Blackjack is one of the most popular card games in the world. It is an evolution of the game Twenty-One, which has been around since at least the 16th century. There is some evidence to suggest that the game comes from Spain or France, but its exact origins are unknown.
Our expert guide tells you when to hit, when to stand and how to discover the best blackjack experience there is.
There are now many different versions of Blackjack for players to enjoy, but they are all based upon the same basic idea. Players need to put together a hand of cards that are as close in value to 21 as possible but without exceeding it, which is known as going bust. You compete against the dealer and as long as at the end of a round your hand is closer in value to 21 than the dealer’s is then you have won.
When playing Blackjack the number cards (2 to 10) are worth their face value, the face cards (Jack, Queen and King) are all worth 10, and Aces are worth 11 or 1. This means that you can form 21 with just two cards, an Ace and a 10-card, and in the modern game, this is known as Blackjack (sometimes called Natural Blackjack). In the vast majority of Blackjack games, it is the strongest hand possible and it will beat all other hands.
The game follows a very simple structure. You place your bet and then the Blackjack dealer will deal each player two face-up cards and himself one facedown card and one face-up. You will then have a number of options, the most basic of which are ‘Hit’, ‘Stand’, and ‘Double’. If you choose ‘Hit’ then you will receive another card to that hand, and as long as the card doesn’t cause you to go bust, you will be given the same options again. If you choose ‘Stand’ then play moves on to the next player or to the dealer. If you choose ‘Double’ then your bet will be doubled, you will receive one more card to that hand, and then play moves on. Some Blackjack variants will offer more options and these are explained below.
After you have played your hand, the dealer will play his. Depending on the version of Blackjack that you are playing, the rules governing how the dealer plays will vary slightly. However, you will often find that the dealer will draw cards until his hand is worth at least 16 and will stand as soon as it is worth 17 or more. You will sometimes see hands referred to as ‘Hard’ or ‘Soft’ (for example, many games talk about dealers drawing to hard or soft 17s). A hand is considered Soft if it contains an Ace, otherwise it is Hard.
In most games of Blackjack, winning hands are paid out at 1:1. If a player has Blackjack, this pays more generously at 3:2. If the player’s hand is worth the same as the dealer’s then the bet is returned as a push.
In addition to how the dealer plays, the main difference between different types of Blackjack is usually the number of decks used. The vast majority of online and land casino Blackjack games will use six decks of cards shuffled together. However, you will sometimes see single-deck Blackjack.
Of course, the number of decks of cards used hugely affects the odds. In short, the fewer decks used, the better the odds in your favour. However, you will see that casinos sometimes change the payouts to reflect this in games with fewer decks.
Blackjack odds will also be affected by the game’s rules, such as when you can double, the ability to split hands, the ability to surrender and so on. These rules are explained below and they must all be considered when choosing a game.
If you want to play Blackjack like a true expert then you need to make sure that you fully understand the particular game that you are playing. This means understanding which options are open to you, such as the ability to double down, split hands, surrender hands, and so on, and when it is best to use them. There are Blackjack strategies that tell you exactly when you should use these, but it is still important to understand them. Luckily, at many online casinos, you can enjoy free Blackjack games and perfect your skills.
You should also consider games that offer side bets. Numerous Blackjack variants now have a range of side bets available. The side bets make the game more enjoyable and give you the chance to win even more money.
Of course, expert gamblers will never bet money that they can’t afford to lose. Make sure that you have a budget and you stick to it. This way you will be able to ensure that you don’t run into problems and ultimately prolong your playing time and enjoyment.
The basic Blackjack rules are very straightforward and take absolutely no time to master. All you really need to know is that you can keep drawing more cards from the pack until you have gone bust.
However, as mentioned, some versions of Blackjack offer more than just ‘Hit’, ‘Stand’ and ‘Double’. For example, many games will allow you to Split your first two cards if they have the same value. You place a second bet that is original to the first and the cards are split into two separate hands. You can then draw cards to them as if they were standard hands. Some versions of Blackjack will then allow you to Split the hands again, but this is rare to find online. Furthermore, some versions of Blackjack will only allow you to draw one card to Split Aces, and very often, a Split hand containing an Ace and a 10-card is counted as 21 but not Blackjack.
Another very common feature is the option to take out ‘Insurance’. If the dealer’s first face-up card is an Ace then you will be given the chance to take out insurance against the dealer having Blackjack. Insurance costs half of your original bet and if the dealer does have Blackjack then you are paid 2:1 on the insurance. This means that you will not lose your original bet.
In many Blackjack games, you will hear of a 10-Card Charlie. Theoretically, it is possible for you to draw 10 cards without going bust. Often, if you manage this then your hand will automatically win, unless the dealer has Blackjack.
Some rules are specific to particular Blackjack variants. For instance, in Blackjack Switch you will always be playing two hands at a time and after the cards are dealt you can exchange or switch the top cards of each hand. Another common variant is Blackjack Surrender and this gives you the option to abandon or surrender your hand after the first two cards are dealt in exchange for receiving half of your bet back.
There are many more types of Blackjack game available such as Bonus Blackjack, Double Exposure Blackjack and Double Attack Blackjack. A number of ‘local’ Blackjack variants have also appeared over the years, and that is why you sometimes see Atlantic City Blackjack, California Blackjack, Vegas Strip Blackjack, European Blackjack, and so on. All of the variants have their own twist on the standard rules. Be sure to look through the rules before playing and make sure that you understand how these changes to the rules affect the odds.
You will also see that many Blackjack games offer a range of side bets, such as Perfect Pairs Blackjack, Rainbow Blackjack and Progressive Blackjack. These bets can give you the chance to win huge payouts, so be sure that you are fully aware of the rules and how the bets are placed.
Blackjack is in many ways a game of statistics and thanks to this, it is possible to put together betting strategies that should help to improve your returns. However, you need to make sure that you are using the correct strategy for the game that you are playing. You cannot use a strategy designed for a one-deck game if you are playing a six-deck game.
Most online Blackjack games are played with six-decks so here we will present a strategy suited for these games. Furthermore, as online Blackjack games shuffle the deck between each hand, this strategy doesn’t consider what has happened before.
This basic strategy is best shown in a table. The table shows you what the best possible course of action is based upon the opening cards dealt. It is worth printing the table and keeping it beside you as you play. However, it is not very hard to memorise and you will soon find that you know most of it by heart.
As with any online gambling strategy, it is not fool proof. However, if you follow it closely then it should increase your returns. One of the reasons why Blackjack is so popular is that by using careful strategies players can significantly increase their winnings.
S = Stand
H = Hit
Dh = Double (if not allowed, then hit)
Ds = Double (if not allowed, then stand)
SP = Split
SU = Surrender (if not allowed, then hit)
This chart may look daunting at first, but it is actually incredibly easy to follow. Look along the top row to find the dealer’s face up card, then look down the first column to find your two face up cards. You then just need to take the action recommended where the two intersect.
Here are a few more tips to help you with this strategy.
Aces should always be split. Even though you will often only receive one more card to each hand, 11 is an excellent place to start so splitting is still a good idea. Similarly, you should always split a pair of 8s.
At first, Insurance sounds like a great idea, but many will say that you should never take it as in the long term it is mathematically more profitable to risk losing your initial bet than to protect against the dealer having Blackjack.
The option to Double Down on a hand is often a great way to reduce the house edge in Blackjack. When you double your bet on a strong hand, you are making the most of the hand and that way can swing the statistics in your favour. In general, you should always Double Down on an 11, except for when you are against an Ace. You should also Double Down on a 10, except for when the dealer is showing an Ace or a 10. You should Double Down on a 9 if the dealer is showing 3, 4, 5 or 6.
Some strategy tables will restrict the use of the Double Down option to 9, 10 and 11. However, there are a number of situations in soft hands when it is recommended to Double Down. Finally, if it is not possible to Double Down you should hit – with the exception of four situations when it is best to stand: when the player has a soft 18 and the dealer has either 3, 4, 5 or 6.
As mentioned, not all Blackjack games have a Surrender option, but when it is offered it is an excellent way to escape from a poor situation when neither hitting or standing is preferable. These situations do not occur very often, but when they do, the ability to recover half of your bet is excellent. The only situations where the strategy table above recommends using Surrender is when you have a hard 15 and the dealer has a 10, or when you have a hard 16 and the dealer has a 9, 10 or A. If you are playing a game without the Surrender option then it is usually best to hit.
You will find many different types of the side bet when playing Blackjack. In general, they are only recommended for players that like taking risks. Statistically, they are very hard to win, but if you are only betting amounts that you can afford to lose, then they could result in some huge wins. As with all aspects of gambling, the use of side bets mainly comes down to how you manage your bankroll.
Number of Decks
The number of decks used by a game makes a huge difference to the house edge. When playing with a single deck the house edge is 0.17%, with two decks it is 0.46%, with four decks it is 0.60%, with six decks it is 0.64%, and with eight decks it is 0.65%. The difference may sound small but as a general rule, the fewer decks the better.
Double Exposure Blackjack is a common version of the game, where the dealer’s first two cards are face up. Blackjacks pay even money and players lose on ties. Players cannot surrender their hand.
Spanish 21 is a version with a liberal approach to the rules, letting players double down any number of cards and surrender. Having player blackjacks and 21s always win and also pay out bonuses. On the downside, there are no 10s other than the face cards.
21st Century Blackjack or Vegas Style means that players may not automatically lose when bust, but can still push if the dealer busts also.
Double Attack Blackjack generously lets the player up their bet after seeing the dealer’s card – the opposite of a surrender.
Blackjack Switch is an advanced game played over two hands, with the player able to interchange the second cards. Natural blackjacks are paid 1:1 instead of the standard 3:2, and a dealer 22 is a push.
Super Fun 21 allows for up to four splits and if this results in six cards totalling 20, the player gets an automatic win. Wins are paid 1:1.
Multiple Action Blackjack lets players place 2 or 3 bets on a single hand. The dealer gets a hand for each bet. This essentially allows multiple games to be played at once. This is easier with online blackjack, which allows for better space management.
Blackjack grew from another game called twenty-one, which itself has an unknown origin. The earliest known reference to the game is in a work by the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. In the tale “Rinconete y Cortadillo”, a pair of gamblers are referenced as cheating at ‘ventiuna’ or twenty-one. The rules of an ace being worth 1 or 11 and the limit of hitting 21 are both referenced.
When this game hit the US, casinos offered bonuses to gather interest. One such bonus was a ten-to-one pay out if the player’s hand contained the ace of spaces and a black jack, referring to the jack of clubs or spades. This hand was called a ‘blackjack’ and that name seemed to stick.
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