In terms of popularity at casinos, blackjack comes second only to slots. That means, blackjack is the most popular among all card games and if you want to know how to play it, read on.
A little history
No game just appears out of nowhere. The origins are usually lost to the depth of time. But we do know that an early version of blackjack was already popular in Spain and France in the 16th century. Cervantes mentions a card game named ‘ventiuna’ (= twenty-one) in a short story.
The French ‘Vingt-et-un’ is mentioned in the 17th century, also translating to twenty-one. But where the game came from originally, is unclear.
In the 19th century, blackjack arrived in North America, though it was still called ‘twenty-one’ then. Whilst the game continued to spread and eventually made its way to the first casinos, it wasn’t considered an exciting game at all. Neither the payouts were great nor the gameplay interesting. Only when the casinos upped the stakes to 10:1 for a combination of a black Jack and an Ace of Spades, did things pick up for the game. It finally became known as ‘blackjack’, though the 10:1 stake was dropped eventually.
Let’s cover some basics
The aim of the game is to collect cards with a value of 21 or as close as possible. However, going above 21 means you’ve busted and automatically lose the game.
At the same time, though, it is more important to beat the dealer, meaning collecting more points than they do. The dealer is also trying to collect cards with a value of 21 or as close as possible. That means, if neither of you gets an actual blackjack, the winner is the person who gets closer to 21 whilst staying below that number.
The card values
Each card has a specific value assigned to it to determine the result of the points you have collected. No matter which version of blackjack you may play, these values are generally the same:
- Two to ten – the numerical value
- The Royals (king, queen, and jack) – 10 points
- Ace – 1 or 11 points (hard or soft value – see below)
An ace can be counted as 1 or as 11, referring to a hand as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. If an ace is counted as 1, the intention is to prevent you from going bust. Your hand will then be ‘hard’ (as the value cannot be changed to 11).
A hand remains ‘soft’ as long as the ace is counted as 11 points. It will automatically be considered ‘hard’ should you get a combination of cards that would make you go bust (get to 22 points or more)
How to play blackjack
In its essence, blackjack is a game of you against the dealer. Even if you’re sitting at a table with up to four other people, every one of you simply plays against the dealer.
Here’s how things will play out:
- You join the table and place your bet
- The dealer deals a card from the shoe (where the card decks are held)
- Everyone gets a card with its face up
- The final card goes to the dealer
- A second card is dealt to everyone – face up
- The second dealer card remains face down, however
Now players have the following options:
- Hit – Ask for another card as long as you are significantly below 21
- Stand – You don’t want another card as you already have at least 17 points or more
- Bust – You ask for another card, but it exceeds the value of 21, meaning you lose
- Repeat – If no one reached 17 or more points yet, further cards can be dealt
Once all players either stand or have gone bust, the dealer deals cards to himself (or herself, of course) according to specific rules.
Determining the winner
As already mentioned, the goal is to get 21 points. If you manage to do so with your first two cards, getting the quintessential blackjack, you win (even if the dealer also has a 21).
If you bust, you’re out anyway.
Beyond that, whoever is closer to 21 (you or the dealer) will win the hand. If the dealer had to stand at 17 and you managed 18 or 19 points, you win. If you decided to stand at 17 or above and the dealer got 20, you lose.
Various versions of blackjack allow you to make further decisions beyond the ones already explained:
- Double down – You have a chance to double your bet (if you feel confident that you can win). You’re dealt one more card and then have to stand.
- Insurance – If a dealer’s first card is an ace, you may be offered insurance, which is a side bet where you bet on the likelihood of the next dealer card is a 10. You win 2:1 if you take the insurance and are correct. You lose, if the dealer doesn’t have a 10 and the main game continues.
- Splitting pairs – If you get two matching cards, you may be able to split the pair and play two hands. Each hand is now played out separately. In most games, you can play no more than three hands at once (should you get more than 1 pair). The exception is a multi-hand blackjack.
- Surrender – You can forfeit the game after you’ve been dealt the first two cards and haven’t gone bust yet. In this case, you get half your stake back. Not many casinos offer this option.
What the dealer does
As already mentioned, dealers deal out cards to all players and finally to themselves. Here they have to adhere to very specific rules, which makes it quite predictable what they will do and whether you stand a chance at winning.
- Hit on a ‘soft’ 17 (an ace is part of the hand)
- Stand on a ‘hard’ 17 or higher
- Hit on 16 or lower (no ace in hand)
Whilst you have to make your decision before the dealer’s second card is revealed, you are able to make an educated guess on how things will progress once it is the dealer’s turn.
Some basic blackjack strategies
Basic strategies at blackjack are quite useful and they can be quite helpful when you start playing for the first time. In fact, odd charts can be found at many casinos (though perhaps don’t stare at them whilst you’re playing the game).
Such odd charts look complicated at first, but if you take the time to study them, your gameplay will improve.
Beyond that, however, a few other things are usually helpful when playing blackjack:
- Stand on 17 or 18, but hit on 16 or lower
- If you can’t split your hand, treat it as a hard total
- Don’t take insurance – it’s a pointless side bet that will out you as a rookie and it will be a waste of money
- If you know how many decks of cards are in the shoe, you have an overview of remaining aces and jacks (however, casinos tend to swap shoes randomly)
- Keep your cool and pay attention to the dealer’s cards as well. You can also keep an eye on other players’ cards to get an idea which cards have been dealt already
What not to do at a blackjack table
Blackjack is not the most social of games at the casino. Every player fends for themselves. So, peeking into another’s player cards is not a good form. Yes, you want to keep an eye on the cards already dealt. But you don’t want to stare.
More importantly, don’t be tempted to count cards. It’s a popular plot in Hollywood movies, but it’s not advisable at casinos. Whilst there’s no strict law against it, casinos tend to be very cross if they find you counting cards. The first indication that they are onto you is a change of shoes.
It’s more likely, however, that your winnings will simply be confiscated, and you will be escorted off the premises and banned for life.
Should you play online or offline?
Both. If you first learn the game, pick a simple online version and try out those strategies shown above. You can even work up your way to live blackjack tables at an online casino. Since it is such a popular game, you will always find plenty of options.
Also, you are more likely to find a multi-hand blackjack table online rather than at a brick-and-mortar casino.
Of course, playing blackjack on your mobile device is also an option.
But if you do get the chance to play at a real casino, why not go for it? Find out yourself what the differences are, feel the thrill of an actual table and the vibe of the casino. Maybe you’ll win some, maybe you’ll lose some. It’s an experience worth having.
And don’t forget to tip the dealer.
All online casino that offers live table games has at least one table of blackjack available in their live game library. This is the most popular live game on most casinos.
The house percentage on blackjack is as low as 1%, meaning blackjack offers one of the lowest house edge percentages we know of out of all online casino games.
You’ve seen it in countless Hollywood movies, a person counting cards while playing blackjack in Las Vegas. Basically, yes it’s possible to count cards in live blackjack, but we won’t recommend you try this since most casinos tend to come down hard on it. When playing at online casinos you get a new deck of card each turn so it’s not possible while playing online.