Blackjack has always been one of the favourite table games in any casino. As far as card games go, the basics are very easy to understand, yet the game still provides a lot of excitement. Whereas games like pai gow, baccarat, and craps can be intimidating because of their perceived complexity, blackjack looks like the kind of game you can just jump into and start playing.
As simple as it looks though, there really is a lot of strategy involved in blackjack if you want to get the most out of the game and your bankroll. If you’re new to the game, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into, and what you can do to maximise your play and minimise the house advantage.
From one casino to another — and even from one table to another within the same casino — not all blackjack games are the same. There have been many variations created by changing, adding, and removing rules since the game first appeared in casinos. If you’re just getting started with blackjack, there are a few things you should know before you start laying down bets.
The following information and advice can be particularly helpful to those of you who want to play at online casinos, whether alone or at live dealer games, where you will often find the most favourable rules.
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Learn Basic Blackjack Rules And Terminology
The first thing you should do if you’ve never played blackjack is to take a bit of time to learn the basic rules and terminology surrounding the game. You will undoubtedly find variations in rules from one casino to another, online or on land, but the mechanics of the game will remain the same.
Aside from hitting and standing (or staying) which are two terms that almost everyone knows, you should make sure you know what it means to split, double down, or surrender. If you don’t understand how these options work within the game, you will be giving the house a huge advantage over you.
As part of the terminology, you should also pay attention to two very important hand signals for when you are playing at a live casino. Tapping on the table in front of your cards signifies that you want to take another card, or hit your hand. Waving your four fingers from side to side indicates that you don’t want any more cards, or that you want to stand. Accidentally making a movement that resembles either of these two signals can cost you some money.
Basic Blackjack Rules
- The game of blackjack is played with anywhere from one to eight 52 card decks. If more than one deck is used, it’s usually an even number such as two, four, six, or eight.
- The game is played against a dealer. The object of the game is to get a total hand value of 21, or as close as possible without going over, that beats the value of the dealer’s hand.
- Cards two through nine are counted at their face value. Aces can be counted as either one or eleven points. Tens and face cards are all counted as ten points.
- If the player goes over 21 (he busts), he loses his bet, regardless of the dealer’s hand.
- If the dealer’s hand is over 21 and the player’s hand is not, the player wins the bet.
- If neither the dealer nor the player goes over 21, whoever has the higher value hand wins.
- If the first two cards dealt to either the player or dealer are an ace and a face card, this is a “blackjack”, which outranks all other 21 point hands. In the case that the player wins with a blackjack, he normally gets more than the usual even money payout on his bet. If the dealer has blackjack, all bets lose except in the case of a player also having blackjack. When this happens, it is a push, and the player’s wager is returned.
- All play begins with the player to the left of the dealer.
- The dealer will deal everyone at the table their first card. The dealer’s own first card will be placed face down. This is known as the dealer’s hole card. Going around from the dealer’s left again, each player will receive their second card. The dealer’s second card is dealt face up. If the dealer’s face-up card is an ace, he will peek at the hole card to see if he has blackjack. If he does, he will turn over his hole card, and all bets lose except for any players who also have blackjack.
- Any hand made up of an ace and a ten point card is a blackjack and automatically wins unless the dealer also has blackjack, which will result in a push. Blackjack usually pays 3 to 2, but you may sometimes see 6 to 5, which is a significant addition to the house advantage.
- Any hand that is not a blackjack will have the following options:
- Stand – The player stays with the cards dealt and does not take any further cards.
- Hit – The player draws another card and may draw more than one. If any card drawn brings the value of his hand over 21, this is a “bust”, and the player loses his bet.
- Double Down – The player doubles his bet and is dealt one (and only one) more card.
- Split – If the player has a pair, they can choose to place another bet and split the pair into two separate hands. The dealer will deal another card to make two cards in each hand and then the player will have the same standard betting options for each hand. Rules vary about whether or not hands can be split more than once. In some cases, when splitting aces, the player may be required to stand when the second card is dealt to each hand. Split hands made up of an ace and ten-valued card count as a regular 21, not blackjack.
- Surrender -The option to surrender is not offered in all casinos. If the player is allowed to surrender and chooses to do so, he forfeits half of his original bet and play for that hand is done. Players may only surrender if they have not drawn on their first two cards.
- After each player has had their turn, the dealer will reveal his hole card and play his hand. In general, if the dealer has 16 or less, he must hit. If he has 17 or more, he must stand. This rule may vary from one game to another. The most often seen variant is that the dealer will hit on a “soft 17” — a 17 point hand made with an ace and a total of six points from another card or cards.
- If the dealer’s hand goes over 21 (a bust), any player who did not bust during his turn wins even money on his bet.
- If it does not bust, any player who has not busted and has a higher value hand wins even money on his bet. Those with a lower value hand lose their bet.
Learn How To Minimize The House Advantage
A knowledgeable blackjack player can bring the house advantage on a game of blackjack down to as low as .5%. Very good players can even turn the tables and gain an advantage over the house for themselves. This is one of the reasons blackjack is so popular. When played properly, it has the lowest house edge of any casino game.
There are two factors that go into making that house advantage as low as possible. The first thing you’ll need to do is learn how to spot game rules that are favourable to the player. The second thing you’ll need to do is learn what is called the blackjack basic strategy.
Favourable Blackjack Game Rules
The biggest determiner of the house advantage over players is the rules they employ at their blackjack tables. In land-based casinos, you may see that all tables have the same rules, or you may see variations on the rules between different tables. With online casinos, you will undoubtedly see several blackjack games available with several different sets of rules.
In general, any extreme variation on the basic blackjack rules is bad. For example, online games that include additional side bets or other twists on the traditional rules usually have a much higher house advantage. Aside from that, you should look for basic rules that meet as many of the following qualifications as possible.
- Fewer decks are more favourable to the player. Single deck games are the best.
- Blackjack should pay 3 to 2. 6 to 5 payouts add to the house advantage.
- The option to surrender bad hands is favourable to the player.
- Limits on splitting hands are in favour of the house. The more you can split, the better.
- If the dealer hits on soft 17, this adds to the house advantage. The dealer should stand on all 17s.
Blackjack Basic Strategy
Blackjack basic strategy is simply a strategy that gives you an optimal reaction for every situation you may run into while playing a hand of blackjack. When playing a game with the right set of rules, and the correct strategy for those rules, one can reduce the house edge on the game down to less than 1%.
Learning how you should react to any given situation might sound like a complicated process — and it is to a certain degree — but if you play blackjack regularly, it’s not all that difficult to eventually memorise the moves you should be making.
What comes as a surprise to many new players is the fact that you probably won’t need to memorise basic strategy at all. Anywhere there are land-based casinos, you will undoubtedly find blackjack basic strategy cards, which are basically a chart that tells you whether you should hit, stand, surrender, split, or double down based on your hand and the dealer’s face-up card. Some casinos will even provide you with these cards.
What’s more, many casinos don’t mind if you sit at the table and play with a basic strategy card in your hand. After all, even with the right strategy, the house still has a small advantage. Then, of course, if you’re playing blackjack at an online casino, they have no control over what you’re doing. You can sit and play with a basic strategy card in your hand, or with a web page containing the optimal strategy open in another browser window. There’s nothing they can do about that.
Practice Your Blackjack At Online Casinos
If you’re serious about learning how to maximise your advantage at blackjack — or even if you’re not — you’re almost always better off playing at an online casino as opposed to a land-based brick and mortar casino. There are several reasons why.
Minimum bets are lower in an online casino.
In most land-based casinos you’ll have a hard time finding games with a minimum bet under $5 per hand. Depending on the time of day, time of year, and how busy the casino is, they may even raise minimums to $25 or $50 per hand. Playing at an online casino, you can often play for less than $1 per hand. This is ideal for someone who is learning or wants to get the most possible practice out of a modest bankroll.
Rules are often as favourable as they can be for the player.
In online casinos, it’s not unusual to find blackjack games with a single deck of cards and 3 to 2 payout when you hit blackjack. At land-based casinos, you’ll have a hard time finding a casino that deals a game with less than four decks — most use six or eight. The very few brick and mortar casinos that do offer a single deck game have often made significant changes to the rules and payouts that increase the house edge by unreasonable amounts.
Online casinos provide a better selection of games.
Although you should always look for the game with the most favourable rules, if you want to try another variant to see how it plays, you have plenty of choices. In a land-based casino, your options are often very limited, and rules seem to always be changing to give the house more of an advantage.
There is no pressure to act fast at an online casino.
When you’re sitting at a table in a casino with four or five other people and a dealer in front of you, there can be a lot of perceived pressure to act quickly, especially if you’re new to the game. This kind of stress will obviously make the game less enjoyable until you are accustomed to live play. At an online casino, you can choose if you want to play at a table with a live dealer and other live players, or if you’re going to play by yourself. Playing by yourself against a computerised dealer can remove that need to act quickly as you learn to play.
You can get the live experience without leaving your home.
Nowadays, almost all online casinos offer live dealer blackjack games. These games match playing in a land-based casino in nearly every way. In fact, in some ways, they are better. You will sit at a table with other real people, and in most cases, you’ll be able to chat with each other. The dealer will deal real cards on a real table, and you can even see when the decks are shuffled.
A big advantage to live dealer games online, however, is that a computer system reads the cards and keeps track of bets, wins, and losses. This eliminates the chance of dealer mistakes while you play. If you’ve ever had to argue with a dealer in a casino about an incorrect payout when you hit blackjack, you’ll understand how this can make the game a lot more enjoyable.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that you get to play with a live dealer and real players in the comfort of your own home. There’s no need to dress up, no money spent on fuel, and no need to drive anywhere. You get the maximum play for both your money and your time.
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