How to Play Blackjack

If you’ve played in a casino whether online or in person, chances are you’ve either played Blackjack, or you at least know what the basic premise of the game is.

Introduction

Not only is Blackjack one of the most, if not the most, popular games aside from Poker, but it has some of the best odds for players as the house edge comes in so low. Some statistics say it’s around 0.35% and others are in the 1.1% range.

It all depends on the number of decks, house rules, particular game variation, and strategy used.

Almost everyone is aware that the objective is to beat the dealer (get closer to 21 without going over that mark). With a few minutes of tutoring, even a newbie can sit down at a table and understand the basics of hit, stand, or split.

But, the beauty of Blackjack is that with real knowledge of the ins and outs of the game and calculating percentages in your head to determine the best play, you have a much better chance of winning. And, you can certainly sit at the table for quite awhile and keep things going without blowing through all of your allotted betting cash simply by making wise moves and paying close attention.

Blackjack Guides

Local Differences

At US casinos, the game of 21 in its various forms, takes up more than 50% of the overall pit space in Las Vegas and 36% in Atlantic City. In Australia, it’s the highest contributor amongst all table games.

Other countries have their own specific regions where Blackjack is more prevalent. For example, Ontario is the Canadian driving force for table games, and Monte Carlo, London, Singapore, South Korea, and Malaysia all have dedicated players who continue to be enthusiastic about a game that’s been around for centuries.

Macau, with the highest gambling revenues in the world, is the anomaly when it comes to table games. Baccarat and Sic Bo are far and above the games of choice for Macau players and Blackjack doesn’t even come close. If you take Baccarat out of the equation, you’re still only looking at a contribution of 10% of gaming revenue, which is well below that in other regions.

iGaming has allowed this game to reach players that never had real money wagering access before. You would be hard pressed to find any online casino that doesn’t list Blackjack as their number one table game and host several variations. The addition of live dealers to many of these websites has allowed home players to move beyond playing against the computer and get in on real table action with a real person dealing out the cards.

Vingt-et-un to 21?

We do know that the game of 21 has been around for centuries, but the exact origin has never been fully proven.

One theory is that it was invented by the Romans, who used wooden blocks with the different values that closely represented a deck of cards, to come up with a targeted number. Others mention the Spanish game “One and Thirty,” with the objective to reach 31 with at least three cards.

The most common conclusion, though, is that it derived from the 18th-century French game, Vingt-et-Un, which translates to 21. Vingt-et-Un was reputed to be a favorite of both Louis XV and Napoleon.

In the early 1800s, the game made its way to America but didn’t catch on until 1931 when gambling was legalized in the state of Nevada. The original name was simply “21″ but a special bet to entice new players to give it a try, resulted in the name change.

Those first casinos provided a 10 to 1 odds payout if a player was dealt 21 with an Ace of Spades plus either the Jack of Clubs or Jack of Spades, hence the name Blackjack. Although that particular payout is no longer offered, the name certainly lives on regardless of where the cards are being dealt.

How do I play Blackjack? Just get 21 every time?

We did previously say that anyone could learn the basics and get rolling in just a few minutes but to master all of the intricacies of the game truly, it could take quite awhile. Entire books have been written about the game of 21 and the strategies that can be employed to win more often.

In the 1960’s Edward Thorp released “Beat the Dealer,” a how-to on doing just that, beating the dealer and increasing the player’s bottom line. Thorp’s theory was that card counting was proven to overcome the house advantage.

For a recreational player, it’s a handy guide providing a concise table of the best strategy to use for every hand including when to hit, stand, double, or split. He also strongly suggests paying attention to everyone else’s hands to get a good feel for the remaining potential for tens and Aces.

Before you get any ideas about Blackjack being a sure thing, though, keep in mind that Casinos wouldn’t host a losing proposition. Yes, there are different moves that players should make depending on the cards they’re playing against, but there’s never a guarantee.

The Basics

Let’s start with the basics before we get into some tips and advice from the pros. We’re using a regular casino game with a live dealer for our example, and not a home game as it wouldn’t have the same structure.

The following is the scenario for the basic game that can also be called Vegas Strip Blackjack on the internet. Vegas Strip Blackjack is usually played with four decks, but different Blackjack tables will use different deck amounts.

The Set-Up

A dealer is facing five to seven table positions. A full table is not necessary to play; it’s just more fun. The cards used are regular 52 decks but, depending on the table, it could be a single deck game or up to eight decks combined. Six decks are the most prevalent and, whenever more than four are used, they’re dealt from a shoe (a box that holds that cards for easier card removal and dealing).

The Objective

To beat the dealer by getting as close to 21 as possible without going over. 21 or Blackjack is the best hand and is comprised of an Ace and a ten or a face card (sometimes called paint).

How the Cards Add-Up

An Ace can be high or low (11 or one). In the case of a Blackjack, it’s high at a value of 11. Regular cards are face value, so an 8 = 8. Tens and face cards all are valued at ten.

Table Limits

Table limits are always advertised whether in a land-based casino or online. They will typically run from $1 to $500 but always review the sign before selecting a table, so you know your exact minimum and maximum bet allowances.

The Dealer and the Deal

Dealers will shuffle the cards either by hand or using a shuffle master (electronic shuffling machine), and they deal from their left to right giving themselves each card last. Player cards are both dealt face up, but the dealer gets the first card face up and the second card down. That’s called the hole card.

A Few Basic Terms

Hit means taking an extra card. In person you indicate this by using a few fingers to scratch the table or waving a hand toward him or herself; when playing online, you click the “hit” button.

When to hit (general guideline): If a player has a 7, 8, 9, 10, or Ace showing, players should hit until they at least have 17. If the dealer has a 4, 5, or 6, players can take a chance that the dealer will bust and can stop at 12 or higher. With a dealer hand of 2 or 3, players are advised to stop at 13 or higher.

Stand means staying with the cards that have already been dealt and not taking another. In person you indicate this by hovering a hand, palm down, over the table horizontally in a “no more” type of gesture; when playing online, you click the “stand” button.

When to stand: (see above for “hit” guidelines).

Split Pairs means taking two cards of the same denomination (like two 8’s) and separating them into two distinct hands by placing an additional wager. In person you indicate this by separating the cards into two and putting chips that equal the initial bet on the second card; when playing online, you click the “split” button.

Ideal hands to split: two Aces or two eights.

Double down means adding a second bet equal to the original when the combination of both dealt cards is 9, 10, or 11. In person you indicate this by placing the 2nd bet next to the original resulting in the dealer providing just one more card face down (not up). The card isn’t revealed until bets are being settled; when playing online, you click the “double down” or “double” button.

Ideal hand for double down: 11; a total of ten should also be a double down unless the dealer shows a ten or an Ace.

“Soft 17″ is an ace and a Six; Soft 17’s are called that because a player can stay with 17 or consider it a “7″ and hit.

Insurance is a player’s option if a dealer has an Ace face up. Insurance is a side bet of up to half the original bet So, with a ten bet made, insurance is an additional five, and it’s in favor of the dealer having a ten as their hole card. If a ten is turned over, the player receives double their insurance bet thereby basically resulting in a tie for them, as their original bet is surrendered.

Surrender is not available everywhere but, if it is, it allows the player to “give up” and turn in their hand while losing just half of their bet. This is a typical move if a player has a bad hand to start and a dealer is showing a 9, 10, or Ace.

Let’s play… step by step…

  1. Place your bet (there’s a designated area for player bets indicated by a circle).
  2. The first cards are dealt (face up to all players as well as the dealer).
  3. The second cards are dealt – (face up to all players and face down for the dealer).
  4. If the dealer receives a ten or an Ace face up, he or she will look at the hole card to see if it resulted in a 21. If so, the card is turned over, and the winning hand is revealed. If the dealer has a Blackjack, read step five; if not, move on to step six.
  5. All players without their own Blackjack immediately lose the hand, and their bets are lost. Any player that does have 21 ties with the dealer and takes back their bet but doesn’t get paid extra.
  6. Play starts with the player on the left (dealer facing left). Each player opts to either “hit” or “stand.” Hit is asking for another card and stand is staying with the cards they currently have. If they hit, they get another card and can also hit again until they’re satisfied or bust.
  7. If a player busts, the bet is immediately surrendered regardless of the dealer outcome.
  8. Once all bets are in place, the dealer turns over the hole card and will then either stand or hit. Dealers must play consistently, so they hit until they get 17 or higher. They don’t hit with a 17 although some casinos allow for dealer hits on soft 17 and mandate they stand.
  9. Once the dealer stands or busts, bets are settled up.

Bet Settlements

A player’s hand beats the dealer’s hand: player gets paid an amount equal to their bet. i.e. bet $5, win $5.

The dealer’s hand beats a player’s hand: player loses his or her bet.

A player has the same hand value as the dealer: result is a tie and the player has his or her bet returned.

A player with a Blackjack and dealer does not have one: the player typically* gets paid at 3:2 (so a $30 payout on a $20 wager).

*3:2 is the standard payout ratio but some variations have worse payout ratios.

Variations

Live BlackjackBrick and mortar casinos, as well as their online counterparts, now provide numerous twists on 21. Although we’ll go into some of the varieties, you’ll certainly find much more out there and more to come as game developers continue to innovate and impress with new ways to try to beat the house.

Keep in mind the original game of Blackjack as we outlined above as we’ll compare these versions to that particular concept with two cards down for players and one face up and one hole card for the dealer.

European Blackjack

The difference here is in the sequence of receiving the dealt cards. All players are dealt their two cards, but the dealer is only given their face up card. The hole card isn’t even dealt until the players make their decision on how to play their cards. That means that the dealer can’t turn over 21 before players are allowed to make their moves.

Spanish Blackjack or Spanish 21

Spanish 21 is played with six or eight decks, but each one has only 48 cards instead of 52. All of the tens are removed, and just the face cards (Jack, Queen, King) will provide the ten value. The 48 card deck increases the odds for the house, but insurance, late surrender, and surrendering after doubling down are all allowed.

Pontoon

If you’re not comfortable with the basic game as yet, we suggest holding off on Pontoon for awhile as it is unique including in the terminology used, so it’ll take an additional learning curve. The best hand is called Pontoon, and it is precisely the same as Blackjack. The next best, however, is a five-card trick or five cards totaling 21 or less. The third is a hand of three or four cards that equal 21, and the rest are ranked in regular numerical order such as a hand of 19 beats an 18. The first card is dealt down to everyone, but players can look at their own card. Bets are not placed until that first card is on the table. The second card then comes around and, here’s another twist. If a dealer has a Pontoon, players pay double.

Perfect Pairs

Instead of calling this an entirely different game, it’s more of a side bet that accompanies regular games including Pontoon. Before a hand is dealt, a player puts an additional wager in the perfect pairs section on the table. If the first two cards result in one of the designated winning pairs, they’re then paid accordingly. First of all, the cards have to be the same such as with two 8’s or two Kings, and then there are three types of Perfect Pairs. We’ll give an example of a six-deck average payout. Keep in mind that more than one deck has to be used as a truly perfect pair is the exact same card such as two Kings of Diamonds.

Perfect Pair (same card, same suit) – 30 to 1 payout

Same Color Pair (same card, same color, different suite) – 10 to 1

Mixed Color Pair (same card, one red and one black) – 5 to 1

The house edge on the Perfect Pair bet is well above the standard game as it comes in around 5.8% as opposed to 0.35%.

Super Fun 21

The initial deal and premise are the same as the regular game, but a few differences then come into play. The Blackjack payout is 6 to 5 rather than 3 to 2, but the player’s Blackjack wins over the dealer’s. Additionally, if a player can come up with the magic number of 20 or less, with six or more cards, he or she wins above any other dealer hand. Players can also split their hand up to four times, and five or more cards that add up to 21 pays at 2 to 1.

The Super Fun 21 side bet

We wanted to mention the side bet as it has a notable 300 to 1 payout. You won’t find this in many places, but the bet is made when decks are newly shuffled. The player is wagering that they will receive a Blackjack in Diamonds to receive that big 300:1 prize. The house edge on the side bet is over 9%, so it’s not often successful but can add to the excitement if you can find a casino that offers it.

Face Up 21

In this version, both of the dealer’s cards are face up, so there are no surprises for the players. Payouts are designed to offset that advantage and Blackjack is only paid out at 1:1. It’s usually played with eight decks and the advantage goes to the player if both the player and dealer have Blackjack but all other ties go to the dealer.

Multiple Action Blackjack

This game requires up to three bets by each player. Some tables will mandate all three, and some will allow for two. The bets are placed, and everyone plays their one hand. However, when it’s the dealer’s turn, the face-up card will be played three separate times. So, for example, if the face-up card is a ten, the dealer will turn over the first hole card. Let’s say it’s an 18 so that hand stands as is, and the first wagers are then won or lost accordingly. Then the dealer plays that original ten once again with new cards for the second bet and then new draws again for the third. Bettors can have some big wins or big losses at these tables.

Blackjack Switch

Two bets are required for this game as the switch is between one player’s two different hands. So, let’s use the example of a player receiving a 10 and 4 for one hand and a 10 and 7 for another. The four from the first hand can be switched with the ten from the second to create brand new hands that are now 10 and 10 for the one, and 4 and 7 for the other. Six or eight decks are usually used, and Blackjacks pay out at even money.

Can I Improve My Chances of Winning?

As there are so many books, articles, and blogs about increasing your odds of winning at the game of 21, there are some things that you can consciously do to better your chances but, again, there’s no sure thing. It’s called gambling for a reason, so don’t quit your day job to take up residence at a Blackjack table.

However, mastering the game should help with your overall performance.

There are some general things to pay attention to as well as a particular playing strategy that will directly impact the house edge:

  1. Find a table that’s loud and boisterous whether online you’re walking into a casino or joining a table in progress online. Winning tables are louder than the ones where the dealer is the lucky one.
  2. Find a six-deck table and preferably one where the dealer can’t hit a soft 17.
  3. Be sure you’re getting paid 3:2 for top hands and not 6:5.
  4. Select the type of game with the lowest house edge like Vegas Strip as opposed to European.
  5. Use the same strategy as the dealer whenever possible. In general, hit on 16 and stay on 17.
  6. Pay attention to the dealer cards as much as your own before making any move.
  7. Re-split Aces.
  8. Don’t split tens.
  9. Double down on any number of cards (not just 10 or 11).
  10. Watch for Aces, Faces, and Tens… meaning pay attention to what everyone at the table is getting to determine your raised or lowered potential for 21 cards.
  11. Study Edward Thorp’s guide so you know when to hit, stand, double, and split.

Should I Play Blackjack or Poker?

If you’re an occasional “just for fun” player not solely interested in the bottom line but, rather, wanting to have a good time, we first recommend that you stick with a game that you enjoy the most. Why push through something new just because you may have a slightly better winning potential? You’d be better off selecting your favorite one and getting more enjoyment out of it even if the odds are a few percentages off.

However, if you want to get down to the nitty-gritty of gambling for the biggest profit, then Blackjack is going to give you a slight edge. Poker may be the most popular game, but odds are more in favor of the house than they are with Blackjack when implementing the recommended strategy.

When we put both games head to head we’re comparing apples to oranges a bit because poker is playing against other players and Blackjack is playing against a dealer. The entire table can win a round of Blackjack, but Poker is going to be winner takes all.

Unless you’re a high roller, Blackjack may take longer to rack up a significant amount of chips, though, whereas one big poker jackpot could offset numerous losing hands.

If we look specifically at the frequency of wins for players who are making the correct strategic moves, Blackjack comes in around 44% and Poker only at 10%. Now, again, these are averages based on individual tables and long-running play. Sometimes a table is just lucky, and players have several consecutive wins, and sometimes they just can’t catch a break.

Where Should I Play Online?

Online Blackjack“Where can’t you go?” is the operative question. Blackjack is everywhere. If an online casino offers table games, you have a 99.9% chance that it’s offering Blackjack and, most likely, many different tables with a range of minimum bets and multiple varieties of 21.

US players have 5Dimes.eu that hosts four different casinos on their one main website. Its’ Blackjack games include European, Blackjack and Perfect Pairs, Face Up 21, Match Play 21, Pontoon, Super 21, and Suit ‘em.

UK’s Hippodrome Casino Online has 20 different variations including one with a live dealer. Games include Classic Blackjack Gold, Vegas Strip Blackjack Gold, Hi-Lo Blackjack European, Multi-hand, Multi-hand Perfect Pairs European, and Multi Vegas Downtown. Most of its games also come with a Play for Fun alternative so new players can get their feet wet and not lose a quid.

Bodog offers eight tables for its Canadian customers with Perfect Pairs, Zappit, European and a relatively new game they’re calling Bodog’s Single Deck Blackjack.

Asian and European bookmaker 188Bet hosts Spanish 21 Blackjack Gold, Premier Hi-Lo, and Hi-Lo 13 European Blackjack Gold Series, and Bitcoin-only Nitrogen Sports offers eight-deck Blackjack for its global customers.

If you like the marriage of online betting with live dealer action, there are also a huge number of gaming providers that offer Live Blackjack.

LeoVegas has their custom games as well as Celebrity Blackjack Party and Dansk Celebrity Blackjack, and mrgreen.com offers Blackjack High Roller and Common Draw as well as regular tables.

There may now be numerous variations of the original game of Vingt-et-un or 21, but good old Blackjack is a mainstay in casinos, and it looks like that’s something that will never change.

Popular Questions

I have a 16, and the dealer has a 7 showing. Do I hit or stand?
This is one of the most debated questions in Blackjack as players are hesitant to take another card on 16 and, honestly, it’s a close call. Some experts will advise, in this case, to surrender your hand if that option is available. If you’re going to play it through, standing provides a 26% chance of a win and hitting is slightly higher at 27-30%. Dealers hit 16 and do fine so with it, so you probably don’t want to stand on that 16.
How do I know when to double down?
There isn’t an entirely clear cut answer to this and, as with everything in Blackjack, you need to read the table, the dealer cards, and the potential for high or low cards to come out next. Players like to double down as it does increase the payout and there are a few good hands to keep in mind when deciding whether to double down or not. The best hand to double down on is the hard 11 as you have a good chance of drawing in the 10 that you need. If a dealer has a 4, 5 or 6 showing, double down on a 10, and if a dealer has a 5 or 6, you can double down on your 9 hand as well.
What if someone else at the table isn’t playing by the strategy?
If you have played before, you may have felt like your outcome was being affected by someone who faced a dealer’s 9, and chose to hit his hard 17. And, in that case, there is a possibility that the move may have cost everyone that hand. In general, though, when you factor in everything, a bad player isn’t going to be detrimental especially if his or her bad plays are consistent.

Personally, though, if another player has been making choices that you feel are negatively affecting your game time and time again, we’d move to another table.