Blackjack, also known as 21, is one of the few casino table games wherein the player actually has a slight advantage over the House in the long run. This may help to explain why most casinos place an extraordinary number of restrictions on betting and payouts. Winning hands usually pay out at 2/1, which means a successful blackjack player will either have to bet big or play at the same table for hours.
Blackjack is a card game played with anywhere from one to six decks of standard playing cards. Players often favor tables with single deck shoes, the special cardholders used by dealers to pass out cards to the players. A single deck game of blackjack is easier to keep track of than one played with six decks. In multiple deck games, the dealer rarely deals down to the very bottom of the shoe. A plastic divider is often placed arbitrarily to determine the stopping point of a particular shoe. Individual dealers may be relatively fast or slow, and the pit boss, general manager of the table games, will routinely replace them at different intervals.
Here's the basic idea behind the game of blackjack, with a few hints on betting strategy and table etiquette.
- The game of blackjack is played between a dealer, representing the House or casino, and generally one to six players surrounding the table. Each player must bet a minimum value chip at different tables, so it pays to think of a table minimum as one betting unit. If you're playing at a five dollar table, then one five dollar chip is your basic bet. All of the players at the table who wish to play a round of blackjack must make at least a minimal bet inside a prescribed area on the table.
- After the bets have been placed, the dealer deals two cards face-down to each eligible player. The dealer also deals two cards to himself -- one face-up and the other face-down. The face-down card is called the hole card, while the face-up card is called the up card. Players are not playing against one another; play is between the House and the individual player.
- The player looks at the two dealt cards and adds their value together. Suits are not important in blackjack. Cards between 2 and 10 are worth their face value in points. All face cards, Jacks through Kings, are worth ten points. The Ace is worth either 11 points or 1 point, depending on whichever value best serves the player; an Ace and any card worth 10 can be combined as 21 (or blackjack), or an Ace can later be declared a 1 if the player's hand would exceed 21.
- Once the player has added up the total number of points in his original hand, he must decide if an additional card might bring his total closer to 21. If he exceeds 21 points, the hand is declared a bust and the player loses his bet. If the two original cards total 11 or less, any card remaining in the shoe would be helpful. The player would indicate to the dealer than he wants to hit, or receive an additional card from the shoe.
- If the two original cards add up to 12 or more, then the player must consider the dealer's up card. There are two ways to win in blackjack -- have the closest total to 21 or hope the dealer busts. The player has the option of standing on a low hand, which means he can refuse to take any more cards from the shoe. It is now up to the dealer to play out his own hand according to strict rules of play.
- The dealer must now turn his hole card over, revealing it to everyone, and a dealer must take a hit if his original total is 16 or less. This means even if the dealer has 14, 15 or 16 showing now, he must take a card from the shoe. If the card puts him over 21, he has busted and all eligible players win their hands. If the hit puts him close to 21, then only those with a higher total win. If there is a tie, the hand is declared a push and all bets are returned without a winner.
- The main goal of the player is to decide whether or not her hand would be improved by taking additional cards. There are quite a few 10-point cards in a single deck, so she is essentially gambling that the dealer will be forced to hit and bust. Improving a hand to 18, 19 or 20 points is enough to stay in the game, but only a blackjack 21 is an automatic win.
- There are other types of bets available to players in order to increase their relatively meager payoffs. If a player has an original hand of 9, 10 or 11 points, it might be in her best interest to double down. Doubling down is to place an identical bet next to the original chips, essentially doubling the amount of the bet. The restriction is that the player can only receive one more card from the shoe. This is an opportunity to win back more money if the hit card is a ten or Ace and the player has 20 or 21. If the hit card is a low number, however, the player must stand on a weak 13, 14 or 15, a definite advantage to the dealer.
- The player can also split natural pairs into two separate hands with two separate bets. The player places a new bet next to one of the cards and the dealer treats it as two separate hands. The player can choose to hit or stay on either hand, and if he has the highest point value with both hands, he wins both bets. The problem is that he can also bust on one or both hands, losing two bets instead of one. Many expert players reserve splitting for high value cards like 8s, face cards or Aces. By splitting Aces, the player doubles his chances for a natural blackjack and a better payoff.
- Betting in blackjack should be done in units, rarely all or nothing. When a player wins a hand, part of the winnings should be held in reserve. The basic bet should be the table minimum. If a player wants to gamble, then he should increase the bet to two basic units. If the player begins to lose, then the bet returns to the minimum. If the player is on a winning streak, then the bet can go up to two or three units. Blackjack odds actually favor the player slightly over time, so a good player will walk away from the table when he or she is ahead of the curve. Eventually blackjack players will only break even or lose money by staying in too long.