How to Deal and Play Blackjack

By James Holloway
The earliest reference, the game, the early 17th century
Евгений Скрипко/iStock/Getty Images

Tense and strategic but simple enough to understand easily, blackjack, also known as twenty-one, is one of the most popular casino card games. Players play against the dealer rather than each other, trying to beat the dealer's hand without going over the target number of 21. Any number of people can play, but two to eight is normal.

Setting Up for Play

A game of blackjack requires a deck of cards and a table with seating for the players, as well as chips or another way to keep track of bets. Most games use a "shoe" containing six or more decks of cards. The players sit opposite the dealer, with space for their cards and bets in front of them. Casino blackjack tables are curved, with players seated around a standing dealer, but any layout can work. In blackjack, number cards are worth their face value, while face cards are worth 10 points. Aces are worth either one or 11 points; the player gets to choose which.

Starting the Game

Before the game begins, each player lays down their bet. At a casino, the minimum bet will be specified, while in a friendly game the players should agree on bets. The dealer deals one card face-up to each player and one card face-up to herself. The dealer then deals a second face-up card to each player; however, the dealer's second card is face-down. If any player's face-up cards consist of an ace and a 10-point card -- a face card or a 10 -- that player automatically wins his bet plus an extra 50 percent. If the dealer has a hand of this type, all players lose their bets and the game starts over.

Player Turns

Each player then chooses in turn what to do. He may choose to take no cards -- to "stand" or "stick" -- or to "hit" and take an additional card. Players can also choose to double down; when doubling down, a player makes a second bet on condition that he will take only one more card. A player who received two cards of the same value can also choose to split them into two new hands. The dealer plays last, but is bound by restrictions; she must stand if her hand totals 17 or higher and hit if it doesn't.

Determining the Winner

Play continues around the table until each player "busts" by exceeding 21 or decides to stand. Once all remaining players have chosen to stand, the dealer reveals her cards. Each player whose hand total exceeds the dealer's wins an amount equal to his starting bet; if the dealer's total is higher, the player loses his bet.

Rules Variations

Although the core principle of blackjack is always the same -- to try to reach 21 without going over -- rules in individual games can vary. For instance, in some games the dealer must stand on a "soft 17" -- an ace and a six -- while at other tables the dealer must hit on this hand. In some cases, especially if only one deck is in use, players may also receive their cards face-down.

About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.