Blackjack is one of the most popular table games and, of course, there is a great number of variations, available in online and brick-and-mortar casinos. It is also known as a game of 21 and it is famous for having a small casino edge.
Blackjack is a game that requires the players to have good knowledge, the right set of skills, and to use a proper strategy to turn the odds in their favor. All reputable online casinos have at least a couple of blackjack variations and live dealer options. What makes it such a popular game is the presence of straightforward rules, the fact that you can beat the casino with the perfect strategy, as well as the many negative and positive progression systems that enhance your chances of making a decent profit over time.
As this is a game of skill, it is important for first-time players to know the rules and understand the objective of the game. In the sections below, we have tried to explain the basics of blackjack and to include a simple strategy for winning. Beginners who wish to master this casino classic can also find essential information about the variations available and the differences between them, so they can choose a 21 game that is suitable for them.
In the typical casino setting, blackjack uses 6 standard decks of cards (Twos to Aces) but there are many variations of the game, which may be played with anywhere from 2 to 8 decks. Multiple gamblers can place bets against the dealer in land-based casinos, while online, you play against the computer. The game starts when the dealer gives 2 face-up cards to the player and 2 cards to himself – one is face-up, while the other is face-down. The hands of the player and the dealer are then compared to see who has blackjack. This a hand consisting of a Jack and an Ace.
The objective of the game is to get a hand that is as close to 21 as possible without going over, (this is called a bust). So, how are the cards counted?
- Cards 2-9 – count as their face values
- Cards 10-K – count as 10
- Ace – counts as 1 or 11
If the player has a 10-value card and an Ace, he or she has a blackjack (also called natural), which is the best possible scenario, as it pays 3:2, while a regular win pays 1:1. If there is no winner after the initial deal, the player can request another card (hitting) – he can take as many cards as he wants to in order to reach as close to 21 as possible. Once this happens, he opts for not no more cards dealt (standing), allowing the dealer to see the face-down card and take more cards, if needed. The winner is the one with a blackjack or with a hand that is closer to 21. Whenever one of them busts, the other wins.
There are, however, several important rules that apply to the dealer’s actions. In the standard blackjack variation, also known as American blackjack, the dealer’s face-down card is called a hole card. The dealer can peek if his initial card is either a 10-value card or an Ace. Another rule is that the dealer can also stand or hit – usually, he is required to hit on a “soft” 16 and stand on a “soft” 17. Soft hands consist of an Ace, while hard hands do not. There are also games where the dealer is allowed to hit on a soft 17, which gives him flexibility and advantage over the player. Therefore, players are advised to avoid games with this particular rule.
In addition, some games also have the option to surrender after the dealer checks for blackjack. In this case, players surrender half of their bet to the casino. It should be noted that surrender is only allowed before requesting a third or fourth card.
Players have several additional options after they receive their initial two cards and one of them is to split a hand that consists of two identical cards. When they receive a pair of Jacks, for instance, they can split them placing a second bet of the same amount, thus playing with two hands from that point on. Usually, casinos and online blackjack games have some restrictions on the number of times a split is allowed. Often, players are allowed to split only twice and in some games, they can receive only one additional card per hand when splitting Aces.
Classic blackjack also gives players the chance to double their bet if they receive a particularly good hand. Some variations of the game, however, allow doubling down only when the player has a hand of 9, 10, or 11. In other instances, doubling the bet is not permitted after splitting a pair.
Often, players are allowed to buy insurance if they see that the dealer’s up card is an Ace. Insurance is a side bet, independent from the original one, and it wins if the dealer gets blackjack. This side bet usually pays 2:1 but it requires the player to place a second bet. In most cases, however, this is a sucker bet.
Basic Blackjack Strategy
Blackjack is a game of player decisions, which means the outcome of every round depends on the skills of the player. Each variation of blackjack has its own rules and mathematically proven strategy that will help you generate decent winnings over time. Below, you can find a short version of the basic strategy for classic blackjack:
- Dealer’s face-up card is a 7, 8, 9, 10, face card or an Ace – you should continue hitting to at least 17.
- Dealer’s face-up card is less than 7 but more than 3 – hit until your hand is at least 12.
- Dealer’s face-up card is a 2 or a 3 – hit until you get 13 or more.
- You have soft hand – continue hitting until you have at least 18.
- Your initial hand is 11 – double down.
- Your hand is 10 – double down, hit if the dealer’s up card is an Ace or 10-value card.
- Your initial hand is 9 – double down if the dealer has 3, 4, 5, or 6.
- You hand is a pair of Aces or 8s – split.
- You hand is a pair of 2s, 3s, or 7s – split, unless the dealer has 8, 9, 10-value card or Ace.
- You hand is a pair of 6s – split only if the dealer’s face-up card is a 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.
- You hand is a pair of 4s, 5s, or 10s – never split.
There may be many exclusions to these basic steps but they would work well in most variations of blackjack. In fact, players can easily find strategy charts for free online – they are extremely detailed and adjusted to every single version of blackjack. When speaking of strategies, we must say that even the perfect one will not turn the odds in your favor – it simply allows you to play with the best odds possible. The only way to get a guarantee for beating the casino is if you count cards – an extremely complicated practice, which is not illegal but also certainly not tolerated by casinos. You can find more interesting facts about card counting in this guide, but for most players, it is better to stick to the basic strategy and understand the average RTP or return-to-player percentage of the game.
Payout and House Edge
An important thing to check before playing any version of blackjack is its RTP, the average amount players can expect to win back in a certain game. It is represented as a percentage and for blackjack, it usually around 99.60% or a bit higher, suggesting that we could lose only $0.40 out of a $100 total bet. The house edge, on the other hand, is the tiny percentage left to 100%, 0.40% in this case. However, every single variation of the rules has an impact on the house edge and the RTP. This includes the number of decks used, the payout, the rules for splitting, surrender, and doubling down.
Classic blackjack has a standard payout for a win, blackjack, and insurance, but usually, single-deck versions pay 6:5 for blackjack, which is less than you would receive traditionally. Here is the standard payout for American blackjack:
- Blackjack pays 3 to 2 (3:2)
- Wins pay 1 to 1 (1:1)
- Insurance pays 2 to 1 (2:1)
The house edge is the casino’s statistical advantage, which is built in the game itself. As we have already mentioned, every rule in the game has an influence on the house advantage in blackjack. The most liberal rules, for instance, would result in a house edge of only 0.28%. Here are several rules that can make the game more favorable to the player:
- Dealer stands on soft 17 – decreases the house edge by 0.20%
- Hole card rule – decreases the house edge by 0.11%
- Doubling on any number of cards – decreases the house edge by 0.23%
- Double down after split – decreases the house edge by 0.12%
- Late surrender – decreases the house edge by 0.8%-1%
- Single-deck game – decreases the house edge by 0.48%
Blackjack can be played in thousands of casinos around the world but there are always little differences in the standard rules of the game. In fact, some researchers point out that there may be over 100 variations of blackjack in existence. Still, they are all based on either of the two basic versions of the game – American and European.
American blackjack is the version of the game, which is usually considered classic or standard blackjack. In this game, the dealer receives one face-up and one face-down card, the hole card. If this up card is an Ace, the dealer checks the hole card without anyone else seeing and if he has a blackjack, he wins.
In addition, American blackjack is usually played with 6 to 8 decks of cards and doubling down is allowed on any two cards and even after splitting. Usually surrender is an option at any time.
In European blackjack, 2 standard decks are used and there is no hole card – the dealer receives a second card after the player’s hand is complete. Doubling down is usually allowed only on hands that total 9, 10, or 11. Players cannot double their bet after a split. Moreover, only one split can be made and when the hand includes two 10-value cards, they have to be the same. For instance, while American blackjack allows resplitting of a 10-Jack hand, the European version allows it only if the two cards are 10s or Jacks.
Other Blackjack Variations
There are more blackjack variants than one could count and some of them are more popular than others. For instance, Spanish 21 offers bonus payouts for 21 hands consisting of five or more cards, three 7s, or several other options. However, the deck has 48 cards because the 10s are left out. Another fairly popular version is Double Exposure, in which the dealer receives two face-up cards, while players are paid evenly for blackjack and they lose ties. In addition, there are no surrender and insurance rules. There are many other games that derive from blackjack such as Pontoon (quite loosely based on casino blackjack), Australian pontoon, Vegas-style blackjack, or Blackjack Switch.