Blackjack is currently the most popular table game in the United States with far more players than roulette, craps and baccarat combined. Even though there are solid ways to beat the dealer that can be eventually learnt, most people don't have the patience and the concentration it takes to count the cards or keep track of the bankroll to be efficient. The good news is that, having learnt the basic strategy, there is a good chance of narrowing the house edge to less than 1% in this particular game.
History of the game
The origins of blackjack, also commonly referred to as "21", is a matter of a heated debate. Most researchers agree that it was first played in the way similar to modern days in French casinos at the beginning of the 18th century. Around the same time, a different version of the game was played in Spain. While the name of the French "ancestor" of modern blackjack could be translated as "21", the Spanish version was called "1 and 30", with the objective of reaching 31 with a minimum of three cards.
The French version of the game soon spread around the world and reached North America with the French colonists. While the game is known as "21" in casinos and among professionals, the name "blackjack" is thought to have first appeared in Nevada in 1930s, when casinos intending to draw more people to the game offered a special kind of bet. The offer was paying 10 to 1 odds on a hand that would feature the jack of spades or the jack of clubs plus the ace of spades. This peculiar payout offer with mad odds was soon discontinued, especially since the game did not need that kind of promotion anymore, but the term seems to have stuck.
Blackjack tables are semi-circular, with dealer on the short side and players on the curved side (up to seven spots are usually available). There are usually minimum and maximum bets set for every table no matter if you're playing at a land-based or online. Specific tables might also have custom rules to be followed by every joining player.
Blackjack is usually played with one, four, six or eight standard decks, each one containing 52 cards. Each card is assigned a certain point value. Cards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 are worth the exact value shown on their face, while jacks, queens and kings are worth 10. Aces have a variable value and can be used as either 1 or 11. The objective of the game is to draw a hand with the total value of the cards exceeding that of the dealer, yet without going over 21.
The best possible outcome of a game is 21 points achieved with two cards, which is usually referred to as "blackjack" or "a natural". Unlike regular outcomes paid 2:1, blackjack comes with the payoff of 3:1, which means if you get a two-card 21 on a $10 bet, you will win $15 instead of the usual $10. The rest of the hands come with even-money payoff, which means you get your original bet amount paid back to you.
The game itself
Before any cards are dealt, each player is to place a bet in front of him in a specially outlined area. The minimum and maximum limits may vary from table to table, although the most common ones are $2 minimum and $500 maximum. While it's uncommon to find tables with bets lower than $2, tables with higher limits are quite easy to find - both at online and land-based ones. Once all the players have determined their bets and placed a specific number of chips on the betting square, the dealer shuffles the cards thoroughly until they have been properly combined. When there are four or more decks in the game, they are usually dealt from a special box (the shoe) that allows the dealer to take cards one at a time without showing their value.
A plastic card is inserted to ensure the last 60 to 80 cards in the pack will not be used in the game. Once this card is reached, the decks are reshuffled. This measure has to do with making it as difficult as possible for professional card counters to predict the next cards to come when playing.
There are two varieties of blackjack based on how the cards are dealt and whether the players are allowed to touch them. In a "shoe game"(also known as "face-up game"), all the players' cards are dealt face up and placed in front of the players, without them being allowed to touch their cards at any moment. This variety is most common for games using multiple decks. For games played with a single or double deck and dealt from the hand as opposed to from the shoe, cards are dealt to the players face down, at which point the players are allowed to pick them up with one hand. In both cases one of the dealer's cards is face up while the other is face down.
Face-up blackjack is the most common variety - at both land-based and online casinos. With the cards shuffled and all the bets placed, each player receives one card face up in clockwise fashion, after which the dealer takes one card for him or herself face up. Following the first round, the dealer deals another round face up to each player, taking his or her second card face down. As a result, after two rounds of cards each player ends up with two cards face up, while the dealer has one card face up and one card face down.
The dealer follows strict casino rules when drawing. If the dealer gets any total of 16 or less, they must get more cards, one by one. The dealer is to stand on any total of 17 or more. In some casinos the dealers are instructed to draw if they have soft 17, which is a combination that includes one ace or more, as the value of the hand could also be counted as 11 instead of 17. There are combinations such as ace-6, as well as ace-3-3, ace-4-2 etc. and even multiple aces when a few decks are used for the game.
Most common blackjack action terms and signals
To "hit" means to ask for another card or cards in order to get closer to 21. A hit becomes a bust if the total is over 21 after hitting, with the bet effectively lost. During a face-up game you ask for a hit by pointing at your cards or tapping the table, while during a face-down game you scrape the table with your index finger. These days verbal calls might not be accepted at some land-based casinos, while the signals described above are necessary for the casino to have a full record of the game, for the benefit of the security cameras placed directly above the table.
To "stand" means to draw no further cards hoping that your current hand will beat the dealer's combination. During a face-up game a stand is usually signaled by waving your hand over your cards left to right without moving the arm, while during a face-down game you are supposed to slide your cards under your chips gently, trying not to move the chips.
"Insurance" can be taken if the dealer's face up card is an ace. Insurance basically represents a bet that the other card the dealer holds has a value of 10, which will effectively help the dealer complete a blackjack. Insurance costs half the original bet, but if the dealer does have blackjack, the insurance amount pays 2 to 1.
A "split" is possible if you have first two cards of the same value. At that point you may choose to make a second bet equal to your first and split the pair cards you have, each of the cards used as the first for a newly formed hand. Once you made a second bet equal to the first, the dealer will separate your pair, putting a second card on the first one of the cards. That hand then plays out in a regular fashion until you either choose to stand or go over 21, at which point the second hand is played out. A split is signaled by turning the cards face up (for the face-down variety) and adding a second bet to the original stack of chips, holding up two fingers.
To "double down" means to double your original bet and get only one more card. While some casinos will let you double down only on hands in which your two first cards total 10 or 11, others will allow you to double down on any combination of two cards. A double down is signaled by turning the cards face up (for the face-down variety) and adding a second bet to the original stack of chips, holding up one finger.
The dealer has the advantage in the game because the player always goes first. For instance, if the player busts, the wager is considered lost, even if the dealer busts right after. If the dealer goes over 21, he or she has to pay every player that stood the amount of their bet. The dealer has to stand at 21 or less, paying the bet amount of any player with a higher total still standing and collecting the bets of any players with a lower total. In case of a standoff, which happens when the player has the same total points as the dealer, nothing is collected or paid.
Basic blackjack strategy
The basic strategy in blackjack always has to take into account the value of the dealer's upcard. For cards such as 7, 8, 9 and 10 the player should be guided by the same rules as casino dealers drawing until a total of at least 17 or more. When the dealer is displaying an upcard such as 5 or 6, the strategy is to keep drawing until a total of 12 or higher. The strategy comes down to never taking another card if there is even the smallest chance of going bust, while letting the dealer hit and go over 21. When the dealer's card is 2 or 3, the basic strategy involves stopping with a total of 13 or higher. In case the player gets a soft hand, such as for example an ace and a six, which might stand for 7 or 17, the strategy is to keep hitting until a total or 18 or more.
When it comes to splitting, it's useful to keep in mind that in some cases it makes more sense to double down than to split - for example, if you have two identical 10s, 5s or 4s. In general, pairs of 2s, 3s and 7s are a good idea to split, unless the dealer's upcard is an 8, a 9 a 10 or an ace. As for doubling down, the rule is that the player should double down with a total or 11, while with a total of 10 he should double down unless the dealer's upcard is a 10 or an ace. With a total of 9, doubling down is a good idea only if the dealer's upcard is poor (2 through 6).