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Blackjack is perhaps the most popular of all casino table games, with numerous tables of blackjack found in most live casinos. Blackjack is also extremely popular in the online gambling world, where most online casinos offer not just one but several different blackjack games, each of which has different rules and odds. However, all of these games tend to be quite favourable to the player, offering house edges well below 1% in most cases.
This article is about the standard game of blackjack – which, on its own, has plenty of different rules that can be changed from casino to casino. We review blackjack variants in other articles, including such popular games as Pontoon and Super Fun 21.
Real Money Online Blackjack
Not only does every single online casino offer blackjack, but most actually give several different real money online blackjack options for you to choose from. A typical selection might include a “Vegas-style” blackjack game, a European blackjack table, and several games with side bets. There may even be a single deck version offered. This isn’t even including all of the blackjack variants that are likely to be spread. Blackjack sites are extremely popular, and the variety of blackjack games available to players online reflects this.
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How to Play 21
Blackjack is played with a ‘shoe’ made up of 1-8 standard 52-card decks of playing cards. The object of the game is to beat the dealer by making a hand worth as close to 21 points as possible without going over. Cards are scored according to their printed number, with face cards (jacks, queens and kings) counting as ten points, and aces counting as either one or 11 points depending on what will benefit the player most.
The game of blackjack begins with each player making a bet. The dealer then deals two cards (usually face up) to each player, as well as two cards for the dealer’s hand – one face up, and one face down.
The best possible hand in blackjack is called (of course) a blackjack: a hand consisting of an ace and any ten-point card. This ‘natural’ 21 beats all other hands except for a dealer blackjack, with which it pushes.
At the beginning of the hand, the dealer will normally check to see if he has a blackjack if he is showing a ten or ace. However, this is already a point at which the rules of blackjack sometimes vary; in some cases (such as in many European blackjack games) the dealer will not check for blackjack until all players have finished playing their hands.
Before checking for blackjack, the dealer will normally offer players insurance. This bet costs half the amount of the initial bet, and pays 2-1 if the dealer does indeed have a blackjack. In practice, this means that if the dealer has a blackjack, the player will break even. If a player has a blackjack, this will often be offered as even money for the blackjack; mathematically, this is exactly the same as taking insurance.
If the dealer has a blackjack, all players immediately lose their bets. The one exception is for players who also have a blackjack; those players will push.
If the dealer does not have a blackjack, all player blackjacks immediately win at odds of 3-2. Other players may now take turns playing their hands in an attempt to get closer to 21 if they wish to do so. Players have the following options for playing their hands:
Stand: At any point, a player may choose to stand, at which point they will receive no more cards and their hand is set.
Hit: The player may choose to take an additional card by hitting. The dealer will then give the player another card face up. If the player’s hand is 21 or less, they again have the choice to hit or stand. If the player’s hand is ever worth 22 or more points, they immediately “bust,” losing the hand and forfeiting all bets.
Double Down: The double down is an option only available on the initial two-card hand a player receives. If the player wishes to do so, they may make a second bet of equal size to their first bet. The dealer then gives the player one additional card, after which the player must stand. The hand will now be played for both bets.
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Split: A player who receives two cards of the same rank may choose to split his hand into two separate hands, each of which will be played for a full bet equal to the initial bet that player made. In some cases, the player may continue splitting if he receives more cards of the same rank, up to a total of four hands. Under the most common rules, these split hands may then be played as normal, except that split aces typically are only offered one card, after which players must stand. Each hand may win or lose independently of the other split hands.
Surrender: In most casinos, you will also have the option to surrender on your first two cards. If you choose to do so, you will give up half of your bet and forfeit your hand.
After all players have busted or chosen to stand, the dealer reveals his face-down card. The dealer must now follow rules that are printed on the blackjack table in determining how to play his hand. In most cases, the dealer must hit with all hands of 16 or lower, and must stand with hands of 17 or more. Some tables use an alternate rule that requires the dealer to hit with a “soft 17;” soft hands are those that contain an ace which still counts as 11 points (meaning that an additional card cannot cause a hand to bust).
If the dealer busts while playing his hand, all players remaining in the hand win even money on their bets. If the dealer stands, the dealer’s hand is compared against the player hands. Each player hand that is worth more than the dealer hand wins even money. If the dealer hand is worth more than a player hand, that player hand loses. If the dealer and player hands have the same value, any bets on that hand will push.
Rules and Strategy
Blackjack strategy is notoriously complex, and even minor rule changes from casino to casino can result in changes to optimal strategy. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t provide some advice that will put you on the right track no matter what rules you’re playing with. If you’re unsure about what basic strategy to use in blackjack, the following outline will help you avoid major mistakes at your favourite blackjack site.
A Simple Blackjack Strategy
The following strategy is heavily based on the “Wizard’s Strategy” developed by Michael Shackleford. We’ve made a couple of adjustments that make the strategy slightly more robust, but without Shackleford’s work, our strategy would not be possible.
There are three parts to this strategy: what to do with hard hands, what to do with soft hands, and when to split your hands.
Hard hands describe those hands without an ace that still counts as 11 points. With these hands, follow these rules:
- With hands of eight or less, always hit.
- With a hand of nine, double down if the dealer is showing a 3, 4, 5 or 6, otherwise hit.
- With a hand of ten or 11, double down if the dealer is showing a card lower than your hand value, otherwise hit.
- With a hand of 12-16, hit if the dealer is showing a card of 7 or higher, otherwise stand.
- With a hand of 17-21, always stand.
Soft hands are those that still contain an ace which counts as 11 points. This gives the player more flexibility, as the player cannot bust by taking an additional card. With these hands, follow these rules:
- With soft hands of 15 or less, always hit.
- With soft hands of 16-18, double down if the dealer is showing a 6 or less; otherwise, hit.
- With soft hands of 19 or more, always stand.
Choose to split based on the following rules:
- With aces or eights, always split.
- With fours, fives or tens, never split.
- With all other pairs, split only if the dealer is showing a card of six or less.
As part of this strategy, you should never take insurance. Also, if the strategy says to double down and you cannot do so, hit instead (stand with a soft 18); if the strategy says to split and its not allowed, play the hand instead according to its normal hand value.
If you are interested in learning how to count cards in blackjack, it’s first important to realize that this is not a fast way to make easy money. For starters, you’ll want to know the exact rules of the blackjack game you will be playing in, and make sure that you know the precise optimal strategy for every situation you might encounter. Card counters only receive a slight advantage over the house, so you can’t afford mistakes.
There are many different card counting systems out there, ranging from the very simple to the devilishly complex. In general, more complex systems offer bigger edges to players, but come with a higher probability of making errors. You must also balance the danger of getting caught by casino personnel against techniques that may make you more money.
Card counting essentially works due to the fact that cards are being removed from the shoe and not immediately replaced. This means that the odds are constantly changing during a shoe, a quirk that card counters can exploit. This can be exploited primarily by changing bet sizes at appropriate times; additional profits come from knowing when to deviate from basic strategy, taking insurance, or making other adjustments.
A final word of warning: if the cards are being consistently replaced back into the shoe, card counting simply won’t work. This obviously applies to online blackjack, where card counting is not a viable strategy. However, it also means that live casinos that use automatic shuffling machines or other devices that remove the aspect of deck penetration from the game are essentially setting up games that are uncountable.
Odds & House Edge
The odds in blackjack depend on numerous factors, ranging from the number of decks being used (fewer is better) and the options given to the player (the more they have, the lower the house edge). However, all but the worst games carry a very low house edge.
For instance, consider the following very typical blackjack game: an eight deck shoe, dealer stands on all 17s, players can double after splitting and may split up to four hands, but resplit aces can’t be played, surrender is not allowed, and where blackjack pays the normal 3-2 odds. This game has a house edge of approximately 0.45% – about as good as you’ll find in the casino.
Casinos can make dozens of rule changes that can help or hurt the player. Here’s a quick look at the top three common rules you might find that are good or bad for the player:
Good Rules for the Player
- Using a single deck: As we said, the fewer the number of decks, the better for the player, and a single deck is as good as it gets. This will reduce the house edge by 0.48%; unfortunately, single deck games are often accompanied by other very bad rules, meaning single deck games are often tricky to evaluate. Even using a two-deck shoe is great for the player, reducing the house edge by 0.19%.
- Allowing players to draw to split aces: If you can actually play to split aces, you’ll find that this improves your results in these hands greatly. This rule improves the odds by about 0.19% in your favour.
- Late Surrender: If you can surrender after the dealer checks for blackjack, the proper use of this rule will reduce the house edge by 0.08%. Much rarer is early surrender, where you can give up half a bet before the dealer checks for blackjack; even having this option only against a ten will reduce the house edge by 0.24%.
Bad Rules for the Player
- Short Pay Blackjacks: There is nothing worse than getting 6-5 on a blackjack instead of the normal 3-2 odds. This rule alone increases the house edge by 1.39%.
- Dealer Hits on Soft 17: Since hitting on a soft 17 carries very little risk, it’s more often than not the ‘correct’ play for the dealer. If the dealer is allowed to hit on a soft 17, the house edge increases by 0.22%.
- No Doubling Down After Splitting: If you are not allowed to double down after splitting, this increase the house edge by 0.14%.
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