How To Play Black Jack

Black jack, also known as Twenty One, is a card game based on the point values of every card in a standard deck. The player closest to 21 points wins the hand. Here's how to play.

Black jack, also known as Twenty One, is a very popular card game because of its quick play, relatively simple rules and straightforward betting options. Unlike poker, black jack players do not have to concern themselves with the hands of other players. The only relationship which matters is between the dealer (representing the House) and the individual player. There are no tedious rounds of raising, calling and folding, so many hands of black jack can be played in an hour.

Black jack is played with a standard deck of 52 cards with no wild cards or jokers. Some casinos may use upwards of 6 decks of cards in a dealing device known as a 'shoe', but others use a single deck and either reshuffle or replace it regularly during a shift. If a multi-deck shoe is used, a marker may be inserted to designate the point of reshuffling or replacement. Mathematically speaking, either a single or multiple deck shoe will yield the same results, but professional players develop their own preferences. Card counters who secretly keep track of higher point cards prefer single decks for easier counting, but card counting in black jack is highly discouraged.

To play black jack, it is important to understand the main objective of the game. Each card in the deck represents an equivalent number of points, with a few notable exceptions we'll discuss in a minute. Suits do not matter in black jack. A three of hearts is worth 3 points, while an eight of diamonds is worth 8 points and so on. All cards between two and ten are worth exactly their face value in points. Face cards such as Jacks, Queens and Kings are also worth ten points. The Aces are worth either one point or 11, depending on which value aids the player most. An Ace valued at 11 points can later be valued at 1 point if the player deems it necessary.

Each player and the dealer receive two cards during the first round. The player's cards are usually dealt face down for privacy, but this is not strictly necessary for play. The dealer has one card in plain view (the up card) and one card face down (the down or hole card). The dealer does not evaluate his cards during the first round, but the players add up their points to determine their next move. If an Ace and a ten-valued card appear in the first round, the player declares a 'black jack' and can turn over his cards. If a player has a total under 21 points, however, he may ask the dealer to give him another card. This is called a 'hit', and in professional play is demonstrated with a scratching motion on the table.

If a player's first hand is very close to 21, he may decide not to take another card. This is called a 'stand' and in a professional setting looks like a waving motion. The player cannot change his mind once he decides to stand. He is betting that the House's hand will be lower than his or the dealer will get a high point card which will cause him to bust. A tie is called a 'push' in black jack, and is signaled by the dealer pushing his upturned forefinger and middle finger back and forth. All bets are returned in the event of a push.

This brings up the betting element of black jack. Black jack is generally a break-even game, with a slight advantage to the House over time. Black jack tables in casinos have minimal betting amounts posted. Most amateur black jack players use the minimal betting amount as their standard opening bet per hand. Before the dealer begins the round, each player must place a bet inside a designated ring in front of them. The dealer deals two cards to every player at the table and himself. The dealer's first card is turned over so all players can see its value. The dealer's second card is kept face down, unless the combination is an instant 21 or black jack. The House wins all of the bets at this point and the round is over.

If the dealer did not get black jack, then the points of the individual player become vital. If the player has a very low point hand (under 14 or so), it is probably in his or her best interest to take a hit. The dealer gives the player another card and the points are added up again. If the total is over 21, the player loses his bet and is out of the round. If the total is very close to 21, he may decide to stand. If the total is still low, another hit may be taken. Once the player is satisfied or has gone bust, play resumes with the other players. Once all decisions have been made and the players have stood on their hands, the dealer reveals the value of the hole or down card.

From here the dealer is required to take certain actions, unlike the players. A dealer must take a hit if his original total is under 17. Some casinos allow for a 'soft 17' with an Ace and six, but in general dealers must stand on hands 17 points or more. If the dealer hits on a hand below 17 and busts, the players who remain in the game win double their initial bet. If the dealer has a hand between 17 and 21, then players who stood on lower hands lose their bets. Those who tied the dealer receive a push and get their initial bets back. Any player with a higher hand than the house receives double their initial bets.

This is not the end of a player's betting options, however. If a player receives an identical pair of cards, such as two 8's or two Aces, he may decide to 'split' the pairs into two new hands. A similar bet must be placed in a designated area (generally outside the ring) and the player plays both hands himself, hitting or standing accordingly. One hand may bust, but only one bet is lost. The other hand is still in play and will be compared to the dealer's final hand. If both hands beat the dealer's total or the dealer busts, then both bets are doubled. Splitting a hand is a risky maneuver, but if the pairs are high (8, 9, 10 or face cards) and the deck is rich with Aces and ten point cards, then the player benefits. Splitting is never required with pairs, especially if those pairs add up to 20 points, but you must have a pair to split.

Another betting option is called 'doubling down'. If the player's initial cards add up to 9, 10 or 11, he can place another bet next to his first one in the ring. The caveat is that he can only take one more hit and must live with the circumstances. If the player wins the round, both of his bets are doubled. The danger of doubling down lies in the possibility of a low hit card. Since the highest possible card values are 10 or 11, a player with up to 11 points in his initial hand cannot bust on a hit. Ideally, the new card will be an Ace or ten point card. Standing on a total of 14 in black jack is considered weak. Experienced players dread initial hands between 12 and 16 because they are too high for a hit and too low to stand.

Some black jack tables offer yet another betting option called 'insurance'. If the dealer's up card is an Ace, he may offer a side bet to players to guard against the House having black jack. Few experienced players take insurance bets, but if the House does indeed have a ten value card hidden, then the player would lose anyway. Insurance bets allow players to recoup some of their money lost to a dealer's black jack hand. If the House doesn't have black jack, the player loses the side insurance bet, but may still win the initial bet.

Casual black jack players may want to forego the betting side of the game and simply play for fun or keep track of the most hands won by a single player. A good way to learn the strategies of black jack is to invest in a reference book or a computer program featuring simulated black jack games. Many beginning players use a standard betting chart available in almost every casino. This chart will offer advice on hitting, standing, doubling down or splitting any hand you hold. Simply find your point total on the chart and compare it to the House's up card. The chart will give you the best option for all possible combinations. This chart won't make you rich from black jack, but it will take some of the guesswork out of difficult hands.

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