The aim of Blackjack is to beat the dealer. This is done by building a hand that has a value closer to 21 than the dealer’s hand does. However, it is important not to exceed 21; this is known as going bust, and it means that you automatically lose. Therefore, a better way to think of it is to aim to have a higher total than the dealer, not to aim to get as close to 21 as possible.
The card values in Blackjack are very straightforward. The number cards 2 through 10 are all worth their face values. The picture cards (Jack, Queen and King), are all worth 10, and Aces are worth 1 or 11 (more on this below). You simply total the value of the cards in your hand to get your hand value. This means that it is possible to form 21 with just two cards, an Ace and a 10 card. This hand is known as Blackjack; it is the strongest possible hand and it normally offers a boosted payout.
When people discuss Blackjack hands, you will often hear them referred to as Hard or Soft. This is determined by whether or not a hand contains an Ace. If there is no Ace or it has an Ace that is counted as 1, then the hand is Hard, if there is an Ace that is counted as 11, then the hand is Soft. It is important to understand this as it affects how the rules governing how the dealer plays.
The Start of a Round
A round of Blackjack is very short and very easy to follow. To begin with, you need to place your bet. Just choose your chip value and then place it on the table. After the bets have been confirmed, each player at the table is dealt two face-up cards. The dealer will also receive two cards and the way in which this happens will depend slightly on the game you are playing but in most games, the dealer receives once face-up card and one facedown. After all the cards have been dealt, each player has a turn to play his or her hand.
Player Hand Options
Players will be given a number of options and the exact ones will depend on the cards in the hand and the variant being played. However, there are three basic options that are present in all forms of the game:
- Hit – This means that the player is dealt an additional card to the hand. After receiving the card, if the hand has not gone bust, then it is possible to Hit again.
- Stand – This means that the player is happy with the hand as it is and no more cards are required. If a player chooses Stand then play moves on to the next player.
- Double Down – This option sees the initial bet doubled, an additional card is dealt to the hand, and then play moves on to the next player. In nearly all Blackjack games, Double Down is only available after the first two cards have been dealt, i.e. a player cannot Hit and then Double Down. Furthermore, in some versions of the game, Double Down is only available on specific hand values.
Beyond these basic options, there are two more that are offered in most games in specific circumstances:
- Split – If the first two cards dealt to a player have an identical values (e.g. 4 Spades, 4 Hearts), then you will be offered the chance to split them into two separate hands that can then be played individually. This will require you to place a second bet that is identical in value to the first. Depending on the version of Blackjack you are playing, you may or may not be able to Double Down after a Split, and there may also be rules governing split Aces.
- Insurance – In most versions of the game, if the dealer’s initial face-up card is an Ace, then players have the chance to place an Insurance side bet against the dealer having Blackjack. The side bet costs half of the initial bet and if the dealer does have Blackjack, then it pays out at 2:1, meaning that no money is lost for that hand.
There are two further options that are fairly common. While they are not offered in all Blackjack variants, it is still important to understand them:
- Surrender – In some games, you will be offered the chance to Surrender your hand and receive half of your bet back. There are two types of Surrender, Early and Late. If a game offers Early Surrender, then the option will be present before the dealer checks for Blackjack if the dealer’s face-up card is an Ace. More often, games will offer Late Surrender, which means the option is available after the dealer has checked for Blackjack.
- Even Money – This is similar to Insurance. If you are holding Blackjack and the dealer’s face-up card is an Ace, then you may be offered an Even Money payout. This means that you are paid at 1:1 before the dealer checks for Blackjack. Most games offer payouts of 3:2 for regular Blackjack, so it is a smaller payout, but it removes the risk of the hand tying with the dealer and not winning anything.
The Dealer’s Turn
Once all the players have finished, it is then the dealer’s turn to play. The exact rules governing the dealer are quite variable depending on the variant you are playing. However, in general, the dealer must draw more cards until the hand is worth a certain value, and then stand. Very often, you will see games that state the dealer must draw until the hand is worth 16 and then stand as soon as it is 17 or above. Some games will state that the dealer must draw on a Soft 17 but not a hard 17. This is just one of many rule variants that is common to Blackjack.
After the dealer has finished, players are awarded for any winning hands. In most versions of the game, if the player’s hand is stronger than the dealer’s is then they are paid at 1:1 and if the player has Blackjack then they are paid at 3:2.
Common Blackjack Variants
There are a huge number of different Blackjack variants. The differences between the games are usually very small, but they have a big impact on strategy. In general, the variations will be in the following areas:
- Number of Decks – Some Blackjack games will use a single deck while others may use 2, 4, 6 or 8.
- Double Down – Some Blackjack games will allow Double Down on all hand totals while others may only allow it on Hard 9, 10 and 11.
- Splitting – There are many possible variants in this area. Some games will allow a Split hand to be Split again, while others don’t. Other Blackjack games may allow Double Down after a split, while some won’t. Finally, many Blackjack games will only allow one card to be drawn to split Aces.
Those are the three general areas where the differences occur, but there may be more. Before you start playing a game, it is always worth carefully looking through the rules to make sure that you understand exactly what is and isn’t allowed.
Based upon the above variations, a number of standard forms of the game have emerged that you will find at many online casinos. Here is a bit about each of the most common variants (once again, this may vary a bit from casino to casino).
European Blackjack is played with six decks of cards that are usually shuffled between each round. The game allowed Double Down on hands with a total of 9, 10 or 11, and hands may be Split once. Furthermore, the dealer will stand on all 17s, both hard and soft.
Vegas Strip Blackjack
Vegas Strip Blackjack is played with four decks of cards that are usually shuffled between rounds. If the dealer is dealt a face-up Ace or 10, then they will immediately check for Blackjack. Furthermore, the dealer will stand on all 17s. Players may Split hands once and Double Down on all hand totals.
Vegas Downtown Blackjack
Vegas Downtown Blackjack uses two decks of cards that are shuffled between rounds. The important difference in this game is that the dealer must Hit on Soft 17s, the dealer will also check for Blackjack if the face-up card is an Ace or a 10. Players are offered both Split and Double Down.
Atlantic City Blackjack
Atlantic City Blackjack uses eight decks of cards that are shuffled between rounds. The important difference in this game is that players are offered Late Surrender. Players can also Split once and Double Down on any total. The dealer will stand on all 17s and will check for Blackjack if the face-up card is an Ace or a 10.
Even More Variants
The four variants explained above are very common standard forms of the game. However, online casinos will often offer far more versions of the game. As mentioned, there are usually just subtle differences based upon the concepts described above. However, some versions of the game are significantly different.
One of these is Blackjack Double Exposure. In this variant, both of the dealer’s first two cards are dealt face-up. The game uses six decks of cards that are shuffled between rounds. It allows Splitting, and Double Down is available on hard totals of 9, 10 and 11. However, Double Down is not offered for Split hands. Obviously, seeing both of the dealer’s cards gives players an advantage. To compensate for this, the dealer wins if hands are tied (i.e. the player’s and dealer’s hands have the same value). Furthermore, Blackjack pays 1:1 not 3:2. If the player and dealer both have Blackjack, then the bet is returned as a push.
Another game that is common at online casinos is Blackjack Switch. In this game, players will always be playing two hand simultaneously and the game takes its name from the fact that players are able to switch the top card between each hand at the beginning of a round. Blackjack Switch uses six decks of cards that are shuffled between rounds. The dealer will stand on Hard 17 and hit on Soft 17. Furthermore, if the dealer’s hand has a value of 22, then the dealer does not bust but rather pushes against all hands except for Blackjack. The game also allows Double Down and Split.
Blackjack Side Bets
A number of Blackjack games give players the chance to win a bit more through some side bets. These will vary from casino to casino, but there are three very common side bets.
A huge number of Blackjack games offer this side bet. It is a bet on the first two cards being dealt to a player forming a pair. There are three types of pair:
- Mixed Pair – Two cards of the same value, but different suit and colour. For example, 3 Hearts and 3 Clubs. It usually pays at 5:1
- Coloured Pair – Two cards of the same value and the same colour. For example, 7 Hearts and 7 Diamonds. It usually pays at 12:1.
- Perfect Pair – Two identical cards. For example, two 3 Spades. It usually pays at 25:1.
This is a side bet on the player’s initial two cards combining with the dealer’s face-up card to form one of five different poker hands:
- Flush – Three cards of the same suit. For example, 5, 8, and Jack of Hearts. It usually pays at 5:1
- Straight – Three sequential cards. For example, 6, 7, 8, and it does not matter what the suits or colours are. It usually pays at 10:1.
- Three of a Kind – Three cards of the same value, regardless of suit. For example, three 5s. It usually pays at 30:1.
- Straight Flush – Three cards from the same suit in numerical order. For example, 7, 8, 9 of Clubs. It usually pays at 40:1.
- Suited Three of a Kind – Three cards that are the same suit and number. For example, three 7 of Clubs. It usually pays at 100:1.
A number of Blackjack games give players the chance to win a progressive jackpot by placing a side bet. The jackpot is won if players are then dealt the correct combination of cards. In most games, this is four consecutive Aces of the same suit while there will be smaller payouts of 5000:1 for three suited Aces, 250:1 for three unsuited Aces, 100:1 for two suited Aces, 50:1 for two unsuited Aces, and 5:1 for one Ace.
One of the great things about Blackjack is that it is possible to reduce the house edge significantly through the use of mathematical strategies. While the house edge will never be overcome completely, players can definitely do a lot to improve their chances of winning.
This is because at any given time players will have a fair idea of what cards are left in the shoe. Obviously, the fewer decks of cards used, the easier this becomes. Therefore, it is possible to calculate the best course of action based upon the player’s two cards and the dealer’s face-up card.
Blackjack Strategy Charts
The mathematics are fairly complicated, luckily, there is no reason for any player to have to do them. The mathematically best strategy is easy to find online and easy to follow, even if you are a terrible mathematician.
The strategy is usually displayed in a chart. Along the top is the dealer’s face up card and down the side is the player’s two card hand total. You then simply look at where the two intersect on the chart and it tells you whether it is advantageous to Hit, Stand, Double Down, Split, and so on.
However, as discussed there are many different forms of Blackjack, and because of the different rules governing Split, Double Down, the number of decks of cards used, and so on, each variant requires its own strategy chart. Luckily, it is very easy to look up the strategy chart for every Blackjack variant, and you are even allowed to bring them with you into casinos.
Some players will invest a great deal of time in memorising strategy charts. However, if you are playing Blackjack at home on your computer, then there is no reason why you can’t keep a chart open on your computer screen or even print it out and refer to it as you need it.
Picking a Blackjack Variant
If you really want to reduce the house edge, then it is very important that you choose the correct variant to play. The small changes to the rules can have a big impact on the house edge. There are four factors that work in players’ favour:
- Blackjack normally pays 3:2 while the dealer is only paid 1:1
- Players have the option to Double Down
- Players can Split
- Players can stand on low totals, whereas the dealer cannot.
Each of these helps to reduce the house edge and it means, that when playing single deck games, the house edge is as low as 0.2%.
Essentially, when you choose a game, there are a number of rules that you want to see and some that you definitely do not want to see. It will work in your favour if:
- Blackjack pays 3:2
- It is a one or two deck game
- Early and/or Late Surrender is permitted
- Double Down is permitted on any hand total
- Double Down is permitted on soft hands
- Pairs can be re-split
- Aces can be re-split
- The dealer will stand on all 17s, including Soft 17
The rules that you want to avoid are:
- Blackjack pays 6:5
- Double Down not permitted after Split
- Double Down only permitted on totals of 10 and 11
- Double Down not permitted on soft hands
- Aces may not be re-split
- Dealer hits on all 17s, including Soft 17
- Surrender is not allowed
- Game is played with six or eight decks of cards