Reading the Dealer’s Hand


After you learn the basic rules of how to value and manage your own hand in blackjack, the next step is to figure out how to read the dealer’s. It’s a pretty straightforward process, but one that requires close attention in order to optimize your chances of winning.

Basic Rules by Which the Dealer Must Play

The first step in reading the dealer’s hand is to know about certain rules they are forced to abide by. First of all, as the cards are dealt each player receives their two of them face up. The dealer, on the other hand, gets one card face up and the other face down.

Once every player at the table has acted, the dealer turns up the hidden card and plays their hand from there. This basic procedure, and the one exposed card in front of the dealer, will be the foundation around which most of your blackjack decisions will be made.

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Table where a dealer has starting cards equalling 11.

The next basic rule to understand is that the dealer has to hit any time their two cards equal less than 17, and stay anytime their two cards are worth 17 or more. The only exception to that rule is when a dealer has what’s known as a “soft 17.”

A soft 17 only occurs when the dealer has an ace and a six, giving them a hand that could take a hit and not bust because the ace can be worth either one or 11. Different venues have different rules regarding how a dealer must proceed on a soft 17, but most require that the dealer take a hit.

Finally, the dealer is not allowed to split or double down (guides to which can be found elsewhere on this website) no matter what they’ve been dealt or the other players are showing.

The Rule of 10

Now that you know how the dealer is constrained, it’s time to figure out how to go about reading their hand and making your bets accordingly.

The first piece of strategy that any amateur player has to learn is the rule of 10. Very simply, it states that you should assume any card you can’t see has a value of 10. With four actual 10s in each deck, and 12 face cards that all hold that same value, there are more cards worth 10 in the deck than any other amount. Since you can’t know what the next card will be – unless you have some sort of James Bond-ish pair of x-ray glasses – the odds dictate that you assume the rule of 10.

It is such an important rule because you’re always going to be presented with at least one card you can’t see – the dealer’s down card. So, no matter what they have showing, always assume the card you can’t see is worth 10 and proceed from there.

A similar idea applies to the next card that will come out of the deck when you take a hit, but to a much smaller extent because you should almost always make your decisions based off the dealer’s holding, not what card you suspect might be added to your hand when you take a hit.

Making Hit or Stay Decisions Based on the Dealer’s Holding

Now that you know to assume the dealer’s down card is worth 10, many hit or stay decisions become somewhat automatic.

For instance, if the dealer’s up card indicates strength with, say, a face card showing, you should figure that they have a total of 20 (and it’s very likely they will have something very strong even if they don’t have the 20). Therefore, if you’re two cards equal anything less than 17 you are always going to want to take a hit, even if you have 16 and are afraid the next card will bust you. It’s always better to go down swinging than to chicken out and find they had 20 all along, thus never giving yourself a chance to take a run at winning the hand.

Player has a pair totalling 14, dealer has a 5 showing.

Player has a pair totalling 14, dealer 5 showing.

On the other hand, if the dealer has a weak card showing – anything between two and six – you’re options are wide open. If you have a hand that can’t bust with one card, you might want to consider doubling down in order to take advantage of their weakness. If you have a poor hand that can bust with one card, like a 14, you’re always going to want to stay and hope the dealer goes over 21.

Most professional blackjack players have their own strategy that tells them when would be the best time to stand and when would be ideal to hit. In blackjack, the house edge starts around 5.5 percent, but if you know when to hit and stand, you can decrease those odds down to around 3 percent. Here are some of the most common scenarios in blackjack and how to know when to hit or stand when you’re stuck in that situation:’

Pay Attention

Once you understand the basic strategy behind reading a dealer’s hand the strategy involved becomes relatively simple. But above all else, you need to remember to pay attention to what’s going on and how the dealer’s hand is developing.

In a casino or online there can be a lot of distractions – loud noises, blinking lights, obnoxious neighbors, beautiful cocktail waitresses, etc. It takes very little effort to ignore all that for a few brief moments to size up the dealer’s hand and make an intelligent, calculated decision. So always take that short break from enjoying your surroundings to study what kind of hand you’re facing.

By putting just a little extra energy into reading the dealer’s hand, and then applying the rules and ideas stated above, you’ll find yourself cashing in chips much more often.