Blackjack is the single most popular casino card game to have ever come into existence. The game is entertaining, simple to learn, and is widely available at gambling venues the world over. The immense interest it attracts can also be explained with the fact it is among the few casino games to offer players good odds at beating the house.
It is impossible to say with absolute certainty where and when blackjack first sprung into existence. While the origins of the game spark off heated debates to this day, there are several theories as to when blackjack emerged. A reference to a similar game was first made by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes in a short story of his, called Rinconete and Cortadillo. It relates the adventures of a couple of crooks cheating at veintiuna, a game with similar rules and objective as these in blackjack since players aimed at forming a hand whose total comes close to 21 without exceeding it.
Many historians argue that a variation of blackjack first appeared in France in the 18th century, where it was referred to as vingt-et-un, meaning twenty-one in French. According to this theory, blackjack is a derivative of two other card games which were hugely popular throughout France at the time, French Ferme and Chemin de Fer. Others are of the opinion blackjack originated from a Spanish game with similar rules where the object was to reach a hand total of 31 with at least three cards. Some people even believe a predecessor of blackjack was played in the Roman Empire where instead of cards, the soldiers used wooden blocks with different values.
Regardless of its roots, the game was given its modern name in the United States. When twenty-one crossed the ocean and was introduced in the New World for the first time by the French colonists, it spread throughout the continent like wild fire. In the 1930s, it finally made it to the floors of gambling venues in Nevada where casino managers lured players with a special promotion to pique their interest. A total of 21 made with an ace of spades and a black Jack offered a tasty payout of 10 to 1, causing the card game to be dubbed “blackjack”. The promotion did not last for long, but the name stuck.
One thing is certain – blackjack was not “invented” by one individual person at any particular point in time. It underwent dramatic changes over the course of several centuries and continues to evolve to this very day. Thanks to the technological progress we have witnessed in the last decades, many online casinos have introduced new, enticing blackjack variations, thus further fueling the interest towards this centuries-old game. Players are now granted the unique opportunity to play blackjack in live dealer casinos from the comfort of their surroundings, without having to drive around for hours to find a landbased casino where the game is available.
Ask any skilled blackjack player out there and they will tell you, the rules take ten minutes to learn but mastering the game requires what seems like a lifetime. Recreational players, however, will be greatly pleased by the game’s simplicity. Blackjack can be played with one to eight standard decks, of 52 cards each. Whenever multiple decks are in play, these are normally placed in a device, called a “shoe” to reduce the chances of cheating and the time between shuffles.
Before play commences, the dealer shuffles the cards and asks one of the players to cut the pack. The top card from the deck or shoe is then “burned” or placed either at the bottom of the deck or in the tray with the discards. Each player makes a bet and is dealt two cards, with the dealer being the last to receive their two cards, only one of which is facing up. The goal of the players is to form a hand that comes the closest in total to 21 but without going over. Meanwhile, the dealer is forced to obey by fixed rules and draw to a predetermined hand total, which varies between tables.
In blackjack, each face card, along with the ten, is assigned a value of 10. The remaining cards are assigned their face value, with the exception of the ace, which can be counted either as 1 or as 11. A hand that totals 21 in value, formed with an ace and a ten-value card is called “blackjack”, or a “natural”, and offers the highest payout, usually of 3 to 2. Other winning hands normally return even money. Whoever exceeds the total of 21 loses the hand or “busts”. When both the dealer and the player obtain the same total, they push and the player neither wins, nor loses.
Blackjack Additional RulesOnce players examine their initial two-card hand, they are presented with several options. They can choose to hit or draw additional cards in order to improve their total. Those who are satisfied with their total are given the option to stand or stay, which means they decline additional cards. If the player anticipates a loss against the dealer, they may be granted the option to surrender their hand and get back only half of their original bet, but this rule is not available at all blackjack tables. Despite following fixed rules, the dealer holds a slight advantage over the players, because he or she is the last one to act on their hand.
Some casinos allow for early surrender, which is considered especially advantageous for players. Whenever the dealer’s face-up card is an ace, they peek at their hole card for a blackjack. If the dealer indeed has a ten-value card in the hole, they automatically flip their hole card over before the players have acted and all bets result in a loss. When early surrender is in force, the player is allowed to fold their hand before the dealer peeks for a blackjack. At some tables, dealers check what they have in the hole whenever they show a ten-value card as well.
Soft and Hard Hands
In the context of blackjack, there are two types of hands. Soft hands are more desirable for players as they consist of an ace, which can be assigned a value either of 1 or of 11. This way, the player is guaranteed not to bust if they draw one more additional card.
Side Bets in Blackjack
Apart from hitting, standing and possibly surrendering, blackjack players are allowed several other actions but as these go hand in hand with side bets, we have decided to place them in a category of their own.
Soft and Hard Hands Additional TipsFor example, if anyone is dealt an ace and a 5, their hand total can be counted as 16 or 6. If they hit again and draw a 5 for a total of 21, their ace will be counted as 11. But if they receive a 7 on the next hit, the ace will be assigned a value of 1 for a total of 13, sparing them the bust. Twelve is the lowest value a soft hand can have.
All other hands in blackjack are practically hard. There are two principal aspects in which these differ from soft hands. First off, the value of the aces in hard hands is inflexible, meaning that it is inevitably assigned a value of 1. This inflexibility of the ace is also the reason why hard hands are jokingly referred to by regular players as “stiffs”. And second, a hard hand may not contain an ace at all. For instance, 8-8 and Q-5-A both constitute a hard 16. It makes sense that hard hands are more disadvantageous to players because the chances of busting with them are higher. Note that aceless hands that have a value lower than 11 are not referred to as hard since it is impossible for players to bust with them on the very next hit.
Sometimes players are dealt a pat hand, meaning that the total of their initial two cards is already strong enough at 17 or above. Most of the time, people abstain from taking more hits on pat hands but there are exceptions, especially if one is an advantage player or the basic strategy chart calls for another action on the pat total. We will return to this subject in the sections to follow.
Blackjack Side Bets Additional TipsOne of these actions is splitting, which is allowed whenever the player receives two cards of equal numerical value on the initial deal. In order to split one such pair, the player is required to make an additional bet, usually of the same size as their original wager. The pair is then split into two hands, which are played as normal one after the other. Some casinos also allow players to re-split their hands. Common sense dictates that pairs of 8s and aces should always be split as their values are weak by default. Splitting pairs of face cards and 5s is generally a bad idea – why ruin a good starting hand?
Doubling down is another way to act on one’s initial hand. When players double down, they make a side bet to the amount of their original wager and receive only one additional card after the initial deal. The rules in regard to doubling down vary vastly between gambling venues and even blackjack tables. In some places, doubling is allowed after splitting a pair. At other establishments, players are allowed this action only on starting totals of 9, 10 or 11.
Insurance also requires making a side bet. Whenever the dealer’s face-up card is an ace, they offer players to insure their hand against a potential blackjack. The insurance bet is half the amount the player has originally put at stake. If the dealer indeed flips a face card after peeking for a blackjack, the player loses their original wager, but collects a payout of 2 to 1 on the insurance bet to break even. However, if the dealer does not have a natural, the insurance bet loses and the original hand is played according to the standard rules.
One word of caution for recreational players. The insurance bet may look like a good idea at first glance but from a mathematical perspective, it actually works to the disadvantage of the player. It gives the house an even greater edge because the odds of the dealer getting a natural are much smaller than 2 to 1. Insurance only works to the benefit of advantage players, who implement card counting and other techniques into their gameplay. Basic-strategy players are recommended to abstain from insuring their hands against naturals. Certainly, they will win with their side bets once in a while but insurance will inevitably grind away their bankrolls over the long run.
House Edge in Blackjack
Those who have more extensive experience with gambling have probably noticed one very interesting tendency. The easier a given game is to play, the more it tilts the odds in favor of the house. The good news is there is one game to which this rule does not apply and this is the game of blackjack.
The house always holds a certain advantage over its patrons which is normally built into the payout percentages for winning bets. In games of chance like roulette, this advantage remains constant because the odds of winning never change – each spin of the wheel should be viewed as an independent event and as such, has no effect on the results to follow. Therefore, all players are fighting against the same house edge.
This is not the case with blackjack, which is a game of dependent events. What this means is that each card dealt out of the deck or shoe affects the odds of winning (or losing) with subsequent hands. The richness of ten-value cards tips the scales in favor of the player while low-value cards work to the benefit of the dealer as they reduce their chances of going bust. Therefore, the ratio of high and low cards changes every hand and so does the house edge. Many skilled players know how to exploit this through advantage play.
Blackjack House Edge Additional TipsHowever, not everyone can afford to invest the time and efforts into becoming an advantage player. Recreational players, however, can reduce the house edge by making optimal decisions when playing their hands. This is achieved through basic strategy, which we have covered in more detail in the section below.
On that note, it is also worth mentioning that the house edge in blackjack varies depending on the rules of the game and the number of decks in play. You cannot expect to fight the same house edge in a game where early surrender is not allowed as opposed to a variation where the reverse rule applies. Also, it is of utmost importance to remember that the house edge is accurate only over an incredibly large number of bets and tends to always catch up with players who rely on gut feelings and hunches when acting on their hands. It is precisely these poor decisions and lack of strategy that further increase the house edge.
The Basic Strategy Chart
By using basic strategy, players can reduce the house edge and transform blackjack into a game of almost even chances. Basic strategy is presented in the form of a chart which contains the optimal decisions players need to make if they are not using more advanced advantage play techniques. Therefore, these optimal decisions are based solely on the two initial cards players are dealt and the one face-up card the dealer is showing.
There are two types of basic strategy. With total-dependent basic strategy, players’ decisions are based solely on the up card the dealer has and the overall total of their starting hand. Many players attack the blackjack tables with composition-dependent basic strategy, which certainly is the more accurate approach since playing decisions rely on the dealer’s up card and the numerical values of the cards the player is holding.
Each column in the basic strategy chart represents the card the dealer is showing while the rows correspond to the cards the players are dealt. The sections where the rows and the columns intersect designate the optimal playing decisions for all possible hand combinations in blackjack. In other words, basic strategy helps players decide when to hit, stand, split, or double down.
Players who follow perfect basic strategy are said to win 49 out of every 100 hands played in any given session, which corresponds to a house advantage between 1.50% and 2.00%. Please do have in mind that there are deviations in basic strategy, depending on the peculiarities of the blackjack variant you play, such as the number of decks in use, whether surrender is an option, and so on.
|Players’ Hand||Dealer’s Up Card|
Advantage Play in Blackjack
Some players have upped their skill level to such an extent that they can completely destroy the house edge when they take a seat at the blackjack table. Such people are known as “advantage players” but from the house’s perspective they are labeled “undesirables”.
One such technique to gain an advantage is card counting. It relies on the idea that players can eventually beat the house by keeping track of the ratio of high and low cards remaining in the deck or shoe. High or face cards are beneficial for the player while low cards give the dealer a slight advantage. Therefore, whenever a shoe is “hot” i.e. rich in high cards, the odds sway in the card counter’s favor. The colder the shoe grows, the worse for the player.
Card counters exploit this by adjusting their bet size depending on the current advantage they hold over the house. They bet big on rich shoes and reduce the size of their stakes on cold shoes. In unfavorable situations, they would get up and leave the table altogether. Highly-skilled card counters are also known to keep side-counts on key cards like the aces.
Blackjack Advantage Play Additional TipsShuffle tracking is another advanced technique professional blackjack players are known to implement. This approach is often used in combination with card counting and is based on the idea that shuffles, especially when performed manually, are not entirely random. In an attempt to save time and avoid slowing down the game, blackjack dealers would often shuffle the cards rather quickly. This results in entire sections of cards being clumped together.
The advantage player would then divide the shoe into sections and keep separate counts for each of these sections. If the count of one of the sections gets particularly high, the player would track this clump in the discard tray. When the dealer reshuffles the shoe and hands out the cut card to the advantage player, the latter would cut the shoe in such a way so that the clump of high cards is maintained. The advantage player would then increase their bet sizing when this clump is about to get dealt.
Another advanced method proficient blackjack players would use is hole carding, which has to do with figuring out what the hole card of the dealer is. In fact, this technique can be used in other card games where hole cards are in play, like poker. In blackjack, this approach is particularly useful in games where the rules require the dealer to also check for a natural when they are showing a face card. Some dealers are less careful when checking, allowing players to also peek at their hole card. Others are known as “flashers” and would purposely disclose this information to players in hopes of receiving a toke. Either way, one’s position at the table is important, with third and first base being the most suitable places for hole carding.
Variations of Blackjack
Blackjack is the most widely played card game in the world, so it is hardly surprising that many enticing variations have emerged ever since it was first introduced in Nevada casinos in the 1930s. Each variant has its own peculiarities in terms of rules and even bets.
One of the most popular blackjack variations is Double Exposure. As the name implies, in this variant, the dealer receives their two cards face-up so that players can see them. At first glance, this seems like a fantastic opportunity for players, card counters especially. If only there were no adjustments to the rules! In Double Exposure, a natural pays even money instead of 3 to 2. Players are not allowed to re-split and lose all ties, save for those with naturals.
Another popular variant is Perfect Pairs where there is an interesting twist since players are allowed to make several side bets to spice up their sessions a bit. It is possible to bet on receiving a pair on the initial deal. Mixed pairs offer a payout of 5 to 1, same-color pairs return at the rate of 10 to 1, and “perfect” pairs, i.e. pairs consisting of suited cards return 30 to 1.
In Blackjack Switch, players are dealt two separate hands of two cards each and have the option to switch the top cards between these two hands in order to improve their totals. It is possible to hit, stand, split and double down afterward. The dealer plays out their hand as usual. The downside is that the player can potentially (but not necessarily) lose both hands.
Duel Blackjack is truly unique in that it involves the use of community cards by both the dealer and the players. Also, dealers’ hands usually qualify on a specific total – for example, if their hand total is less than 13, the dealer would automatically lose. Both cards of the dealer are dealt face down, while the player receives one face-up and one hole card. Both player and dealer combine one or two of their cards with one or two of the community cards to form a better hand. Whoever obtains a higher total wins.
There are plenty of other interesting variations of the game, including Spanish 21, Pontoon, Double Attack, and Super Fun 21, all of which can be easily found at various online casinos. Which leads us to the last section where we introduce players in brief to the peculiarities of playing the game of 21 from the comfort of their surroundings.
Playing Online Blackjack
Blackjack enjoys such an immense popularity among gambling enthusiasts that there is hardly an online casino out there, which does not offer at least one variation of the game. To tell you the truth, this is one of the greatest advantages interactive gambling can possibly offer to blackjack enthusiasts since many of the said variants are impossible to find at brick-and-mortar venues. All of the above-listed variations, and more, can be played online. Other favorites include Vegas Strip and Atlantic City Blackjack. More importantly, players can also boost their bankroll size even further by redeeming various bonuses – some of those are reserved exclusively for blackjack play.
Of course, in order to win actual money, players are expected to open a real-money account and deposit some funds but testing the blackjack games in Practice mode normally is also an option. When your preferred blackjack variant loads, you will notice the base game screen looks precisely like a regular blackjack table – the shoe is positioned on one side, the discard tray stands at the other, and there are chips of different denominations to pick from. There is a plaque to indicate the table limits players must fit into as well.
Once you select your chip denomination of choice, you click on the betting box to place your chips there just like you normally would in a landbased casino. You hit the Deal button to receive your cards and play your hands as usual, with the options being to hit, stand, double, split, and even surrender, depending on the game’s rules. If you win, you will be credited with the amount instantly. It is also possible to play multiple hands at a time.
Online Blackjack Additional TipsOne important thing to take into account before you start has to do with the shoe. Since virtual blackjack games run on special software called Random Number Generator, the entire shoe is automatically reshuffled after every single hand, which renders card counting and other advanced techniques merely impossible to use. The discard tray is practically always empty as all cards that have been in play are returned back to the shoe after each hand.
The good news is that many online gambling operators have live-dealer offerings where classic table games are streamed in superb quality in real time. These are hosted by professional, highly skilled (not to mention attractive) dealers who can communicate with the players, making the games more interactive – just like in actual casinos. In such cases, it would be indeed possible for skilled card counters to keep track of the remaining cards and thus, improve their odds of collecting a win.
It all starts with players finding a reputable casino to play their favorite card game at. Some of the criteria to look for include licensing, certification for randomness and fairness, versatility in terms of banking options, premium software, mobile compatibility, and adequacy of the casino’s customer support. Once you find a casino which covers all of the above criteria and offers your preferred blackjack variants, you are all set to go.