Blackjack Cards and Values

One of the first things you will need to learn in blackjack is how to value the cards and the odds you’ll be facing in certain scenarios. Card values are pretty straightforward, but calculating the different odds you will encounter, and how the dealer’s up card plays into each decision, is where things get a little more complicated.

Playing by the Book

Unlike most games of chance, there is a very simple decision-making process a player can follow in blackjack. It is usually referred to as “The Book,” and it is actually a chart of odds that can easily be reduced to about the size of a playing card. It lays out the proper statistical play for every hand you can possibly be dealt versus every possible dealer up card.

The assumption that underpins the statistical accuracy of the book is the assumption that every card you can’t see, e.g., every card that is facing down, is worth 10. That assumption is made because there are, by far, more cards in a blackjack deck that are worth that amount than any other value.

The book lays out, in as simple a manner as possible, the “right” decision for every blackjack scenario. Now, that doesn’t mean you should play exactly by the book. Some people choose to, but part of the fun is adding your own nuances to that strictly statistical set of advice. For a simple guide to “book” play, see our Blackjack Cheat Sheet.

Basic Card Values

All numbered cards are simply valued on their face, i.e., a four is worth four points, a six is worth six points. So every time you’re dealing with them you will just have to do simple addition to determine the total value of your hand.

Finally, you have the aces. Aces can be worth either one or 11 points, depending on how you decide to play them. You will make that decision based on the other card you’re dealt along with the ace. For instance, if you are dealt an ace and any card six or lower, you will likely want to take a hit, since you won’t be able to bust and you’ll want to improve your hand. An ace and any card seven or higher would give you a starting hand of 18 or better, at which point you would probably want to stay.


Blackjack Starting Hands

No matter what combination of cards you are dealt, you will be looking to make your decision to hit or stay based on the dealer’s up card. Unlike the players, whose two cards are dealt face up, the dealer has one card dealt face up and the other face down.

Of course, if you are dealt a natural 17, 18, 19, 20 or 21, you will almost always stay, no matter what the dealer is showing (with the only exception being the extraordinarily rare occasion when you might hit on 17).

On the other end of the spectrum, if you are dealt two cards that add up to 11 or less, you will always take a hit. And there aren’t exceptions, even extraordinarily rare ones, to this rule. As long as you can’t bust on your next hand you are always going to want to take a hit.

If you have been dealt anything between 11 and 17, then the dealer’s up card will determine your decision. If the visible card is a 7 or higher, then you’ll almost always want to take a hit. If the dealer is between 2 and 6 you’ll probably want to stay and hope they bust. For more details on Hand values, see our Guide to Blackjack Hands.

Defying the Book

That, however, is if you want to play by the book – which, to reiterate, you’re going to want to do most of the time. But there will come a time when you might want to deviate from that pre-determined strategy.

One example of a scenario where you might make an independent decision is when you have 12 and the dealer’s up card is a 2. The book would tell you to stay and hope for a dealer bust. But it’s a tricky situation. The dealer could have anything under there, and your 12 is a pretty paltry hand. If you’re feeling lucky, you might want to take your chances and hit in that situation, hoping for pretty much any card other than a 10 or face card.

Another instance where you might want to throw the book out the window is when the dealer’s up card is a 7 and you have something like a 15 or 16. The book would tell you to hit, but if the dealer has anything less than a card valued at 10 for their down card, their hand is pretty weak.

Again, you should usually follow the book when confronted with that situation. Just keep in mind that it’s not a hard and fast rule, and there might be a time when you want to stay on your 15 or 16 and hope their down card is, in fact, worth less than 10. Deciding to stay in that matchup, then watching the dealer flip over an 8 or 9 before busting is just as sweet a feeling as getting dealt a 6 when you decide to hit your 15.

Of course, it’s also pretty heartbreaking when you decide to stay on that 15 or 16 and the dealer does flip over a 10 or a face card, killing your hand and taking your money.

Blackjack is a simple, straightforward game. It’s one you play for the action and the camaraderie of the table, not for its complexity. And now that you have a basic understanding of the cards, their, values and some of the strategies and decisions you will be facing, it’s time to go out and have some fun.