Blackjack is the workhorse game of a casino. It is easy to learn, quick to play and by mastering set-in-stone simple strategies it returns 99% of the player’s money. Skilled players employing mental gymnastics to count cards can even tip the game in the player’s favour.
There are dozens of blackjack variants available to play based on the game rules that can bring players a greater advantage against the dealer. Read the rules of each blackjack variation to see if they fit your style of play. These variants can make blackjack hands more exciting and may even appear more profitable – but remember all games of 21 are still contested with a built-in advantage for the house.
The origins of twenty-one, the standard-bearer for casino table games, are lost to history. References to similar games have been dredged up from writings in France and Spain from 500 years ago. Most notable are gambling scenes in works by Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote. Cervantes himself was rumoured to be a bit of a night-ruffler and frequenter of gaming dens.
It was in the saloons and gambling houses of frontier America that the game as played in land-based and online casinos crystallized. To stoke player participation some early casinos began offering a 10-1 payout to any “21” that was reached with an Ace of Spades and either of the two black jacks. Thus was the centuries-old game rechristened to become the now-familiar blackjack.
How To Play Blackjack
The simple rules of blackjack make the game a casino favourite and the most appealing to lure timid slots gamblers over to the fast action of the table games. Blackjack is played against the dealer and not other players, as many as seven of whom can sit in on a hand. Bets are placed prior to the deal and two cards are delivered face-up to each player in turn. The first card to the dealer is face-up but the second is not revealed. The dealer checks the hole card and if the result is a blackjack all players lose. If not, the hand is on. At this point the object for the player is to defeat the dealer which can be done three ways. If the player’s two cards total 21 with an ace (that counts as eleven or one) and a ten (either a ten-spot card or a face card that counts as ten) it is an automatic win providing the dealer does not also have a 21. This “blackjack” (regardless of suit) traditionally pays 3-2 although some casinos have been scaling that payout back to as little as 6-5 in recent years.
If the player does not have a blackjack after the deal additional cards can be drawn from the dealer (hits) up until the time the player exceeds 21 and “busts” or decides to stop drawing cards (stands) with a total less than 21. If that final total exceeds the dealer’s total the player wins and doubles the amount of the original stake. The dealer is required to take cards until the total reaches 17 or more points. If the dealer exceeds a point total of 21 when being forced to draw between 12 and 16 the player also wins. If the player and dealer have identical totals of either 18, 19 or 20 the hand is “pushed” with no bet declared.
After the two cards are dealt the player can decide to “double down” on the initial wager which increases the bet by 100%. This awards the player only one more card before a mandatory stand, a ploy often used when the first two cards total ten or eleven. In European rules players can ONLY double down on a ten or eleven. A player may also choose to “split” after the deal if both cards have the same value, creating two separate hands that are played against the dealer. Additional splits can be made from subsequent matching cards. Some casinos require identical ranks to split such as king-king and not king-jack although other casinos allow splits on value only.
Player options during the hand can include “insurance” which is a separate side wager available when the dealer’s upcard is an ace. The player then bets with the dealer’s hand. If the dealer has a blackjack the side bet pays 2-1. At some blackjack games an option to “surrender” is given to the player after any deal when the position against the dealer in not advantageous. A surrender takes the player out of the hand and costs one-half on the original bet.
The house edge to a player employing basic blackjack strategy is less than 1% over the course of a run of average luck, making it one of the best games for players in a casino. Land-based and online versions of the game offer a multitude of ways to tilt that advantage one way or the other. One rule that favours the player is a requirement for the dealer to hit on a “soft 17” which is formed with a six and an ace that can total one or eleven. This increases the chance the dealer will bust by 0.2%.
Another advantage for the player is a blackjack game dealt from a single deck, which increases the possibility of a blackjack and a greater payout. To counterbalance this advantage the casino will offer one of those reduced payouts. Single deck blackjack is a rarity in most gaming houses which typically deal from shoes of two, four, six or eight decks. The house advantage bulges from a skimpy 0.17% from a single deck to 0.65% from an eight-deck shoe.
A European version of blackjack involves a “no hole card” game whereby the dealer neither deals nor consults the second card until after all players have finished with their hands. This leaves open the possibility for a dealer blackjack that will trump all double downs and splitting decisions the players have added to their bets. This after-the-fact blackjack returns the house as additional 0.11% edge.
The rules on re-splitting cards and doubling down after splits and splitting aces to increase chances of blackjack can all vary from casino to casino. Generally, when such ploys are allowed it bumps the player’s edge in a small way against the house. Online blackjack players can find a cornucopia of variants to the this old casino warhorse based on rules favourable to players. In Panamanian Blackjack almost anything goes. The dealer must hit on the soft 17; the player only loses the original bet and not splits and doubles against a no-hole card blackjack; the player can double down on any two cards and double down on nine, ten or eleven after three cards; the player can split aces and the player can split any pair up to four hands.
Spanish 21 is another variant with a host of player-friendly rules including the player blackjack beating the dealer blackjack rather than pushing and surrendering after an ill-fated draw on a double down. There are also bonuses for “21s” reached with five, six, and seven cards or a 6-7-8 or 7-7-7. To compensate for the liberal payouts a Spanish 21 deck is dealt with 48 cards – the four ten-spot cards have been removed.
Once you are familiar with the basic, easy-to-understand rules of blackjack you can navigate the many, many options available in online casinos that are based on a mix-and-match of the building blocks of the game.
Blackjack Tips & Advice
You can play blackjack for a long time with minimal losses by simply adhering to the most basic strategy of standing with any total between 17 and 20 and any total between 12 and 16 when the dealer shows an upcard between 2 and 6. You can get closer to the house edge by employing common-sense splitting and doubling down tactics.
Skilled blackjack players can actually move the advantage from the house to the player by counting cards. The most basic system assigns points to each card exposed and when the shoe is “rich” with remaining face cards the player increases the bet accordingly. The house protects against this practice by limiting single deck games (when it is easy to count), using multiple decks in a shoe, discouraging players from revealing cards and shuffling during a shoe. In online blackjack most casinos shuffle after every hand or do so randomly without revealing the shuffle to the player, both of which stifle the possibility of counting cards.