Contrary to popular belief it is not poker but blackjack which is the most popular table game at casinos around the world. This card game has always belonged to the category of casino classics and it is unthinkable to find a casino where you won’t find at least a handful of tables to play this fantastic game. Blackjack is one of the oldest games in the world still being played and it still excites millions of gamblers on a daily basis. The game is equally loved by casino newcomers (due to the easiness of understanding the basics) as by high rollers (due tot the great potential profits which can be made if you play the game right). No matter which category of player you are, it is a must-try game for every casino lover.
What to expect in this chapter?
We will guide you through each and every aspect of the game of blackjack, so if you want to become a real blackjack expert we advice you to read each and every word. If your time is however limited, you can however skip a paragraph or two and head straight to the topic you are interested in. On this page you can find:
– A brief look at the history of the game of blackjack
– The blackjack rules and winning chances
– Blackjack tactics
– What are the best online casinos to play blackjack
The history of blackjack
The game of blackjack goes back several centuries so we can easily conclude it has quite some historical gravitas. Some historians say that the game was already played quite widely in the 15th and 16th Century in what was back then the mighty Spanish Empire. These historical experts say that in those days a game called ‘veinti uno – which means twenty-one in English – was widely known among the people of those days and mentioned in several historical sources. We of course know that the game of blackjack is all about the number 21 – which makes this the first bit of proof that the ancestors of the modern game of blackjack such as we play it now can indeed claim a long history.
Another bit of proof comes from the famous literary work of Don Quixote written by Miguel de Cervantes. This early 17th Century novel also claims that some of blackjack already existed in those days as it details the same game of veintu uno. Concrete evidence which point at the existence of blackjack are abound in the centuries after, especially when the game became popular in France. Just like it was the case with roulette it were the French which were eventually responsible for spreading the game around the entire world.
Blackjack as we know it right now from the casinos is however an American invention. The French brought the game of 21 to their colonies as well, which at the time included Louisiana. When the Louisiana territory was sold to the Americans in 1803 (828,000 square miles for 15 million USD, what a bargain that was!) the game also became popular among the newly arrived American colonists who frequented the famous river boat casinos of the Mississippi and the gambling houses in New Orleans. It was here where the game developed into the game which is nowadays played everywhere around the world.
Lots of gamblers, both the beginners as well as the high rollers, do enjoy playing blackjack – and it is not hard to see why. The rules are easy to understand, the games quick to play and compared to other casino games blackjack has one of the highest chances to win. Because of its simple rules really everyone can learn blackjack. Of course, blackjack is foremost a game of chance, which means that you need to have luck in order to win as you need to be dealt better cards than the house! That said, intuition, awareness and especially tactics can contribute to a positive outcome of the game. Especially if you have some mathematical talents and are good in memorising something quickly you might well be able to make playing blackjack highly profitable on the long run.
The goal of blackjack
Blackjack is being played at a special blackjack table where at one side the dealer takes place and the other side the players. You can face the dealer alone or with a few other players, but even if you play with multiple players at the same time you still all play individually against the house. The goal of the game – both for you as well as for the dealer – is to reach a score of 21 points, or at least as close as possible you can get to this number. If you reach a score of more than 21 points you will go bust. Your game will be over and your bet will be taken by the casino.
Each player starts with two playing cards – and can ask for one additional card at the time if they desire so. The points system works very simple. All cards from 2 to 10 have the exact face value which is listed on the card. The jack, queen and king are worth 10 points as well. The ace can be worth either 1 or 11 points.
The game begins
Each game begins with the player betting money for each round being played. You will only get cards whenever you put a wager on the table. Each player gets two cards with the face up. The dealer gets two cards as well, but at this point only his first card will be dealt with the face up as the second card will be put with the face down on top of that so you only know the value of one of his two cards. If your cards equal a score of 21 points already at this point of the game – when one of your cards is a 10, jack, queen or king and your other an ace – you have already won (with the exception of the dealer getting 21 as well – which we will detail later on).
Most of the times however, you will not have a score of 21 after being drawn the first two cards. At this moment, you will have the choice to either stand and keep your score you have at that point, or to ask for an extra card. You can ask an extra card as many times as you want, but do notice that when your score will be higher than 21 you will bust and lose the game. Therefore you do need to make sure to get a score of 21 or as close you can get to it without actually busting yourself. When all players at the blackjack table have either hit 21, stood their ground or busted, it will be the turn of the dealer.
The turn of the dealer
First of all, the dealer will turn around his top card. If his scores totals 21 – the dealer will win against all players who have a lower score. The dealer will collect the money of the losing players in this case. If you as a player also had 21 it is a so-called ‘push’ or ‘tie’, which means that your will not win any money, but you do get at least your initial bet back.
If the dealer does not have a score of 21 after two cards, it will depend on the casino rules what he will do. Most casinos have the rule that the dealer will always stand if he has a score of 17 and higher. If he has a lower score, he will automatically draw another card. If the dealer busts himself, it means that all the players left with cards at the table (basically all who didn’t bust themselves) will win. If the dealer will stand, then his score will be compared with the scores of the remaining players. If the score of the dealer is higher, the players’ bet will be impounded by the dealer. If your score is higher than that of the dealer, you will win. If the scores are the same, it will be a ‘push’ or ‘tie’ and your initial bet is returning without you winning or losing any money.
Payouts in blackjack work fairly simple. If you win a game, you get paid out even at 1:1. So if you bet 10 USD in a round of blackjack, you earn 10 USD if you manage to win. There is however one exception, which is when you win by blackjack (an ace plus a ten/jack/queen or king as your first two cards). In this case, most casinos pay out 3:2, so if you bet 10 USD you win 15 dollar. This can however vary from casino to casino, as there are some around who have a slightly less attractive blackjack bonus and will only pay you out at 6:5. If you are a die-hard blackjack lover, we advice you strongly to check this out in advance before you commit yourself to a casino for a longer term.
Other blackjack options
We explained you the basic blackjack rules above, although there are a few other in-game possibilities which we must discuss with you in order to fully understand the game. These options are split, double, insurance and surrender.
Split: When you get drawn two cards of the same value, you can split these into two separate hands. This is not possible if you have two different cards, so if you play online this option will often only be visible on screen when your initial hand does indeed exist out of the same cards, for example two queens. You do not have to split cards, although there are some cases where this might make a lot of sense (most notable when you receive two aces, because splitting this will give you two excellent chances of blackjack!).
If you split the cards, you would have to pay the same bet another time for the new hand you are creating. From this moment, you will play the game with two hands – with each of them getting an extra card. From that moment on you can decide whatever you want to do with the hand. You can stand, or hit as many times as you want. When you finished playing the first hand, you will play your second hand.
Double: This is an option which is always available in the beginning of the game right after you received your first two cards. It basically means that you are doubling your initial bet if you think you have great cards. For example, if you have waged 10 EUR at the start of the game, you get the option to double it to a 20 EUR bet. You can double after a split, but you cannot double when your first two cards are a blackjack (as the game is immediately won and over in that case).
There is however one clear downside to doubling which you must realise before making the decision whether to do this or not. If you double, you will always get one additional card extra. This means therefore that it doesn’t always make sense to double even when you have strong cards. For example, a ten and a jack is considered a strong hand in blackjack, but if you double your initial bet, it means that you are forced to take an extra card and thus are likely to bust (as this will happen for every card which is not an ace). In this case standing is a much better call.
However, if your first two cards are a 5 and a 4 (making 9 points) it might be an excellent decision to double if you see that the open card of the dealer is a 5 as well. The chance that your only extra card is a ten, jack, queen or king is fairly high, and with 19 points in total you would have a good hand. The chances of the dealer beating that are low, because when his second card is worth ten points as well, he has 15 points in total and is therefore forced by casino rules to hit again (and thus likely bust).
Insurance: The insurance bet is an option you can take when the open card of the dealer is an ace. This means that there is a big possibility that the dealer might have blackjack, as he just needs a ten, jack, queen or king as his second card to achieve this, and chances for this are quite high. When you take the insurance bet, you literally insure your hand against the chance of the dealer hitting blackjack. If this indeed happens, you will win the insurance bet and the house will pay you out 2:1. However, you will lose your original bet if your hand is lower than the dealer – whether you have taken the insurance or not. If you take the insurance bet but the dealer does not have blackjack, you will just lose the insurance bet and the game continues as normal.
Most often you can only bet half the amount of your original bet as insurance. There is no option to insure if you have blackjack yourself with with the first two cards. Whether or not it is a good idea to take the insurance bet? Well, the opinions about that vary wildly to be honest. Most gamblers purely take this option out of intuition when they have the feeling that the dealer will have blackjack.
Surrender: The last in-game option which you can encounter when playing blackjack is the option to surrender your hand. This is quite self-explanatory as it basically means you are giving up your hand without a fight before even starting to draw a card or deciding to stand. If you do this, you are allowed to keep half of your initial bet.
Do blackjack strategies and tactics make sense?
There are dozens of blackjack strategies which you can use to attempt to increase your chances of winning. While some of these strategies are legit, there are some which are completely made up and are not based on any statistical or factual basis. We leave it to you to try these out at your own risk. There are however some basic strategies for blackjack which are almost a must for every player if your single goal is to increase your profits as much as possible. While of course these don’t guarantee you a fortune as after all, blackjack is a game of chance and the house has an edge, they do for sure limit any potential losses to a bare minimum and give you an excellent opportunity to get some good winning streaks.
It is possible with such strategies to limit the house advantage to a minimum 0.5 to 1 percent – which is an extremely low percentage when you compare it to other games such as roulette. This means that the pay-out percentage for you as a player is on average 99 EUR for every 100 EUR you bet at blackjack, which makes average losses extremely limited even if you happen to hit a bad streak. To achieve this, it is vital to remember that in any case the house has a small edge because you as a player have to decide first on your move whether to stand or hit. The goal is therefore to play such a game that you limit your losses and strike as hard as you can when being in a position of strength.
Best blackjack environment
The first thing you should notice when optimising your blackjack strategy is to play the game only at the best environment possible. There are two particular points which are of importance here.
Blackjack bonus: As we explained before, a normal blackjack payout is 1:1. There is an exception however if you hit blackjack – this is when your first two cards are an ace and another card which value equals ten points. Having a combined 21 points, you have hit the highest score in the game which is also known as a blackjack. This normally pays out a slight bonus, most often 3:2. There are however casinos where the blackjack payout is only 6:5, which of course is a much lower payout than 3:2. Do check the payout rates in advance before selecting a casino and blackjack table to optimise your earnings!
Deck of cards: The game of blackjack can be played with as many decks of cards as possible, although casinos most often use six or eight decks combined. It is generally considered that the lower amount of decks used is, the lower the house advantage is. It can thus pay off to shop a bit around and to check each casino and each table how many decks there are used. Another advantage of a lower number of decks is that it makes it easier for players to count cards. We will talk more about the meaning of that later on.
Standard blackjack odds
The odds of every game of blackjack are basically based on the first two cards which you get. Generally, the best blackjack players will almost never follow their intuition but base their decisions purely on mathematics. That might sound a bit boring – and some might think here that this is beyond their pay grade – but hold on a bit here, as it is much more exciting and simple than you might think. There are simply some hands where it makes statistically and mathematically more sense to stand, while other hands favour hitting another card.
The chances of getting one of the following hands in blackjack are as followed:
– Blackjack (also called a natural 21): 4.8 percent chance
– Hard standing (combined sum of 17 to 20): 30 percent chance
– Decision hand (combined sum of 12 to 16): 38.7 percent chance
– No bust hand (combined sum of up to 11): 26.5 percent chance
A hard standing means that you have a hand which clearly favours you if you stand as you have high odds beating the dealer. You would be foolish to ask for another card here! No bust hands on the contrary make for an easy decision to hit at least an extra card, as whatever the card is that you will be given, you will not go bust. The key is of course lies in the category called ‘decision hands’ – which as the name already gives away really require you to make a decision as there is no pre-determined consensus of what is best to do in this case. With decision hands – it really matters what the card of the dealer is. If you follow pre-set guidelines what to do in such cases, you can lower the in-house advantage from 5 percent to just 0.5 percent.
Hard hand strategy
This strategy shows you how you can best play blackjack if you have two cards of which none is an ace. It details what the best moment is to stand, when to double and when to hit.
Soft hand strategy
The name soft hand strategy refers to one of the two cards in your hand being an ace. Why is it called soft? Well, the ace can count as both 1 and 11 points. If for example you have an ace and a 2 (13 points combined) and hit a card, and this turns out to be a 10, your score is of course not 23 but 13, as you will let the ace count for a 1 instead of 11 points. An ace is always a sort of lifeline, which is why it is called a soft hand as you can let it count for either one or eleven points as you please. With the hard hand strategy without an ace, there are of course no such options and no second chances.
The strategy below explains what is generally considered as the best to do when one of your cards is an ace.
As you can see both the soft hand strategy and the hard hand strategy work from the same perspective. Of course, following these rules don’t guarantee you to win money (again, even when playing a perfect game the house still has a very minor edge) but it does maximise your chances of winning, and equally important, prevent you from losing too much of money if you hit a bad streak and a wee bit of misfortune.
Most high stakes blackjack players do memorise these rules above. This is vital to do if you would visit a land-based casino, as most of the times it is not allowed to have a print out page with you to peek at it. However, there is of course no such rule if you play at an online casino, and you can easily print out these pages or make notes and keep them close to your laptop or computer when you play your next few games of blackjack.
Strategy for playing pairs
The last of the basic strategies you should learn as an aspiring blackjack player is what to do when you have a pair as your first two cards. Again, the following is a basic strategy which shows you what is generally considered from a mathematical and statistical perspective of the option which would give you the best odds considering the cards you were dealt with. Getting a pair is quite rare, but chances of it are higher when you play on a blackjack table where the dealer uses an above average number of decks of cards.
Card counting strategy
One of the oldest blackjack strategies there is – and one which is universally considered as the most successful – is the card counting strategy. This strategy was designed as well to keep your losses as low as possible when being dealt with bad cards and to hit as hard as you can when the tide finally turned and all is going your way. The strategy works in a simple way: you have to remember which cards are already dealt and which are still remaining in the deck in order to predict the odds and most likely outcomes. Of course, this is much easier said than done!
Most card counters use a simple counting form – which you can either do in your head or on a piece of paper. Key is to remember that each card in the deck has a certain value, with card counters rating the cards 2 to 6 as +1 point in value, the cards 7, 8 and 9 as having 0 points value, and the cards 10, jack, queen, king and ace having -1 point in value. When you start the counting, you of course start at 0 points. If for example two queens are dealt and thus have been taken out of the deck, the value of the remaining cards will be seen as -2 points. This means that at this point, there are less high value cards in the deck. If you need a high card to complete your hand, this might be valuable information to know.
How to implement card counting
It is logical that at the moment when just a few cards are being dealt you can’t really make a real estimate yet given that blackjack is often played with six or even eight decks of cards. It can however make a difference at the long run! If for example you play in a casino for quite a while and know through continuously counting that many of the higher rated cards (tens and aces) are out of the deck, it can influence your decision. If you have a relatively weak hand of an 8 and a 4 for example, you would normally risk busting yourself if you ask a card as the chance of getting a card with a value of ten is high. If you however know that these cards are for most out of the deck, your risks are considerably lower and you might make a different decision (to hit) at this point than you might otherwise do.
Of course, this still depends on the open card of your opponent – and you should still always take into account the basic strategies we described above. Card counting is just perfecting the above strategy using real-time data points. To implement it requires however some skills in mathematics, statistics and memorising – this is clearly not a strategy for everyone. To complicate matters, the strategy is next to useless when playing online, as online casino software generally shuffles all the decks automatically after each play rendering card counting useless.
You can however give it a try if you play in a land-based casino, although there are some things you should notice here too. First of all, taking notes is strictly forbidden in casinos, so do not even attempt this. Second, casinos nowadays are highly trained to spot card counters due to the way they play. If your betting patterns and decision making seems to be based on the evolving game and not on chance, intuition or solely the basic strategies, alarm bells might go off with casino supervisors. Many casinos have written in their regulations that card counting is forbidden – and they have the right to enforce this.
While a casino cannot take away your earnings and you are not doing anything considered a criminal act – a casino is in the right to ask a card counter to leave the casino if caught. These rules were adopted by a number of casinos after some high profile cases of card counting cost some casinos multiple millions of dollars. For those interested, we can advice you to watch the film ’21’ which shows how some mathematicians at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) teamed up to earn millions in blackjack. It is highly inspiring stuff for everyone hoping to win big with gambling!
Try it out!
Want to try your hand at blackjack? We have listed the best online casinos which offer both virtual blackjack as well as live blackjack games where you will have access to real-time tables and dealers using a live video feed, which makes you feel like you are standing inside a real land-based casino. All these online casinos offer great bonuses for new customers, so take a look and sign up!