The Rules of Blackjack
Let’s start from the very beginning and explain the most common mistake of new players. Blackjack was called 21 a century ago, but the game’s objective is NOT to hit 21. It’s also not about hitting the closest numbers to 21. The only aim is to beat the dealer, and you can do it in two ways: either by scoring a higher final total than the dealer without exceeding 21, or by letting the dealer exceed 21 and not doing so yourself.
This also means that there are many situations when a player should count the possibility of drawing the cards he needs and act accordingly. To win big at Blackjack, you have to either be extremely lucky, or to know a lot about the game. It also helps to have a keen eye and great numeracy skills.
The History of Blackjack
The modern version of Blackjack is a descendant of a game called 21, which was first mentioned by Miguel de Cervantes in his "Rinconete y Cortadillo" novel, written in the very beginning of 17th century.
It was called veintiuna and was played by a baraja deck with no eights or nines. There are some latter mentions of similar games in French gambling houses during the early 18th century, also.
When 21 went to the US, the casinos wanted to create an interest for it, and offered extra payouts for a few combinations. For example, they offered a 10 to 1 payout for a “blackjack” (the hand consisting of an ace of spades and any black jack (the jack of clubs or the jack of spades).
Despite the fact that a 10 to 1 payout was soon removed, the game is called Blackjack even now. Nowadays “blackjack” is a combination of any ace and a ten, or a face card of any suit or color.
In 1931, when gambling was legalized in Nevada, Blackjack started to become famous among legal casino players. Since that time, players started thinking about a gaming strategy for Blackjack, but the first ones who did it accurately were Roger Baldwin, Herbert Maisel, James McDermott, and Wilbert Cantey.
They are also known as the Four Horsemen of Aberdeen. These guys definitely knew how to play Blackjack, as they developed their strategy with the computing power of their calculators, and it was quite good. They published it for the first time in the Journal of the American Statistical Society in 1956and then compiled it in a book, called Playing Blackjack to Win, in 1957.
Another milestone in Blackjack history was a book by Dr. Edward O. Thorp on his great card-counting system, called “Ten Count.” It was published in 1962, and in over a year it became a worldwide bestseller, attracting hundreds of thousands of gamblers to the blackjack tables of Las Vegas.
When the losses became too significant to ignore, casino owners decided to change the rules. It happened on April 1, 1964, but for gamblers, it wasn’t a funny joke at all. They restricted splitting a pair of aces, as well as double downs on two cards, whose total was 11.
The gamblers’ reaction was swift and powerful: they just stopped playing all together. After that, casinos had to reverse the changes, and instead, started to increase the number of decks used. Almost all casinos switched from a one-deck, hand-held Blackjack, to a four-deck variation, in which the cards were dealt from a so-called “shoe.”
Currently, casinos use from four to eight decks. The Ten Count method still worked, but it became overly complex and almost useless for a vast majority of players, and they returned to their habitual strategies.
There’s no reason to follow the minor changes in the rules of Blackjack. Usually, these changes are applied when the casino wants to use fewer decks to attract more players, but doesn’t want to lower the house edge too much.
If you review the blackjack rules in all casinos of the world, you’ll see that almost each of them have their own rules.
The Value of the Cards
Before you start playing you have to know the value of the cards, which is essential to understand whether you won or lost.
There are three basic types of combinations:
Novice players think that there are only two possible turns in Blackjack and they are to hit or to stand. Actually, there are many more situational turns that you might take depending on the cards you’ve drawn, or the cards drawn by the dealer.
The House Edge
The House Edge is one of the first things you have to know about the game before you start playing it. In Blackjack, the house edge is represented by the double-bust rule. Let’s sort this out.
To “bust” is to go over 21, and if player busts - he instantly loses. The catch is that the dealer might bust on the same round too, but the players who busted won’t get their money back. This sole rule brings the dealer an advantage of 8%, but it’s partly neutralized by the other possibilities that players have, and the dealer doesn’t. We’re talking about split betting, doubling down, and a 3 to 2 payout for blackjack.
The blackjack payout rate is working all the time, and it brings the house edge down from 8% to 5.7%. Another 2.2% could be cut by using the proper standing and hitting strategies. Here players also have an advantage over the dealer, as he has strict rules: to hit on 16 or less and to stand on 17-21. Players can hit or stand whenever they want, so that they can make an advantageous move based on the cards already dealt. The proper doubling down and split betting strategies will lower the house edge for another 1.6% and 0.4% respectively, so the strategically savvy player will have to deal with a 0.2% house edge, which isn’t too much at all.
Is There a Choice?
If you want to play Blackjack, and want to win, instead of not winning - you should choose between two ways: you should use either a card-counting system or a strategy that will allow you to beat the house edge, or at least make it lower.
Many people think that it’s illegal to count cards, which in fact, isn’t. You can count whatever you want, beginning with the number of people in the casino, and ending with the cards at your Blackjack table. You’re not violating any law when you’re counting cards, but the catch is that the casino has the power to do anything it wants on its territory.
How to Hit and to Stand
The main thing you should know about hitting or standing, is that a hard 12 through 17 are the worst numbers. It means that you hit one of these numbers, you’re more likely to bust, regardless of the dealer’s hand. The bad news is that you’re going to hit 12 through 17 in 40% of cases.
How to Double Down
The double down feature means that you’re doubling your original bet, but giving up the possibility of drawing more than one card. You should do it when you’re most likely to draw one card that will make your total more than the dealer’s. Usually, it’s allowed to double down on any two cards, but some casinos allow to do it on hard 10 and 11 only.
To know when to double down, you should consider your hand’s total and the dealer’s upcard. The best hands double down on are 8, 9, 10, 11, and the soft hands from 13 to 18 (A-2 to A-7).
How to Split Pairs
Pair splitting is a method that allows players to reduce the casino’s house edge, but it’s not like the 3 to 2 blackjack payout. It’s doesn’t work automatically; you have to split pairs correctly to get an advantage from it. Even more, if you will split pairs randomly, you’ll lose way more than if you’d never done this. Some pairs, such as 5-5 and 10-10, should never be split. A pair of aces, as well as a pair of eights, should be split every time. Splitting of other pairs is considered according to the dealer’s upcard, specific rules of the table, and the number of decks in a shoe.
How to Surrender
This is one of the hardest techniques in the game, as it even sounds unfavorable for the players. Nobody wants to surrender, but it’s essential to lower the house edge. You see, statistically, you will lose some of your bets anyway, and if you surrender properly, you’ll cut the losses in half. We’d call this option a strategic retreat, as it would be more accurate.
The catch is to consider the value of your two cards and the dealer’s card and make a decision to surrender if the odds are unfavorable for you. By doing this, you save half of your bet, and will have more chips for the next round.
There are two types of surrender: an early and a late one. Late surrender is less favorable for a player, as you can only surrender if an upcard was an ace or a ten, and only after the dealer checks for blackjack. In case of blackjack, you can’t surrender. Anyway, the proper late surrender reduces the house edge approximately by 0.07%. This rule is used in most U.S. casinos.
Early surrender is way more interesting and used mostly in European and Asian casinos. It gives you a decrease of the house edge for approximately 0.5%. According to the early surrender rule, you can give up a half of your bet as soon as you see the dealer’s upcard, if it’s a ten-value card or an ace.
Sucker Bets: Insurance and Even Money
The insurance bet was named so for a reason, and the reason is to make players believe that they’re actually insuring something, while they’re really not. It’s just another bet that you make on a dealer’s blackjack and it won’t affect your chances to win or to lose the initial bet. Even more, it’s literally unfavorable, and can be called a sucker bet, as you never win in a long perspective when placing insurance bets.
Even Money bet is the same as Insurance bet, as it has the same outcome, except that you’re ensuring your blackjack and get even money regardless of whether the dealer got a blackjack or not. Originally, there was a no even money option, and you had to ensure a blackjack as any other hand, but then casinos decided to make it simpler for players. Even money option looks better, because you don’t need to make too many actions - just take your even money, and that’s all. It’s also a sucker bet, as you win more not taking it.
All in all, we don’t recommend you to make either insurance or even money bets, as the only reason of their existence is that they distract a player from the fact that he’s being fooled.
Blackjack in a Nutshell
Blackjack is a game of chance, flavored by skill elements. You can enjoy blackjack anyway, but to use it in your favor, you have to learn its rules and basic strategies. Players that know how to properly split pairs, stand, hit, surrender, and double down; can play with the house edge of 0.2%. It doesn’t guarantee any winnings, but with a bit of luck and smart betting, you might have a good time and break even.
Before you start playing at a land-based casino, it will be better to practice in an online one, where the players won’t distract you from the game. You might even try it for free, to familiarize yourself with bets, common combinations, odds, and options. Good luck, and don’t forget to carefully pick a table, as some of them offer an untraditional 6:5 blackjack payout, which is four times worse.
Good luck and have fun!
Updated: 18 Jun 2018