By Henry Tamburin


FACT: Blackjack is your best gamble in a casino.

FACT: The majority of casino players play the slots.

Do you see something wrong here? I do, which is why I asked several of my die-hard, slot-playing friends why they don't play blackjack. In a nutshell their response went something like this:

"I'm afraid of making a playing mistake that will screw up the table and cause players to lose".

OK, being intimidating is a fair reason for not playing blackjack. But how does a wannabe blackjack player overcome this fear? According to a psychologist friend-of-mine, "to overcome someone's fear of doing something you've got to build up their confidence in whatever they are afraid of doing."

Webster's dictionary defines confidence as "a faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper, or effective way".

My task therefore is to build the confidence of all you slots-only players to play blackjack by explaining to you the right and effective way to play. I'm game if you are so let's give it a try.

First, you've got to understand the playing rules. The game is played with one or more decks of cards. Whether a casino uses one or 8 decks is for the moment of no consequence so don't worry about it. In blackjack every card in the 52-card deck counts its face value and you can ignore the suits. Picture cards have a value of 10 and the ace has a value of 11 or 1 (your choice). A blackjack, which is the highest hand, consists of an ace plus any ten value card (10, jack, queen, or king). Blackjacks are special because players win an extra payoff (1.5 times their initial bet). (Note: Some casinos pay only 6 to 5 for a winning blackjack instead of a traditional 3 to 2 payoff. Do not play at any table where the payoff is only 6 to 5).

Next up is to understand the objective of the game. You might think this is trivial but you'd be surprised at how many players believe the objective is to get to as close to 21 as possible. Wrong. The objective is to add up the values of all the cards in your hand and hope that your hand totals higher than the dealer, or you can win if your hand totals 21 or less when the dealer busts. The latter is a term that means a dealer or player's hand has exceeded 21.

Here are some examples of how you win or lose your hand. If your hand totals 19 and the dealer's hand is 17, you win (you get paid 1 to 1). If you have a 16 (or any total under 21) and the dealer busts you also win. If you have 19 and the dealer has 20 you lose. By the way, if you and the dealer have the same total, that's a push or tie and you don't win or lose. So, if you have an 18 and the dealer has an 18, it's a push and you don't lose your initial bet.

Play begins after players make their bets in the betting spot in front of them. If you don't have any casino chips to bet with, just place your money on the layout after a round is over and ask the dealer for chips. The dealer will count your cash and exchange them for casino chips.

After all bets are made, the dealer will deal two cards to each player and one card face up and one face down to himself. Sometimes the dealer will deal the playerÂ’s cards face up and other times face down (and sometimes one card up and the other down). Not to worry because it really doesn't make a difference which way she does it. However, as a general rule, when multiple decks of cards are dealt from a device known as a dealing shoe, the player cards are dealt face up. In single- and double-deck games, player's cards are usually 'pitched' by the dealer face down.

Always remember that when you play blackjack, it's you against the dealer. Don't worry about what cards your fellow players have because that is not what's important. Just focus on your hand and the value of the dealerÂ’s upcard.

Here are two etiquette tips. If the cards are dealt face up, don't touch them. If they are dealt face down it's OK to pick them up but only use one hand to do so and always keep the cards above the table where the dealer can see them. Also, many players believe that when a new player enters a game in the middle of a shoe it may cause them bad luck because the "order of the cards will change". Therefore, either ask the players if they don't mind you joining the game, or better yet, just wait till the shoe is complete before you make your first bet (in some casinos, they will not allows a player to enter a game in the middle of a shoe and their will be a sign on the table stating this).

The one rule that gives the casino its edge over players is the fact that if you bust and the dealer busts, you lose (it is not a push). Keep this in mind as we go through the playing strategy.

Blackjack players have certain playing options available to them to try to improve their hand. By using these options correctly you can significantly reduce the casino's edge. Let's start with hitting and standing and we'll assume a typical 6-deck game dealt from a shoe.

Taking a hit in blackjack means you want the dealer to give you another card. You would normally take a hit when the value of your hand is low. The risk when you hit, however, is that you could bust and automatically lose. You must signal the dealer that you want another card by making a beckoning motion with your finger or scratching it on the felt (this is done for security reasons). When you ask for another card the dealer will give it to you face up. You can ask for as many cards as you want but remember the automatic loss rule if you bust.

If you are satisfied with the total of your hand you should stand. Signal this to the dealer by waving your hand over the cards.

You can double your initial wager in blackjack by one of two ways. The first is known as doubling down and the second is pair splitting. These are very important playing plays so pay attention.

When you want to double down, you match your original bet by placing the equivalent amount of chips next to (not on top) of your original bet (you could "double for less," but this is not a smart strategy). The dealer will give you one and only one more card. Strategically, it's wise to double down when your initial two-card hand totals 11 or 10. You are hoping of course to draw a 10 or picture card for a 20 or 21. Sometime it works and sometimes it doesn't but in the long run you'll win more money by doubling down on these hands compared to hitting (we'll cover the strategy on when to double down in a moment).

If you have a pair (or two like cards) players have the option of splitting them and playing out two hands. Suppose you bet $5 and are dealt a pair of 8's for a 16. You are much better off splitting the 8's and playing two hands starting with 8 then playing the initial hand as a 16. To initiate the pair splitting you would double your bet just like you do when you double down (place the secondary bet next to the initial bet).

Finally, there is this option known as insurance. It's a bad bet for players so I won't even waste anytime explaining the bet. Just do nothing when the dealer asks players if they want to make the insurance bet.

Now that you got the hang of how the game is played, what is left is to give you a quick- and-dirty set of just 8 playing rules that will determine how you play every hand dealt to you. This Simplified Basic Strategy Rules is from the book, Knock-Out Blackjack by Olaf Vencura and Ken Fuchs. By learning these 8 rules, you can expect a 99% payback when you play blackjack which is better than almost any other game you can play in the casino including the slots.

Simplified Basic Strategy Rules

1. Never take insurance

2. Always split a pair of 8's and aces

3. If your two card totals 10 or 11, double down if your total is greater than the

dealer's upcard

4. With 17 or more always stand

5. With 12 through 16, hit against a dealer's upcard of 7 or more, otherwise stand.

6. With 11 or less, always hit (unless doubling).

7. With soft 18 or more always stand.

8. With soft 17 or less always hit.

(Note: You can increase your payback even more by learning the complete basic strategy rules which is slightly more complex then the above simplified basic strategy rules).


Let's try a few hands so you get the hang of how easy this is. Suppose you are dealt a 6, 5 (11) and the dealer's upcard is a 5. By rule # 3 you should double down. Likewise if your hand is 7, 3 (10) and the dealer shows a 9 you would double down. However, if you had a 6, 4 (10) and dealer shows a 10, by rule #3 you would hit (i.e. not double).

If you were dealt a queen and 7 (17) you would stand (rule #4). Likewise, you would also stand if were dealt a 5 and 8 (13) and the dealer shows a 6 (rule #5).

To further bolster your confidence, practice the above strategy by playing blackjack at home with a friend. Keep playing until you can make every play by the rules listed in the table. You can also practice your strategy using any number of blackjack computer software programs.

Once you are ready to take the plunge and make your first bet do one more thing. Jot down the above strategy on an index card and take it with you when you play. Hold the card in your hand (don't lay it on the table) and use it as a sort of "cheat sheet". Don't worry this is perfectly legal.

Now let's go back to the original reason why you won't play blackjack - you are afraid of making a dumb play. Forget it! With the above simplified playing strategy you'll be playing a better game of blackjack then most of your fellow players so stop worrying about nothing!

Repeat after me. "I can learn how to blackjack with the right strategy and I can win". Say it a few times then go for it. Once you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy and fun blackjack really is.


Henry Tamburin is an authority on blackjack. For details on his two-day Golden Touch Blackjack course featuring "Speed Count" call 866/WINBJ-21. To order copies of his books and tapes at 30% discount, visit To receive a free subscription to his Blackjack Insider Newsletter, visit For a free copy of his Casino Gambling Catalog or to schedule him for a speaker or private lessons call 888/353-3234.