Blackjack is the world’s most popular casino game for two significant reasons. Firstly, it’s easy to play, and we’ll tell you how in this guide. Secondly, it is more likely you can make a profit playing blackjack than just about any other game.
You may have heard blackjack called 21 or Vingt-Un, but its origins are said to go back to early 17th-Century Spain. Versions took hold in France and the UK before moving across the Atlantic to the United States. It’s here that the term blackjack first came about.
Nowadays, the game plays the same way the world over, and you will find plenty of options to play at land-based casinos and the best online casinos.
You will usually join a blackjack table with six other players, all of whom play against the dealer (the house) rather than against each other.
In most casinos, six to eight decks of cards are used, although you might find a single-deck game in rare circumstances. Before each hand, you place your bet before receiving two cards face-up.
The dealer also receives two cards, but only one is face-up. Each player at the table plays their hand in turn, aiming to get a total higher than the dealer, but without going over 21. Or players can win by standing on any total and seeing if the dealer goes over 21 and busts.
In blackjack, twos through 10s are face value, while an ace can be one or 11. All picture cards – jacks, queens and kings – are valued at ten. When it’s your turn to act, you have choices to make depending on your total from the two cards you received. You can elect to stand and take no further cards or take another card to increase your total without (hopefully) busting.
When you stand, or bust and other players at the table have played out their hands, the dealer turns over their downcard and plays out their hand. If they bust or get a total lower than any player still in the hand, that player wins a 1:1 payout.
So, if they bet $5, they win $5 profit. But if the dealer makes a total higher than any player still in the hand, that player loses their bet. This is the basic mechanic of the game, and hands will continue until the deck or decks of cards run close to empty. When they do, the action stops, and all decks are shuffled before play resumes.
If you play online, there are no shuffling breaks since everything is dealt with by the software using a random number generator. You can play blackjack for as long as you wish or get up from a table and rejoin later. When you play blackjack for real money, the only restriction is the table stakes allowed – and that you must have money in your online account.
Additional key aspects of the game include the following:
If your first two cards total 21, either with a ten and an ace, or a picture card and an ace, then you have a natural blackjack, and you win a 3:2 payout, rather than the usual 1:1. This beats anything the dealer can have unless they two have a natural blackjack.
If your first two cards look favourable, you can elect to double down before getting a third card. You have to double your stake, so only do this if you are confident about making a winning hand. If, for example, your two cards total 11, then doubling down is a good idea since you might easily get a ten next to make 21.
When the dealer gives you two starting hands that are the same, like two nines, you have the option to split them and play them as two separate hands. Be careful, though, because you must match your initial bet on the second hand, so you risk twice as much.
At a land-based or online casino, you will see blackjack side bets on offer. These will be options to add more money to the table and get decent returns if your bet comes in. Common side bets include:
You win if your two dealt cards match. If they are two of the same suit – like two seven of diamonds (possible when playing with multiple decks) – you can win significant amounts, usually 30:1. A mixed pair, such as two hearts and two spades, pays 7:1, while a colour pair (such as ten hearts and ten diamonds) pays 15:1. 21+3 With this side bet, you are hoping for a particular combination with your two starting cards and the dealer’s upcard. Returns are: • Flush 5:1 • Straight 10:1 • Three of a kind 30:1 • Straight flush 40:1 • Suited three of a kind 100:1 Check the rules on your blackjack table, as payouts may vary from one casino to another.
Blackjack bonuses Just as land-based casinos use comp points or free drinks to reward players at the table, online casinos go the extra mile to offer promotions to their players. Blackjack bonuses can come in many forms, all designed to either attract players to a casino in the first place or reward them for continuing their play. Take a look at the bonuses offered by online casinos in this guide – you might find one or more of the following: First deposit or welcome bonus The casino may offer a matched bonus when you deposit your first funds into your online account. So, if you deposit $100, you might get a bonus of $100 once you satisfy certain playing conditions. Deposit bonus Need to reload your account? Then you may be offered another matched bonus, again with wagering conditions. Loyalty points Online casinos may give you player or reward points each time you play blackjack. These might be exchanged for cash or other goodies. Free spins Some casinos might offer free spins on specific slots to reward your play. There will be some conditions, like capped wins. Blackjack house edge The blackjack house edge works out at around 2% for a complete beginner. That means that for each $100 you bet at the blackjack table, you are expected to lose $2. This house edge is lower than other key table games like roulette, where European roulette house edge is 2.7%, while American roulette is a hefty 5.26%. However, the news gets much better than that. If you follow the basic blackjack strategy outlined below, you can reduce that house edge down to a wafer-thin 0.5%. That’s just about the lowest house edge you will find anywhere in the casino (matched only, perhaps, by baccarat). How can you get to that lower house edge? Read on. Basic blackjack strategy While blackjack is a game of luck, since no one can know what the next card will be, you can employ what is known as the basic blackjack strategy to improve your odds of winning. With a new house edge of 0.5%, you have a much better chance of winning over a single playing session, assuming you have the determination to leave the table when you are ahead. The key takeaway is that blackjack is a game of probability, and you should understand what the probability is of the next card helping you (or hurting you). To keep things simple, you need to take particular note of the fact that all picture cards are valued at ten. With tens, jacks, queens and kings all the same, there are 16 cards in every 52-card deck that are valued at ten. Therefore, you can always assume that the next card to be dealt is most likely to be ten. With that in mind, you can play your hand according to what you think the dealer’s total might be. Here’s how: Dealer looks strong If their upcard is 8, 9 or 10, assume their total is 18, 19 or 20. You now should be braver and take another card of your own to get as high a total as possible. Standing on a score like 17 makes little sense in this case. Dealer looks weak A weak dealer upcard is something like 4, 5 or 6. This most likely makes their total a tricky 14, 15 or 16. Now they must take a third card themselves, and that will most likely make them go over 21 and bust. With the dealer in this tricky position, you can stand on your two cards on any total over 11. Basic blackjack strategy chart and more tips If this is beginning to look a little confusing (don’t worry, you will soon pick it up), there is a simple way to play optimally. Go online and do an image search for blackjack hand charts. Download or print one of the images, as these will advise you on the best way to play any hand, no matter what your own two cards are and what the dealer’s upcard is. The charts also advise on the best circumstances to double down and split. You will most likely bring that blackjack house edge down to 0.5% by following the charts. Further tips include never splitting tens since you likely already have a winning hand. Do not play those side bets we mentioned earlier since they are a losing proposition, and don’t take insurance if the dealer’s upcard is an ace. Insurance costs money but protects you if the dealer turns over a blackjack. However, like the other side bets, it costs you in the long run. Live dealer blackjack games When you play blackjack at an online casino, you will most likely have the choice of playing games on 2D graphic tables against a random number generator. In this case, you will probably play by yourself against a computerised dealer. Look out for the alternative live dealer games offered by many online casinos. These involve real dealers working at proper blackjack tables in a studio setting, which is streamed live to the online casino platform. You can take a virtual seat and play along using software trickery, just as you would in a real casino. Chat to the dealers and enjoy an extremely lifelike experience. In summary As you will see, blackjack is a simple game to play once you learn the basic rules. It pays to understand the basic blackjack strategy so you can reduce that house edge, thereby making it quite possible to make a profit on any session. Be sure to play on one of the online casinos we recommend, and claim a blackjack bonus that will help your funds go further.