How to Play Blackjack
Blackjack is a fairly easy game to pick up but not quite so easy to master. A typical game usually comprises several players who compete against a dealer. Two cards are dealt to each participant, either face up or down depending on the rules. In order to win a hand, the aim is to hit 21 or as near as possible via the sum value of the two cards, or achieve a score higher than the dealer’s hand without going over 21. A win can also be achieved if the dealer continues to draw cards whose value eventually exceeds 21.
Card values relate to their actual numbers which run from 2 to 10. The face cards, Jack, Queen and King are worth ten while aces can be valued at one or eleven. A blackjack is achieved with a picture card and ace.
Players are allowed to draw extra cards to improve their hand value. Once the hands of each participant have been completed, it is the turn of the dealer who must reveal cards until they match a minimum score of 17.
Blackjack Table Layout
Most blackjack tables measure around three feet by five feet and are semicircular in shape. The card holder, which is known as the shoe, sits at the flat end of the table and can hold up to eight decks of cards.
The table is usually covered in green felt and marked with the minimum/maximum bets permitted per hand. Further information is usually provided about when the dealer must stand or hit, with details of insurance bets and payout often included as well. Rectangular spaces are marked for players to place their bets – these are usually located in front of each seat.
- As with all table casino games there’s a certain etiquette which should be observed when playing. Here are a few pointers:
- Don’t give your money to the dealer
- Pick your cards up with one hand
- Ensure that your cards are always on the table and in full view of the dealer
- Never touch the chips once the cards are being dealt
- Signal your decision instead of speaking it
- Stack your chips properly with higher value chips at the bottom
- Cut the deck correctly, aiming for the middle to avoid repeat shuffle
The house edge with blackjack is comparatively low and stands at around 1% or lower. This edge arises from the fact that the dealer has a single hidden card which forces the play to make guesses or assumptions. This edge can be reduced by learning and applying certain strategies.
Blackjack Basic Strategies and Concepts
In order to formulate a sound blackjack strategy, it’s important to understand a few basic concepts.
Hard Hand/Soft Hand
A hard hand contains either no ace or includes an ace where its value can only be one. An example might be a hand featuring an 8, 9 and Ace - this would be considered a ‘hard 18’.
Conversely, a soft hand comprises an ace which is counted as 11. An example might be a hand featuring a 7 and Ace - this would be considered a ‘soft 18’.
Important Blackjack Strategies
There are a myriad of blackjack strategies which can be deployed to varying degrees of success. Indeed, it’s essential to have some kind of plan in place, not only to improve your chances of winning, but to prevent your wallet from haemorrhaging money.
Not all blackjack games allow for this particular strategy. However, should the option be available, it should be central to your entire approach because, if you decide to give your hand up, you’ll get half your stake back. There are two types: early and late.
The Early Surrender
The early surrender, which isn’t as common as times past, allows you to give up a hand irrespective of the value of the dealer’s first card and must be declared immediately.
The Late surrender
The late surrender also allows you to give your hand up for the cost of half your initial bet, but only after the dealer has checked his hand for a natural blackjack. Should he have one, the option is no longer available and you’ll lose your entire stake.
Pair Splitting Strategy
This particular blackjack strategy is available with offline and online blackjack. It can be used in most game variants and allows you to
split an identical pair so that you’re dealt another two cards. The bet is then doubled with each hand played separately, thus affording you two chances to beat the dealer. However, understanding when to put this strategy into practice is crucial.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s always a good idea to split if you’re dealt a pair of aces or eights. Splitting aces is a sound strategy because there are more 10-value cards in a deck than any other - this means that you’ve got a good chance of hitting at least one 21.
Splitting eights is also advisable because two different hands of eight are far easier to play than one hand of 16, which doesn’t actually win very often.
Hit and Stand Strategy
The hit and Stand strategies are fundamental to any game of blackjack. In most cases, if your hand has a value of 8 you should hit against pretty much any card that the dealer holds. There’s a decent chance that you’ll make a good hand, given the number of 9 and 10-value cards in the deck. If you end up with a 13 or 14 and the dealer has seven or more, it’s worth taking another card.
When to Stand in Blackjack
It’s advisable to stand on totals of 17, 19 and 20 – taking another card is obviously not worth the risk because of the likelihood that you’ll go bust. Additionally, if the dealer has a face up card of 6 or less and your hand totals at least 13, then stand. The same applies if you have a split-able pair of face cards or 10s.
Doubling down allows you increase your stake by up to 100% provided you commit to standing after receiving one card. It’s a risky strategy because if you’re dealt a low second card, it’s not possible to hit again. Noobs tend to avoid this tactic while experience players tend to overuse it. Like any strategy, it’s important to identify the most favourable scenarios in which it should be employed:
- Hard 9 – double down when you’re dealt cards totalling 9 and the dealer shows cards between 2 and 6
- Soft 16 to 18 – double down if you’re dealt an Ace and a 5, 6 or 7 and the dealer shows a card from 2 to 6
- Hard 10 Or 11 – double down against ANY lower card shown by the dealer
Insurance & Even Money Strategy
If a dealer shows an Ace, there’s a chance that a picture card may be facing down. This looms large in the mind of most players, which is why the dealer offers a side bet known as ‘insurance’. Treated separate from the main game, it requires you to put up half of your stake. If the dealer lands a blackjack, you’re paid 2 – 1 meaning that you win your insurance bet but also lost your standard bet. So in other words, you break even. Insurance is best used with low value cards.
Even Money Strategy
Even Money is an insurance variant offered when you have a blackjack and the dealer has an Ace. Accepting the offer means that you agree to a guaranteed 1:1 payout instead of a push by the dealer (should he have blackjack) OR a 3:2 payout if he doesn’t. This strategy is prohibitive to most seasoned players because its use results in losses over the longer term.
Both offline and live blackjack games have inspired the creation of numerous variations over the years. Here’s a selection of the most popular.
Double-Deck Blackjack Game
For this game, two 52-card decks are shuffled and then dealt at the beginning of each hand. The dealer does not receive a hole card and must stand on a soft 17. If you land a blackjack, you’re paid out at odds of 3:2. This version also allows you to take certain actions during play such as doubling down and splitting pairs.
Multi-Deck Blackjack Games
Spanish 21 features six to eight decks without any suited 10 cards, thus giving the dealer an approximate 2% edge. Although very similar to classical blackjack, Spanish 21 does comprise a few differences such as being able to split to a maximum of four hands and an optional ‘match the dealer’ side bet enabling players to compare their cards with the dealer’s up-card.
American blackjack doesn’t actually deviate very much from the original game. The dealer is dealt two cards, one face up, the other face down (hole card). He can only peak at the latter card if the up-card shows an Ace. If a blackjack has been dealt, the hand ends and all bets are collected by the dealer.
Live blackjack has become one of the most popular online gambling games in recent years. Thanks to improved technologies, most games are extremely realistic, aping the gameplay found at most land-based establishments.
When joining a live blackjack game, you’ll be facing the dealer via an HD stream, who will be positioned behind a standard blackjack table. From here, the game is played out as normal with the dealer drawing cards from a shoe and laying them face down in front of your bet. Between every round, you’re given a time limit in which to decide your wager and place bets. Once this expires, you won’t be able to make any bets and the dealer will start drawing cards.
Blackjack Card Counting
Card counting is an increasingly prevalent tactic used by players to judge if the next hand will give a probable advantage to them or the dealer. It requires a strong degree of attention and the ability to keep track of the cards being drawn and dealt. The most common card counting method is the High-Low Card system.
High Low Card Counting
The high-low approach consists of a running-count technique in which the counter assigns a value to each card as its dealt. Low-value cards from 1 to 6 have a +1 value, while high value cards subtract one point from a running total. Cards ranging in value from 7 to 9 are considered neutrals and are not factored in. Once you’ve mastered the skill of keeping a running count, you’ll then need to convert it into the ‘true count’ to help you determine what kind of advantage the show will give you (if any). This is done by dividing your running count by the estimated remaining cards in the shoe. The final step is to apply the true count to your betting strategy.
Unbalanced Card Counting System
The mental arithmetic required to convert the running count to the true count is off-putting for many players. However, in recent years a new type of system has emerged which does away with this requirement. Known as the ‘unbalanced’ system, the sum of the point values of cards counted does not net out to zero which means that a conversion is not required. These systems are easier to pick up and give the player a slight edge. The most common method is known as the Key Card Count.
Key Card Count
In the Key Card system, 4s and 5s are counted as +1s while 10s count as -1s. Additionally, black aces are counted as -1. This gives rise to an ‘unbalanced’ system for the simple fact that the sum of the low value cards equals +8 per deck, the sum of the high cards equals -6, while the net is +2.
To use this system, you begin your count at +18 following the shuffle. Each time you spot a 4 or 5, add 1 to your count. When a 10 or black ace appears, subtract 1. When your count is below 20, bet your minimum stake, when it’s above 20, bet bigger.
Red 7 Count
For this system, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are considered +1s as are red 7s. 10-value cards, picture cards and aces are -1s. Your count begins at -2 for the number of decks in place, so for four deck games, you’d begin at -8. When the running count stands at 0 or offers a positive number, you’ll have a slight edge so you should bet more.
Why Play Blackjack?
As well as being fun and exciting, blackjack actually requires a strong degree of skill, despite the common assumption that it’s based on luck. Factor in the above card-counting strategies and you’ve got a beguiling gambling game that offers a decent chance of winning some money. So the question is, are you ready to play? If you’re a newcomer, these tips should set you on your way:
- Check the dealer’s up card before taking any action
- Stand when your Hand is 12-16 and the dealer has 2-6
- Hit when your hand is 12-16 and your dealer has 7-Ace
- Split Aces and 8’s
- Hit or Double Aces-6
- Avoid the first base (next to dealer) chair
- Start small with your bets to gauge a situation
- Ignore the decisions of other players
- Anchorman/Third Base – player in the last seat at the table who is last to act
- Blackjack – winning hand comprising an ace and 10-value card
- Bust – hand of more than 21 points
- Card Counting – keeping track of cards as they’re being dealt
- Dealer – card dealer
- Deck – pack of 52 cards
- Double Down – doubling a bet with one card still to come
- Draw – drawing an additional card
- Early Surrender – surrendering half a bet while the dealer checks for blackjack
- First Base – player in the first seat at the table who acts first
- Five Card Charlie – five card winning hand
- Flat Bet – betting the same amount for each hand
- Hand – original cards dealt to player
- Hard Total – a hand with no ace, or the ace counts as one point
- Head-to-Head – one-on-one play between dealer and single player
- Hit – requesting an extra card
- Hole Card – dealer’s face-down card
- Insurance – optional side bet offered by the dealer who’s showing an ace
- Pat Hand – a hand of 17 or more
- Push – tie between player and dealer
- Round – a complete phase in play in which each player has acted
- Soft Total – hand containing an 11 value ace
- Splitting Pairs – split identically-ranked cards into separate hands
- Stand – decision to not take any additional cards
- Stiff Card – card from 2 to 6 in value
- Stiff Hand – hand from 12 – 16 in value
- Up Card – dealer’s face-up card (American, Professional Roulette)