How to Play Blackjack
As one of the most popular and long running table games in the gambling industry, blackjack has kept many players entertained for decades and is considered something of a timeless classic.
Played daily by millions of gamblers around the world in numerous locations, especially online, blackjack is still as popular today as it was decades ago, and there are now so many variations of the game along with new side bets that it can feel like something of an industry of its own.
It is also still one of the most sought after table games in land based casinos thanks to its easy, uncomplicated nature and quick games rounds, making it a casino game that beginners can very quickly understand and get involved with.
Of course, the very low house edge is well known and doubtless has something to do with the game's popularity too.
Rules of Blackjack
Blackjack is a card game played between the dealer and the player usually using 8 decks of 52 cards. Both are dealt two initial cards with the objective being for the value of those cards to add up to 21, or as close to it as possible.
The player can request more cards if they think they have a chance of improving their hand by doing so, but if they end up with a total value that is over 21 then they lose the hand and their bet.
The dealer will also add cards when it is their turn, but they have to stick to specific rules regarding when they can and can’t do this, whereas the player is free to do as they please.
The main aim of the game is to beat the dealer by having a stronger hand than them, and the best way to do this is by getting an Ace (which counts as ‘1’ or ‘11’) along with a ‘10’ or picture card (Jack, Queen or King) which all have a value of 10. This equals 21 and counts as a natural blackjack. A 21 made up of different cards is not technically blackjack, even though the value is the same.
However, you can also win by simply having a higher number than the dealer or if the dealer goes bust.
Those are the basics, so let’s run through an example hand to demonstrate.
Blackjack Example Hand
When looking at a blackjack table you will see a few different areas and features. The table rules and payouts will be written on the table somewhere obvious, and the number of seats at the table will also be apparent.
When playing online you can often play more than one hand at a time, so you are essentially taking more than one seat at the table, but each hand is played independently of the others, the only thing that links them is that they are playing against the same dealer’s hand.
Any side bet options are displayed alongside your main betting area and you can also choose your bet value using the numbered chips.
Once your bet is placed and you hit deal, the cards will be dealt and you will be able to see your hand. At the same time the dealer’s cards will be dealt, but only the first will be face up. The second is left face down which is known as being ‘in the hole’ – which is where the phrase “The ace in the hole” comes from – and it stays that way until later. You then have a choice to make based on the value of your hand and what you know of the dealer’s hand.
At this point you can either:
- Ask for another card, known as hitting or sometimes twisting.
- Leave your hand alone, known as standing or sticking.
If you hit then another card will be dealt and providing you haven’t bust (gone over 21) you will get the same options again. This continues until you are happy with your hand.
At this point the dealer will reveal the card in the hole and depending on their hand will either continue to draw until they either hit their threshold, win, or bust. House rules usually state that the dealer will draw to 16 – i.e keep adding cards until they get to that number – and stick on 17 or above. The dealer must follow the house rules.
That’s it, you either win, lose, or it’s a ‘push’ and your stake is returned and the game resets for the next hand. A push is where yours and the dealer’s hands are the same, so it’s a draw, a winning hand will pay out at 1:1 and double your money, whereas winning with blackjack will pay out at 3:2. Obviously, losing the hand means you lose your stake.
There are other choices available in blackjack at various points, so let’s have a look at them next.
Note: The 10 Card Charlie rule is usually applied to most games, meaning that if you keep hitting and end up with a hand that is ten cards strong without going bust (it is possible) you automatically win that hand.
If the dealer’s up card is an Ace, it gives them a fairly high chance of getting blackjack, which means that you would lose unless you also had blackjack, which would be unlikely.
The casino will often ask you if you would like to take insurance in this situation. You will have to put down half of your initial bet again to insure yourself against the dealer’s hand being blackjack.
If they do have blackjack, your bet will lose but your insurance will pay out at 2:1, meaning you are essentially getting your stake back.
Doubling is a risky move in blackjack, but one that can pay off especially if you are betting with larger stakes.
You will have the option to double your stake, often called ‘doubling down’, after your first two cards have been dealt.
If you go for it, you will have to bet the same amount again and will then receive one more card and one more card only. You are obliged to stand once that extra card has been dealt.
If you win the hand you get twice as much in winnings, but if you get a poor value 3rd card you will likely lose the bet which means you have doubled your losses.
If your first two cards have the same value, so two 7’s for example, you have the option to split.
This will split your hand into two so that you can play two hands against the dealer’s one. You will also have to put a second stake down equal to your first though.
You will then be dealt two more cards, one for each hand, and be able to hit or stand on each of them as normal.
It is also possible to double and take insurance on these two new hands, and you can even split again in most games if you end up with another pair.
On top of all of these options, many games come with other special side bets that you can place at the same time as your bet.
There is no obligation to use these side bets, they are availble as and when you want to utilise them, but they do all cost you a further stake. It is possible for your side bet to win and your regular bet to lose and vice verser, so it can lead to either double winnings, double losses, or it can save the day and make up for a lost hand.
These are numerous and slightly different for each blackjack variation but some common ones include Perfect Pairs and 21+3.
Perfect Pairs pays out if the players card show paired cards as follows:
|Mixed Pair||Two cards, same value||5:1|
|Coloured Pair||Two cards, same value and colour||12:1|
|Perfect Pair||Two cards, same value, colour and suit||25:1|
21+3 uses poker hands to an extent, and uses the player’s two cards along with the dealer’s up card as follows:
|Flush||All cards same suit||5:1|
|Straight||Consecutive cards; 3, 4, 5 etc.||10:1|
|Three of a Kind||Same value, any suit||30:1|
|Straight Flush||Consecutive cards, same suit||40:1|
|Suited Triple||Three cards exactly the same||100:1|
There are plenty of other side bets such as Super 7s which pays out if the player’s hand contains one or more 7’s, Lucky Ladies which pays out varying amounts if the player’s hand adds up to 20, and Bust which pays out if the dealer goes bust – but they aren’t always worth taking.
In normal circumstances, the ‘house’ (casino or gambling establishment) has a very small advantage over the player, however, when applying the right strategy this can be almost eliminated.
It all comes down to knowing what to do in any given situation. So if the dealer has an 8 up card and you have a hand containing a 3 and a 9, you would know what the optimal choice would be; hit, stand, etc.
There are obviously a large number of potential outcomes given the 52 cards it is possible to get, so numerous tables exist which literally tell you what to do in each situation. You probably couldn’t take this to a casino with you, and it would take to long to use it playing in a live casino, but when playing an RNG based game you can taker as long as you want, so this is an ideal opportunity to hone your skills.
You can find these strategy cards all over the internet, but you need to make sure you are looking at one that relates to the specific blackjack variation you are playing, as different rules or game variations can effect what would be the optimal move.
Once you can get to grips with your strategy you can use it instantly away from RNG based games.
While the game of blackjack is quite straightforward at its core, there are a great number of different variants of the game which all have slightly different rules or side bets, so you need to know which version of the game you are playing before you start.
Here are some of them:
When you have got to grips with your basic blackjack strategy, you might be ready to give multi-hand blackjack a shot. This lets you to play up to five hands at the same time, but also means you are playing for five times the money assuming you play all five available hands.
The knock on effect is that the risk of accumulating heavier losses is also higher, and it also makes the card counting process a lot trickier to figure out. You won’t have to worry about this if playing online though as card counting is not possible online.
This is a highly immersive way to play blackjack online because it makes use of video technology in order to live stream a real game of blackjack taking place either in a purpose built studio or in a real casino.
This means there is a real dealer, real cards, and other players to contend with too, and it makes for a much more interesting and authentic experience.
Hi Lo Blackjack
Alongside the regular game you can also place a bet on the outcome of your second card from the dealer.
You can bet on whether it will be higher or lower than the first, after which the hand will play out as normal.
You could theoretically win the hi low bet and lose the hand, thus remaining even. Even better of course would be to win both bets and be paid out twice as much.
Free Chip Blackjack
Also called Free Bet Blackjack.
You don’t get much for free in this life, but with Free Bet Blackjack you can double or split for free provided the right cards come up.
It’s a bit of a no brainer this one, because the casino is essentially paying your stake for you so you have the chance to win with no extra exposure.
Historical Background of Blackjack
While there is no definitive information on exactly when the game of blackjack was invented, historians can be certain of one thing; it is highly likely that it originated in French casinos some time around the 17th century.
It was originally given the name Vingt-et-Un, which translates to the number twenty one, and it was more than likely derived from the games ‘Chemin de Fer’ and ‘French Ferme’ which were popular at the time. It is understood that the game was likely played at the French Royal Court during the reign of King Louis XV.
However, there is a theory which is conflicting, claiming that the Romans were the true initiators of blackjack and that it was played using wooden blocks with different numbers on them. We are unlikely to ever settle this debate, but both offer interesting backgrounds.
During the 18th century, there were a number of other card games which were widely believed to have had an influence on the development of blackjack, or Vingt-et-Un as it was still known at the time. These are known to have derived in Italy, Spain and France, and all contributed in some way to Blackjack becoming the game we know today.
The Italian game was Sette e Mezzo (seven and a half), which was played with a deck of 40 cards. The face cards were worth half a point, while the Ace card could accumulate points up to a total of seven, and every other card retained its nominal value. It is easy to spot the similarities between this and blackjack as we know it, particularly with the interchangeable value of the Ace card.
Meanwhile, Trente Un (thirty one) was a Spanish card game which required the player to get as close to the number ‘31’ as possible, the key difference being that the picture cards didn’t count as ‘10’, indeed, the Jack counted up to the value of ‘11’, the Queen counted up the value of ‘12’, while the King could run up a total of ‘13’.
In France, the game of ‘Quinze’ had also began to rise in popularity in the 17th century, literally translated to the number ‘fifteen’ and believed to have originated prior to the game of blackjack. It’s still played today and often used to settle arguments or bets, it is also known as ‘Ace Low’ and is liked for its pure simplicity and balanced gameplay.
Blackjack Crosses the Waves
Thanks to 18th century French colonists, the Vingt-et-Un made it to the shores of America and soon spread in popularity, though it was also adapted to look a lot more like the game we play today.
Throughout the 19th century, this new version of blackjack spread across America like wildfire, becoming a ‘go-to’ game in most taverns in the early 1800s, while during the 1820s it could be seen in the now legalised gambling halls of New Orleans.
Around this same time, a highly skilled French dealer who went by the name of Eleanor Dumont had emigrated to America and travelled around the United States, playing the game until she settled in Nevada City (California). There, she opened a gambling hall using the winnings that she had accumulated along the way and, perhaps fittingly, named the place ‘Vingt-et-Un’.
She became quite well known, and people came from all around the country just to try their skills against Eleanor - and invariably lost.
The Birth of Card Counting
The game changer for blackjack undoubtedly came in the 20th century, during the great era of casinos.
In the 1950s, the first blackjack card counters surfaced and in 1957 four experienced players going by the names; Baldwin, Cantey, Maisel and McDermott, all co-authored a book titled “Playing Blackjack to Win”, which was effectively a guide that included strategies teaching players how to keep track of the cards during a game.
However, the casinos did not give much attention to the book, more or less dismissing it completely. In 1962, Edward O Thorpe capitalised on this disregard and wrote the title “Beat the Dealer”, which to this day is considered the ‘go-to’ book when it comes to card counting in blackjack.
Thorpe was also a highly gifted mathematician, and he created a unique counting system known as the Thorpe Ratio. It was a system which worked when played with just one deck of cards, and it was so successful that it led to casinos adding multiple decks to each table so that the system could no longer work. This is still the case today.
Merely a year after this eye opening book was released, in 1963 computer scientist Harvey Dubner created the high-low method of card counting, and this ‘newer’ system was then included in Thorpe’s second edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’ in 1966. It involved giving the cards a point value which meant the player could change tactics as the game unfolded.
Over the years, casinos have lost a lot of money to card counters and as a result have had to become more and more savvy as card counters constantly come up with new methods. Card counting is not actually illegal either, although it is against the rules of the casino.
These days of course the game has moved online along with everything else, making card counting impossible, but the popularity of blackjack has never been in question.
Online vs Real World Blackjack
There is actually a lot to be said for playing blackjack in a land based casino; you really get a feel for the game itself and can learn to weigh up what you think the dealer might have in their hand. Like with anything, actually experiencing something live adds to the overall atmosphere too and can enhance the vibe, particularly when playing in an impressive casino or prime location.
However, some players (especially beginners) can suffer from nerves if they play at a blackjack table with other people around and this can be exceptionally daunting.
Playing online avoids this issue, as well as adding to the convenience element – you can also play for free using demo versions of the games so you can use them as training.
The main difference though, as noted elsewhere in this article, is timing. There is no pressure to make a decision playing online, the game is effectively on pause until you are ready to bet. Even in a live casino you can just sit out a round without having to feel self-conscious. At a real casino you would be sat at the table and other players may not appreciate it if you slow the game down too much. The casino wouldn’t like it either as the more hand they get through the more money they make.
In case there are things that we didn’t cover in enough detail about the game of blackjack, we have anticipated some questions that you may have thought of and endeavoured to answer them in as much detail as we can below.
How Easy is it to Win at Blackjack?
There is definitely no right answer to this because no two individuals are the same, however, there are some people who pick the game up straight away and do pretty well out of it.
While it is impossible to win every hand, if you are applying a solid strategy you can play Blackjack with just a 0.5% edge going to the casino. This does depend on the rules of that version you are playing as well.
That is the lowest of any casino game, so you could say Blackjack is the ‘easiest’ casino game to win, but again, it is by no means guaranteed.
How is Blackjack Different from Poker?
While in both games you need a good combination of strategy and luck of the draw in order to win, the two games are considerably different.
A hand of blackjack is much quicker than a round of poker, and you are playing against the dealer in blackjack whereas poker pits you against your fellow players.
There is no element of bluffing in blackjack either as your cards are dealt face up. It is overall a much simpler and quicker game.
Is Blackjack Fair?
The odds are slightly in the casino’s favour of course, but aren’t they always? So long as you are playing at an established casino you can play safe in the knowledge that nothing underhand is going on.
Even if you were playing at a real casino and were worried about someone else card counting and how that might affect your chances, the fact that casinos use so many decks on each table pretty much eliminates this.
How Quickly can I Learn to Play Blackjack?
Like with everything, the more you do something, the quicker you can grasp it and the better you become at it. The beauty of being able to gamble online is that many websites have free demo versions of the game which you can use to test your skills until you feel confident enough to try it out for real.
It is a pretty simple game so the basics shouldn’t take more than a few hands to understand, things like splits, doubles and insurance may take a little longer and games with extra side bets a little longer again.
Finally, learning a strategy by heart will take a certain degree of time and effort but should be well worth it.