Blackjack – Rules, Strategy and more …

General rules of play at casinos

At a casino blackjack table, the dealer faces between five and nine (commonly seven) playing positions from behind a semicircular table. At the beginning of each round, up to three players place their bets in the “betting box” at each position in play. The player whose bet is at the front of the betting box is deemed to have control over the position, and the dealer will consult the controlling player for playing decisions regarding the hand; the other players of that box are said to “play behind”. Any player is usually allowed to control or bet in as many boxes as desired at a single table, but it is prohibited to play on more than one table at a time or to place multiple bets in a single box.

Each box is dealt an initial hand of two cards visible to the people playing on it, and often to any other players. The dealer’s hand receives its first card face up, and in “hole card” games receives its second card face down immediately (the hole card), which the dealer peeks at but does not reveal unless it makes the dealer’s hand a blackjack. Hole card games are sometimes played on tables with a small mirror or electronic sensor which are used to peek securely at the hole card. In European casinos, “no hole card” games are prevalent; the dealer’s second card is neither drawn nor consulted until the players have all played their hands.

Cards are dealt either from one or two hand-held decks, from a dealer’s shoe, or from a shuffling machine. Single cards are dealt to each of wagered-on position clockwise from the dealer’s leftmost position, followed by a single card to the dealer, followed by an additional card to each of the positions in play. The players’ initial cards may be dealt face-up, or face-down (more common in single-deck games).

The players’ object is to win money by creating card totals which will turn out to be higher than the dealer’s hand, but without exceeding 21 (“busting”/”breaking”). On their turn, players must choose whether to “hit” (take a card), “stand” (end their turn), “double” (double wager, take a single card and finish), “split” (if the two cards have the same value, separate them to make two hands) or “surrender” (give up a half-bet and retire from the game). Number-cards count as their natural value; the jack, queen, and king (also known as “face cards” or “pictures”) count as 10; aces are valued as either 1 or 11 according to the player’s best interest. If the hand value exceeds 21 points, it busts, and all bets on it are immediately forfeit. After all boxes have finished playing, the dealer’s hand is resolved by drawing cards until the hand busts or achieves a value of 17 or higher (a dealer total of 17 including an ace, or “soft 17”, must be drawn to in some games and must stand in others). The dealer never doubles, splits nor surrenders. If the dealer busts, all remaining player hands win. If the dealer does not bust, each remaining bet wins if its hand is higher than the dealer’s, and loses if it is lower. In the case of a tied score, known as “push” or “standoff”, bets are normally returned without adjustment; however, a blackjack beats any hand which is not a blackjack, even with value 21. Blackjack vs. blackjack is a push. Wins are paid out at 1:1, or equal to the wager, except for winning blackjacks, which are traditionally paid at 3:2, or one and a half times the wager. Many casinos today pay blackjacks at less than 3:2 at some tables.

Blackjack games almost always provide a side bet called insurance, which may be played when dealer’s upcard is an ace. At least one further side bet is usually provided.

Player decisions

After receiving an initial two cards, the player has four standard options: “hit,” “stand,” “double down,” or “split”. Each option has a corresponding hand signal. Some games give the player a fifth option, “surrender”.

  • Hit: Take another card from the dealer.
    • signal: (handheld) Scrape cards against table. (face up) Tap the table or wave hand toward body
  • Stand: Take no more cards; also known as “stand pat”, “stick”, or “stay”.
    • signal: (handheld) Slide cards under chips. (face up) Wave hand horizontally.
  • Double down (only available as first decision of a hand): The player is allowed to increase the initial bet by up to 100% in exchange for committing to stand after receiving exactly one more card. The additional bet is placed in the betting box next to the original bet. Some games do not permit the player to increase the bet by amounts other than 100%. Non-controlling players may double their wager or decline to do so, but they are bound by the controlling player’s decision to take only one card.
    • signal: Place additional chips beside the original bet, and point with one finger.
  • Split (only available as first decision of a hand): If the first two cards have the same value, the player can split them into two hands, by moving a second bet equal to the first into an area outside the betting box of the original bet. The dealer separates the two cards and draws a further card on each, placing one bet with each hand. The player then plays out the two separate hands in turn, with some restrictions. Occasionally, in the case of ten-valued cards, some casinos allow splitting only when the cards have the identical ranks; for instance, a hand of T-T may be split, but not of T-K. However, usually all ten-value cards are treated the same. Doubling and further splitting of post-split hands may be restricted, and blackjacks after a split are counted as non-blackjack 21 when comparing against the dealer’s hand. Hitting split aces is usually not allowed. Non-controlling players may follow the controlling player by putting down an additional bet, or decline to do so, instead associating their existing wager with one of the two post-split hands. In that case they must choose which hand to play behind before the second cards are drawn.
    • signal: Place additional chips next to the original bet outside the betting box. Point with two fingers spread into a V formation.
  • Surrender (only available as first decision of a hand): Some games offer the option to “surrender”, usually in hole card games and directly after the dealer has checked for blackjack (but see below for variations). When the player surrenders, the house takes half the player’s bet and return the other half to the player; this terminates the player’s interest in the hand. The request to surrender is made verbally, there being no standard hand signal.

Hand signals are used to assist the “eye in the sky”, a person or video camera located above the table and sometimes concealed behind one-way glass. The eye in the sky usually makes a video recording of the table, which helps in resolving disputes and identifying dealer mistakes, and is also used to protect the casino against dealers who steal chips or players who cheat. The recording can further be used to identify advantage players whose activities, while legal, make them undesirable customers. In the event of a disagreement between a player’s hand signals and their words, the hand signal takes precedence.

Each hand may normally “hit” as many times as desired so long as the total is not above hard-20. On reaching 21 (including soft 21), the hand is normally required to stand; busting is an irrevocable loss and the players’ wagers are immediately forefeited to the house. After a bust or a stand, play proceeds to the next hand clockwise around the table. When the last hand has finished being played, the dealer reveals the hole card, and stands or draws further cards according to the rules of the game for dealer drawing. When the outcome of the dealer’s hand is established, any hands with bets remaining on the table are resolved, usually in counter-clockwise order; bets on losing hands are forfeited, and winners are paid out.

Insurance

If the dealer’s upcard is an ace, the player is offered the option of taking “insurance” before the dealer checks the hole card.

Insurance is a side bet that the dealer has blackjack and is treated independently of the main wager. It pays 2:1 and is available when the dealer’s exposed card is an ace. The idea is that the dealer’s second card has a fairly high probability (nearly one-third) to be ten-valued, giving the dealer blackjack and disappointment for the player. It is attractive (although not necessarily wise) for the player to insure against the possibility of a dealer blackjack by making a maximum “insurance” bet, in which case the “insurance proceeds” will make up for the concomitant loss on the original bet. The player may add up to half the value of their original bet to the insurance and these extra chips are placed on a portion of the table usually marked “Insurance Pays 2 to 1”.

Players with a blackjack may also take insurance, and in taking maximum insurance they commit themselves to winning an amount exactly equal to their main wager, regardless of the dealer’s outcome. Fully insuring a blackjack against blackjack is thus referred to as “taking even money”, and paid out immediately, before the dealer’s hand is resolved; the players need not produce to place more chips for the insurance wager.

Insurance bets are expected to lose money in the long run, because the dealer is likely to have blackjack less than one-third of the time. However the insurance outcome is strongly anti-correlated with that of the main wager, and if the player’s priority is to reduce variation, it is reasonable to pay for this.

Furthermore, the insurance bet is susceptible to advantage play. It is advantageous to make an insurance bet whenever the hole card has more than a chance of one in three of being a ten. Advantage play techniques can sometimes identify such situations. In a multi-hand, face-up, single deck game, it is possible to establish whether insurance is a good bet simply by observing the other cards on the table after the deal; even if there are just 2 player hands exposed, and neither of their two initial cards is a ten, then 16 in 47 of the remaining cards are tens, which is larger than 1 in 3, so insurance is a good bet. This is an elementary example of the family of advantage play techniques known as card counting.

Bets to insure against blackjack are slightly less likely to be advantageous than insurance bets in general, since the ten in the player’s blackjack makes it less likely that the dealer has blackjack too

Rule variations and their consequences for the house edge

The rules of casino blackjack are generally determined by law or regulation, which establishes certain rule variations allowed at the discretion of the casino. The rules of any particular game are generally posted on or near the table, failing which there is an expectation that casino staff will provide them on request. Over 100 variations of blackjack have been documented.

As with all casino games, blackjack incorporates a “house edge”, a statistical advantage for the casino which is built into the game. The advantage of the dealer’s position in blackjack relative to the player comes from the fact that if the player busts, the player loses, regardless of whether the dealer subsequently busts. Nonetheless, blackjack players using basic strategy will lose less than 1% of their total wagered amount with strictly average luck; this is very favorable to the player compared to other casino games. The loss rate of players who deviate from basic strategy through ignorance is in general expected to be greater.

  • Dealer hits soft 17
Each game has a rule about whether the dealer must hit or stand on soft 17, which is generally printed on the table surface. The variation where the dealer must hit soft 17 is abbreviated “H17” in blackjack literature, with “S17” used for the stand-on-soft-17 variation. Substituting an “H17” rule with an “S17” rule in a game benefits the player, decreasing the house edge by about 0.2%.
  • Number of decks
All things being equal, using fewer decks decreases the house edge. This mainly reflects an increased likelihood of player blackjack, since if the players draws a ten on their first card, the subsequent probability of drawing an ace is higher with fewer decks. It also reflects a decreased likelihood of blackjack-blackjack push in a game with fewer decks.
Casinos generally compensate by tightening other rules in games with fewer decks, in order to preserve the house edge. When offering single deck blackjack games, casinos are more likely to disallow doubling on soft hands or after splitting, to restrict resplitting, and to pay the player less than 3:2 for a winning blackjack.
The following table illustrates the mathematical effect on the house edge of the number of decks, by considering games with various deck counts under the following ruleset: double after split allowed, resplit to four hands allowed, no hitting split aces, no surrender, double on any two cards, original bets only lost on dealer blackjack, dealer hits soft 17, and cut-card used. The increase in house edge per unit increase in the number of decks is most dramatic when comparing the single deck game to the two-deck game, and becomes progressively smaller as more decks are added.
Number of Decks House Advantage
Single deck 0.17%
Double deck 0.46%
Four decks 0.60%
Six decks 0.64%
Eight decks 0.66%
  • Late/early surrender
Surrender, for those games that allow it, is usually not permitted against a dealer blackjack; if the dealer’s first card is an ace or ten, the hole card is checked to make sure there is no blackjack before surrender is offered. This rule protocol is consequently known as “late” surrender. The alternative, “early” surrender, gives player the option to surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack, or in a no-hole-card game. Early surrender was originally the norm in Atlantic City casinos but is much more favourable to the player than late surrender, and has largely disappeared from the United States. Nonetheless early surrender games can still be found in several countries. Most medium-strength hands should be surrendered against a dealer Ace if the hole card has not been checked.
For late surrender, however, while it is tempting opt for surrender on any hand which will probably lose, the correct strategy is to only surrender on the very worst hands, because having even a one in four chance of winning the full bet is better than losing half the bet and pushing the other half, as entailed by surrendering.
  • Resplitting
If the cards of a post-split hand have the same value, most games allow the player to split again, or “resplit”. The player places a further wager and the dealer separates the new pair dealing a further card to each as before. Some games allow unlimited resplitting, while others may limit it to a certain number of hands, such as four hands (for example, “resplit to 4”).
  • Hit/resplit split aces
After splitting aces, the common rule is that only one card will be dealt to each ace; the player cannot split, double, or take another hit on either hand. Rule variants include allowing resplitting aces or allowing the player to hit split aces. Games allowing aces to be resplit are not uncommon, but those allowing the player to hit split aces are extremely rare. Allowing the player to hit hands resulting from split aces reduces the house edge by about 0.13%; allowing resplitting of aces reduces house edge by about 0.03%. Note that a ten-value card dealt on a split ace (or vice versa) is a “soft 21” and not a “natural”.
  • No double after split
After a split, most games allow doubling down on the new two-card hands. Disallowing doubling after a split increases the house edge by about 0.12%.
  • Double on 9/10/11 or 10/11 only
Under the “Reno rule”, double down is only permitted on hard totals of 9, 10, or 11 (under a similar European rule, only 10 or 11). Basic strategy would otherwise call for some doubling down with hard 9 and soft 13-18, and advanced players can identify situations where doubling on soft 19-20 and hard 8,7 and even 6 is advantageous. The Reno rule prevents the player from taking advantage of double down in these situations and thereby increases the player’s expected loss. The Reno rule increases the house edge by around one in 1000, and its European version by around two in 1000.
  • No hole card and OBO
In most non-U.S. casinos, a ‘no hole card’ game is played, meaning that the dealer does not draw nor consult his or her second card until after all players have finished making decisions. With no hole card, it is almost never correct basic strategy to double or split against a dealer ten or ace, since a dealer blackjack will result in the loss of the split and double bets; the only exception is with a pair of A’s against a dealer 10, where it is still correct to split. In all other cases, a stand, hit or surrender is called for. For instance, holding 11 against a dealer 10, the correct strategy is to double in a hole card game (where the player knows the dealer’s second card is not an ace), but to hit in a no hole card game. The no hole card rule adds approximately 0.11% to the house edge.
The “original bets only” rule variation appearing in certain no hole card games states that if the player’s hand loses to a dealer blackjack, only the mandatory initial bet (“original”) is forfeited, and all optional bets, meaning doubles and splits, are pushed. “Original bets only” is also known by the acronym OBO; it has the same effect on basic strategy and house edge as reverting to a hole card game.
  • Altered payout for a winning blackjack
In many casinos, usually at tables with the lowest table minimums and single-deck games, a blackjack pays only 6:5 or even 1:1 instead of the usual 3:2. Among common rule variations in the U.S., these altered payouts for blackjack are the most damaging to the player, causing the greatest increase in house edge. Since blackjack occurs in approximately 4.8% of hands, the 1:1 game increases the house edge by 2.3%, while the 6:5 game adds 1.4% to the house edge. Video blackjack machines generally pay 1:1 payout for a blackjack. The 6:5 rule is most commonly employed on table blackjack at single deck games, where they help the house to compensate for low house edge intrinsic in using one deck only.
  • Dealer wins ties
The rule that bets on tied hands are lost rather than pushed is catastrophic to the player. Though rarely used in standard blackjack, it is sometimes seen in “blackjack-like” games such as in some charity casinos.

Basic strategy

Each blackjack game has a “basic strategy”, which is the way of playing a hand with any total value against any dealer upcard which will lose least money to the house in the long term with strictly average luck.

An example basic strategy is shown in the table below for a common ruleset:

  • 4 to 8 decks
  • Dealer stands on soft 17
  • Double on any 2 cards
  • Double after split allowed
  • Only original bets lost on dealer blackjack
  • Late surrender

blackjack-basic-strategy

The bulk of basic strategy is common to all blackjack games, with most rule variations calling for changes in only a few situations. For example, if the above game used the hit soft 17 rule, common in Las Vegas Strip casinos, only 5 cells of the table would need to be changed: double on 11 vs. A, double on A/7 vs. 2, double on A/8 vs. 6 and surrender 15 or 17 vs. A.

Estimates of the house edge for blackjack games quoted by casinos and gaming regulators are generally based on the assumption that the players follow basic strategy and do not systematically change their bet size. Most blackjack games have a house edge of between 0.5% and 1%, making blackjack the cheapest casino table game. Casino promotions such as complimentary matchplay vouchers or 2:1 blackjack payouts allow the player to acquire an advantage without deviating from basic strategy.

On the left side: for 6-deck, On the right side:

blackjack_soft17

Composition-dependent strategy

Basic strategy is based upon a player’s point total and the dealer’s visible card. Players may be able to improve on this decision by considering the precise composition of their hand, not just the point total. For example, players should ordinarily stand when holding 12 against a dealer 4. However, in a single deck game, players should hit if their 12 consists of a 10 and a 2. The presence of a 10 in the players’ hand has two consequences:[7]

  • It makes the players’ 12 a worse hand to stand on (since the only way to avoid losing is for the dealer to go bust, which is less likely if there are fewer 10’s left in the shoe).
  • It makes hitting safer, since the only way of going bust is to draw a 10, and this is less likely with a 10 already in the hand.

However, even when basic and composition-dependent strategy lead to different actions, the difference in expected reward is small. Additionally, as the number of decks used in a blackjack game rises, both the number of situations in which composition determines the correct strategy and the house edge improvement from using a composition-dependent strategy falls. Using a composition-dependent strategy rather than basic strategy in a single deck game reduces the house edge by 4 in 10,000, which falls to 3 in 100,000 for a six-deck game

Advantage play

  • Card counting
  • Shuffle tracking
  • identifying concealed cards

Side bets

Many blackjack tables offer a side bet on various outcomes including:

  • Player hand and dealer’s up card sum to 19, 20, or 21 (“Lucky Lucky”)
  • Player initial hand is a pair (“Perfect pairs”)
  • Player initial hand is suited, suited and connected, or a suited K-Q (“Royal match”)
  • Player initial hand plus dealer’s card makes a flush, straight, or three-of-a-kind poker hand (“21+3”)
  • Player initial hand totals 20 (“Lucky Ladies”)
  • Dealer upcard is in between the value of the players two cards (“In Bet”)
  • First card drawn to the dealer will result in a dealer bust (“Bust It!”)
  • One or both of the players cards is the same as the dealers card (“Match the Dealer”)
  • Player allowed to make optional second hand, and effectively receive the hand of 10,8, or 18 without drawings cards (“Instant 18”)

The side wager is typically placed in a designated area next to the box for the main wager. A player wishing to wager on a side bet is usually required to place a wager on blackjack. Some games require that the blackjack wager should equal or exceed any side bet wager. A non-controlling player of a blackjack hand is usually permitted to place a side bet regardless of whether the controlling player does so.

The house edge for side games is generally higher than for the blackjack game itself. Nonetheless side games can be susceptible to card counting, often requiring bespoke counting systems. Most side games do not offer sufficient win rate to justify the effort of advantage play; exceptions are “Lucky ladies” and “Over/Under”.

In team play it is common for team members to be dedicated toward counting only a sidebet using a specialized count.

Video blackjack

Some casinos, as well as general betting outlets, provide blackjack among a selection of casino-style games at electronic consoles. Video blackjack game rules are generally more favorable to the house, e. g. paying out only even money for winning blackjacks. Video and online blackjack games deal each coup from a fresh shoe, rendering card counting much less effective.

Variants of the game

Blackjack is a member of a large family of traditional card games played recreationally all around the world. Most of these games have not been adapted for casino play. Furthermore, the casino game development industry is very active in producing blackjack variants, most of which are ultimately not adopted for widespread use in casinos. The following are the prominent twenty-one themed comparing card games which have been adapted or invented for use in casinos and have become established in the gambling industry.

  • Spanish 21 provides players with many liberal blackjack rules, such as doubling down any number of cards (with the option to ‘rescue’, or surrender only one wager to the house), payout bonuses for five or more card 21s, 6-7-8 21s, 7-7-7 21s, late surrender, and player blackjacks always winning and player 21s always winning, at the cost of having no 10 cards in the deck (though there are jacks, queens, and kings). An unlicensed version of Spanish 21 played without a hole card is found in Australian casinos under the name “Pontoon” (presumably borrowed from the British recreational blackjack-like game “Pontoon” which has substantially different rules).
  • 21st-Century Blackjack (also known as “Vegas Style” Blackjack) is found in California card rooms. In this form of the game, a player bust does not always result in an automatic loss; depending on the casino, the player can still push if the dealer busts as well, although the dealer typically has to bust with a higher total.
  • Double Exposure Blackjack deals the first two cards of the dealer hand face up. Blackjacks pay even money, and players lose on ties.
  • Double Attack Blackjack has very liberal blackjack rules and the option of increasing one’s wager after seeing the dealer’s up card. This game is dealt from a Spanish shoe, and blackjacks only pay even money.
  • Blackjack Switch is played over two hands whose second cards the player is allowed to interchange. For example, if the player is dealt 10-6 and 5-10, then the player can switch two cards to make hands of 10-10 and 6-5. Natural blackjacks are paid 1:1 instead of the standard 3:2, and a dealer 22 is a push.
  • Multiple Action Blackjack involves a player places between 2 or 3 bets on a single hand. The dealer then gets a hand for each bet the player places on a hand. This essentially doubles the number of hands a single dealer can play per hour. Splitting and doubling are still allowed, but often limited due to limited space on th felt for additional chips. Strategy for this game is the same as strategy for conventional blackjack regardless of how many places are bet.

Examples of the many local traditional and recreational blackjack-like games include French/German Blackjack, called “Vingt-et-un” (French: Twenty-one) or “Siebzehn und Vier” (German: Seventeen and Four). The French/German game does not allow splitting. An ace can only count as eleven, but two aces count as a blackjack. It is mostly played in private circles and barracks. A British variation is called “Pontoon”, the name being probably a corruption of “Vingt-et-un”.

 

 

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