Players Guide to Playing Blackjack Smartly

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Blackjack Table

Blackjack is one of the oldest and most popular casino gambling games, and you are likely to find several variations on offer at every land-based and on-line casino. The game played today can likely be traced back to the French game of 21, which was first written about during the 18th century. Similar games have been played much longer than this, however – perhaps even as early as the 15th century.

The object of blackjack is most easily explained as trying to get as close to 21 as possible without “busting”. This occurs when the total value of your cards reaches 22 or more. More experienced players have a slightly different take on the matter, however – In truth, the only goal that matters is to beat the dealer. If you take the time to learn the optimal strategy, you will soon find sticking with a total as low as 12 may often be the correct decision.

Blackjack Variants

A huge number of different blackjack variations now exist, often named after the place where the exact rule set was first played. For example, Atlantic City Blackjack and Vegas Strip Blackjack are both popular games in North America. European Blackjack did originate on the continent, but is now often used as an umbrella term for any “no-hole card” game (You’ll find further details on the different types of “hold card” games within the rules section below). There are exceptions to this formula, however. The game “Spanish 21”, for example, is actually an American invention and is sometimes referred to as “Pontoon” in other countries around the world.

The majority of the basic rules and concepts remain the same between many of these different types of blackjack. Ideally, you should familiarize yourself with both the basic game and the exact rule set you are going to be playing, before committing to play with real money. Strategy cards can easily be found online for every possible set of rules, and are even offered for sale in many casino gift shops.

Blackjack Rules

Whilst blackjack was originally played with a single deck of cards, such games are a rarity nowadays. Many on-line games are played with two, four, six or even eight decks of cards. There is a popular myth that this change was made to make things more difficult for card counters. The classic gambling movie “Rain Man” even features a line “no one can count down a six-deck shoe”, but this simply isn’t true.

In fact, introducing additional decks simply increases the house edge. Don’t assume, however, that a single deck game will always give you the best odds – the other rules detailed below can have a much greater effect on the overall house edge of a specific blackjack game.

Card Values

Each of the number cards is counted at its face value, whilst all the picture cards have a value of ten. There is no difference in value between a Jack, a Queen or a King. An ace can be counted as either one or eleven points, depending on which is most advantageous to the player.

A “Blackjack” is the highest possible scoring hand in the game, and consists of an ace and any card with a value of ten points. If the player or dealer achieves a total of 21 points via more than two cards, they will still lose the hand when the other is holding a Blackjack.

Play Procedure

Your wager must be placed at the beginning of each hand, before any cards are dealt. The dealer will then place two cards on each of your spots, and either one or two to himself. In games where the dealer receives two cards, the second is dealt face down and is referred to as the “hole card”.

Hole Cards

Hole card games are generally advantageous to the player because the dealer will check his hole card at the start of the round. If he sees that he has a Blackjack, the round will end immediately. This ensures the player never makes the mistake of choosing to double down when they have no possibility of winning the hand. As with rule one, the other rules detailed below can sometimes offset the advantage provided by a hole card game.

Side Bets

Many blackjack games offer a number of side bets, but the most popular by far is the “insurance” bet. This is generally offered on any blackjack table where the dealers’ visible card is an Ace. If you choose to take this bet, an additional 50% of your original wager will be placed on the table. If the dealer later turns out to have a Blackjack (in both hole card and no hole card games), the insurance bet will pay 2:1, which covers both the wagers now placed by the player. Should the player then also turns out to hold a Blackjack as well, this will result in an overall profit for the hand.

Mathematically Poor Bet

Whilst these terms make insurance sound like a good wager, it is actually a mathematically poor bet. No matter what cards you are holding, you should always decline the insurance bet. In fact, whilst side bets can often add a little excitement to the game, they always represent a poor deal for the player. Certainly, play them for fun if you enjoy them, but if you wish to maximize your overall chances of a winning session you should stick to the main game only.

Playing Your Hand

Once the cards have been dealt, you have a number of choices available to you for how you wish to proceed with the hand. Compared to another popular casino card game, Baccarat, these options make Blackjack much more interesting to play. The house edge is also lower than that offered by Baccarat, but the variance is significantly higher.

Players at a blackjack table

Regardless of the situation or particular type of Blackjack being played, two options are always available:

  1. “Hit” – The dealer will place an additional card on your stack. If this card causes your total to exceed 21, you will immediately lose the hand.
  2. “Stand” – This designates that you are happy with the existing points value of your cards, and the dealer will move on to the next box or player.

Some additional options may be available in certain situations:

  1. “Double” / “Double Down” – Usually only offered if your first two cards total nine, ten or eleven points. You will need to place an additional wager of the same value as your original bet. Some variants do allow you to double down on other totals, or even on any two initial cards.
  2. “Split” – If your first two cards have identical point values then you will be offered the option to “split” your cards into two separate hands. Occasionally, some games will not give you this option if you have two different ten-point cards (for example a ten and a King), although this is rare.

Splitting Cards

When you choose to split your hand, you will need to make an additional wager of the same value you have originally bet, just like when doubling down. If either of your new hands also happens to have identical point values, you can usually choose to split again – up to a maximum of four separate hands.

Once the split has been completed, you can then choose to hit or stand as normal for each new pair of cards. Sometimes you may also be permitted to double after splitting as well.

Splitting Aces

Special rules usually apply to aces – you will often only be permitted to split aces once, and only a single additional card will be dealt to each of your split aces. If you are dealt a ten to one or both of your split aces, the new hand always counts as 21 points rather than a blackjack.

The rules around splitting are some of the most complicated in the game, but playing on-line makes things much easier by presenting you with only the options you are allowed to perform at each stage of your hand.

Surrender

Certain games will allow you to forfeit half of your wager in return for ending the hand immediately after seeing your first two cards. Depending on what card the dealer is showing, this can sometimes be a profitable choice.

What Does the Dealer Have?

After all players have finished making decisions for each of their hands, the game will continue with the dealer drawing his cards. In hole card games, the hole card will be turned over and added to the dealers’ total before any more cards are drawn. If the dealers total is now 16 or less he will draw another card, and will continue to do so until his total meets or exceeds 17.

Dealer Soft 17

If the dealer has a total of 17, he will usually stand. One exception to this rule is if the dealer has what is referred to as a “Soft 17”, which consists of an Ace and any number of additional cards that add up to 17. In certain games the dealer will also draw another card in this situation as well. This rule is disadvantageous to the player, and actually makes a bigger difference than you might think. When possible, always look to play on tables that state “The dealer stands on all 17s”.

Win or Lose?

If the dealer eventually draws a total higher than 21 points then he busts, and all player hands that have not yet busted will then win automatically. When the dealer does not bust, his total will be compared to the total of each remaining player hand, and the highest scoring hand will win. If the dealers total matches the players this is then referred to as a “Push”, and your bet will be returned in full – including any additional bet you placed when doubling down.

Winning Hands

All winning hands pay even money, except for a blackjack, which usually pays 3 to 2. In the land-based casino world there are some games where a blackjack will pay less – often 6 to 5. These tables should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, this horrible rule does not seem to have spread to the on-line blackjack world as yet.

Blackjack Strategy

You will often hear players talk of “basic strategy” when discussing the best way to play blackjack. Despite its name, basic strategy actually refers to the mathematically perfect way to play the game from every possible situation. The correct basic strategy for each game depends on the number of decks used, whether the dealer hits or stands on a “soft” 17, and which cards you are permitted to double down with, among many other factors.

What is the Best Strategy?

With so many rules and all the possible variations, some players may feel overwhelmed – perhaps even deciding to simply play a different game instead! There are a couple of ways of making things easier though – firstly, the strategy cards first mentioned in the overview at the top of this page are an essential tool for any serious player. The second option is to play according to a “simple strategy” rather than the full “basic strategy”, which should prove much easier for most people to remember.

The easier a strategy is to remember though, the less accurate it is likely to be in many situations. The house edge of blackjack is extremely low, one of the best games in the casino in fact. This only applies if you are playing the correct move in every possible situation, however. If you make many incorrect decisions during play, the house edge for your session could easily end up exceeding that of the slot machines!

Blackjack Strategy Cards / Books

When playing regular on-line blackjack, there is no reason not to find and use the perfect basic strategy card for the exact rules of the table you are playing on. If you are playing at a land-based casino or a “live dealer” style on-line game, a simple strategy will allow you to make decisions much more quickly until you have memorized the correct full basic strategy.

The best simple strategy I have found was created by Michael Shackleton, and published in his book “Gambling 102”. This book is simply a must-read for anybody with a keen interest in the game of Blackjack. Michael’s “Wizards Strategy” manages to simplify the number of situations you need to memorize from over 250 all the way down to just 21 (I’m unsure whether this number was chosen intentionally or is simply the result of a co-incidence!). For the casual player, a simple strategy such as this may well be good enough.

Poor Blackjack Strategies

Over the years there have been many poor blackjack strategies published, many of which can still be found in books and on websites to this day.

Mirroring the Dealer

One of the most popular I have found involves mirroring the dealer, then making your moves exactly as the dealer would in any given situation. This is a poor strategy, however, because it is the additional options that you have as the player (such as doubling and splitting) which give blackjack its extremely low house edge.

Never Go Bust

Another bad strategy that I have seen used extensively whilst playing in land-based casinos throughout Europe is to never make a decision that could result in a bust – essentially, standing whenever you have a total higher than eleven regardless of what card the dealer is showing. The thinking behind this seems to be that if the next card is likely to cause you to bust, it is likely to cause the dealer to bust as well. In fact, correct basic strategy does follow this principle to a certain degree. When the dealer has a ten showing, however, then it is almost always going to be more profitable for you to hit and try to reach a higher point total than to stand on a total less than 17.

Choosing the Optimal Blackjack Table

One final piece of important strategy advice does not involve your decisions at the table at all, but rather, which tables to actually play at in the first place. Any game that pays less than 3:2 for a blackjack should be avoided at all costs, as it increases the house edge enormously.

A typical blackjack game will usually have rules that result in a house edge of less than 0.5%. If this same game has just one change – to pays 6:5 instead of 3:2 for a blackjack – this results in that same game having a house edge of around 2%.

The worst games you are ever likely to find pay just 1:1 for a blackjack, and these will typically have a house edge in the region of 3%. I’ve only heard of such terrible rules being offered on cruise ships though, and I doubt you will find them offered anywhere on-line. In short, there is absolutely no reason to ever choose any game that does not pay the full 3:2 for a blackjack whilst playing on-line, so avoid them like the plague!

If you can, stay away from all games where the dealer hits on a soft 17 – unless the rest of the rules are hugely favorable. This simple change increases the house edge by 0.22%. Whilst most games allow you to double on a 9, 10, or 11 as an absolute minimum, there are somewhere doubling is only permitted on a 10 or 11. This change also has a surprisingly large effect on the house edge – 0.18%.

Finding a single deck game immediately reduces the house edge by 0.48% – a huge amount – although you should watch out for any other rule changes have been made to these games to balance out this huge player advantage. Having the option to surrender reduces the house edge by 0.24%, and being able to double on any two cards has a similar benefit of 0.23%.

Best Online Casino Providers

The on-line casino industry has become highly regulated in recent years, making it much easier to find a reputable place to play. Unscrupulous casinos and games do still exist of course, but as long as you do a little research before depositing your money, you can be fairly sure of finding a fair game.

Licensing Authorities

When choosing an on-line casino, pay careful attention to who they are licensed by. This is a great way of quickly determining how trustworthy the particular site is. Authorities such as the MGA (Malta Gaming Authority) and UKGC (United Kingdom Gambling Commission) do not give out their licenses easily, and monitor the sites they do license on a constant basis.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the less trustworthy licensing bodies, such as the Kahnawake Gaming Commission and Costa Rica Gaming Authority. These regulatory authorities effectively provide nothing more than a “rubber-stamp” license. As long as they continue to receive their license fees, these institutions have little to no concern for the players who are gaming with the casinos they “regulate”.

Whilst not every site operating under one of these licenses is untrustworthy, there is simply very little reason to choose such a casino when so many better options are available. Ironically, one of the worst places in the world to find a trustworthy on-line game is the United States, as on-line gaming transactions are prohibited by law in many states. For this reason, the more trustworthy regulators will not provide a license to any operator taking on-line bets within the United States.

Choosing an Online Blackjack Game

Once you have chosen a reputable casino, it is reasonably fair to assume that the games they offer can be trusted as well. That doesn’t mean you should just choose to play the first blackjack game you can find, however. Many of the larger casinos offer a wide number of different blackjack games from a variety of different providers, and the rules (and resulting house edge) for each of these games can vary dramatically. Some providers (such as Play’n Go) even give individual casinos the ability to choose from a number of different rule sets for the same blackjack game.

Guidelines

If you want to play the game with the lowest house edge, Microgaming’s “Classic Blackjack Gold” mentioned in the FAQ section would be your best bet. If this particular game is not available though, the following guidelines should help you to choose the most profitable game:

Number of Decks

Generally speaking, the lower the number of decks, the better. Single deck games can often have the lowest house edge, but they may also have a number of unfavorable rules to balance out the advantage of the single deck. As a result, it is definitely worth considering two and even four deck games as well.

Dealer Stands on all 17’s

If the dealer takes another card when they have a soft 17, this is extremely disadvantageous for you as the player. This is because it gives the dealer another chance to improve their hand which they would not otherwise have. Therefore, you should look for a game where the dealer stands on all 17s.

Double Down Options

The more cards you are permitted to double down on, the better. The usual variants are: any first two cards, 9-11 only, or 10-11 only. This actually makes a HUGE difference to the house edge, so try and choose a game where you are allowed to double down on as many combinations of cards as possible.

Double After Split

Double after split, or “DAS”, is a rule which determines if you are permitted to double down on a hand that results from splitting your cards. For example, if you split a pair of sevens against a five, you could potentially end up with a ten and an eleven. Ideally, you would then really like to double down on both new hands. Not being allowed to double after splitting is a terrible rule for the player, so such tables should be avoided.

Some other rules which have a lesser effect include:

How many times can you split your hand? The minimum is two and the maximum is four, but as far the player is concerned more is always better.

  • Are you allowed to split aces more than once? Sometimes a specific exception to the maximum number of splits is made for aces, so watch out for this rule.
  • Are you allowed to surrender your hand after seeing the dealers first card? Whilst you do lose half of your bet when choosing this option, it is often more profitable overall to simply give up in certain situations than to try to play your way out of a mathematically disadvantageous situation.

Two rules which should have a positive effect on your choice of game:

  • Can you hit split aces? In the majority of on-line blackjack variations, splitting a pair of aces will be followed by the dealer giving only one additional card to each of your new hands. If that additional card is a ten then that’s great, of course. But what if you receive a two or a three value card instead?
    • In truth, it is quite difficult to find games where you are allowed to hit split aces because it has a huge effect on the overall house edge. You can find many European style double-deck games which do allow you to hit split aces, however, and these are often a great choice.
  • How much does the game pay for a blackjack? A blackjack traditionally pays 3:2, and these are the ONLY games that you should consider playing on-line. Sometimes you will find games that pay 6:5, 7:5, or even 1:1, and the house edge under these rules is so huge that you would likely be better off just playing the slots. Never play at a table that pays less than 3:2 for a Blackjack!

Playing Blackjack in Person

Playing Blackjack on-line is terrific fun, but playing at a real table, in a real casino, is a completely different experience. For the inexperienced, your first visit to a real Blackjack table will no doubt be extremely nerve racking. Playing a few games of Live Dealer blackjack on-line will prepare you in some ways, but there is still a great deal of rules and etiquette you’ll need to become familiar with that is simply impossible to replicate when playing any on-line version of the game.

Minimum Stakes

Generally speaking, the lower the house edge at any particular table, the higher the minimum stake to play at that table will be. For example, some single deck games may have a minimum bet as high as $10 or even $25 per hand.

Casino Chips

All table games on the casino floor are played using chips rather than real cash, and you will often need to buy your chips from a “cage” or other specific area of the casino before sitting down to play. Some establishments may allow you to purchase chips at the table, but such requests can only be made in between hands – you must not interrupt another player in the middle of a hand.

Blackjack Table Mechanics

The cards will usually be dealt from a “shoe”, which is a simple holder designed to allow the cards to be dealt quickly and securely. Alternatively, you may find a machine is used to hold the cards, called a continuous shuffling machine. These devices ensure the cards are freshly shuffled after every hand, making card counting a futile endeavor. Whilst this is certainly of benefit to the casino, the machines are in-fact primarily deployed to speed up play, increasing profits for the house.

Table Layout

Each table will usually have seven “spots” available, and each player may choose to play multiple spots simultaneously during each hand. For this reason, do not assume that a spot is available for you to play, even if there appears to be a free seat at the table. Each spot will usually have a square area where the dealer will place the cards, and a circular area for you to place the chips you wish to bet.

Blackjack Player Etiquette

During play, proper etiquette is to use hand gestures to signal how you wish to act to the dealer. You may also state your intent verbally as well to avoid any confusion. Tapping on the table indicates that you wish to take another card for your current hand, whilst holding your palm out flat towards the dealer signals that you would like to stand. If you are unsure about anything, do not feel embarrassed to ask a fellow player, or the dealer, what the correct way to proceed should be.

Play Wisely

This should be enough to get you started, but it is simply impossible to cover everything here. Entire books have actually been written on the subject of playing Blackjack on the casino floor, but don’t let that intimidate you. Playing Blackjack at the casino is a fantastic experience and a great night out, so give it a try sometime!

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