How to Master Blackjack in 10 Steps

Expert Blackjack

Blackjack is among the most popular games in any casino. The object of the game is simple: beat the dealer’s hand and get as close to 21 as possible without going over. The simplicity of the goal is why both novice and experienced players enjoy the game.

While the aim is simple, the strategies for the game aren’t. Mastering the game can take years. Even the basics of the game strategy can take a long time to learn.

1 – Learn the Basics

I’ve already mentioned the objective of the game.

But that’s not the only thing you’ll need to know to play the game.

Let’s start with the card values. To make 21, you’ll need to use this point guide:

  • 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10: The points are equal to the face value of the card
  • Jack, Queen, or King: 10 points
  • Ace: Can be either 1 or 11 points

The suits of the cards (hearts, clubs, diamonds, or spades) have no bearing on the game.

When you play in a casino, up to 8 standard 52-card decks can be used for the game. Some casinos may use only one deck (these are rare), but most will use 6 or 8 decks.

Each deck lowers your chances of winning, so finding games with fewer decks are to your advantage. Most casinos play with either 6 or 8 decks.

After the bets are placed, 2 cards are dealt to each player and the dealer. The player’s cards are dealt face up. The dealer’s cards are dealt with 1 card face up, and 1 face down.

If no one gets a natural 21 (an ace plus a card with a 10 point value) each player has the following options:

  • Hit: Request an additional card from the dealer.
  • Stand: Take no additional cards from the dealer, but continue to play.
  • Double Down: Allows you to double your bet – the dealer will deal you 1 additional card, and your turn automatically ends.
  • Surrender: You’ll give up half the bet and quit, ending your
  • Split: If you have two cards of the same rank (for example, 77), you can separate them into 2 different hands. You’ll then have all the above options for both hands. These must be the same rank, even though a queen and a king are the same value, they aren’t the same rank and can’t get split. Some casinos will let you split multiple hands if the new cards dealt are also the same rank. Remember, by splitting, you’re making a new bet on a new hand, so you’re now playing 2 hands—not one hand with twice as much riding on it.
  • Insurance: If the dealers face up card is an ace, you can pay 1/2 of the bet to get insurance against the dealer having a natural blackjack.

The dealer’s options are limited compared to the players. If he has 16 or less, he must hit. If he has 17 or more, he must stand. He can’t split, double down or surrender.

If he goes over 21, or busts as it’s called, he loses. All the players who did not bust win when the dealer busts.

Any player dealt a natural 21 will win automatically unless the dealer is showing an ace. If the 2nd card the dealer shows isn’t valued at 10, then the player wins as a natural blackjack. If the dealer has a card worth 10 points besides his ace, it’s a tie or push, and the wager goes back to the player.

2 – Set a Budget

Any time you gamble, you should set a budget. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of the game and to lose perspective.

Before I set up my budget for a casino excursion to play blackjack, I tend to save up for a bit. I don’t go to a casino to play a few games and leave. If I wanted to do that, I’d play online.

I like to have a minimum of $1,000. That is enough to play for a few hours (at least the way I play) and not feel like I didn’t have enough time at the table.

Whether I show up with $1,000, $5,000, or more, I always cap my betting at that amount. I never bet beyond what I planned.

I never go to the casino with the hopes of making my rent money or car payment for the month. The reason is that I’ve always taken the phrase “don’t bet more than you can afford to lose” to heart.

As should you.

Don’t get caught up in a situation where you convince yourself that the next hand will be the one that you can win it all.

If you’re losing and spent the budgeted amount, cut your losses and try another day. If you’re winning a lot and have built up a nice bankroll, know when to call it a day and enjoy the winnings.

3 – Know the Terminology

In gambling, each game has its unique terms and slang. For instance, in Texas hold ‘em you’ll hear terms like flop, turn, and river. In craps, you have terms like point, snake eyes, and shooter.

The same is true in blackjack.

It’s important to understand the language of the game.

After all, how can you master blackjack if you don’t know what the players are talking about?

I’ve already brought up the types of bets you can make. But beyond that, terms that you’ll need to know include:

  • 5-card Charlie: A bonus or automatic win in some games when a hand contains five cards without busting. When a player receives 5 cards without busting. In some games, this is an automatic win.
  • Bust card: The card that’s dealt that puts the total of the hand over 21.
  • Bust: Having a card total over 21
  • First base: The betting spot located to the dealer’s left, which is first to both receive cards and acts.
  • Hard hand: A hand that doesn’t contain an ace is called a hard hand. Every card in the deck other than the ace has a set value. Since the value won’t change, it’s “hard.”
  • Hit: To ask for another card.
  • Hole card: The dealer card that’s dealt face down and not shown to players until after they have acted upon their hands
  • Natural: A sum of 21 (blackjack) in the first two cards dealt.
  • Pairs: 2 cards of the same rank are considered a pair.
  • Push (Tie): When the player and dealer have hands with the same total.
  • Shoe: A device used to hold the decks of cards. Usually, this will contain up to 8 decks in casino play.
  • Soft hand: A hand that contains an ace and any other card is called a soft hand. An ace can be played high or low, so it’s worth a 1 or and 11, so its value is “soft” or changeable.
  • Stiff: Any hard hand where the possibility bust exists by drawing an additional card namely 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16. (A 17 or higher isn’t a stiff hand because you’ll always stand on it.)
  • Third base: The betting spot located on the dealer’s right which is last to act.
  • Upcard: The face-up card that the dealer is showing.

4 – Know the Variations of Blackjack

The most common game of blackjack is classic blackjack. The descriptions of the game and the rules that I mentioned here are for classic blackjack.

But that doesn’t mean other variations don’t exist. On the contrary, many variations exist at casinos around the world.

Among the more popular variations are:

  • Blackjack Switch
  • Double Exposure Blackjack
  • Pontoon
  • Progressive Blackjack
  • Spanish 21
  • Super Fun 21

Each of these has its own rules and strategies.

Blackjack Switch is a variation where each player gets dealt two hands rather than one. The player is initially allowed to exchange or switch the top 2 cards between hands. Natural blackjacks are paid even money instead of the standard 3 to 2. A dealer hard 22 pushes all player hands except a natural blackjack.

Double Exposure Blackjack is a variation in which the dealer receives 2 cards face-up in the initial deal. In this game, the house edge for a natural blackjack is reduced from 3 to 2 to even money. Players lose their bets when their hands tied with the dealer. Also, with both dealers’ cards exposed at the outset, players cannot buy insurance or surrender their hand.

Pontoon (or British pontoon) gets played with a single 52-card deck. Pontoon uses the terms “twist” (hit), “stick” (stand), and “buy” (double the bet, not to be confused with doubling down). It has a different set of rules. The rules for buying in pontoon include allowing the player to buy on any hand of 2 to 4 cards and allowing the player to twist after he buys.

Another version of Pontoon is popular in Asia and uses a customized deck of cards. This version is also known as Treasury 21, Jupiters 21, Paradise Pontoon, and Federal Pontoon.

Progressive Blackjack is a version of the game that adds a side bet. A specific card rank triggers the side bet payouts in the deck. The most common cards themes are either 7s or aces, but it can be any card the casino chooses.

The payouts can be for a single card, pair, trips, or 4 of a kind, of the same or mixed suits. The progressive jackpot grows over time until someone hits it.

Spanish 21 gets played with 6 decks of 48 cards. In this variation, all the 10’s are removed from the deck. Jacks, queens, and kings remain in the deck and keep the same value of 10 points.

Unlike other blackjack variations, ties are awarded to the player. So a blackjack by the player always wins.

The options of splitting, hitting or standing work the same as normal blackjack, but, if you’re dealt 2 aces, you can hit as much as you like. Pairs of aces can split up to 4 times. A player can double down after the second or later cards.

Super Fun 21 gets played with 1 standard deck of cards. Players have the option of being able to split a hand up to 4 times. They can double down at any time, and they win automatically if dealt 6 cards or more totaling 20. This is the case even if the dealer has blackjack. Also, if a player gets a hand of 5 or more cards totaling 21, he doubles his winnings.

5 – Learn Basic Strategy

For every hand dealt, there’s a right way and a wrong way to proceed.

While many different strategies are available, it’s best to start with something simple. When I play, I have certain rules that I follow.

For soft hands:

  • If my total is 19 or higher, I stand.
  • If my total is 18, I stand if the dealer is showing a 7, 8, 9, 10, jack, queen, or king, I hit if the dealer’s face-up card is showing a 2, 3, or 4.
  • If my total is 17 or lower, you I hit unless my total is 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 or 18 and the dealer’s face up card is a 5 or a 6. In this case. I double down.

For hard hands:

  • I stand on 17 or higher.
  • I hit on 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 if the dealer is showing 7 or higher. If the dealer is showing 2 through 6, I stand.
  • I double down if the dealer is showing any card 2 through 9 if I have cards valued at 10 or 11.
  • I hit if my cards total 9 or lower.

If I have a pair, then that becomes an exception to my strategy. When I have a pair, I use the following strategy:

  • I never split a pair of 4’s, 5’s or cards valued at 10.
  • I always split when I have a pair of Aces or a pair of 8’s.
  • I always split any pairs of 2’s, 3’s, 6’s 7’s or 9’s if the dealer is showing a 4, 5, or 6.

If the dealer is showing a 9, J, Q, K, or A, and I have 16, I surrender.

With this strategy, I reduce the house edge to about 1%.

Other basic strategies are even better.

But before trying to learn advanced strategies, it’s best to learn the basics.

6 – Know the Table Rules

No laws exist that say a casino must play a game a certain way or offer payouts in a certain manner. Because of this, you’ll need to research the casino you wish to play at to know the specifics.

One example is the odds. Casinos traditionally pay 3 to 2 odds for a blackjack.

But some casinos are now paying 6 to 5 odds for a blackjack.

Casinos may use anywhere from 1 to 8 decks in a game. They do this to throw off card counters. The house edge increases for each deck used in the game.

Most games of blackjack require the dealer to stop at 17, even if this means the dealer loses. But some casinos allow the dealer to hit on a soft 17.

Knowing these rules ahead of time can save you a lot of aggravation.

7 – Insurance Is a Sucker Bet

Making sure you minimize loss seems like a good idea.

That isn’t the case in blackjack.

Insurance is available after all the initial cards get dealt, and the dealer has an ace showing. To get insurance, you wager 1/2 of your original bet.

If the dealer has a natural, you win 2 to 1 odds – so you break even.

If the dealer doesn’t have blackjack, you lose the insurance bet.

A lot of times, there is a tendency to take this bet if you have a total of 20.

But, keep in mind, you already have 2 cards that the dealer needs to make blackjack.

The other players likely have cards the dealer needs too. So it’s better to stand your ground and not take the insurance. Remember, the dealer will only have blackjack about 30% of the time.

8 – Learn to Count Cards

Card counting is a skill where a player learns to determine whether the next hand is going to give the advantage to the player or the dealer.

By counting cards, the player decreases the house edge by keeping a running tally on the value of the visible cards dealt, both high and low.

When you learn to count cards, you give yourself the ability to bet more and risk less. You risk less because the tally of the count lets you know who the likely winner of the hand is.

There are several systems you can use to count cards, and many of them work similarly.

For each card played a value of -2, -1, 0, 1, or 2 gets assigned to each card. You add the totals in your head while playing.

There are no laws that prevent card counting in the United Kingdom or the United States. That doesn’t mean a casino can’t throw you out for doing so. The exception is New Jersey, where casinos are forbidden from barring card counters as a result of a 1979 New Jersey Supreme Court decision.

9 – Learn About Side Bets

Because blackjack has a low house edge, casinos look for a way to increase the money they can make from the game.

One way they do this is to offer side bets.

Side bets are separate from regular gameplay. One side bet that I’ve already mentioned is insurance.

But there are others.

These include:

21+3: This side bet pays off based on the first 2 cards you’re dealt and the dealer’s upcard. If the 3 cards form a flush, straight, 3-of-a-kind, or straight flush, you win.

Royal Match: This side bet pays if your first two dealt cards are suited. The payoff is 5 to 2. If you have suited king and queen, the payout is increased to 25 to 1. Also, you receive a 5 to 1 payoff for a suited blackjack.

Over/Under 13: As the names say you are betting on your total to be over or under 13. If you get a 13, you lose. In this bet, and ace is low.

Super 7s: The goal here is for 7s. 1 7 pays 3 to 1. If the first 2 cards are 7s you get 50 to 1 for unsuited, 100 to 1 for suited. If you get 3 7s, you get 500 to 1 unsuited, 5,000 to 1 suited. The bet is limited to $1, so the most you can win is $5,000.

10 – Practice

No one becomes a master without practice. If you want to hone your skills, you must practice on a consistent basis.

When I started playing blackjack, I practiced every day. I started by going to free play online casinos. I spent hours learning the gameplay and trying out new strategies so I could build my confidence.

Eventually, I felt confident enough to try my hand a real money online casino. I played for small stakes as I knew I’d be losing for a while.

I also started playing with friends for money. It helped to get live reactions and that human equation into my game.

After about a year of doing this, it was time to venture to a real brick and mortar casino. I still remember walking in with $2,000. I played for several hours and got some great comps after losing all my money.

But I kept playing, and I kept practicing, and now, a lot of times, I leave with more money than I came with.

Practice until you master it.


Blackjack is a fun game. I like it because of the simple objective. Get 21.

But if you want to do well in the game, you need to prepare.

Take time to study the rules of the game. Look for strategies to help you shift the edge towards you.

Not every blackjack game is the same. There are over 100 variants of the game, and the rules differ on each one. I touched on some of the more popular ones, but there are many more that are available. So once again educate yourself on what you are playing and the rules of the game.

Most of all this isn’t a pathway to riches. Like any game, it’s meant to be fun.

Petko Stoyanov
Get in touch with Petko
About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.