Introduction to Understanding Blackjack

Many people view Blackjack as the ultimate casino game as it’s a mixture of skill and luck instead of a game of pure chance such as roulette.

The Blackjack table is always my first port of call whenever I’m in a casino as there’s something thrilling about battling the dealer and beating him.

It’s this feeling that keeps the punters flocking back but the words of Ray Charles should act as a cautionary tale.

The great soul singer wrote a song about his card game of choice but warned: “Every quarter I get, Blackjack takes away from me.”.

Every quarter I get, Blackjack takes away from me.”.

There’s a reason why people say the casino always wins but Blackjack has one of the lowest house edges in gambling and in some cases, the advantage can swing slightly towards the player if they employ certain techniques.

WHAT IS BLACKJACK?

Queen, Ace and Casino Chips on Blackjack table.

Blackjack has been played in some shape or form since the 1700s, evolving from a game that was called 21. Many people assume that the aim of the game is to get as close to 21 as possible but that’s not the case.

The aim of the blackjack is simply to beat the dealer. You can do this by having a better hand than the dealer or not busting when the dealer’s total exceeds 21.

How is Blackjack Played?

The dealer dishes out two initial cards to each player, with the number of players usually varying from two to seven while dealing the first card of his own hand.

Each card counts as its number while all face cards count as 10 and an ace can either be 1 or 11. Hands are classed as “soft” or “hard” depending on what value the ace has. If you have a hand with no ace it will be classed as “hard” and this also applies if the ace has a value of one. But any hand with an ace counting as 11 is classed as “soft”. For example, if you have an ace and an eight then the hand can be either soft 19 or hard nine.

After tallying up the total of their two cards, players have the option to either stand (keep only their two cards) or hit (take another card). You can hit as many times as you like but the hand will automatically bust if your total exceeds 21.    

The best hand to receive is an ace and a face card, which is known as a Blackjack. You can’t lose with this hand but the dealer can tie with you if he also has a Blackjack. A winning Blackjack hand also typically pays 3/2 while a normal winning hand pays just evens. However, different games have different rules, with some only paying evens for a Blackjack win.

The dealer only reveals his own hand once all the other players have played their own hand. If the dealer busts then all player hands still in play will win. However, a player will lose if his total is lower than the dealer’s and the dealer stays under 21.

In-game Play

What makes Blackjack unique to other casino games is that the player has certain advantages over the dealer, who is limited in what he can do with a hand.

Players can hit or stand on any number between 12 and 20 while a dealer typically must hit if their total is below 16 and stand once it gets to 17.

In some versions of Blackjack, dealers must stand on soft 17 and in others, they must hit.

There are also several in-play options available to players that the dealer is not allowed to use and I will run through them in the next section of this blackjack guide.

Doubling down: After the initial two cards are dealt, a player is offered the chance to increase their original bet by up to 100 per cent but it comes with the caveat they are only allowed to receive one more card. A double down is usually offered when the total of the first two cards is either nine, 10 or 11. It’s designed to lure players into a gamble as another high card would give them a very strong hand.

Splitting: If you are dealt two cards of the same value then you can split them into two separate hands, doubling your stake. These will now become two individual hands. For example, if you are dealt double eights, you could keep this hand at 16 or split it into two separate hands of eight and take more cards for each hand. If you are lucky enough to be dealt a pair of aces you can split them but most casinos will only allow you to take one more card for each new hand. In the unlikely event that your new hand also contains a double, most games will allow you to split the new double as well.

Insurance: No matter how good your hand is, it will count for nothing if the dealer has a better hand. With this in mind, most games offer insurance as a side bet if the dealer’s first card is an ace. You can bet on the dealer receiving a 10-value card to make up a Blackjack.  

Even Money: Blackjacks typically pay 3:2 but some casinos will offer the option of accepting an evens payout if the dealer’s first card is an ace. Once more, this is a form of insurance in case the dealer’s second card is a 10 and the hand is tied.

Surrender: Some games offer a player the chance to forfeit their hand for half their stake back. This is known as “early surrender” if the dealer has no chance of blackjack, or “late surrender” if the dealer’s first card is an ace and the surrender is offered after the dealer has checked if he has a blackjack.

Blackjack Sidebets

Depending on the casino or the version of Blackjack you are playing, various sides bets could also be open to a player. Here are some of the most common:

  • Lucky Lucky: Player’s hand and dealer’s up card total 19, 20, or 21.
  • Perfect Pairs: Player’s initial hand is a pair.
  • Royal Match: Player’s initial hand is suited, suited and connected, or a suited K-Q.
  • 21+3: Player’s initial hand plus dealer’s card makes a flush, straight, or three-of-a-kind poker hand.
  • Lucky Ladies: Player’s initial hand totals 20.
  • In Bet: Dealer’s upcard is in between the value of the player’s two cards.
  • Bust-it: First card drawn to the dealer will result in a dealer bust.

Match the Dealer: One or both of the player’s cards is the same as the dealer’s card.

However, these side bets are only for seasoned Blackjack players so it’s best to steer clear of them if you are just starting out.

Strategies For Winning at Blackjack

As I mentioned earlier, Blackjack is a game of skill and there are certain strategies you can use to increase your chance of beating the dealer.

Known as the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen,  Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James McDermott came up with the first successful strategic guide for the game in 1956.

Since then various other strategies and guides have been devised but I’ll give you a rundown on the most common ones here.

Card counting: This is the most famous strategy used for beating the house and is famously featured in the films Rain Man and The Hangover, where Dustin Hoffman and Zach Galifianakis use their mathematical skills to work out which cards are more likely to be dealt.

Despite what many people think, card counting is not illegal but many casinos ban players who are card counting from their premises as they can often strike it rich.

Card counters typically tally points for each card dealt (for example, 1 point for cards 2–6, 0 points for 7–9 and −1 point for 10–A) then use this running totally to work out the chances of a high or low card being dealt next. When a pack is freshly shuffled the count returns to zero.

Card counting has a greater effect when there are fewer decks of cards in play. If a casino is playing with just one deck then card counting is highly effective but it is more difficult if several decks of cards are being used.

Card counting is almost useless in virtual Blackjack as you have no idea how many packs are being used and the hands are generated by computers.

However, it can still be employed in on-line gaming if you play live Blackjack with a real dealer instead of a virtual one.

Shuffle tracking: This is similar to card counting but a more difficult skill as it requires a high level of concentration and great eyesight. It involves tracking groups of cards during play, following them through the shuffle then betting accordingly when those cards come into play from the new shoe.

Colour-coded charts: There are a vast number of strategies available online and in books that advise players on what to do when their hand is a certain number. These guides are usually colour coded and give statistical advice on when to stand, hit, split and double down. They can be a handy tool as a guide but also take away some of the fun from playing as the most satisfying wins come when you go with your own hunch and are proved correct.

5 Blackjack Variants

There are a large number of Blackjack games available to play online and in casinos. Here’s a brief rundown on the differences between some of the most popular.

  • Spanish 21 – The biggest difference is that there are no No.10 cards in the pack, just face cards. Players also win if they get a Blackjack or a total of 21, even if the dealer ties with them. You can also double down on any number, not just for 10 and 11s, while there are payout bonuses for five-card 21s plus other combinations that lead to 21.
  • 21st-Century Blackjack of “Vegas Style” Blackjack – In the version bust hands don’t always lose. You can tie if the dealer busts as well, although typically the dealer will have to bust with a higher total than you.
  • Double Exposure Blackjack – The first two cards of the dealer’s hand are dealt face up in this version, handing the player a greater advantage when deciding what to do with their own hand. But players will lose if their hand is tied with the dealer and Blackjacks pay just even money. There is also no insurance in this form of the game as the players can see what hand the dealer has.
  • Double Attack Blackjack – The main difference here is that players can increase their bet once they see the dealer’s first card. But Blackjacks pay just even money again, instead of 3/2.
  • Blackjack Switch – This version of the game is the most different as players are dealt two hands and can interchange cards between each hand. So if you are dealt two bad hands you can turn them into two good ones by switching the cards around. For example, a 10-6 and a 10-5 can become a 20 and 11, giving you an excellent chance of winning. The downside in Blackjack switch is the dealer can tie if his total comes to 22 while Blackjacks pay just evens again.
  • Super Fun 21: Hands can be split up to four times in this version of the game. Another difference is that if a player has six cards that add up to 20 they automatically win. All wins are paid evens.

General Advice for Playing Blackjack

As with any form of gaming, make sure you open an account with a licensed and regulated operator. We have a list of UK Licensed and regulated online casinos which should give you a starting point.

Blackjack is a game of skill so make sure you get some practice in on sites that don’t use real money first. Once you feel comfortable with all the elements of the game, then have a look around to see which sites are offering the best bonuses and sign-up offers for new customers.

It could be worth signing up for a few and taking advantage of all their offers then deciding which site you want to stick with for most of your gaming. But remember to check the fine print of any welcome offer or bonus. They generally have what is called a wagering requirement and these can be quite high. 

This is the amount of money you will need to bet in order to release your bonus winnings into your main cash balance.

For example, if you have a casino welcome bonus of £100 with a wagering requirement of 25, you would only be able to access the bonus once you have a bet a total of £2,500. 

To increase your chances of winning, make sure you play live Blackjack with a real dealer and try to play in a game with as few decks of cards as possible. This will make assessing what cards you may be dealt a little easier, although it’s not an exact science.

Choosing the right version of Blackjack could also boost your chances, especially with Blackjack Switch, even though it’s not a game for the purists.

Spanish 21 is also a decent option as you will always win with a hand of 21 while there are also bonuses for certain hands. Check the rules for each version before you play and you have a slightly better chance of winning if the dealer has to stand on a soft 17.   

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