In this, the most popular casino card game, the dealer starts by dealing each player two cards. In some casinos, they’re dealt to the player face up, in others face down, but the dealer always gets one card up and one card down. Everybody plays against the dealer. The object is to get a total that is higher than that of the dealer without exceeding 21. All face cards count as 10; all other number cards, except aces, are counted at their face value. An ace may be counted as 1 or 11, whichever you choose it to be.

Starting at her left, the dealer gives additional cards to the players who wish to draw (be “hit”) or none to a player who wishes to “stand” or “hold.” If your count is nearer to 21 than the dealer’s, you win. If it’s under the dealer’s, you lose. Ties are a “push” (standoff) and nobody wins. After all the players are satisfied with their counts, the dealer exposes her face-down card. If her two cards total 16 or less, the dealer must hit until reaching 17 or over. If the dealer’s total exceeds 21, she must pay all the players whose hands have not gone “bust.” It is important to note here that the blackjack dealer has no choice as to whether she should stay or draw. A dealer’s decisions are predetermined and known to all the players at the table.

If you’re a novice or just rusty, do yourself a favor and buy one of the small laminated cards available in shops all over town that illustrate proper play for every possible hand in blackjack. Even longtime players have been known to pull them out, and they can save you from making costly errors.

How to Play

Here are eight "rules" for blackjack:

1. Place the number of chips that you want to bet on the betting space on your table.

2. Look at the first two cards the dealer gives you. If you wish to "stand," then wave your hand over your cards, palm down (watch your fellow players), indicating that you don't wish any additional cards. If you elect to draw an additional card, you tell the dealer to "hit" you by tapping the table with a finger. (Watch your fellow players.)

3. If your count goes over 21, you are "bust" and lose, even if the dealer also goes "bust" afterward.

4. If you make 21 in your first two cards (any picture card or 10 with an ace), you've got blackjack. The payout for this used to be 3:2, meaning if you bet $5 you'd win an additional $7.50. In some casinos it still is, but more and more have switched to a 6:5 payout for blackjacks, meaning they are only going to pay you $6 on your $5 bet. This has caused no small amount of outrage among the blackjack faithful, and if you're one of them, you can still find 3:2 tables -- you just have to look a little harder for them.

5. If you find a "pair" in your first two cards (say, two 8s or two aces), you may "split" the pair into two hands and treat each card as the first card dealt in two separate hands. You will need to place an additional bet, equal to your original bet, on the table. The dealer will then deal you a new second card to the first split card, and play commences as described above. This will be done for the second split card as well. Note: When you split aces, you will receive only one additional card per ace and must "stand."

6. After seeing your two starting cards, you have the option to "double down." You place an amount equal to your original bet on the table and you receive only one more card. Doubling down is a strategy to capitalize on a potentially strong hand against the dealer's weaker hand. Tip: You may double down for less than your original bet, but never for more.

7. Anytime the dealer deals himself or herself an ace for the "up" card, you may insure your hand against the possibility that the hole card is a 10 or face card, which would give him or her an automatic blackjack. To insure, you place an amount up to one-half of your bet on the "insurance" line. If the dealer does have a blackjack, you get paid 2 to 1 on the insurance money while losing your original bet: You break even. If the dealer does not have a blackjack, he or she takes your insurance money and play continues in the normal fashion.

8. The dealer must stand on 17 or more and must hit a hand of 16 or less.

Look, but Don't Touch!

1. Never touch your cards (or anyone else's), unless it's specifically stated at the table that you may. While you'll receive only a verbal slap on the wrist if you violate this rule, you really don't want to get one.

2. Players must use hand signals to indicate their wishes to the dealer. All verbal directions by players will be politely ignored by the dealer, who will remind players to use hand signals. The reason for this is the "eye in the sky," the casino's security system, which focuses an "eye" on every table and must record players' decisions to avoid accusations of misconduct or collusion.

Professional Tips

Advice of the experts in playing blackjack is as follows:

1. Do not ask for an extra card if you have a count of 17 or higher, ever.

2. Do not ask for an extra card when you have a total of 12 or more if the dealer has a 2 through 6 showing in his or her "up" card.

3. Ask for an extra card or more when you have a count of 12 through 16 in your hand if the dealer's "up" card is a 7, 8, 9, 10, or ace.

There's a lot more to blackjack strategy than the above, of course. So consider this merely as the bare bones of the game. Blackjack is played with a single deck or with multiple decks; if you're looking for a single-deck game, your best bet is to head to a Downtown casino.

A final tip: Avoid insurance bets; they're sucker bait!

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.