Overview of Blackjack

Games resembling blackjack have been around since the 15th century, but the main predecessor of the modern-day casino favorite was a 17th-century game known as “Venti-Un.” Just like blackjack, the objective in this game was to get as close as possible to 21 without going over, and aces were worth either 1 or 11 points.

The game migrated to the United States in the early 1800s, brought over by French colonists who were settling in New Orleans. It spread across the nation from there, eventually appearing in Nevada as a legal betting option in 1931.

While blackjack has been developing for centuries, the current version only bears a passing resemblance to its Old World counterpart. It’s been honed and modified by casinos and gamblers alike, both looking for the perfect balance of skill and chance.

The end result is a classic table game that’s found in almost all land-based and online casinos around the world. Even those who know nothing about gambling have a basic idea of how to play the game, and the rise of the Internet has provided ample opportunities for fledgling card players to improve their skills.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of blackjack from the rules of the game to the art of card counting. We’ll also include an example of basic strategy, as well as mentioning some of the most popular variations.

Rules of Blackjack

A game of blackjack is dealt from a standard 52-card deck, and anywhere from 1 to 8 decks may be used by the casino. No matter what variation is being played, the objective is always the same: to get a higher score than the dealer without exceeding a total of 21. If the player goes over this amount, they have busted and automatically lose.

Here is a breakdown of the various card values in blackjack:

Card Value
2 – 10 Face Value in Points
King, Queen, or Jack Ten Points
Ace One or Eleven Points

If the player holds an ace and a 10-point card, they are said to have a “blackjack.” This is the best possible hand for a player. In most games, a blackjack pays out at 3:2 odds, while any other win results in an even money payout. In the case of a tie, the result is called a “push” and no money changes hands.

Players begin the game by placing their wager. Each casino table has minimum and maximum betting requirements, so be sure to learn this information before starting.

Once the initial wagers have been made, everyone at the table receives two cards. The player cards are dealt facing upwards, while the dealer receives one down (hole card) and one up (upcard). The main exception to this rule comes in the European version of blackjack, which requires the dealer to wait until players have finished their hands before drawing their second card.

If the dealer’s upcard is an ace, then the player has the option of buying insurance against a dealer blackjack if the casino rules allow it. In this scenario, the player is allowed to make an additional bet up to half the size of their original wager. If the house does have a blackjack, then the insurance bet pays out at 2:1 and the hand is over. Otherwise, the bet is lost to the casino and the hand continues.

If the dealer’s upcard is worth 10 points, he immediately checks his hole card for a possible blackjack. If this is the case, then he gives everyone the bad news and collects all wagers. The only exception occurs when a player also has a natural blackjack, which results in a “push” (or tie).

Once a player has a chance to see their cards, as well as the dealer’s up card, they have the following options:

Hit The player takes an add’l card.
Stand The player receives no add’l cards.
Split The player splits matching cards into two hands.*
Double Down The player doubles his wager and takes an add’l card.
Surrender The player gives up, losing half of his initial bet.

*Some special rules apply. In order to perform a split, the player must place a wager equal to their first bet and take one additional card per hand. Different casinos have different rules about splitting.

When all players have completed their hands, the dealer reveals their hole card and continues play until they’ve satisfied the house rules. This usually means that the dealer continues to draw until they’ve reached a total of 17 or above (or busted in the process).

In the case of a dealer bust, any player who hasn’t also busted is paid even money on their wagers. Otherwise, the dealer’s total is compared to each player, with the higher hand in each case being declared the winner.

Once all necessary payouts have been made, the dealer prepares to deal a new hand.

Blackjack Odds

The odds for a game of blackjack can vary depending on a number of factors. If you’re trying to figure your chances, the following should always be taken into consideration:

  • Whether the player loses all bets on a dealer blackjack or just the first wager
  • The number of allowable resplits
  • Whether or not the player can resplit aces
  • Whether a player blackjack pays 6:5 or 3:2
  • The number of decks used by the house
  • Whether the dealer hits or stands on a soft 17 (this is a 17 that includes an ace)
  • Whether or not the surrender rule is allowed
  • If the player splits aces, can they also hit?
  • After a player splits, can they also double down?

Now let’s take a look how the number of decks can influence the house edge:

# of Decks House Edge
8 decks 0.65%
6 decks 0.64%
4 decks 0.60%
2 decks 0.46%
Single-deck 0.17%

Even if you do manage to find a casino that uses a single deck, expect a number of other rules to be altered in order to increase the house advantage. Luckily, blackjack remains a better bet than most casino games, with a total house edge that almost always falls below 2%.

Blackjack Card Counting

The art of card counting first gained national recognition with the publication of Beat the Dealer by Dr. Edward O. Thorp. This book hit the best-seller list and convinced a surprising number of players that casinos were ripe for the picking. Since most lacked the proper discipline to card cards properly, however, it was often the casinos that got the last laugh.

In simple terms, a card counter watches the cards are they’re introduced into the game and assigns them a value. The Hi Lo System, for example, requires the following:

  • 2 through 6 card = +1
  • 7 through 9 card = 0
  • 10 through Ace = -1

The player adjusts his overall count based on the cards being introduced into play. When the count is high, the player wagers more because there should be a wealth of high cards remaining in the deck. When the count is low, the player knows there are fewer high cards and should therefore decrease their wager.

This art is somewhat irrelevant for online play, however, as casino software can shuffle between hands at lightning-fast speeds and render any count meaningless.

Basic Strategy in Blackjack

If you employ basic strategy in a game of blackjack, you’re making decisions based on a specific set of parameters. This gives you the best odds for each situation, although Lady Luck can still pull the rug out from under your feet at any time. While a number of basic strategy charts for blackjack are available, this is one of the simplest and most common.

A number of blackjack strategy charts exist, but let’s take a look at one of the most common:

  • Always stand on 17 through 20.
  • Hit on a total of 5 through 8.
  • Hit on a total of 9. Double down if the dealer shows a 3 to 6 on their up card.
  • Hit on a 10 if the dealer shows a 10 or ace. Otherwise, double down.
  • When your total is 11, hit on a dealer ace and double down on anything else.
  • Stand if you have a total of 12 and the dealer shows a 4 through 6. Otherwise, go ahead and hit.
  • Stand on a total of 13 through 16 when the dealer shows a 2 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
  • When holding an A/2, double if the dealer shows a 5 or 6. Hit on anything else.
  • When holding an A/3, double down on a dealer 5 or 6. Hit on any other total.
  • When holding an A/4 or A/5, double down if the dealer shows a 4 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
  • When holding an A/6, double down on a dealer 3 through 6. Otherwise, hit.
  • When holding an A/7, double down on a dealer 3 through 6. Stand on a 2, 7, or 8, and hit on a 9, 10, or ace.
  • When holding an A/8 through A/10, always stand.
  • When holding an A/A, always split.
  • When holding a 2/2 or 3/3, split when the dealer’s total is 2 through 7. Hit on any other total.
  • When holding a 4/4, split unless the dealer has a 5 or 6. In that situation, hitting is the best option.
  • When holding a 5/5, double on a dealer 2 through 9 and hit on a 10 or ace.
  • When holding a 6/6, split if the dealer has a total of 2 through 6. Hit on anything else.
  • When holding a 7/7, split on a dealer total of 2 through 7. Otherwise, the player is advised to hit.
  • When holding an 8/8, always split.
  • When holding a 9/9, split on a dealer 2 through 6, 8, or 9. Stand if the dealer has a 7, 10, or ace.
  • When holding a 10/10, always stand.

Blackjack Variations

If you want to spice up your blackjack experience, give one of these variations a try:

  • Ties Win Blackjack – While ties are normally a push, this online variation offers a payout of 1:2. Players may not split or double down.
  • Super Fun 21 – Blackjack pays even money, but a player automatically wins if they get 20 or less with a total of 6 cards. Late surrender is also in effect, meaning the player can give up (and receive half their money back) after the dealer has checked for blackjack.
  • Spanish 21 – The biggest difference is that the four 10 cards have been removed, and a player 21 always wins.
  • Caribbean 21 – The ace always counts as 1, and the highest hand—known as a “Caribbean 21”—is comprised of an ace and two 10-point cards. The dealer wins all ties.
  • Blackjack Switch – Player is dealt two hands and can switch of the second card of each.
  • Perfect Pairs – Works like regular blackjack, but the player can also make an optional side bet that pays out of if their first two cards make a pair.

Any self-respecting gambler has played blackjack on at least a few occasions, which is why it continues to flourish amidst new casino options and increasingly sophisticated video slots. While the basics of the game can be learned by players of any skill level, proper use of options such as splitting and doubling down require additional patience and practice. When card counting is thrown into the mix, the game of blackjack becomes even more sophisticated, and this can lead advantage players to actually gain an edge over the house.