Blackjack is probably the single most popular table card game played at casinos today. The aim of the game is to beat the dealer by getting as close to 21 as possible without going over (known as busting).
How to Play Blackjack
Each player is initially dealt two cards face up and is given the option to "draw" or "hit" (ie be dealt an extra card) as long as the cards in his hand do not exceed 21. An ace can be played as 1 or 11, while a 10, Jack, Queen, and King are counted as ten. Cards 2-9 are played at their face value. If the player's total exceeds 21, then he busts and loses his wager.
Usually, one of the two dealer cards is dealt face up while the other is dealt face down. The face down card is often known as the "hole card". The dealer is the last "player" to add to his cards, which is an advantage to the house because if the player busts, he loses even if the dealer busts later. However the player has their own advantage, in that the dealer may never stand on a total less than 17, while the player may stand on any total they wish.
A winning hand pays the player 1:1 - i.e. your original bet is doubled and returned to you. A "push" or tie results in the player receiving their original bet back.
If the player is dealt a combination of an ace and a ten valued card (10-J-Q-K), this is called "blackjack" and is considered an automatic win, unless the dealer is also dealt a blackjack, in which case the hand is considered a "push" or tie. A winning blackjack hand pays 3:2 on your original bet (note that Casinos offering "6:5 blackjack" are generally ripping you off and should be avoided). A dealer blackjack beats any other player hand. One exception to the blackjack rule is that if you split Aces and are dealt a ten card it is not regarded as blackjack (see splitting below).
Blackjack house edge and optimal strategy
Played correctly using basic strategy (see chart on this page), blackjack is among the games with the lowest house edge in the casino. It is commonly around 0.4%, meaning that in the long term for every $100 you wager, you would expect to lose only $0.40 on average. Obviously this varies considerably in the short term and you will often have days where you make a big win followed by others where you can make a similarly sized loss. However due to the low house edge, it is one of the best games to be played when completing wagering requirements on casino bonuses (if allowed).
|Basic strategy: 4-8 decks, dealer stands on soft 17|
|2,2 / 3,3||PH||PH||P||P||P||P||H||H||H||H|
How to use this chart:
Find the row corresponding to your hand using the leftmost column, then scan across until you reach the column matching the dealer's visible card. Then do what that cell says according to this key:
- Double (if allowed) else Hit
- Double (if allowed) else Stand
- Surrender (if allowed) else Hit
- Split (if double after split allowed) else Hit
Strategy chart courtesy of Wizard of Odds.
The player's choices
Hitting (also termed "drawing") is simply the act of requesting the dealer to deal you another card. In land based casinos this is usually signified by tapping the table.
Standing is the act of informing the dealer that you do not wish to be dealt any more cards. You then wait to see what the dealers cards are and whether you have won or lost the hand.
- Double Down
Doubling down means the player doubles her wager after being dealt the initial two cards and is then dealt just one more card. This is most often done when conditions are mathematically favourable to the player. For example, the player has been dealt two card cards totalling 9, 10, or 11, while the dealer's face card is a 5 or 6 - meaning the dealer will almost certainly have to draw two cards, hence having a high chance of busting. Some variations of blackjack allow the player to double any two card total, while others restrict doubling to totals of 9, 10, or 11 only.
Players may split their hand into two separate hands when they are dealt two cards of the same value (e.g. 7-7 or 3-3). This requires another identical wager to play the second hand. Generally speaking, you should never split 10s (as 20 is a winning hand a high percentage of the time) or 5s (instead treat them as a 10), and you should always split 8s and Aces regardless of the dealer's face card. Variations of blackjack sometimes allow re-splitting, which just means that if a player splits a hand and is then dealt another card of the same value, they may make an extra wager and split the hand again. It is commonly possible to double down after splitting, so theoretically you could split and double up to 4 hands, resulting in a bet 8 times your original wager, all riding on the dealer's single hand.
One exception to the splitting rule is encountered when splitting Aces. Generally the player may only draw one card for each split Ace and, if dealt a ten card, the hand is not counted as a blackjack (paying 3:2), but merely a 21.
If the dealer's face up card is an Ace, casinos often offer an insurance side bet which the player may take up. Doing so requires the player to wager half their original bet and the player is paid 2:1 on the side bet if the dealer is dealt a blackjack. Mathematically speaking, insurance is a "sucker bet" because the chance of the dealer getting blackjack is much less than 2:1. It requires the dealer to also be dealt one of 10,J,Q,K - i.e. roughly 4 chances in 13.
Some blackjack variants (e.g. Atlantic City Blackjack) allow the player to surrender and only lose half their original bet after being dealt their initial two cards. The most common variety is termed late surrender, and is offered after the dealer checks for blackjack (ie you lose if he has a blackjack, and are not given a chance to surrender). A very rare option sometimes offered is termed early surrender and as the name implies, allows the player to surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack. Early surrender is unheard of at online casinos. Surrender is best employed when the player has an extremely low chance of winning the hand. Generally this is best done when you have been dealt a 15 against the dealer's 10, or a 16 against the dealer's 9,10 or Ace.
Other blackjack terms
- Hard hand
Any hand not containing an Ace that can be counted as an 11. e.g. 9 and 7 is a hard 16. Ace, 3, and 10 is a hard 14, because if the Ace were counted as an 11 the total would be 24.
- Soft hand
Any hand containing an Ace that can be counted as an 11. e.g. Ace and 7 is a soft 18.
- Stiff hand
When your first two cards dealt total 12-16 and neither is an Ace, you are said to have a stiff hand. These hands can all be busted if you hit for another card.
- Pat hand
When your first two cards dealt total 17 or more, it is called a pat hand. You should almost always stand with a pat hand (consult basic strategy chart for exceptions).
The house edge in the game of blackjack can be reduced even further by using a technique known as card counting. The technique involves keeping track of the cards dealt by mentally adding or subtracting to a count, and varying your bets when the count is in your favour. This is when more low numbered cards have been dealt out than 10s, making you more likely to be dealt better hands and the dealer more likely to bust. Card counting is primarily useful in live dealer games when cards are dealt from a shoe that is not reshuffled after every hand, like the deck is in an online game run by a random number generator. Yes, this means that card counting is more or less useless in a RNG game played online. However if you would like to learn more about card counting and practice for your next trip to the land casino, we recommend reading the information about various systems here.
Playing Blackjack online
Almost every online casino has a game of blackjack. In fact there are more variations of blackjack available online than you will find in any one land based casino. Vegas Strip rules, Atlantic City rules, Spanish 21, Australian-style Pontoon and a myriad of other variants are available for play. Due to the game's low house edge, blackjack play is generally discouraged for players who claim bonuses - either the game is not allowed at all, or the wagering requirements for blackjack are much steeper than other games such as slots. However, you can still find a good bonus or two if you are prepared to shop around. See our list below for some of the best blackjack bonuses.
Top bonuses for playing Blackjack online
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