If you close your eyes you can just about picture how blackjack was invented. Given a deck of primitive playing cards, the first thing gamblers would naturally do is draw them out one by one against each another to see who got the bigger card. After becoming bored with just pulling one card from the deck it would make sense that they began drawing two, and so on.
The highest value possible with two cards would be 20 but if all the face cards were made to count as ten that would be too common, so the ace was given a dual value of 11 and 1 to create a possible maximum of 21. From there it morphed into what we finally have today.
Although that’s a great theory, no one really knows how we got “Twenty-One” because the true origins are obscured in the fog of history. Experts usually refer to similar card games that you can gamble on that were mentioned in Spanish literature, some of which can date back up to 500 years. For example, Miguel de Cervantes, who gave us Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha, was apparently a bit of a gambling man and mentioned games similar to “21” in his writings in the early 1500s. This is certainly a plausible origin story but we’ll never know for sure.
Regardless of where it began, it was then spread by travelers and tradesmen who landed in the saloons of the American West in the 1800s. The French betting game of “Faro” was the passion of the frontier in those days, accounting for more revenue than all other forms of gambling combined. In order to promote this little-known game of Twenty-One, some proprietors offered an outrageous payout of 10-1 for any “21” that was formed with an Ace of Spades and one of the two black jacks. Naturally “blackjack” quickly became the accepted name in these dusty drinking holes, which is how we came to still have it in our vocabulary today.
Blackjack is a game played against the house and not other gamblers, and land-based casinos will usually have seven seats allowing 1 to 7 players to compete against the house dealer each hand. Bets are placed before any cards are dealt, according to the predetermined stakes of the individual table. After all bets are down, two cards are delivered to each player and the dealer, beginning from the seat at the dealer’s left, with both player cards dealt face-up and the second card to the dealer face down and not exposed. This last one is known as the hole card.
The ultimate goal of blackjack is for the player to build a hand that is closer to a value of 21 than the dealer, without exceeding a total of 21. The ace will count as either a high card (11) or a low card (1), at the player’s discretion. All face cards count as ten and the remainder of the deck is valued by the number on the card. If a player is dealt an ace and any ten-value card that total is a “blackjack” and an automatic winner which pays out at 3 to 2 odds. All other player wins pay out even money and all ties are a push with the original bet amount refunded, except for a two-card 21 which is always a winner.
If neither the player nor the dealer has a blackjack after the deal, it’s time for the player to build a hand towards the total of 21, with the mission of beating the dealer’s hand total. The player can opt to take additional cards with a hit or stop drawing cards with a stand. If the additional cards force the player total over the amount of 21 the hand is a “bust” and the stake is lost to the house.
After all players make their decisions the dealer reveals the hole card and plays according to the set rules at that particular table. The vast majority of casinos state that the dealer must always take a card with any total less than 17 and cannot take an additional card with a total of 18, 19 or 20, with any deviation to these rules being highly unconventional. Some operators require the dealer to stand on a total of a “hard 17” (a ten value card and a seven) and necessitate a hit on a “soft 17” (an ace and a six), while other places may simply require the dealer to stand on all 17s. When the dealer finishes playing their hand all bets are then resolved and then a new hand is dealt.
There are two situations in which players can increase their bets and get more money down on the felt. Firstly, after receiving their two cards a decision can be made to “double down“. If this play is made the player will receive only one additional card and that is the final total of their hand. Doubling also requires enlarging the initial stake by 100%, obviously in order to “double” it. The most popular and statistically profitable move is to double down on an 11, which should be done every time the situation arises.
The second instance of possible bet expansion comes if a player receives two cards of identical value, as the cards may then be “split” into two hands. The second hand must be staked with an additional bet of the original value and each is played out as a separate hand with doubling and splitting a possibility on each, always accompanied by additional bets as play progresses.
Within the standard rules there are many different blackjack variations that players can find, with each having its own unique twist. In European Blackjack a dealer only receives one card face up and is not dealt a second card until after all of the players make their decisions. Since a dealer blackjack will automatically win the round this places all extra bets on splitting and doubling at risk.
Then there is a variant called Double Exposure Blackjack where both dealer cards are delivered face-up, which of course dramatically changes the dynamics of the game play. Or, there’s a version dubbed Spanish Blackjack where the four ten-value cards are removed from the deck and hands less than 21 formed with five or more cards are automatic winners.
In New Jersey, casinos started to offer a “surrender” option when playing blackjack, as gambling was being legalized in the 1970s. This enables a player to muck the original two cards they were dealt if they’re in a weak position against the dealer and forfeit only half of their original wager. This version of the game has spread around the world due to its popularity with meek and timid players who are easily bullied out of their hands.
Other places have rules on how many hands may be split, or restrict doubling to hands of 9, 10 or 11. Some will offer blackjack games that do not make busting an automatic loser and if the player busts with a total less than a dealer’s bust total, only half the bet is lost.
One side bet that has become standard over the years is “insurance” which is offered by the house any time the dealer’s up card reveals the possibility of them getting a blackjack. If the dealer checks their hole card and has a game-ending blackjack, the insurance bet will pay 2 to 1. If there is no blackjack the insurance bet is lost and the game proceeds as normal. The blackjack insurance wager is widely accepted amongst experts as being one of the absolute worst bets you can make, so never waste your money on it.
How To Play
For hundreds of years Twenty-One was played by gamblers who were blissfully unaware of probabilities and the hard numbers behind their choices. That all changed in the 1950s when four United States Army servicemen who possessed excellent mathematical skills set out to develop the ideal strategy for playing blackjack, using only pencils, paper, and primitive adding machines to complete the task.
The result was a basic strategy formulated from numerical trials that told the player exactly what decisions should be made with every possible combination of cards dealt. There has been little variation to these basic strategy charts since their creation and they are almost identical to the ones people study today. Using them a player can expect to lose only 0.5% of a bankroll during a long session at a blackjack table, which is much better than the average.
Basic strategy charts are also available for the other variations of blackjack out there but players can assume that online casinos did not introduce alternatives of the game in order to give money away. Therefore, it’s best to remember that new versions of blackjack that come online will probably arrive with a built-in house advantage of varying degrees.
Advantage players took the basic strategy and added an analysis of the cards played from the deck to move the edge from slightly in favor of the house to slightly in favor of the player. Known as “counting cards“, this strategy actually makes blackjack the only game on offer in a casino with a possible player advantage.
Although the concept of counting cards is simple, the execution on a busy gambling floor is not always easy and you can rest assured that many so-called card counters have surprised themselves by losing money at the tables. Either way, the casino will throw you out and ban you if they catch you so you’ll probably just want to stick to smart, legal strategies instead.