In Las Vegas, no game has brought more excitement to players and more fear to casino owners than blackjack. How can that be? It seems like such a simple game. Easy to play, win or lose.
But the game of “21” is the only house-backed casino game in the world that can be beaten by the players.
Of course, playing is easy; winning is hard.
Players like the game because it is easy to learn. Each player and the dealer get two cards. Just get closer to 21 than the dealer, without going over, and you win. Seems simple enough, but the dealer has a big advantage.
They go last. If you bust first, they win. Ah, that’s where strategy comes in.
Blackjack was a mainstay of saloons and gambling halls in Nevada mining camps from Aurora to Virginia City as far back as the 1870s. All it took to play was a standard deck of 52 cards and some chips, cash, or gold dust.
Back then, all winning hands paid even money. The 3 for 2 payoffs for a natural “21” didn’t come about until later.
When gambling was legalized in 1931, Las Vegas saloons offered visitors a few slot machines, craps, roulette, faro bank, and blackjack. Between 1931 and 1967, craps was the most popular table game and provided the most income for casinos. But then things changed.
In the early ‘60s, a mathematics professor at MIT improved on the basic knowledge about blackjack with the help of an IBM mainframe computer and used his card-counting system to make money in the casinos of Nevada.
He was so positive about his system that he convinced a small publisher to print his book, Beat the Dealer. The hardcover edition came out in 1962. At first, nobody noticed, but then something happened. Blackjack got popular. Real popular, and casino bosses were thrilled.
By the following year, the bosses were scared to death. They had read Dr. Edward O. Thorp’s book, and there were thousands of new players hitting the blackjack tables. Articles about the book hit newspapers, the professor became a bestselling author, and Beat the Dealer came out in paperback.
To keep from being overrun by card counters and forced out of business, casino managers changed the rules of blackjack. The most important change was taking away the splitting of aces, which caused players to complain.
Some refused to play. Overall, the change lasted less than two weeks, as those same managers realized they had gotten carried away.
Over the next year, while blackjack play remained hot and heavy, the casinos found that the number of winning card counters in Las Vegas was very small. The system was too tough!
Once the dust settled, blackjack was the most popular game in Las Vegas, and the most profitable.
Players still lost. Perhaps a little less, but there were a lot more people playing. It was the perfect situation for Las Vegas.
Pit bosses were trained to spot the few players who could beat blackjack. Those players were asked to leave. By that time, Professor Thorp was teaching mathematics at UC Irvine and writing a book on beating the stock market.
Since that time, he has achieved a phenomenal return of over 20% annually on his stock portfolio. The man is a genius.
Today, you can learn a blackjack card counting system, play small stakes, and beat the game with impunity. You won’t draw much heat if your bets stay low. That’s fine for most card counters. And you don’t have to count cards to do well and enjoy blackjack!
For most players, blackjack is the perfect mix of skill and luck. If you don’t hit your hands of 12 or higher when the dealer’s up card is 2 through 6, and learn a little basic strategy about when to double down and split pairs, you’ll do fine.
And blackjack is a social game. With as many as six other players at your table, you’ll get plenty of advice on how to play. Just remember, the other players might not know any more than you do about blackjack.
Don’t be intimidated. The game is pretty easy to understand. It’s played with a deck — or most likely six decks dealt from a shoe — of 52 cards. No jokers or wildcards are used. Cards count as their pip value. A five is five; a nine is nine, etc.
Tens and face cards are always ten. Aces can be one or eleven. If your first two cards are an ace and a ten, you’ve got blackjack. That pays 3 for 2 if the dealer doesn’t also have a blackjack. If they do, it’s a push, and no money changes hands. All other winning hands pay even money.
You win any time your card total is higher than the dealer’s without going over 21. If you take a card (hit) and go over 21, you bust, and you lose. But when should you hit? That’s the tough part.
In a nutshell, if the dealer’s up card is 7 through ace, hit until you get at least 17. If the dealer’s up card is small, a 2 through 6, stop hitting when you get a hard 12. Let the dealer take the chance of busting!
An example of a hard 12 is 7-5. You have a soft hand when you hold an ace, and it can be used as a 1 or 11. An example of another hard hand is ace-7-5, which totals 13. If you hold just ace-5, your hand is a six or a soft 16, meaning you could take a 10-value card and then have a hard 16.
In Las Vegas, you will find that the rules are slightly different at each casino, usually dependent on whether they are downtown or on The Strip. The difference is whether the dealer must hit a soft 17 or stand.
Don’t worry about it. The thing you want to avoid is a game where a player blackjack pays only 6 to 5 instead of the usual 3 for 2. Avoid the 6-5 game like the plague.
Las Vegas casinos allow players to split pairs and double down on any first two cards. To make it easy, always double down on 10 or 11, except against a dealers’ up card of 10 or ace. And always split aces and eights. If you can resplit aces, do it.
To make the rules simple, when the dealer shows a 2 through 6, split your 2s through 9s. You can also split 9s against a dealer 7 or 9. Don’t split anything against a dealer up card of 8, 10, or ace, except your own 8s and aces. Never split 10s.
Are those enough rules to follow? Probably, for a new player. And if you just do these few things, the house edge will be lower than 2%. That’s a lot better than the slots, so enjoy yourself.
You can expect a lot of fun at the blackjack tables in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that most people are there to have fun, but if you are new at the game, you probably don’t want to start in the high limit room!
And the table minimums are higher (often at least $25) at clubs on The Strip like Wynn, Bellagio, Venetian, and Mirage.
Clubs on The Strip with lower limit tables include Bally’s, Flamingo, Paris, TI, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, Circus Circus, New York New York, and Tropicana. You’ll also find lower limits at most casinos in the downtown area and off Las Vegas Boulevard.
Locals casinos like Boulder Station, Texas Station, Arizona Charlies, and The Orleans often have $5 games. Watch out for 6-5 blackjack payouts, though!
If you smile and say hello to the dealer as you choose a seat, you’ll get a smile back. Put your cash between two betting circles, and the dealer will make change for you.
They are asking if you want all $5 chips for a $100 bill. Or do you want some $25 chips? That’s the question. Stick with the nickels.
And you might even want some $1 chips, so you can tip the cocktail waitress when she brings you a free drink! Remember, your wager goes in the betting circle. Otherwise, you don’t get cards. If you want to bet for the dealer, place one of those $1 chips half-way over the top of your betting circle.
How much you tip is up to you. A $1 chip wager for the dealer on a $5 or $10 minimum table is nice a few times each hour. Tip more if you are having a good time, win or lose.
As for your wagers, bet what you can afford! If you brought a couple hundred with you for the afternoon, you’d better stick to $5 bets most of the time. Don’t bet more when you are losing. Bet more when you are winning!
The best sessions of blackjack happen when you least expect them. To capitalize on the times you win more hands than the dealer, double your base wager after a couple winning hands and continue to bet slightly more as the winning streak continues.
After you lose a hand, get back to the basement bet and stay there until you start winning again.
Keep in mind that the casinos are open 24 hours, so play when you’re rested and happy. Playing when you are tired, drunk, or just stupid is going to be expensive. Why do it? Instead, go to dinner, catch a show, or just hang out at the pool. It’ll be a lot cheaper.
And what about when you are already playing? The best thing to do is set a daily loss limit. Don’t blow all your cash in one session.
That’s going to make you cry. Don’t think “I have to get that money back,” because that’s a ticket to hell. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200. Take a break instead.
On the other hand, if the game is fun, and you aren’t toasted from free cocktails, keep playing. No one knows when a streak will start or end, so don’t be afraid to keep pushing your bets a little higher during a good streak of cards. Make hay in the sunshine while you can.
Just keep in mind, there isn’t a better feeling than leaving a table, or even Las Vegas, a winner.
You can always play later, right?
You don’t want to cap your winnings, but a stop-gap is a good idea. Suppose you start with $200, and after a while, you’ve got $300 in front of you. Set your stop-gap at $250. And reset every $100. If you get back down to $250, quit.
If you get up to $400, you reset to perhaps $300 as your stopping point.
A stop-gap gives you a chance to keep playing but still quit a winner. Try it; you’ll like it. And you’ll get to find out where the cashier’s cage is. That’s where the money is, and it’s magical. Enjoy!