Blackjack is the second most popular type of casino game, because, yes, slots come first. What blackjack is and how to play it, you’ll learn in this handy guide.
Blackjack is already a few hundred years old and has been a popular card game in the 16th century in Spain and France. We know of a short story by Miguel de Cervantes, where the game is mentioned as “ventiuna”, which means twenty-one in Spanish.
Indeed, most of us first learn how to play blackjack as children, albeit under a different name, depending on which country you may come from. But it’s easy enough to play and usually two people are sufficient to have a whole lot of fun with a deck of cards. Needless to say as children we usually don’t play for anything more than our honour or perhaps some candy.
On the surface the aim of the game is to get cards that add up to 21 or as close to 21 as possible without actually going over. But the actual objective of the game is always to beat the person dealing the cards – and at the casino that’s naturally the dealer. You see, you may still win with two cards adding up to 18 as long as the dealer only gets a 17. But if a dealer gets a 21, he or she automatically wins, no matter whether you may have had another opportunity to hit.
At a casino, online or out in the real world, blackjack is played with 52-card decks. Depending on the casino and the version you’re playing, the dealer will have between one and eight card decks in one shoe, all thoroughly mixed together to even out the odds.
Since the aim of the game is to reach a value of 21, the cards have to have a value assigned to them as well.
- Two to ten – numerical value
- The royals (king, queen and jack) – 10 points
- Ace – 1 or 11 points (which means it’s either hard or soft)
The card suit is of no relevance in blackjack.
A hard hand is a hand without aces or the ace in the hand is counted as a value of ‘one’ to prevent your hand from busting.
A soft hand means you have at least one ace in your hand and it is counted as ‘eleven’ points.
Bet limits and payouts
Your bet limit depends on the table you choose to play at. Most casinos and online casinos offer various tables with various table limits. So you can always choose to play according to your budget.
Once a bet is placed you will have no option of retracting your bet. Sometimes it’s possible to surrender, but more on that later.
The actual payout if you win your hand depends on the amount you bet in the first place. But there are general rules as to what you can expect to win depending on your hand versus that of the dealer.
Once all cards are played and your hand has a value closer to 21 than that of the dealer, you win and will be paid 1 to 1. Should the dealer bust but you don’t, you will also get paid out 1 to 1. The value of your hand doesn’t matter.
In case you get a blackjack with your first two cards (which has to be an ace and a card valued at 10), you are paid out your bet 3 to 2.
Of course, if you bust you lose your stake.
How to play
Now, let’s get into the details of how to play blackjack and the terms that are being used to describe the players’ actions.
As the player you will always play your hand against that of the dealer. At a blackjack table you may find up to five players, but all of them will play against the dealer’s hand. If you play at an online casino, you can also simply play against the computer and then it will just be you.
Either way, cards are dealt from the shoe. The dealer will hand out one card with its face up to every player and finally take a card for themselves. Then a second card is dealt to every player, all with their faces up. Lastly the dealer will deal a card to themselves, though the face will be down, i.e. not visible to the other players.
Players will then face one of the following actions:
Hit: If you ask to be hit, it means you want to receive a third card on top of the two you already have. Usually you only want to be hit if your card value is significantly lower than 21. As soon as you have 17 or more, you will stand.
Stand: If you decide to stand, it means you don’t want a third card. That’s usually a safe strategy if your card value is at least 17. That way you may not know yet if you have won, but at the very least you won’t go bust.
Bust: You bust as soon as your card value is higher than 21. That can only happen if you request a third card and its value pushes you to 22 or above.
All of these are standard actions that you can always undertake when playing any version of blackjack. But special actions may be possible or even required, depending on the situation and the version of blackjack you are playing.
Special rules may or may not apply depending on the version of blackjack you’re playing. They only apply if you stake money, of course.
Insurance: If a dealer’s visible card is an ace, you may be offered an insurance. That’s essentially just a side bet, which is usually equal or half of your original stake. You are essentially betting on the odds of the dealer having a 10 as a down card, instantly giving them a blackjack. If that turns out to be the case, you will be paid out 2 to 1.
If the dealer doesn’t have a 10, however, you lose your insurance and the hand continues to play out according to the rules. As it is, experienced blackjack players pretty much never take an insurance, because it’s usually not worth it and the odds tend to be in favour of the house.
Double down: If you decide to double down, you decide to increase your bet, which usually means you double your stake. Then you get hit with one more card, but after that you will have to stand. If your hand wins, you are still only paid out 1 to 1.
Splitting pairs: Splitting pairs is only an option, if the first hand your dealt is actually a pair of matching cards. That’s not always an option, but if it is, you will then be dealt two additional cards, playing two hands instead of one. It may even be possible to split pairs again, should you have been dealt another matching pair. Usually players may not play more than three hands, however (with the exception of multihand blackjack).
Once again your hands are played out as per the rules of the game. If one or more of your hands win (or even turn out to be a blackjack), you will be paid out 1 to 1.
Surrender: Surrender is an option only after you received your first two cards. If you do surrender, you will receive half your bet back and your hand is done. That means you won’t be losing your entire bet. Keep in mind that you automatically bust, if all cards are facing up. Surrender is not actually allowed with every version of blackjack, some casinos may not allow it at all.
What the dealer does
Until now we’ve only covered what players may or may not be able to do. But it’s just as important for you to know what dealers have to do. That can very well influence your own strategy.
The dealer is playing on behalf of the house, of course, but in this particular case it means they have to follow certain rules, depending on the cards they have. Usually that means they follow those basic rules, which tend to be quite similar, no matter which version of the game you play:
- Hit on soft 17 (sometimes 16 – can differ)
- Stand on 17 or higher
- Hit on 17 or lower
Once a dealer reveals their second card, you can make a pretty educated guess of what their next step will be. And because a dealer has to abide by these rules, they may more easily bust.
Let’s briefly detour to this subject. You’ll have heard of card counting, most likely through popular culture as it’s a favourite topic in movies or TV shows that somehow deal with casinos or gambling. In some places you will read that card counting is illegal, in others they will tell you that it is not – at least strictly speaking.
Well, there aren’t actually any written laws against it. But not only is it frowned upon by casinos, if you are even suspected of counting cards, you will be politely escorted from the premises and you will be relieved of your winnings.
Counting cards means you’re keeping an eye not only on the cards already played, but trying to guess how many tens are left in the shoe. Card counting is generally only an option in a brick-and-mortar casino. Online casino software makes it impossible, simply because the games are ruled by random number generators. You’re playing against a computer.
As it stands, you’re safer steering away from even attempting it. Casinos will regularly change the shoe and shuffle cards anyway, in order to keep you from trying to count cards. Just enjoy the game and use some simple strategies to improve your game instead.
Strategies and betting patterns
Yes, there are strategies you can use you play blackjack. Check out the odds chart to get a better idea of what to do when you hold a certain hand versus the hand you know or guess the dealer may hold. It does look complicated and confusing, but playing at an online casino actually allows you to take the time to figure it out.
Some basic strategies can be employed regardless:
- Do pay attention to the cards and number of decks – that doesn’t mean count cards. But if you know how many decks are in the shoe, you can estimate the number of aces and tens. If you know a thing or two about probability, you may slightly improve your odds.
- Don’t take insurance – especially if the dealers up card is an ace.
- Treat your hand as a hard total, if you’re unable to split it. Err on the side of caution.
- Learn the odds chart by playing online first.
The house edge is generally pretty small with blackjack, but only if you know how to play the game. There’s still no guarantee that you’ll win and you should always keep a clear head if you want to stay ahead. Listening to your ‘gut’ or imagining that luck is on your side tonight is a sure-fire way to lose.
Seasoned players tend to employ betting patterns as well, which are designed to ensure that you end up on top, even when you happen to lose a few hands.
There are generally two approaches recommended or introduced. One is for careful and budget conscious players. The other for those who’re happy to risk a little more.
- Being careful – whenever you win a hand, add a chip to your bet. If you lose a hand, don’t add a chip, but also don’t remove any. Once you win again, add a chip again. Never add more than one chip at a time. And always ensure to stick with your budget. If you can’t afford to lose, don’t play.
- Taking a risk – Have you ever heard of the Martingale system? This is essentially it. Every time you lose you’re required to double your bet. Yes, every time. That means you stand to lose quite a bit of money before you may win again. But once you do win, you’ll have it all back in one go.
We can only recommend to take the careful approach. And only once you feel comfortable playing blackjack. As long as you’re still learning the game and finding your groove, you should simply not change your bet at all. The risky approach is only for those with the bankroll to sustain it.
Playing blackjack in land-based vs. online casinos
There is, of course, a significant difference between playing blackjack at a brick-and-mortar casino versus playing it online. The rules may differ, to begin with. The atmosphere is totally different. One may require a dress code, the other most certainly doesn’t.
Whether you choose to visit a real-life casino or play online is a matter of preference. But if you’ve never played blackjack at a casino before, it may be a good idea to first play it online to learn the rules. You can do so for absolutely free as well, choosing the demo or fun mode, and use the odds chart to familiarise yourself with the hands you may get and strategies that are useful.
At an actual casino you won’t be allowed to use an odds chart. Needless to say you’d out yourself as an absolute rookie, if you were to try. But a casino also offers a unique thrill, which makes the game all the more exciting. And holding some actual chips is a fun experience.
Nowadays you will have an abundant choice to play at live casinos as well, though. So, if there’s no proper casino near you and you’re looking for the next best thing that doesn’t involve you playing merely against the computer, you may wish to play live instead.
Playing live or mobile
We have a separate article on how blackjack actually works at live casinos. Do be sure to read it. As it is, you will be facing a live dealer and the usual player actions will be required of you as well. Cards are dealt from an actual shoe and not merely computer-generated.
And you may be able to talk to other players or interact with the dealer. So this is definitely different to playing an online casino table game. Most live casinos offer various versions of blackjack these days and you may often be able to choose a table with a limit that suits you.
Additionally there’s the joy of simply playing a hand on your mobile. You can once again opt for a simple table game version, of which there are usually plenty, or login to the live casino and play at a live table. Technology is so far advanced these days that you can easily do so on your mobile as well. Alas, the experience won’t quite live up to playing live at your computer, because the screen size is rather small.
But playing blackjack casino game on the go or whilst you’re waiting is definitely a nice option to pass the time.
Best blackjack online casinos
Some online casinos have an excellent reputation as blackjack casinos. They may very well offer special blackjack promotions or tournaments. Leo Vegas, for instance, often involves the Celebrity Blackjack Party table in their promotions, where you’re able to win something extra. If that is something you might be interested in, LeoVegas is definitely recommended.
Some of the casinos we recommend here simply have a great selection of blackjack games and tables or they are particularly suited for mobile play or offer a wide variety of suppliers. Simply read our reviews to find out what the advantages of each casino are.
And if you have thoughts to share or questions to ask, feel free to do so.
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