Blackjack, part 1: Rules of Blackjack

A blackjack consists of two cards which add up to 21.

Blackjack (also known as Twenty-One) is the most popular casino card game, and probably the most popular casino game other than slots. Blackjack’s rules are simple—get closer to 21 than the dealer without going over. But playing blackjack and dealing it are two different things—keeping track of seven different players’ hands and who is owed what can be overwhelming! Therefore, we’re going to break our look at blackjack into two different parts. Today, we’ll focus on the basic rules of blackjack: the ones your players see. On Monday, we’ll go over dealer procedures.

A word of caution about Blackjack: it is inherently a casino game, so the dealer has a definite advantage over the players, by design. If you’re playing at home with friends, don’t play with real money! It’s not fair to your friends, and will probably run afoul of local laws against illegal gambling.

Object of Blackjack

The object of the game is to, through selectively drawing more cards, obtain a better score than the dealer without going over 21.

Setup

Blackjack requires a lot of props and equipment to do properly. The most basic blackjack game requires one deck of cards, two cut cards, and chips for wagering. However, true casino-style blackjack will require six decks of cards, a box to hold the cards called a shoe, and a discard holder (an L-shaped piece of plastic designed to keep the used cards in a nice stack). The dealer should be seated on the opposite side of the table from the players, with a bank of chips in a rack in front of the dealer, to be used for payouts.

The choice of number of decks of cards is particularly important: more decks means less frequent shuffling, but increasing the number of cards in the game also increases the advantage held by the dealer. Dealing with one or two decks is most beneficial to the players, and also allows you to spread a pitch game (i.e., no shoe is required). All cards in the deck should have the same back. Traditionally, paper cards are used for blackjack, due to the large number of cards involved, but there’s no reason you can’t use Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards.

Shuffle the cards (using the multiple-deck shuffling technique if needed). Square the deck up, then roll it forward, so that the back of the cards is facing the players and the cut card on the bottom of the deck is facing you. Offer the spare cut card to any player and have them insert it into the deck at any point. Complete the cut by sliding the bottom part of the deck behind the cut card away and putting it on the top (far side) of the deck. Remove the cut card that was on the bottom, and is now in the middle, of the deck, and place it into the deck near the bottom. This will signify when the cards need to be shuffled. On games of four or six decks, this is normally placed about one deck from the end of the shoe. If using a shoe, place the cards into the shoe. Before dealing any player hands from the newly-shuffled deck, discard one card.

Game play

All players place a wager of one or more chips in a designated betting area in front of them. Once all players have wagered, the dealer deals all players from left to right one card, face up, then one to themselves, face down. This procedure repeats, giving each player two cards, and the dealer turns the first card dealt to themselves face-up. Players are never allowed to touch the cards, and cannot touch their wagers (other than to perform a double or split) after the cards are dealt.

Players look at their hands, evaluating their scores. Aces are worth 11, unless this would cause the player’s score to be greater than 21, in which case they are worth 1. Face cards are worth 10. All other cards are worth their face value. Scores for each card are added to obtain the score for the hand.

The first player to the dealer’s left goes first. A player has four options:

  • Hit. Receive another card. Signified by tapping the table. After hitting, if the player’s total has not exceeded 21, they may continue to hit, or choose to stand. If the player has exceeded 21, they have busted, and their wager is collected and added to the dealer’s rack, and their cards are placed into the discard.
  • Stand. Take no further action. Signified by waving the hand, palm down, parallel to the table. Play moves to the next player to the left.
  • Double. Allows the player to double their wager in exchange for receiving only one more card. Only available on the first action after being dealt a hand. Signified by placing a wager up to the original (it is possible to “double for less” and not actually double the wager) in the betting area and holding up one finger. The player is dealt a third card, and play moves to the next player to the left. Doubling is generally only done on totals of 11 or lower, since doubling a 12 or higher puts a player at risk of busting.
  • Split. Allows the player to split their original hand into two hands, receiving a second card for each. Only available on the first action after being dealt a hand, and only if both cards are of the same rank (e.g. two eights). Signified by placing a wager equal to the original in the betting area and making a V with their fingers. The player may now play each hand individually as though they were dealt two hands to begin with, and can hit, stand, double, or split them again (if they form another pair). Some games do not allow any action other than re-splitting to be taken after aces are split.

After all players have revealed their hand, the dealer reveals their concealed card. The dealer has no choice in how to play their hand—they draw as long as they are showing 16 or lower, and stand if they are showing 17 or higher. If the dealer busts, all remaining players win, regardless of their score. If the dealer does not bust, then players with a total higher than the dealer win and players with a total lower than the dealer. Winning players are paid out at even money (i.e. the payout is equal to their wager). Losing players’ wagers are collected and added to the dealer’s rack. Players which tie the dealer are said to have pushed and their wagers are neither collected nor paid out. All cards are collected and placed in the discards, and players place their wagers for the next hand (which is dealt with the remaining cards in the deck).

Continue playing until the cut card is reached. If the cut card is reached mid-hand, use the remaining cards behind it to finish out the hand. Then, shuffle the cards as shown above and resume playing.

Blackjacks

An initial score of 21, formed by an ace and a ten-valued card, is called a blackjack. On the player’s turn, they may not take any action; instead, the dealer pays them out at a rate of 3 to 2 (i.e., they are paid one-and-a-half times their wager) and their cards are collected.

An ace-ten combination formed by a pair of split aces or tens is not a blackjack, and simply plays as any other hand with a count of 21.

If the dealer shows a ten

If the dealer shows a ten as their face-up card, the dealer might have a blackjack. They check their face-down card to see if a blackjack is present, taking care to prevent the players from gaining knowledge of the card.

If the dealer does have a blackjack, it is immediately revealed. Any players who also have a blackjack push, and all other players lose. The hand is not played out further.

If the dealer does not have a blackjack, play continues as normal with the first player to the left of the dealer.

If the dealer shows an ace

If the dealer shows an ace as their face-up card, again, the dealer might have a blackjack. However, since it is more likely than if the dealer is showing a ten, the dealer offers insurance against a dealer blackjack. Insurance is a side wager of half the original wager or less. If a player has a blackjack, instead of making an insurance wager, they may request that their blackjack be paid out immediately at even money. The even-money payout is paid immediately and the cards cleared away.

The dealer then checks for blackjack. If the dealer does have a blackjack, any players who also have a blackjack and did not request an even-money payout push, and all other players lose. Any players who placed an insurance wager are paid at 2 to 1 (i.e. they are paid double their insurance wager).

If the dealer does not have a blackjack, all insurance wagers are collected by the dealer, and play continues as normal with the first player to the left of the dealer.

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How to shuffle multiple decks of cards

Six decks of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, shuffled together

While two-deck card games are somewhat common, there are some games out there that require the use of more decks of cards than that. The most frequently-played of these are casino games: blackjack, which typically uses six decks, and baccarat, which uses eight. If you’ve ever thought about playing these games at home, you soon run into the conundrum of how one goes about shuffling 312 cards. Casinos, of course, have expensive shuffling machines to speed this process, but even those break down sometimes, so every dealer is still trained on how to shuffle multiple decks of cards by hand.

So how do you do it?

  1. First, grab a cut card and sit it in the center of the table. Break the deck into four more-or-less equal stacks, placing two to the left of the cut card and two to the right of it. We’ll refer to these as stacks 1 through 4 (from left to right).
  2. Grab about one deck’s worth of cards from stack 1 and an equal amount from stack 3. Shuffle these two stacks together and place them on the cut card.
  3. Repeat with stacks 2 and 4, placing the newly-shuffled cards on top of the previously-shuffled cards resting on the cut card.
  4. Continue alternating shuffling cards from stacks 1 and 3 and stacks 2 and 4 until the entire deck has been shuffled.

Now you have a completely shuffled deck with a cut card on the bottom, ready to be cut by another player.

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Cut cards: a simple but effective way to ensure game integrity

If you’re dealing or hosting a card game of any sort, especially one with money riding on it, it’s always a good idea to use a cut card. A cut card is a heavy, opaque plastic card the same size as the deck of cards you’re using (they are available in both poker and bridge size). They are available in a variety of colors, including red, yellow, green, and blue. They are inexpensive; you can pick up a pack of five of them for less than two dollars.

What do you use a cut card for? Simply put, it protects your game by shielding the bottom card of the deck from the players’ eyes. This may not seem like a major concern, but imagine you are playing poker, and one of your players sees the queen of hearts on the bottom of the deck. Knowing that this card will not come into play, that player has an advantage over their opponents—they know that heart flushes are slightly less likely to occur, all pairs, trips, straights, and full houses involving queens are less likely, and four-of-a-kinds, straight flushes, and royal flushes involving the queen of hearts are impossible. That’s a lot of free information! That player is less likely to hold on to a pair of queens in their hand because they know that they will never get quads, and their chances of getting three of a kind are halved.

So, if you get a cut card, how do you use it? When it’s time to cut, just sit it next to the deck, textured side up, and instruct the person cutting the cards to place the cut portion of the deck onto the cut card. When you complete the cut, you will have a ready-to-deal deck of cards, with the cut card on the bottom of the deck, protecting the bottom card. Couldn’t be simpler!

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Using a chip rack to count poker chips

Using a chip rack to count poker chips

Last week, we showed you the basics of how to count poker chips. This week, we’ll show you how to use a chip rack to help count large amounts of chips.

Chip racks (sometimes called chip trays) are designed for standard casino chips. Most 11.5g composite and clay chips will fit in these racks. They are made of clear acrylic and can be found at many online retailers—Amazon has several offers of a ten-pack for $12 to $14.

If your chips are the same thickness as a standard chip, each tube of the rack will accommodate exactly 20 chips. Since a standard rack has five tubes, that means a full rack will contain 100 chips. So, if you have a large number of chips, just create a 20-chip rack stack (break it down as described last week to verify that it contains 20 chips) and use it to size into your remaining chips. When you create five big 20-chip stacks, you know you have 100 chips, a full rack.

What about when you’re getting the chips out of the rack? How do you verify that the rack contains 100 chips? One way is to actually get the chips out of the rack, verify that the five stacks are even, and break one down to show that each stack contains 20 chips, but there’s an easier method. All you have to do it remove one chip from one of the end tubes, and then run it along the length of the rack, pushing it against the chips, as shown in the picture. If any of the tubes contain only 19 chips, the chip will naturally fall into the tube.

One word of caution: the first time you put your chips in a rack, make sure that it does, in fact, hold exactly 100 chips. Particularly thin or thick (nonstandard) chips may fit 95 or 105 chips to a rack.

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Neosho Rapids

Neosho Rapids is a quick and simple card game for two to four players. It was named after Neosho Rapids, Kansas, which in turn was named after the nearby Neosho River.

Object of Neosho Rapids

The object of the game is to be the first player to run out of cards.

Setup

You will need one 52-card deck. Of course, Denexa 100% Playing Cards are always recommended! Shuffle and deal seven cards to each player. Place the deck stub in the center of the table, forming the stock. Turn up the first card of the deck to form the discard pile. The card showing on the top of the discard pile is called the upcard.

Game play

The player to the left of the dealer goes first. If possible, that player discards a card from their hand which is one rank above or one rank below the upcard. For example, if the upcard is an 8, the player may play a 7 or a 9. Suits do not matter. Aces are considered both high and low, meaning that if an ace is showing on the discard pile, both a king and a 2 are valid plays.

The player may continue discarding cards from their hand until they are unable or unwilling to play further. At this point, they draw a card from the stock, ending their turn. A player cannot immediately play this drawn card; their turn is over.

Play continues as above until one player runs out of cards. If, at any time, the stock is depleted, set the current upcard aside, shuffle the remaining discards, and turn the pile face-down to form a new stock. The upcard forms the base of the new discard pile, and play continues as before.

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How to count poker chips

A rack of red poker chips, with a stack of twenty broken down in front of it.
Huge piles of chips are one of the first things that come to mind when someone mentions poker, but most people probably don’t stop to think why chips exist in the first place. Isn’t it a hassle converting all that cash into these weird play money discs, only to exchange them for money again later? But there’s an excellent reason for that—chips are easier to count than cash! Casino cash offices have millions of dollars of specialized equipment for counting cash, but the only equipment for counting chips are plastic racks, a smooth surface, and a clerk’s bare hands. Anyone can learn how to count poker chips like a pro!

Selecting chips

The first step to counting chips is to get some chips that are easily countable. Not all chips are made alike! Casinos use chips that are flat, smooth, and made of clay that gives them some friction and “stickiness” to make them easily stackable. They have labels with custom-printed artwork to distinguish the chip from those from other casinos, and images which appear under a blacklight to deter counterfeiters. Such chips are expensive, costing more than $1 for a single chip! The durability of these chips makes them cost-effective for the casinos, but hobbyists simply can’t afford to spend that much on chips.

Instead of clay chips, home poker enthusiasts must rely on cheaper plastic-based chips. The very cheapest of these are thin and lightweight plastic chips with interlocking ridges to keep stacks of chips from toppling over. Such chips are to be avoided; the interlocking feature of the chips makes them very difficult to count! Instead, you want something more like a casino chip, with smooth surfaces. Some texture is good, to help add clay-like friction that that is missing in a plastic chip. Many retailers offer a composite chip, which is composed of a metal slug (to add weight) with plastic molded around it. These chips often include artwork of dice engraved on their faces. These chips are reasonably-priced and readily available, and will do just fine for most players. For players wanting a more casino-like feel, generic clay chips are available on the Internet, such as Da Vinci chips (pictured), which are sold in batches of fifty for $20.

Assigning values

Now that you have your chips, you need to assign values to them. It’s important to use values which are conveniently spaced apart, so that chips can be colored up or colored down (changed between denominations) easily. You don’t want one chip to be worth twenty of the next color down! You also want your players to understand the easily understand value of the chips, and if your players have played in a casino (or other games) before, they will expect your chip colors to match what they’ve seen.

Here is one standard chip color scheme, used in many casinos:

  • Yellow—50¢
  • White—$1
  • Red—$5
  • Green—$25
  • Black—$100
  • Purple—$500

Beyond the $500 level, chip colors are not standard from casino to casino. Of course, if you play penny-ante poker, it hardly makes sense to have $100 chips; instead, you can divide this chart by 100, and have your white chips valued as 1¢.

Note that each chip is worth either four or five of the next chip below it. This makes counting the chips easier!

Counting your chips

Sizing into a chip stack

Now you have your chips, and you know how much each is worth. You’re in a game, and you want to know how much money you have. Here’s how to count your chips:

  1. First, separate your chips by color, and arrange each color into a stack on a smooth, flat surface. A felt table or chip count board works best, but any flat surface should do (avoid uneven surfaces like a bed or carpet).
  2. Select a color to count (e.g. red chips).
  3. Carefully count chips from the bottom of the stack, forming a smaller stack. Stop when you get to the number of chips which would equal the next higher chip (e.g. five red $5 chips equals one green $25 chip).
  4. Place the main stack next to the small stack. Now, bracing the big stack with your thumb, slide your index finger across the short stack, then use it to tilt the big stack away from the small stack, as shown in the photo. This process, known as sizing into the big stack, should produce another small stack equal to the height of the first one.
  5. Keep sizing into the stack repeatedly until you don’t have enough chips to make a full stack. Place these chips on the table individually next to the stacks.
  6. Run the back of your index finger across the top of the chip stacks to verify that they are all the same height. If any stack has too many chips, you’ll knock it off, or if it’s missing one, you’ll feel your finger dip.
  7. Splash the last chip stack out on the table. This is toppling the stack so that it’s fanned out on the table, as shown in the photo at the top of this post. This allows you to visually verify the number of chips each stack contains.
  8. Perform this procedure for each color of chip, starting a new row for each color. It’s typical to have the highest-value chips closest toward you, with the value of each row  further away from you diminishing (a procedure which is done in casinos to keep unscrupulous patrons from snagging the high-dollar chips after they have been counted, but is useful at home to keep things orderly).
  9. Now, counting the chips is simple multiplication. If you have five stacks of five red $5 chips each, then each stack is $25, so you have $125 worth of red chips.
  10. If you have multiple denominations of chips to count, start with the largest denomination and work your way down to the smallest. It may help to use a calculator to count very large amounts of chips of separate denominations (add each denomination’s count to a running total in your calculator).

Before passing any quantity of chips to a player, it’s a good idea to break down the stacks of chips, as shown above, to allow them to visually verify that the correct amount of chips is present. You should do this when presenting a player with a buy-in, making change, splitting pots, etc.

It’s typical to make mistakes handling the chips at first, but repetition will help you become more familiar with the feel of your chips and the mechanics of sizing into stacks and counting. Keep practicing!

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Cash (a.k.a. Kemps, Kent)

Four aces.
Cash (also called Kemps or Kent) is an interesting social card game for four to eight players. Players form two-player partnerships, competing to make four of a kind, then successfully send and receive a secret signal without it getting intercepted by their opponents.

Object of Cash

The object of the game is for one player of the partnership to call out “Cash!” upon receiving a signal from their partner that they have obtained four of a kind. Alternately, notice that one of the opponents is attempting to signal their partner, and call out “Counter cash!” before their partner calls “Cash!”.

Setup

All players divide into pairs. The game is best with four players (two partnerships), but can be played with six (three partnerships) or eight (four partnerships). Players may mutually decide a method for determining partnerships, which may be as simple as merely selecting who they would like to be paired with, or by some random process. One such method for a four-player game is to remove two red and two black cards from the deck, shuffle them, and deal one to each player. The players receiving the red cards play against the two with the black cards. Seating arrangements must take care to allow all players to be clearly visible to one another, and partners should not sit directly next to one another.

Prior to the game, each partnership excuses themselves to a secluded place where they are unable to be seen or heard by any other player. They then agree upon a secret signal, which can be a hand signal, innocuous action such as taking a drink or tapping the table with your cards, or a verbal phrase. Signals that might be unintentionally sent, like scratching your head or rubbing your eye should be avoided!

The game requires one 52-card deck. Since players will be quickly grabbing for cards, a particularly sturdy deck, like—of course!—Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards—is recommended. Shuffle and deal four cards to each player. Then deal four cards face down to the center of the table, forming the board, and place the deck stub in front of the player to the left of the dealer, forming the stock.

Game play

The dealer calls, “3…2…1…GO!”, then picks up the four board cards and turns them face-up. Each player may then grab whatever board cards they find useful, take them into their hand, and discard back down to four (returning the board to four cards). There are no turns! If two players grab a card at the same time, whoever touched the card first (or whose hand is on the bottom!) is entitled to it. Game play continues until this card-swapping stops because nobody wants any of the cards on the table. The player with the stock in front of them discards the board cards, then deals a new, face-down board, passes the stock to the left, and flips the cards over with a countdown, as before. (Passing the stock and the board-refreshing duties around the table ensures that the mental overhead of refreshing the board doesn’t burden any player greater than any other.)

Play continues, with players swapping cards out as they see fit, and refreshing the board as necessary. Whenever a player achieves four-of-a-kind, they send their secret signal to their partner. When the partner notices the signal, they call out “Cash!” (or “Kemps!” or “Kent!” or whatever the name of the game is). All players reveal their hands; if the player whose partner called “Cash!” does, in fact, have four-of-a-kind, that partnership wins. However, if there is no four-of-a-kind, they lose. If a player suspects at any time before “Cash!” is called that an opposing partnership is signaling, they can call “Counter cash!” The hands are revealed, and if a four-of-a-kind is present, the partnership that called “Counter cash!” wins (but, as with cash, if there is no four-of-a-kind, calling “Counter cash!” loses).

Some players play that the losing team receives a letter in the word “CASH” (or “KEMPS” or “KENT”, as appropriate), and that whichever partnership spells out the word first loses the match. Otherwise, play can continue indefinitely, with each hand standing alone as a separate game. Partnerships are given the opportunity to change their signal between hands, then all cards are shuffled and new hands and a board are dealt.

“Real deal”

A real deal is when the stock runs out without “Cash!” or “Counter cash!” being called. In this case, the hand is a draw. If the game is being scored where partnerships receive letters for losses, no letters are received for a real deal.

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Knock Poker

Knock Poker is a variant of draw poker that doesn’t require gambling. Games are quick, often lasting no more than a few minutes. You can play with two to six players.

Object of Knock Poker

The object of Knock Poker is to form the best five-card poker hand.

Setup

Requires one 52-card deck (we, of course, recommend Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards). Deal five cards to each player. Place the remaining deck stub in the center of the table, forming the stock. Turn up the first card of the stock and place it next to it, forming the discard pile.

Game play

The player sitting to the left of the dealer goes first. On each player’s turn, they have the option to draw the top card of the discard pile, adding it to their hand. If they don’t want it, they draw the top, unknown card of the stock. The player then discards one card face-up to the discard pile, returning their hand to five cards. Play continues on with the next player to the left.

Play continues until any player is satisfied with their hand. After discarding, they knock on the table, signaling this to the other players. Play continues, with each player taking one more turn to finalize their hands. When the turn of play returns to the player who knocked, hands are then revealed, with the highest-ranking poker hand winning.

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