All About Blackjack
One of (if not the) most popular table games in today's casinos is classic blackjack. Having originated in France under the name “vingt-et-un” in the 1700's and popularized in the United States in the 1800's, it remains a favorite to many players today thanks to it's relatively good player odds and ease of play. The game has changed little since it's introduction, short of using multiple decks at most tables and shuffling more frequently to avoid most issues with card counters potential advantage over the house.
Even without the benefits of card counting, blackjack tends to have the best odds of any table games in the casino so long as you understand the basic strategy (which we'll cover below.) Proper play should take the house advantage to under 0.5% - only rivaled in odds by perfect play in certain video poker variations.
If you're a visual learner, a quick way to introduce yourself to the game is to watch the following video:
Blackjack is a fairly simple game to play; the object is to get a card total closer to 21 than the dealer does without going over 21. While most online variations are single player games, multi player tables are the norm in brick and mortar casinos, and some online venues will offer multi player tables as well. When playing in the company of other patrons, other players hands are irrelevant to the outcome of your game - it's still just you versus the dealer.
It's important to note that the dealer must play by a certain set of rules which determine when they can and cannot take additional cards to better their hand total, whereas the player can opt to take as many cards as they wish provided their hand total is less than 21. It's not always in the players best interest to take additional cards when the dealer is showing a particular card, even when the players initial hand may seem weak (see strategy below.)
Playing The Game
The game starts with the the player to the dealers left being dealt one card, following clockwise until each player has received one. The dealer then takes one card - however that card is kept face-down at this point in the game so players are unaware of it's value. The process repeats itself so each player now has two cards, but this time around the dealers second card is shown face up so the players have some indication of what their hand may be.
If the dealers face up card is an ace, the players will first be offered 'insurance'. This is essentially a side bet that the dealer has a blackjack (their face down card has a value of 10) that costs half of your original bet, and pays 2 to 1. After all players have taken or rejected this additional bet, the dealer will check their down card (without showing the players) and either collect the insurance bets and proceed with the hand (if they do not have blackjack) or pay them out and flip their down card up if they do to reveal the 21.
A player with a "blackjack" (their first two cards total 21) wins before the dealer has played out their hand and is paid at 3:2 odds, provided the dealer does not also have a blackjack in which case they push (tie) and the player gets their bet returned.
After all the initial cards have been dealt, the dealer asks the first player (again to their left/clockwise) if they would like any additional cards - or depending on those cards whether they'd like to take additional actions such as splitting or doubling down. Taking an additional card is called hitting in blackjack, and the player may continue to do so until they are happy with their hand total or go over 21 - referred to as busting, in which case that hand has lost. When a player has reached a hand total they are happy with, they will choose to stand, meaning they do not want any additional cards.
Once all the players at the table have completed their hands (by either standing with their total or busting and losing their hand) the dealer shows their down card and plays the remainder of their hand out according to a particular set of rules (which can vary on certain tables, but are usually the same, especially at online casinos.)
Once each round is completed, a player with a hand total higher than the dealer (assuming they haven't busted) wins their bet and are paid out at even money. Players who end up with the same total as the dealer push, and their bets are returned. Players with a hand total less than the dealers lose their bet.
A players hand total is determined by adding up the value of each card that they were dealt. Regardless of suits, all face cards have a value of 10, 2 through 10 have that same value, and aces can be valued at either 11 or 1, depending on what's in the best interest of the hand. For example, a player dealt a queen and an ace as their first 2 cards has a hand total of 21 (called a blackjack only when dealt a 21 with those first two cards) with the queen valued at 10 and the ace played as 11 for a total of 21. A player dealt an 8 and a 6 for an initial total of 14 who then hits and receives an ace would have that ace valued at only 1 to avoid going over 21 (and thus "busting" and losing their hand.) The same rules apply to the dealers hand when they are dealt aces.
Players at the table take their actions first (as usual starting with the player leftmost to the dealer.) After insurance (if it was an option) or otherwise, the players can choose to do the following with their hand:
- Hit: Taking another card to add to their hand total. A player can continue hitting so long as they don't go over 21.
- Stand: Taking no further cards and keeping their hand total.
- Split: This is only an option if the players initial two cards are the same value, for example a pair of 9's or two aces. (see below for details)
- Double Down: This is usually only an option if the players initial hand total is between 9 and 11, but table rules may vary and some allow doubling on any hand.
(see below for details)
- Surrender: This is pretty much never an option at most modern tables. If available, the player can reclaim half their bet and give up their hand.
Each player completes their actions by before the dealer moves on to the next person at the table.
Splitting pairs is an option available to players when their initial two cards are of the value (usually - though sometimes you may only be allowed to split actual pairs; for example you may split a pair of kings, but not a king and a jack even though they are both valued at 10.) Always check the table rules first to be sure.
When you split your cards, you create two separate hands with one of each card as the starting point, but must put in another bet of the same value to that new hand. (If you bet $5, receive and split a pair of 10's you will have to put in an additional $5 and will now have 2 hands - each starting with one of those 10's.) Cards are dealt out normally to each hand after that with the player able to take the same actions with each hand. The normal exception to this is when you split aces.
At most blackjack tables (not all,) when you split aces you are allowed to play only one card on each of the two split hands, and if you do get a ten as the second card it is often not paid out as a "blackjack". While still valued at 21, they may only pay even money if the player wins.
Doubling down is an option that allows the player to double their bet, but at the expense of only taking one more card to better their hand total. This can normally only be done when the players initial hand totals 9, 10 or 11 - but table rules may vary and occasionally allow any hand to double down after their first two cards.
Surrendering once again isn't an option you'll find at many tables online or off, but when available allow the player if they feel they'll be beaten by the dealers show to abandon their hand and get half their bet back before the dealer completes their hand.
Like all card games, blackjack certainly involves luck - however there are basic strategies that will increase the player's chance to win. Playing proper strategy reduces the house edge significantly to the point where it's almost and even odds game.
Keep in mind while making hand decisions that:
- The objective of the game is to get a hand total closer to 21 than the dealer. You don't necessarily have to get as close to 21 as possible, provided you think you can beat the dealers hand with your current card total, and you risk busting when you take more cards than you may need to.
- The dealers primary advantage comes from having the players go first. If a player busts they have lost their hand, even if the dealer ends up (or would have have ended up) busting afterwards. It's inevitable you'll bust on some hands even when playing properly, but certain hands should be held even when lower than desired to avoid that possibility.
- The dealer is required to play by a certain set of rules that determine when they must take additional cards or stand. If you stand on a low valued hand such as 12, the dealer must still take an additional card with an initial hand total of anything less than 17, increasing their chances of busting when they have starting hands valued 12 though 16. If they bust you win, regardless of how low your hand value is.
While anything can happen with a series of random cards being dealt, here are the average odds of the dealer ending up busting given their face-up card:
|Dealers face-up card is a:||2||3||4||5||6||7||8||9||10||Ace|
|Percentage chance of busting:||35||37||40||42||42||26||24||23||23||17|
As you can see, the dealer has a much better chance of busting when they have an up card showing that's between 2 and 6. This is because there's significantly more cards in the deck valued at 10 than otherwise, making a hit risky with a total or 12 or more given that nearly a third of the deck are 10's or face cards.
You can use the following strategy calculator to determine your best options for any traditional blackjack game. Click on the red buttons to change particular rules to reflect those of your table such as number of decks being used and player options and the chart will update automatically. (Note that 10 includes all face cards as well which are valued the same - i.e. Queen, Jack is the same as 10, 10.)