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Las Vegas Blackjack 101 (Part 2) – Game Description

Learn the basics of Blackjack course of play in the second part of our series.

Learn the basics of Blackjack course of play in the second part of our series.

This second and subsequent third entries in this series regarding Las Vegas blackjack play for beginners focuses on basic game description. This series concerns only the traditional game of “21” with 3:2 payoffs for player naturals. There are a number of variant blackjack games such as Switch, Spanish 21, and Super Fun 21. Strategies for these offshoot games are all at least partially different than traditional basic strategy approaches for the standard game.

Game Objective:

We’ll begin this traditional blackjack game description with the primary objective of the game, which is to beat the dealer. Despite all other inferences from the drunk sitting next to you, friends, relatives, or players club brochures, players win hands / rounds by beating the dealer…period. An often heard game objective is “get as close to 21 as you can without exceeding it (busting)”. Though in the course of play that is often true, it is not the objective. For example, when applying accurate basic strategy play a number of player hands win with ‘stiffs’ (card totals of 12 through 16) when the dealer busts.

Card Values :

Card values in blackjack are face value for cards 2 through 10 while all face cards (jacks, queens, and kings) count 10 points each. Aces count as either 1 or 11 according to player choice. Any hand in which an ace can be counted as an 11 without busting (exceeding 21 total points for the combined hand) is called a soft hand. For example, an A – 6 hand combination may be counted as 7 or as soft 17. A player who rightfully elects to hit that soft seventeen and subsequently receives a ten-value card now holds a hard 17. Hard hands are simply card totals that don’t contain an ace counted as 11 points. Card totals are simply added up according to these assigned values.

Any initial two-card hand consisting of an ace and any ten-valued card is called a blackjack (or a natural) and is an automatic winner (player 3:2 payoff, 1.5 times the original bet) unless the dealer also has blackjack. In that case the hands tie or push, which describes any situation where the card totals of the dealer and player are the same (no money changes hands). No other multi-card total of 21 is considered a blackjack for either players or dealers, and players do not receive 3:2 payoffs for other 21 totals.

The suits (spades, hearts, diamonds, or clubs) don’t matter in a traditional blackjack game. These days there are numerous side bets at many Vegas casinos that include bonus payouts for suited pairs and card combinations of all sorts. Most of these side bets are sucker bets for basic strategy players, and generally is a means for the casinos to get deeper into the player’s wallets. Almost all will decrease player expectation from blackjack play. Rarely, a Vegas casino may offer an in-house short term promotion involving bonus payouts for suited blackjacks. Such a promotion is worthwhile provided players don’t have to make side bets to receive the bonus payouts.

Blackjack Game Table Layout:

Blackjack is played at a half-oval/ semicircular table that usually has 5 to 7 player spots.The dealer does his / her thing from the flat backside of the table. Each player has a marked betting area (small rectangular or circular spots on the table felt). Dealers always dispense cards from their left to right while facing players, with the player seated to the immediate left of the dealer designated as first base. The last player to receive cards is usually at the dealer’s extreme right and is designated as third base.

Most tables usually have signs posted on the left hand side that depict table minimum and maximum bet levels per hand. Currently, Las Vegas per hand minimums range from $1 (Gold Spike and Fiesta Rancho casinos) to $5000 (Caesars Palace). Table maximum bets per hand range from $25 (Gold Spike) to $50,000 (Caesars Palace). More common minimums range within $5 – $25 per hand.

Other table signs that are often posted on table felts per se include the dealers rules regarding standing (S17) or hitting (H17) soft seventeen based on their card count totals. It is preferable for players to play at tables where the rule requires dealers to stand on soft 17, but there are scarce numbers of these games available in Las Vegas currently (particularly at lower-end table minimums). Always look for 3:2 payoff tables (normally posted on table felt play areas). The ubiquitous “Insurance pays 2 to 1” is also routinely posted on table felts, and is a side bet that all the casinos want players to see and make. Insurance bets should never be made by any blackjack player who isn’t a seasoned card counter. Most players will never have the correct info to make this bet which, mathematically, is the wrong play 70% of the time.

Other table features include a card dispensing shoe at multi-deck games, a discard rack where dealers accumulate recently played cards, and a drop box where dealers place buy-in cash, refill count tickets, coupons, and assorted other items.

Many of the current Vegas casinos dispense cards for multi-deck games from continuous-shuffling-machines (CSM’s) and cards are shuffled with automatic shufflers as opposed to traditional dealer hand shuffles. The casinos began use of these two mechanical devices years ago to speed up play and thereby enhance their revenues by an estimated 15-20%. Since we are proponents of playing blackjack games for comps ( which is enhanced with slower game speed), we advise against playing tables where these devices are in use when possible. There are few blackjack games remaining in Las Vegas that involve both the traditional dispensing shoes and hand shuffles these days. For players interested in learning card counting at some future point, tables with CSM’s are useless for application of the technique.

Hand-Dealt ‘Pitch’ Games vs Multi-Deck Games:

Single and double-deck games are hand-dealt or “pitch” games that normally involve dealing of the player’s first two cards face-down. Players are allowed to touch and pick up cards using only one hand in face-down pitch games. Multi-deck shoe or CSM games generally involve dealing of cards face-up and players are not allowed to touch their cards at all. Generally, most Las Vegas casino multi-deck games involve use of either 6 or 8 decks.

We recommend multi-deck, face-up games for blackjack beginners because they are a little easier to play and learn the game initially. Since all cards are dealt face-up in these type games, beginning players can obtain dealer ( or other player’s) assistance with playing questions and decisions. After some seasoning and if desired, players can elect to play single deck (as long as they offer 3:2 payoffs only) or double-deck pitch games, both of which offer more player-favorable odds than multi-deckers as mentioned earlier.


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