implemented at a blackjack table.

The Equipment at a Blackjack Table

Blackjack TableBlackjack uses one to eight standard decks of 52 cards, with the jokers removed from each pack. When the game of 21 made its debut in landbased casinos, it was originally played with a single deck of cards only. And then Ed Thorp published his 1962 bestseller Beat the Dealer where he explains how to get a mathematical edge over the house through card counting.

The casinos responded with the introduction of multiple-deck games on the erroneous assumption this would hinder card counters from exploiting the game by keeping track of the cards. As a result, blackjack is typically played with four, six, or even eight decks nowadays. Of course, single and double-deck games are still available both offline and online but their unfavorable rules have practically rendered them unplayable.

In addition to the cards, you will spot several other pieces of equipment that are essential to the operation of a blackjack table. When multiple decks are in play, the dealer places all cards in a dispenser called a shoe. The blackjack shoe was introduced mostly for the purpose of holding larger stacks of cards in one place. However, it is also detrimental to advantage play techniques like hole carding where the dealer fails to protect their hole card, allowing the advantage player to catch a glimpse of it.

A blackjack table also uses chips and a rack to store them in along with a tray where the dealer places the discards that are no longer in play. These are reintroduced into the game after the dealer reaches the cut card, which is a colored plastic card of the same size as regular playing cards.

The cut card is inserted at a random place in the shoe before the deal to indicate when the next reshuffle is to take place. The position of the cut card varies from one casino to another. Some establishments cut four decks in an eight-game deck, others – two, but players are generally prohibited from inserting the cut card toward the end of the shoe.

Live Dealer Blackjack Gameplay


Card Values in Blackjack

Blackjack CardsUnlike poker, blackjack does not take the suits of the cards into consideration. An exception is made for some side bets like Lucky Ladies (a pair of Queens of hearts) and King’s Bounty (a pair of Kings of spades) which award massive payouts of up to 1,000x the original stake but are rarely supported at blackjack tables.

By and large, only the numerical ranks of the cards matter in the game of 21. Cards 2 through 10 are assigned their face value, so you count 2 as a 2, 3 as a 3, 10 as a 10, and so on. Face cards Jack, Queen, and King are assigned a value of 10. Here are several examples for further clarification:

  • A hand consisting of 5-2-K has a total of 17 (5+2+10)
  • A hand consisting of Q-10 has a total of 20 (10+10)
  • A hand consisting of J-8-9 is a bust because it totals 27 (10+8+9)

There is a very good reason why most blackjack players rejoice at the sight of a card that has the first letter of the alphabet printed on top. The Ace gives the game an interesting twist because its value can be either 1 or 11.

It is the player who specifies which of the two values their Ace has but as a general rule, this card is assigned the value that makes for the optimal hand total. Note that the Ace’s value might change as cards are added to the hand. Because of this peculiarity of the rules, the Aces are easily the most important cards in blackjack.

Hands that contain an Ace that can be valued as 1 or 11 are called “soft”. Soft hands are generally great because the Ace renders it impossible for the player to bust by drawing one more card. In contrast, “hard” ( also called “stiff”) hands have a fixed total so you can exceed 21 by requesting an additional card from the dealer. Check out the two examples below where the difference between soft and hard hands is particularly easy to discern:

K-9 makes for a hard total of 19.

8-A makes for a soft total of 9 or 19. Let’s assume you decide to draw another card and are dealt another 8. Your hand is now 8-A-8 for a total of 17 and becomes hard. The Ace is counted as 1 in this case. Otherwise, you will go over 21.

The most powerful hand in the game is called blackjack or a natural. This is a two-card hand consisting of an Ace (counted as 11) and a ten-value card (10, J, Q, or K) for a total of 21. It returns a payout of 3 to 2 although at some tables the payout ratio is reduced to 6 to 5. We explain what the difference is toward the end of this article. All other winning bets return even money, with the exception of the insurance side bet which offers a payout of 2 to 1.

The Dealing of the Cards and Order of Play in Blackjack

Blackjack How ToThe game starts after the dealer shuffles the decks and players position their chips in the betting circles on the layout. Once all bets are placed, the dealer makes two passes starting with the player at his or her left side until everyone at the table has been dealt a starting hand of two cards.

Players have their cards dealt face-up in shoe games or face-down in single-deck and double-deck variations. The dealer always has one card exposed and the other one facing down. The exposed card is commonly referred to as the “dealer’s upcard” whereas the one facing down is called a “hole card”. There are blackjack variations where no hole cards are in play but these are commonly available across Continental Europe and Great Britain.

Please keep in mind that you are not allowed to touch your cards in blackjack variations that utilize multiple decks. There is really no need for you to handle the cards – you can easily see their values because they are already exposed. This is not the case in hand-held variations that use one or two decks only where players receive their two starting cards face-down and obviously need to pick them up to see their values.

The player positioned immediately to the dealer’s left is the first person to act on their hand, having a choice from hitting, standing, doubling, splitting, accepting insurance, or surrendering. We shall explain these player decisions in further detail in the next section.

Player Decisions

Player DecisionsOnce everyone has received their starting two cards, players have a choice from several decisions, with hitting and standing being the most common options. Hitting means you are requesting additional cards from the dealer when you are not satisfied with the total of your starting hand. There are two hand signals for hitting – tapping the table in multiple-deck games or scratching the felt with your cards in hand-held games.

The second most common decision in blackjack is standing when the player declines additional cards because they either believe their total is strong enough to beat the dealer’s or are afraid they will bust on the next hit. In shoe games, you signal a stand with a horizontal waving motion over your cards. In hand-held games, you simply tuck your cards under your chips but without exposing their values.

Doubling down is among the most profitable playing decisions in blackjack but is possible only on starting hands consisting of no more than two cards. It requires you to double your original stake although some casinos allow players to double for less than their initial bet. You receive only one additional card afterward.

Doubling down gives you value in certain situations only, particularly those when the dealer exposes a weak card like a 5 or a 6 and you have a starting total of 10 or 11, for example.

Shoe-game dealers place the extra card perpendicularly to your starting two cards to indicate a double-down and prevent confusion. Their colleagues who deal pitch games (as hand-held blackjack is commonly referred to) indicate double downs by tucking the extra card face down under your chips.

Splitting is only possible when the player is dealt a pair consisting of two cards of equal numerical value (like A-A) although there are variations in splitting rules at blackjack tables around the world. You are again required to post an additional bet that equals your initial wager.

The Fixed Rules for Blackjack Dealers

Blackjack DealersThe dealer is always the last person to act on their hand, which helps the house extract a larger advantage from its blackjack tables. When all players have acted on their hands, the dealer would reveal their hole card and play out their hand according to a fixed set of rules, determined by the casino. There are no decisions on behalf of the dealer whatsoever.

In the majority of cases, blackjack dealers are required to hit their hands until they reach totals of 17 or above. For example, if a dealer flips over a 5 next to a 9, they must hit again because their total is 14. When all players at the table bust, the dealer will simply collect their chips and flip over their hole card without hitting their hand even if its total is under 17.

In some variations, the dealers must hit soft totals of 17 (like 6-A, for example). This rule (abbreviated as H17) gives dealers an additional advantage over players because it allows them to possibly improve their hand with a higher total. To proceed with the 6-A example, the dealer can improve their hand by drawing an A, a 2, a 3, or a 4.

Most Common Blackjack Rule Discrepancies

Blackjack Rule DiscrepanciesUnlike most other table games on the casino floor, blackjack does not have a unified system of rules. Therefore, there are major rule discrepancies at different casinos and even at different blackjack tables within the same establishment.

We already tackled the most common discrepancy you are likely to come across, the one concerning the dealer’s standing rules (H17 as opposed to dealers standing on all totals of 17, or S17). As we explained earlier, S17 is the more favorable of the two rules because the likelihood of the dealer outdrawing you is smaller.

There are differences in the payouts for blackjacks as well. It is of crucial importance to pick and choose only tables where naturals return at a rate of 3 to 2. There are variations of the game where you are paid 6 to 5 which is extremely detrimental to players. In essence, you are offered less money for a natural that occurs only around 4.8% of the hands you play.

To give you an example with actual figures, let’s assume you post a $10 bet and are dealt a natural. If the payout is 3 to 2, you receive $15 on top of your original $10 bet (or 1.5x your stake). A 6-to-5 payout yields net profits of $12 only for an overall return of $22 (or 1.2x your bet). At some tables, players are offered to take even money (1:1) for their blackjacks.

The number of decks also varies between different tables and normally ranges from one to eight decks. The greater the number of decks in play, the higher the house edge gets. Multiple-deck games are more volatile, which means you will experience more significant swings (i.e. winning and losing streaks) than you normally would in a pitch game.

Ask a Question. Get an Answer.

Have a question about this topic? Ask an expert at

Find the answers of questions people asked so far:

Dan Matthew

How do house rules affect the RTP in different blackjack variations?

Asked by: Matthew | Asked on: 2023-05-26
Answered by: Dan | Answered on: 2023-05-29

As blackjack is a game that has quite a few variations, which introduce different house rules, you can expect to encounter blackjack variations with ranging RTPs. This is due to the fact that house rules have a direct effect on the RTP of the game, with certain rules increasing the potential return, while others give the house a bigger advantage. For example, the fewer decks used in the game, the higher the RTP of the game. The dealer standing on soft 17 is better for the potential return, while hitting on all 17s may increase the house edge by 0.22%. Of course, the payout for blackjack also correlates to the RTP of the game, with 3 to 2 payout variants having a higher RTP than 6 to 5 blackjack options. Combining different rules will change the RTP but it is always useful to know which rules are the most advantageous to players.

Dan Vicky

What is the 5-Card Charlie rule in Blackjack and should I choose a game including this rule?

Asked by: Vicky | Asked on: 2023-06-04
Answered by: Dan | Answered on: 2023-06-05

The 5-Card Charlie rule is another special deviation of the blackjack rules you may find incorporated in some online blackjack variants you may find at some virtual casinos. Simply put, if players happen to draw five cards without going over the total of 21 and busting, they will win the game since they will be holding a so-called 5-Card Charlie hand. Keep in mind that this is not a rule that is extremely popular with blackjack variants you can play online as it gives players quite the advantage. If that rule is applied to your blackjack play, you will get a positive impact on the RTP of 1.46%. It is more common to see a similar rule, called 6-Card Charlie, which allows players to win the game if they hold six cards without going bust. Since this is even harder to achieve, the positive impact it has on the RTP is only 0.31%.

Nevertheless, we suggest choosing blackjack variations that incorporate any of these rules as they might give you a bigger advantage. That said, you should also check the rest of the rules as software providers tend to offset players’ advantage by introducing other rules that are more beneficial to the house.

Dan Donald

I heard the term “washing the deck” somewhere. Can you explain what it means and if it is crucial to be done when playing blackjack?

Asked by: Donald | Asked on: 2023-09-11
Answered by: Dan | Answered on: 2023-09-12

If you play blackjack or other card games in a land-based casino, you can sometimes see the dealer perform a “washing of the deck”. This action is required to be done every time the dealer gets new cards. This type of dealer action is done mainly to prove to players that the games will be played fairly and there is nothing unusual about the decks which are about to be used in the play. Washing the deck is a simple move, which requires the dealer to swirl the deck in a circle across the table. This should be performed with open hands and spread fingers so players can see the cards. The cards should be mixed well during the washing as new decks are typically arranged sequentially. Once the cards are “washed” players can be assured that the dealer is not meddling with the deck in any way.