Blackjack Guide: How to Play, History, Facts, Stats and Odds
How to Play Blackjack
Okay, if you’re a total beginner when it comes to the brilliant, fascinating and endearing game that is blackjack, this is the place to start as we explain exactly how to play it. This is essentially the same whether you’re playing in your local casino, on your mobile or on a desktop computer and this is the perfect place to start if you don’t know your hitting from your twisting or your splitting from your doubling.
Blackjack: The Basics
Blackjack is a comparing card game in which you must get closer to 21 than the dealer in order to win, without going over 21. Aces can count as one or 11 and face cards (jacks, queens and kings) count as 10.
To start you must select a stake – how much you want to bet on the game. Having done that everyone will receive two cards, the player getting theirs both face up, the dealer showing just one face up.
The player must then choose what to do, with a number of options available. What they choose to do depends on the value of their cards and the value of the dealer’s one visible card.
- Hit – To hit (which is called twisting only in Pontoon) is to request another card from the dealer. The player can hit, if they want, anytime the value of their cards is less than 21.
- Stand – To stand (stick in Pontoon) means that you want no more cards.
- Double – Depending on the rules of the blackjack variant you are playing, you may only be allowed to double – sometimes called double down – on certain numbers, usually 9, 10 or 11, though some versions of blackjack allow you to double on any number. You can only double after the initial deal, that is to say, when you have two cards. When you double you must bet the value of your stake again and you then receive one additional card, with no further hitting or doubling permitted.
- Split – Splitting is possible when your first two cards are a pair, for example two 8s, although some rules allow any cards worth 10 to be split, for example a 10 and a Jack. When you split you must add the value of your stake again and your cards are split into two hands. Each hand receives an additional card and is played separately. Subject to the specific rules you may or may not be able to re-split your hand should you receive another card of the same value.
- Surrender – Some blackjack rules allow a player to surrender their hand without playing it out, losing just half their stake. In early surrender rules you can do this before the dealer checks for blackjack whilst in the more commonly played late surrender rules you can only surrender once the dealer has checked for blackjack (if they check and have it you lose but if not you surrender and lose half your stake).
- Insurance – If the dealer’s open card is an ace you may be offered insurance. This is a side-bet of half your stake on the dealer having blackjack (i.e. their second card is a 10-value card). Insurance is paid at 2/1 if the dealer has blackjack and you lose your stake if not with your main bet being played out separately either way. Should you already have a blackjack, rather than insurance you may be offered a payout of even money, as opposed to the standard 3/2 – you can choose to accept or reject this.
If you bust, that is to say, reach a total of 22 or more, you have lost and the dealer automatically wins, without playing out their hand. Otherwise, once you have played out your hand or hands, the dealer will turn over their second card and then play theirs.
The casino (dealer) has very strict rules about what they can do and their only choice is whether to hit or stand.
If the dealer has 16 or less they must always hit until they have at least 17, at which point they must always stand. Different rules may allow the dealer to hit if they have a “soft” 17 (or higher) but normally they will have to stand on such a hand. A soft 17 is one including one or more aces in which, if the ace(s) was given a value of 1, rather than 11, they would have fewer than 17 and so thus be able to hit.
Betting on Blackjack
Above is essentially all you need to know about how blackjack is played but you’ll probably also want to know what you win and how the betting works. In a standard game you bet your stake and that is what you stand to win or lose in a given hand. So if you wager £5 per hand you will either win £5, getting a total of £10 back or else you will lose your £5 stake if your hand loses.
How do I Win at Blackjack?
When playing blackjack you will win if any of the following happens:
- The dealer busts and you don’t
- You get closer to 21 than the dealer without exceeding 21
- You have blackjack and the dealer doesn’t
How Much do I Win?
As said, normally you will win or lose whatever your stake was but there are exceptions to this as follows:
- If you get blackjack and the dealer doesn’t you will normally get paid at odds of 3/2, so a £5 stake returns £12.50 for a profit of £7.50
- If you tie with the dealer, either on the same number or both with blackjack the hand is a “push” and you get your stake returned
- If you have doubled you will have added the value of your stake (e.g. £5) so would win or lose £10
- If you have split and/or re-split each hand you play will have a stake equal to your original bet
- Insurance pays at 2/1, so a £2.50 insurance bet would return £7.50 for a £5 profit, although your main bet would normally lose
- As said, if you surrender you would lose half your stake
Blackjack is a great game and playing is really simple because there is a mathematically proven way to play that delivers the best results and tells you exactly what to do in any given situation based on what cards you have and what the dealer is showing.
This is called “basic strategy”, or sometimes optimum strategy, and whilst some of what it dictates may seem counter-intuitive, it is guaranteed to deliver the best returns in the long term.
If you are serious about playing blackjack then you simply have to apply the principles of basic strategy. The “rules” are best presented in a table (see below) that tells you exactly what to do and whilst this may vary slightly depending on the rules of the exact version of blackjack you are playing, the table below covers the most common rule variants assuming four to eight decks and the dealer standing on soft 17.
Basic Strategy Chart
Click the link to view and print the Blackjack Basic Strategy Table (PDF version) for a game with four to eight decks in which the dealer stands on a soft 17, that is:
Of course, the beauty of playing blackjack on your mobile or online is that you can keep your basic strategy guide to hand and so refer to it without having to memorise all the options. If you are playing in a bricks and mortar casino in Las Vegas or anywhere else or simply don’t have your guide handy, the following are the most simple principles you should always remember:
- Never take insurance or an even money payout for blackjack
- If the dealer has a seven or more, keep taking cards until you match or better them
- If the dealer has 2 to 6, always stand on 13 and upwards and 12 and upwards if they have a 4 to 6
- If you have a 10 or 11, double unless the dealer matches or beats your total
- Always split aces and 8s
- Never split 10s
What is the Best Version of Blackjack to Play?
Okay, so we’ve discussed how to play, but what about WHAT to play?
The house edge – which you can think of as the profit margin the casino takes from a game – is very low on blackjack but it can vary a lot depending which rule variants you choose.
With the best rules imaginable (imaginable but rarely, if ever, found online these days) the house edge on blackjack, played to basic strategy, is less than 0.3%, meaning that if you played 1,000 hands at £10, wagering a total of £10,000 you would expect to lose less than £30. However, besides diverging from optimum play (taking insurance gives a huge house edge of almost 7% for example!), different rules also increase or decrease the house edge on blackjack.
Whilst there are numerous possible options, as a general rule the most basic blackjack games will have the lowest house edge, so ignore any bonus or progressive games and stick to standard blackjack.
The next thing to look out for is the number of decks being used, with fewer decks being more favourable to the player.
Another simple and obvious factor is the odds at which blackjack is paid, with 3/2 the lowest payout you should accept. Some casinos pay blackjack at 6/5 – or even lower – and this has a big impact on your overall profitability, so never play blackjack at a casino that pays less than 3/2.
Those are the biggest factors to be aware of, although if you can find a casino that offers late surrender, allows doubling on any number, re-splitting and hitting of aces and the dealer standing on soft 17 then grab it! (And let us know where it is too!)
Blackjack History, Stats and Facts
Right, that’s the serious, important stuff out of the way, now let’s take a look at some more light-hearted and – to some at least – interesting facts about the brilliant game of blackjack, as well as the history of this popular casino game.
Blackjack developed out of a game called 21 and that was referenced by the legendary Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. In his book Novelas Ejemplares he references the game “ventiuna” (Spanish for 21) in which players try to get as close as possible to 21 without going over and in which the ace counts as one or 11. Given the book was published at the very start of the 17th century, it’s safe to assume that blackjack, or at least its forerunner ,21, was played in the 16th century.
Similar games were played in various European countries around that time and when the game spread to America, through mass immigration during a time of upheaval in Europe, it evolved, with changes bringing it much closer to modern day casino blackjack.
Gambling dens competed with one another and one way in which they did this was by offering an enhanced payout for getting a “natural” with the ace of spades and either of the black jacks. This hand paid out at a tasty 10/1 and became known, unsurprisingly, as blackjack.
The name of that hand slowly became synonymous with the game and although the 10/1 payout was dropped because it happened too infrequently to offer sufficient incentive to players, the name stood. Instead of the 10/1 payout, casinos introduced odds of 3/2, payable for any two-card 21.
In essence blackjack has changed little since that move, although of course the technology used has created new possibilities. Blackjack started out as a game between friends, moved into illegal gambling dens, then legalised casinos before the advent of the internet made playing blackjack online possible.
We have since seen live dealer blackjack and, of course, mobile blackjack but the basics of the game remain the same and the maths, strategy and gameplay have largely stayed unchanged for the last 200 years or so.
Blackjack Stats and Facts
- House Edge – Blackjack has a very low house edge, making it a great game for the player. Using the best rules around the house edge is just 0.26%!
- Insurance – Insurance is a BAD thing. Never (EVER) take it as – depending on the number of decks – it adds as much as 7.47% to the house edge.
- Hall of Fame – The blackjack Hall of Fame is in San Diego at the Barona Casino.
- MIT – The card counting team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the most famous in history and won tens of millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s.
- Card Counting – Edward O. Thorp is considered the godfather of card counting although the technique was probably around for 10 years or so before Thorp published Beat The Dealer in 1962.
- Making a Fool of Myself – When I was 16 and in a casino illegally I asked to twist and got laughed at. “Wrong game lad” was the slightly patronising comment as I risked my entire month’s paper round money!
- 21 – 21 is an important number and, coincidentally, you can expect to get blackjack once every 21 hands!
- Bust! – The dealer will probably go bust about 30% of the time, whilst a player using basic strategy will bust around 16% of the time.
- Third Base – We aren’t talking sex here but rather the fact that the third seat at a blackjack table is the best spot for a card counter. I’ve always liked third base.
- Famous – Napoleon apparently liked a game of blackjack (I think he played on Android) but more modern famous blackjack players include Ben Affleck, Prince Harry and Paris Hilton. That’s a table we’d pay to sit at!