A Guide to the Game of Blackjack
Blackjack is the most popular casino card game in the world. A favorite of gambling establishments since the early 1800s, its swift, accessible playing style makes it an attractive choice for casino players who want to pit their wits against the dealer.
The infamous practice of card counting, too, has led to blackjack featuring in movies such as 21 and Rainman, although, as we'll see later, improved casino security means this is much more difficult to do nowadays.
In this guide, we'll look at the nuts and bolts of what makes playing blackjack such a fascinating activity for casino players. You'll find out how to play blackjack, the different rules and variations of the game, some basic strategies to get you going, and whether card counting really is still a thing.
The rules of blackjack
When it comes to understanding the rules of blackjack, we can find a clue in the name of the game it's derived from. Vingt Un, or Twenty One, forms the basis of blackjack as we know it today, and leads us to the game's main objective: To draw cards totaling closer to 21 than those in the Dealer's hand – without exceeding 21.
To score our hand, we need to know the value of each card, which we can sum up as follows:
|2 to 9||their face value|
|10, J, Q, K||10 points|
|Ace||1 or 11, depending on the hand|
We can create 'soft' combinations with an Ace. For example, a hand of Ace and 6 can be called 'soft 17'. If you decide to stand with the hand, it will count as 17. If you hit and get a 5, the value of your Ace will change to 1, because counting it as 11 would mean you bust.
How to play blackjack
In the most common form of blackjack, the dealer gives the player two random cards with which they can choose to stand (stay with the current cards), or hit (draw another card from the deck). They also place two dealer cards down, of which the player can only see one.
After dealing out the cards, it's the player's turn to act first. They can choose to hit or stand depending on their cards and strategy. Also, there may be an option to double their bet, after which they only get one extra card without an option to get another one, or split their hand, after which each of their two cards is played as a separate hand with its own stake.
If the player's total goes over 21 at any point, they automatically lose the hand, regardless of the dealer's cards.
Even if there are other players around the table, each player is only playing against the dealer, no one else.
Once the player completes their action, it's the dealer's turn to act. In most versions of blackjack, the dealer must draw another card until they have a total of at least 17, and must stand as soon as they get it.
If the dealer goes over 21, the player automatically wins, provided that they haven't gone over 21 themselves. If nobody busts, the hand closest to 21 wins. In the event of a tie, the player receives their stake back.
The pinnacle of any blackjack game is hitting a blackjack hand of 21 with just two cards (Ace and 10/J/Q/K). If you get this as a player, you automatically win unless the dealer also has it.
Blackjack odds and payouts
Most versions of blackjack hold a basic payout ratio of 1:1, so for a $2 bet you get $4 back if you win. Landing blackjack (A + card valued at 10) typically gets you a payout of 3:2, which means for that $2, you get $5 ($3 + your stake) back.
The exact payout may vary depending on a specific game and casino. Be aware that any game paying out a lower ratio than this most likely has a higher house edge, so you're less likely to make a profit.
It's always a good idea to read the game's terms and conditions and paytable before playing so you have a clear picture of what to expect.
Types of blackjack
So far, we've spoken about classic, or American, blackjack, the most common variety that we can find in online or real-life casinos. However, over the years different variations have sprung up which have slight variations on the classic game.
Here's a quick overview of some variants to be aware of.
- The dealer receives just one card face up and waits for the player to complete their hand before drawing.
- Is typically played with two decks of cards instead of six (or more) which makes it more predictable.
- Offers slightly better odds to the player than the American version.
- The same as classic blackjack except the player gets the chance to make an interesting side bet that they will land a pair (e.g. two Jacks, or two 5s).
- If they don't, they lose the side bet, regardless of their hand. If they do, they win a much higher return.
- A general payout is something like this: two cards of the same value pay out 5:1, two cards of the same value and color pay out 10:1, and two cards of the same value, color, and suit pay out 30:1.
- The last option is called the 'perfect pair'.
- This version is great for players who want the chance to win more, but it's obviously much riskier and should be treated with caution.
- All of the '10' cards are taken out, but J, Q, and K remain.
- Has liberal rules which makes up for it being harder to make 21.
- Is very similar to the game 'Pontoon'.
Double Exposure blackjack
- Both the dealer's cards are dealt face up, which increases the player's advantage.
- However, players lose their bets in a tie, while blackjack is paid at a ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:2.
- Certain side bets are also unavailable to the player.
Additional actions in blackjack
When it comes to playing blackjack, it's good to know about a few choices you can make to improve your chances of winning.
We've already covered the basic rules of trying to get closer to a total of 21 than the dealer, but there are several other things you can do in some versions of blackjack.
Make sure you're aware of which type of blackjack you're playing and whether the dealer's cards are both face up or not.
Doubling down gives you a chance to double your bet after you receive your cards (most commonly when you have a total of 9, 10, or 11) in exchange for taking just one more card.
Example: You bet $5 and you get a 9 and a 2, making a total of 11. You double your bet to $10 and then get a 7, so you now have a total of 18 with $10 in play. However, you cannot hit to get another card.
Landing two cards of the same value can give you another option: splitting your hand. In this case, you receive two extra cards to make two hands with each of the double cards, potentially improving the chances of you winning.
Example: You bet $5 and receive a pair of 8s. Opting to split, you receive a 5 and an Ace. This means that you have an 8 and a 5 in one hand for a total of 13, and an 8 and an Ace in another hand for a total of 19. Each of these hands is now played with a $5 bet, meaning you effectively doubled your bet.
Similar to a 'fold' in poker, i.e., not continuing in the hand, except you normally get back half of your stake. The player can do this tactically if they see the dealer has a 9, 10-value, or Ace 'face-up' card.
Example: You bet $5 and receive a 9 and a 7. You see the dealer has a dangerous 'face-up' card' so you decide to surrender, and get $2.50 back.
Again, using the dealer's 'face-up' card: if the dealer shows an Ace, then you can take out 'insurance' by betting that they have blackjack. If this happens, you win the Insurance bet at a ratio of 2:1, but lose the original bet.
Example: You stake $10 but see the dealer gets an Ace 'face-up' card. You make a $5 insurance bet, leading to these possible outcomes:
- The dealer has blackjack. You win $10 from the Insurance bet but lose $10 from the original bet. You are break even.
- The dealer doesn't have blackjack, but you win your original bet. You win $10 (1:1 ratio) but lose your $5 Insurance bet. Therefore, you profit $5.
- The dealer doesn't have blackjack, and you also lose your original bet. You lose both bets, $15 in total.
As you can see, these options add variety and spice to the game which can add to the enjoyment. However, always remember that some of them can add to the casino's house edge and increase your chances of losing money.
Basic strategy for blackjack
Blackjack is largely a game of chance, but there is a basic strategy you can use that may help improve your chances of winning.
This consists of a simple set of instructions that recommend the best course of action to take based on the hand you get. Easily laid out on a grid, you can print it or open it on your phone and use it while you play.
Remember that there are many variations of blackjack. While their basic rules are very similar, there are differences that may result in different optimal play in certain situations. I recommend you search for a strategy chart for the specific version of blackjack you are about to play.
The more you play with this strategy, the easier it'll become to memorize the rules and play automatically. However, before then, it's a good idea to play blackjack for free, which you can do by going to our free games page and choosing 'Blackjack' in the 'Game Type' filter.
Card counting in blackjack
As blackjack's great controversial practice, card counting has attracted many headlines over the years. It may sound complex but it boils down to one simple idea: The more 'high' cards a game's remaining card stack has, the better for the player.
In specific situations, this can result in a mathematical advantage for the player. Although this advantage tends to be quite low, it's still enough to tilt the balance toward the player enough to make a difference.
Card counters increase their bets when there are more 'high' cards and decrease them when more 'low' cards mean they lose their advantage. Alternatively, they watch the table, wait for the right time, and only then join the game and start playing.
This tactic doesn't work in video blackjack, because the casino uses a new virtual deck for every game. In real life, however, it's possible if the same deck is used for multiple games, although casinos have tried to avoid this in recent years.
A Continuous Shuffling Machine (CSM) can mix the cards up for each game, so effectively the dealer uses a new deck.
If a casino suspects a player of card counting then they can ask them to leave or even ban them, even though the practice is legal and isn't even against the game's rules.