The North American game of Blackjack, also known as 21, has been one of the most popular casino games of the last hundred years and has spread throughout the world. In the 21st century it has been overtaken in popularity by Slots (slot machine games), but it remains one of the most popular casino card games and is available in almost all casinos both on and offline.
Blackjack is a casino banked game, meaning that players compete against the house rather than each other. The objective is to get a hand total of closer to 21 than the dealer without going over 21 (busting).
At the start of a Blackjack game, the players and the dealer receive two cards each. The players’ cards are normally dealt face up, while the dealer has one face down (called the hole card) and one face up. The best possible Blackjack hand is an opening deal of an ace with any ten-point card.
The house advantage of this game is derived from several rules that favour the dealer. The most significant of these is that the player must act before the dealer, allowing the player to bust and lose their bet before the dealer plays.
Players should be aware that there is another card game called Black Jack in the UK which is an entirely different card game, effectively the same as Crazy Eights.
Blackjack is played with a standard international deck of cards with the Jokers removed, leaving 52 cards. Originally the game was played with a single deck. However, as a counter measure to card counting, casinos introduced multi-deck games, based on the false assumption that if there were more cards in play it would be harder for the card counter to keep track of them all. As a result, Blackjack is now usually offered in either single deck, double deck, 4 deck, 6 deck or 8 deck variants. It should be noted that there are exceptions in online casinos where far larger numbers of decks can be used than would be practical to manage offline.
Aside from the cards, the game requires a table, chips, a discard tray, cut card and a shoe.
When playing Blackjack the numeral cards 2 to 10 have their face values, Jacks, Queens and Kings are valued at 10, and Aces can have a value of either 1 or 11. The Ace is always valued at 11 unless that would result in the hand going over 21, in which case it is valued as 1.
Any hand with an Ace valued as 11 is called a ‘soft’ hand. All other hands are ‘hard’ hands.
A starting hand of a 10 valued card and an Ace is called a Blackjack or natural and beats all hands other than another Blackjack. If both the player and dealer have Blackjack, the result is a push (tie): neither the player nor the bank wins and the bet is returned to the player.
Order of Play and Playing Options
Each player sitting at the table places their desired bet in the betting circle directly in front of them. In most casinos if there are untaken betting circles, the players sitting at the table can choose to play more than one hand at a time. The minimum and maximum bet size varies from casino to casino, generally with a ratio of 40 to 100 between them. For example with a $25 minimum bet the maximum will usually be somewhere from $1000 to $2500. Once the bets are placed the dealer will move their hand across the table from their left to their right signalling that no further bets can be placed. The dealer then deals cards one at a time clockwise around the table, from the dealer’s left to the dealer’s right: first a card face up to each betting circle that has a bet in it, then a card face up to the dealer, and then a second card face up to each betting circle with a bet and finally a second card face down to the dealer.
In many places the dealer’s first card is initially dealt face down. The dealer’s second card is used to flip the first card face up and then slid underneath the first card. The exact dealing protocol varies from place to place as determined by the casino management.
If the dealer has a 10 or an Ace face up players are offered the option to place an Insurance bet. Insurance is a side bet on whether or not the dealer has a Blackjack, unrelated to the final outcome of the round. If a player chooses to take insurance they place an additional bet equal to half of their original bet. This insurance bet wins if the dealer has Blackjack.
The dealer now checks their down card to see if they have Blackjack. If they have Blackjack they expose their down card. The round is concluded and all players lose their original bet unless they also have Blackjack. If a player and the dealer each have Blackjack the result is a push and the player’s bet is returned. Any insurance bets are paid out at 2:1.
If the dealer does not have Blackjack any insurance bets are lost and any players who have Blackjack are paid. It is then the turn of the remaining players to take their actions. Starting with the player sitting furthest to dealer’s left they have the following options:
Stand – If the player is happy with the total they’ve been dealt they can stand, taking no further action and passing to the next player. The player can take this action after any of the other player actions as long as their hand total is not more than 21. The hand signal to Stand is waving a flat hand over the cards.
Hit – If the player wishes to take another card they signal to the dealer to by scratching the felt beside their hand or pointing to their hand. A single card is then played face up onto their hand. If the hand total is less than 21 the player can choose to Hit again or Stand. If the total is 21 the hand automatically stands. If the total is over 21 the hand is bust, the player’s bet is taken by the house and the turn to act passes to the next player.
Double Down – If the player considers they have a favourable hand, generally a total of 9, 10 or 11, they can choose to ‘Double Down’. To do this they place a second wager equal to their first beside their first wager. A player who doubles down receives exactly one more card face up and is then forced to stand regardless of the total. This option is only available on the player’s two-card starting hand. Some casinos will restrict which starting hand totals can be doubled.
Split – If the player’s first two cards are of matching rank they can choose to place an additional bet equal to their original bet and split the cards into two hands. Where the player chooses to do this the cards are separated and an additional card is dealt to complete each hand. If either hand receives a second card of matching rank the player may be offered the option to split again, though this depends on the rules in the casino. Generally the player is allowed a maximum of 4 hands after which no further splits are allowed. The split hands are played one at a time in the order in which they were dealt, from the dealer’s left to the dealer’s right. The player has all the usual options: stand, hit or double down. Some casinos restrict the card ranks that can be split and may also restrict the option to Double after splitting a pair.
A player who splits Aces is usually only allowed to receive a single additional card on each hand. Normally players are allowed to split two non-matching 10-value cards, for example a King and a Jack. However, some casinos restrict the splitting of ten value cards to pairs of the same rank (two Jacks for instance). It should be noted in any case that splitting 10’s is almost always a poor play for the player. If Aces are split and the player draws a Ten or if Tens are split and the player draws an Ace, the resulting hand does not count as a Blackjack but only as an ordinary 21. In this case the player’s two-card 21 will push (tie with) dealer’s 21 in three or more cards.
Surrender – Some casinos allow a player to surrender, taking back half their bet and giving up their hand. Surrender must be the player’s first and only action on the hand. In the most usual version, known as Late Surrender, it is after the dealer has checked the hole card and does not have a Blackjack. It has become increasingly rare for casinos to offer the surrender option.
After all players have completed their actions the dealer plays their hand according to fixed rules. First they will reveal their down card. The dealer will then continue to take cards until they have a total of 17 or higher. The rules regarding Soft 17 (a total of 17 with an Ace counted as 11 such as A+6) vary from casino to casino. Some require the dealer to stand while others require additional cards to be taken until a total of hard 17 or 18+ is reached. This rule will be clearly printed on the felt of the table.
If the dealer busts all non-busted player hands are automatically winners.
If the player and dealer have equal unbusted totals the hand is considered a push and the player’s bet is returned.
If a player wins a hand they are paid out at 1:1 on the total bet wagered on that hand. For example if the player wagered $10 and then doubled down placing a further bet of $10 on the hand and won, they would be paid a total of $40, their $20 bet back and $20 winnings.
If the player has Blackjack they are paid at 3:2, so that a wager of $10 the player would be paid a total of $25, their $10 bet back plus $15 winnings.
If the player has placed the Insurance bet and the dealer has Blackjack, the player’s hand loses but the Insurance bet is paid out at 2:1. So if the player had bet $10 on the hand and $5 on the Insurance bet, they would lose the $10 and be paid a total of $15 – their $5 Insurance bet returned and $10 winnings. This effectively results in a push overall for the hand.
In some casinos the players’ initial two-card hands are dealt face down. All additional cards dealt to the player are given face up. The initial cards are revealed by the player if the hand goes bust, or if the player wishes to split a pair. Otherwise the dealer reveals the cards at the end of the round when it is time to settle the bets. This style of game is rare nowadays: casinos don’t like to allow players to touch the cards, because of the risk of card marking.
In European style games only the dealer’s face up card is dealt the start of the round. Dealer’s second card is dealt after all players have acted, and the dealer checks for Blackjack at this point. Player Blackjacks are paid at the end of the round if the dealer does not have Blackjack. If the dealer has Blackjack the rules regarding Doubled and Split hands vary from casino to casino. Some casinos will take both bets while others will only take the initial bet and return the other.
It should be noted that some casinos have started to offer a reduced payout on Blackjack, most commonly 6:5. This is very bad for the player, increasing the House Edge significantly. Any game offering a reduced payout on Blackjack should be avoided by players.
The maximum number of hands that can be created by splitting depends on the rules in the casino: some only allow one split.
When splitting 10 value cards, not all casinos will allow players to split non-matching 10 cards. For instance, in some casinos you could split two Jacks but could not split a King and a Jack. Also, some casinos will limit which card ranks can be split.
House rules will dictate whether the player is allowed to Double after splitting, and whether a player who splits Aces is allowed to receive more than one additional card on a hand.
Not all casinos offer the Surrender option.
A few casinos may offer Early Surrender in which the player can take back half of their bet and give up their hand before the dealer checks for Blackjack. This is very rare nowadays
In European style games there is normally no Surrender option. If Surrender were offered it would of course have to be Early Surrender.
Five Card Charlie
The side rule is rarely offered. When it is in effect, a player who collects a hand of five cards (two cards plus three hits) without going bust is immediately paid even money, irrespective of the dealer’s hand.
Home game blackjack
Blackjack can be played at home, rather than in a casino. In this case a fancy Blackjack table is not needed: just at least one pack of cards and something to bet with – cash, chips or maybe matches. Unless the players have agreed in advance that the host should deal throughout, to ensure a fair game the participants should take turns to be the dealer. The turn to deal can pass to the next player in clockwise order after every hand or every five hands or whatever the players agree. If playing with a single deck of cards, it is desirable to re-shuffle the cards after every hand.