Learn to play smart with our straightforward blackjack guide for beginners.
Our step-by-step blackjack guide will take you through the rules of play, to basic betting optimisation and finally to an overview of live and mobile play. Once you familiarise yourself with the information in this guide, you’ll be well equipped for some premium blackjack action.
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Novices should start from the beginning, but feel free to jump in to any of our lessons.
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Play blackjack with real live dealers for the most authentic casino experience.
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Most people are taught to play a version of blackjack as children. The UK version is known as 'Pontoon', while other names include 'Twenty-one' and 'Ventiuna'.
Blackjack in its non-casino form is usually a two player game. One player is the player, and the other the dealer, and the deal switches between the two players after every hand. The dealer deals two cards to each player, and then the player chooses what to do next.
The basic object of the game is to have a hand with a total number of points that's either worth twenty-one, or is as close to twenty-one as the player dares. If a hand is worth more than twenty-one then it automatically loses.
All cards are worth their face value, aside from jacks, queens and kings which are worth ten, and aces which can be worth one or eleven, whichever the player chooses. Once the deal is complete, a player may 'stick' (or 'stand' in casino terminology) or 'twist' ('hit'). If they stick, they receive no more cards. If they twist they receive another card. They can keep twisting until they stick, or bust.
If the player hasn't bust and chooses to stick, the dealer then plays. He flips his cards and tries to beat the player's total without going bust.
The history of blackjack
Blackjack is based on the near-identical card game called 'twenty-one', which has been popular in France and Spain since before the 1600s. The first mention of the game is in a short story by the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote the infamously lengthy tome Don Quixote. The story revolved around two Spanish con-men who swindled the people of Seville by cheating at the game 'ventiuna'. Ventiuna is Spanish for twenty-one, and the object of the game was to score as close to twenty-one as possible without busting.
The game eventually made its way to the US. At first, it was not a popular game, so gambling dens added various bonuses to make the game more interesting. One of the bonuses was a ten-to-one payout if a player was dealt the aces of spades and a black jack - either the jack of spades or the jack of clubs. This hand was known as 'blackjack', and it became the name of the casino version of 'twenty-one', even when the blackjack bonus was dropped. These days, a hand consisting of any ace and any card worth ten is known as 'blackjack', and usually pays either 2/1, 3/2 or 6/5, depending on the rules of any particular casino.
Blackjack - the casino version
The casino game blackjack has a number of different rules to twenty-one, but it remains a duel between dealer and player.
Usually a maximum of five players can play at once at a casino blackjack table. All five are playing against the dealer, and not against each other. Each active player places a chip or chips in the betting box in front of their position, which indicates they are in on the deal.
The dealer will then deal one card face up to each player, then one to themselves. They do the same for a second card for each player, but then they deal a second card face down to themselves.
Each player plays in turn, and ends up either standing or busting. Once all players have played, the dealer reveals their down card and plays out their hand according to the rules of the casino. If a player beats the dealer they receive back double their stake. If they lose, they lose their stake. If it is a tie (known as a 'push') their stake is returned to them.
When it comes to the dealer's play, they must keep hitting until they have at least reached 17, or bust. It doesn't matter if all the players have decided to stand on 12, and the dealer's dealt cards total 13. Even though the dealer has 'beaten' all hands, they must keep hitting until they reach at least 17.
In some casinos a dealer must keep hitting even if they have reached 17, if their hand contains at least one ace. This is known as a 'soft 17'. A hand of 'A6' must therefore be hit, the same as a hand of 'AA5'. Once the total of the cards reaches 17 and all the aces count as having the value of one (i.e. 'AA5A9'), then the dealer may stand.
Blackjack - casino version, other special rules
There are a number of other special rules that apply only to the casino version of blackjack. These will be explained in brief here, and explored in more depth in the lessons.
- Insurance: A side bet available when the deader's up card is an ace. If the dealer is then revealed to have blackjack, the players wins the insurance bet at typical odds of 3/2.
- Double down: Only available when two cards have been dealt. A player can double their bet on the provision that they only receive one more card. Some casinos allow doubling down on any total, while others on only 9 and 11, and some on 10 as well.
- Split: If the two cards dealt to a player have the same value, they can be split and played as two separate hands. The original bet is doubled. Some casinos allow split hands to be split again if possible.
- Surrender: Again only available after the first two cards have been dealt. If the dealer does not have blackjack, a player may surrender their cards and receive back half the total of their bet. Most casinos do not allow surrendering, while others only allow surrendering on certain totals, typically 13 to 16.
Blackjack - casino card counting
While card counting is not illegal, it is frowned upon by most real-world casinos. Anyone suspected of card counting is usually 'politely' asked to leave a casino.
Card counting involves keeping track of how many tens are appearing out of the dealer's shoe. In casino blackjack the game is played with between four and eight decks of cards shuffled together. When few tens appear out of the shoe, the shoe is deemed 'hot' and a card-counting player will increase their bets accordingly. When lots of tens appear out of the shoe then the shoe is deemed 'cold' and the player will lower their bet.
Card counting is frowned upon as it reduces the house's edge over the player, and can even swing it into the player's favour.
Card counting is not possible at online casinos as there’s no physical card deck. Even if you’re playing at a 'live' casino via an online video feed you’ll be unable to count cards since the decks are re-shuffled after every couple of hands.
Blackjack in popular culture
Blackjack possibly rivals poker as the most popular gambling game seen in movies and TV shows.
- The film 21 deals with the true story of a team of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) braniacs, put together by math major Ben Campbell. The team uses their heightened love of numbers to attempt card counting at blackjack. In the actual real-life version, the team were at times earning $80 an hour (in the 1990s) just by playing the game.
- The movie Rain Man features blackjack. In the film Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic character whom his brother, played by Tom Cruise, teaches to count cards. The pair then hit Las Vegas and win big until their card counting ruse is discovered.
- In the 2009 film The Hangover a trio of friends require $80,000 in order to pay a ransom to recover a fourth, whom has been kidnapped. Zach Galifianakis has been absorbing card counting books and wins the necessary cash. However, once they hand the cash over, they discover that the kidnap victim is not their friend at all, but a local low-life drug dealer.
Blackjack at online casinos
Blackjack is the second-most popular activity provided by online casinos, behind online slots. Nearly every single online casino offers at least one version of blackjack, and most casinos will offer several. Some casinos will also offer 'live' versions of blackjack where you can play with a live dealer in a studio or casino room. The live casino action is then streamed back to your PC, laptop or mobile via a video link.
Blackjack at an online casino is played using the same rules as at an real world casino, although usually it's you alone versus the dealer. Before playing blackjack at an online casino you should check what the casino's policy is on each of the following:
- where the dealer hits or stands on soft 17
- whether insurance is offered, and at what odds
- whether you can double down, and on which totals
- whether you can split, and re-split
- whether you can surrender, and on which totals
- what odds are paid for blackjack
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