Blackjack 101: The Basics Behind 21

Blackjack 101: The Basics Behind 21

Blackjack 101 written on a blackboard with white chalk
Blackjack is one of the most popular card games in the world, and with good reason. What is blackjack? The game has an easy premise: beat the dealer. Whether you’re sitting alone with the dealer or alongside five other players, you will always only be playing against the dealer.

Blackjack is known to be a simpler card game to learn than poker. For fans of blackjack, poker can feel slow and time-consuming. Blackjack has quicker hands, with more immediate winnings and losings. Each hand requires a minimum of two cards, as opposed to five. That doesn’t mean that blackjack isn’t a game of strategy. While it might seem like you’re playing on luck, there is still a lot of skill involved.

If you’re looking for a blackjack 101, look no further. This is a complete and comprehensive blackjack guide. It will explain the origins of the game, how to play your hand properly, what decisions can be made, what the best strategies are, how to bet well, and what the appropriate blackjack signals and etiquette are. This guide will also explain the differences between online and casino blackjack.

From beginners to experts, there is always room to know more and improve your game. The blackjack card game can be played with family, friends and the online world. It’s truly a social game that can be enjoyed by anyone, from college students to grandparents. It is easy to learn and offers hours of enjoyment.

Origin of Blackjack

Where did blackjack come from? For card-game enthusiasts, when they think of 21, blackjack is the first thing that comes to mind. But how long have we been trying to get as close to 21 as possible?

Blackjack is a successor of the game called Veintiuna, which is Spanish for 21. The first documented example of the game was by Miguel de Cervantes in Rinconete y Cortadillo. The author of Don Quixote wrote a story about two gamblers playing ‘Veintiuna’. The game involved getting closest to 21, and played with an ace valued at 1 or 11. The novella was written between 1601 and 1602.

From the 1800s the game would take on two distinctive versions and names. In England the game Pontoon was established, and it grew to fame in the First World War. As with poker, card games were shared with international soldiers in the trenches of Europe. Pontoon was no exception.

In the USA, gambling houses tried to incentivize interest in Veintiuna by raising the stakes. The most famous and commonly adopted payout was ten-to-one if you had a hand consisting of an ace of spades and either the jack of spades or the jack of clubs. This hand became commonly referred to as blackjack. The name stuck and across the US ‘blackjack’ rose to fame.

While the gambling houses dropped the ten-to-one payout, the name has stuck and grown to global use. The game has evolved over the years, and taken on many different iterations, but the main version of blackjack remains as its original namesake of 21.

How does blackjack work?

So how do you play blackjack and what is a blackjack winning hand? There are many different versions of blackjack, but for now this guide will unpack the blackjack basics. This includes the basic blackjack rules and gameplay.

Blackjack is usually played with a 52-card deck, where aces can be counted as either 1 or 11, 2 to 9 are counted at face value, and 10s and face cards (Jack, Queen, and King) are counted at ten points each. A player’s hand is calculated by the sum of the values of the cards. A “blackjack” is a perfect score of 21 with an ace and a 10-point card. That sounds simple enough, but there are nuances to the game, especially when played online or in a casino.

The main thing to remember is that you are playing against the dealer, and want to have a hand that is closer to 21 than the dealer. If either you or the dealer goes over 21, you are bust and will lose your bet. As a result, most casinos have house rules that govern how to deal blackjack cards. This helps to ensure that their dealers remain cautious in their play.

the word blackjack and two playing cards written in neon as a wall sign
Before the cards are dealt, all players will place their minimum bet. Most casinos will have a minimum and a maximum bet. After the players have placed their bets, the dealer will distribute two cards to the players and two cards to themselves. One of the dealer cards is face up; the other will be face down. The face down card is called a “hole card”.

Once the cards are dealt to the players and dealer, the game begins with the player to the dealer’s left. From there, there are several different options. A player can “stand” with his or her cards, meaning that they don’t want an additional card. A player can also “hit,” which means he or she draws another card (or more). If the card or cards cause the player’s hand to exceed 21, he or she “busts” and loses. In this way, you can try to build your hand towards 21, but just as easily go bust.

A player can also “double down” their bet and get only one more card. Or, they can “split”. This means that if a player has a pair of 10-point cards, he or she can double their bet and break the cards into two separate hands. The dealer will give each of these cards a second card. Then, the player can go on with their hands as above. Each of these moves during the game are discussed in greater detail in the next section.

After the players take their turns, the dealer turns over his or her “hole card”. The dealer will draw cards in an attempt to get to 21. Most casinos have house rules that mean the dealer needs to “stay” if their hand is 17 or higher. If the dealer goes “bust,” then any player at the blackjack table who did not go “bust” wins against the dealer. If the dealer doesn’t “bust,” then whoever has the highest total card point value, between you and the dealer, wins.

While it may seem that it comes down to the luck of the draw, there are actually many ways to play blackjack strategically. The decisions you make with your hand will show your experience and whether or not you realize when you’ve made a mistake.

Decisions in the game

Blackjack is a card game that suits many different environments. It’s a great late-night game with family and friends. It’s an exciting game to play at a casino to start your winnings, and it’s even a fun game to play online.

Once the dealer deals your initial two-card hand, there can be various decisions that you can make. These decisions have a name and etiquette so that the dealer understands clearly what you want to do. There are also blackjack dealer rules that apply, and knowing these will help you understand your chances of winning with your hand.

There are four general player decisions in a round. They are to “hit”, “stand”, “double down”, and “split”. In some casinos there is a fifth decision to “surrender”, but this is only available if it is explicitly stated before the game. These decisions are all indicated by signals. The signals are determined by the type of blackjack you’re playing.

Girl staring with her hand on her chin thinking in front of a drawing

Hit

You may have seen a movie scene with a blackjack player in a casino saying “hit me!” to the dealer. In a movie, this might get the dealer to give you a card, and the onlookers gasp in excitement as the character bets against the odds. In real life, this is actually bad etiquette. The onlookers will probably gasp in embarrassment for you.

In essence, to “hit” in blackjack is to get another card from the dealer. You would do this to try to get the value of your hand as close to, but not over, 21. To ask to be “hit” by the dealer, there are various signals to use, dependent on how your first two cards were dealt.

If you are playing blackjack where the dealer has dealt your cards face down, you would generally have the cards in your hand. In this case, you will scrape the cards against the table.

If you are playing blackjack where the dealer has dealt your cards face-up, there is no need to keep your hand secret. In this case, you will tap your index finger on the table. In some casinos you can also wave your hand toward your body.

In online blackjack games, there will generally be a button called “hit” that you can click on to “hit” and receive an additional card.

Stand

Sometimes your first two cards are all you need to win. If you think you have a winning hand, there is no need to “hit” and receive an additional card that could make you go bust. In this case, you will “stand”.

If you are playing blackjack where the dealer has dealt your cards face down, you would slide your cards under your chips.

If you are playing blackjack where the dealer has dealt your cards face up, you wave your hand over your cards horizontally.

“Hit” and “stand” are the basic ways that you can manage the number of cards in your hand. These are the core gameplay decisions of blackjack. There are, however, additional decisions to be made in a game of blackjack. Understanding all of the possible decisions will help you to truly maximize your winnings.

In an online blackjack game, you would click on the “stand” button to “stand” and not receive an additional card.

Double down

“Double down” is a way to maximize your winnings if you are dealt a strong hand. You can only “double down” after you have received your initial two card hand. To “double down”, blackjack players agree to double their bet in return for one additional card. If their three card hand beats the dealer and doesn’t go bust, the dealer will pay out one-to-one.

Whether you are playing blackjack with your hand dealt face up or face down, the signal to “double down” is roughly the same. You place your additional bet alongside your initial bet, but outside the betting box, and raise one finger. If your hand was dealt face down, you will turn over your cards before lifting your finger.

In an online game of blackjack, you will usually see a button to “double down” after your hand has been dealt. This will only be available after the initial deal. Thereafter, you won’t be able to “double down” on a hand.

Someone’s hand about to move their chips to double down in poker game

Split

To “split” in a game of blackjack is to split your hand into two separate hands. You can only do this if your initial two-card hand has two cards of the same value. Once indicated that you would like to “split”, you place your additional bet, equal to your initial bet, outside of your betting box. The dealer will separate your two cards and deal an additional card to each. The dealer will then place your two bets with each hand. The two hands will then be played by the same player, but independent of each other.

Some casinos have regulations in place for a “split”. In a blackjack hand, a 10, Jack, Queen and King all have a value of 10. Some casinos will let you split a 10 and a King hand, while others will only split hands of identical value and face. For example, two Kings or two 10s. Most casinos are also reluctant to split a hand of two aces. The odds of a winning hand are too strong with this hand, and it wouldn’t be in the casino’s interest to take that gamble.

The signal to “split” is similar for both face down and face up hands. To “split”, you would place an additional bet equal to your initial bet, outside of the betting box. You would then raise two fingers in a V formation. This will indicate to the dealer that you would like to “split” and they will set the blackjack table accordingly.

In an online game of blackjack, you should have a button that says “split” if your initial two-card hand has two cards of the same value.

In general, you are allowed to “split” twice in a game. This means that you could end up with a maximum of three hands in a game. You will only be able to “split” twice if you receive another two-card hand of the same value after the initial “split”.

Insurance

Blackjack insurance is often referred to as a scam and is ill-advised by more experienced blackjack players. How insurance works is simple. If the dealer’s face up card is an ace, you can take out insurance. This involves you placing an additional bet which is half the value of your initial bet. If the dealer’s face down card has a value of 10, you are paid out two-to-one. If not, you lose your insurance bet, and continue with your hand and initial bet as per usual.

While it may sound like a worthwhile option when you see a dealer with an ace, experience will show that you lose your insurance more often than not. The reason why it is a bad idea is that there are only a finite amount of 10-value cards in a pack. The odds that the dealer doesn’t have a 10 value card are higher than if they did. If you have a hand that contains a 10, the chances are even slimmer that the dealer has a 10 in the hole.

If you are playing at a casino where you can see all the players’ hands face up, and the dealer has an ace, you can see how many 10-value cards are on the blackjack table. If there are none, you will know that they are still in the pack and that there is a stronger chance that the dealer has a 10. Nevertheless, it is believed that players lose over the long run with insurance.

A player can also take out insurance if they themselves have a 21 blackjack hand. This basically means that they will win their insurance return of two-to-one and end the game. This is known as “taking even money”.

There is no official signal for taking insurance. The dealer will usually offer it if they have an ace as their face up card. This exchange is usually verbal in a casino.

In an online game of blackjack, insurance is also offered if the dealer has an ace face up on their initial hand. This is usually a yes/no option given to a player and they can accept or decline the invitation.

Surrender

At some casinos, you may be given the option to surrender. This is when the dealer gives you the opportunity to end the hand and only lose half of your bet. This can only be done at the beginning of the hand. In some cases, you are allowed to surrender after the dealer has seen their hand, and in others you can only surrender before the dealer has checked their second card. As with insurance, in the long term you could lose more from surrendering than if you had played your hand.

Someone holding a white flag in the air signaling surrender

Different Hands and card points

One of the distinguishing factors of a blackjack game is card values. In poker, you can have different hands that rank according to combinations, with each card having a specific value. In blackjack, the main aim is to get as close to 21 as possible without going bust. If you get that 21 with five cards or two, it makes no difference.

Card points

The card points in blackjack are quite different to most famous card games. In blackjack, there are two main card points to remember. The first main point difference is that an ace has a value of 1 or 11. What this means is that if your hand is an ace and a 6 of hearts, for example, your score is either 7 or 17. You might “hit” and get a card 5 of diamonds. In that case, your hand value is either 12 or 22. 22 would make you bust, so for the remainder of the round you would consider your ace to be a 1, and you would likely “hit” again. If your third card was a 4 of diamonds, rather than a 5, you would have a hand value of 11 or 21. In this case, you would use your ace as an 11 and have 21.

glowing playing cards falling against black background
The difference between using your ace as a 1 or 11 is called a soft or hard hand. A soft hand is a hand that contains an ace that could value 11. The reason it is called soft is because it allows flexibility not to fold as you could change your ace’s value to 1. In a hard hand, there is either no ace, or it is set to 1 because 11 would make you go bust.

In most casinos, the dealer is not allowed to “hit” for their own hand if they have 17 or higher. However, in some casinos the dealer is allowed to “hit” on a soft 17. In other words, if the dealer has an ace and a 6, they can still “hit” because the ace could just be 1.

The second main point difference is the values of the face cards (Jack, Queen and King). In blackjack, all of the face cards have a value of 10. To get “21 blackjack”cards in your hand, you just need to add up to 21. This is significant in that it allows for more cards in a deck that can have a point value of 10. When playing with others at a blackjack table, using the same deck, you will be able to see the odds of receiving a 10 on a hit by seeing how many are currently in play. It is another reason that the odds of taking insurance against the dealer may seem wise, but in the long run is ill-advised.

Different hands

In blackjack, face values have no rank. In other words, a 21 with an ace and a Jack is as strong as an ace and a 10 of diamonds. There are some versions of blackjack that place greater value on a two-card 21, but in general, if both the dealer and the player have 21, it is ruled a tie and the player’s bet is returned. If insurance was taken out, that pays out as a side bet.

It is often seen as more skillful to win a round with as few cards as possible, although there is no tangible difference to the end result. There is also no limit to the number of cards you can have in a hand, however, the moment your hand value is above 21 you are bust. This means that you lose your bet.

Blackjack strategy

Blackjack is a simple game to learn, and the fact that there is no hand ranking does not mean the game is without strategy. There are in fact numerous blackjack tips that will help you avoid losing your bets, and to instead know when to “hit” or “stand”. Learning how to play blackjack properly is the best way to enjoy this game with friends, family and the dealer. This section will help you identify your blackjack strategy.

The word strategy written in a concept with cogs and other strategic items

Basic strategy

The most important thing to understand about blackjack is the odds. You don’t need to know the odds off by heart, but you should be aware of your chances of success. Trusting your instinct may work once or twice, but that is just luck. Long-term you will lose with this approach. In getting to 21, cards will not have any bias or inclination to help your cause. They are shuffled in a deck and handed out as consistently as possible.

Your blackjack basic strategy should be more methodical and conservative. Like with learning to drive, soon you’ll know when you should “hit” or “stand” as if it were instinct. The most common way to develop your blackjack strategy is by familiarizing yourself with a blackjack chart. There are many charts available that give you advice on whether to “hit” or “stand” depending on your hand and the dealer’s hand.

A blackjack chart will help you to minimize the house edge advantage. This means that the odds are as close to even as possible. A casino could call a ‘blackjack chart’ a ‘blackjack cheat sheet’, and it’s no surprise that you aren’t allowed to use one in a casino. But it’s worth memorizing some of the chart to improve your game.

There are different charts available that are nuanced to the size of the deck in play. The chart has the dealer’s face up card as the x-axis and the value of your hand as the y-axis. If you trace where the lines meet, you’ll find out whether it is advisable to “hit”, “stand”, “double down”, or “split”. There are numerous versions of the blackjack chart available and it’s a great way to understand the strength of your hand. For example, you’ll always “hit” if you have a 5-8, and you’ll always “stand” if you have an 18-21 hand. In between those two you’ll play depending on the dealer’s face up card.

The blackjack chart will also help you when deciding on whether to “double down” or “split”. For example, if you get two 10s in your hand, you should “stand” regardless of the dealer’s hand, and if you get a double ace, you should “split” regardless of the dealer’s hand.

Once again, the more you practice with the sheet, the more you’ll get the gist of your blackjack strategy. You can practice with friends and family or online, but don’t take the sheet to a casino.

Advanced strategy

As with most card games, there are advanced strategies that leverage superb observation and memory. This can range from counting cards, to merely being observant and memorizing the cards that are currently in play or that have been discarded. Common advanced strategies for blackjack include card counting, shuffle tracking, and identifying concealed cards by remembering wear and tear.

Most casinos cater for this by introducing more decks or by shuffling after every round. If you are identified as a card counter, you may even be blacklisted from a casino. For the basics of blackjack, it’s not necessary to have an in depth knowledge of an advanced strategy. With a cautious hand and an observant eye, you’ll know that the less risky, the better. In this context, insurance is very risky.

Betting in blackjack

As with most card games in a casino, the ultimate objective is to win the jackpot by beating the dealer. A blackjack jackpot is often dependent on the version of blackjack that you’re playing. In general, though, you’ll usually find a payout of one-to-one or three-to-two. The days of the ten-to-one blackjack jackpot are perhaps a thing of the past.

The bet is always against the dealer as this is your competitor. There are different approaches to blackjack betting, with most players developing their own blackjack betting strategy.

Your strategy will depend on how aggressive or conservative you like to bet. An aggressive strategy would be one that is based on the Martingale system where you double your bet after every hand that you lose. A more conservative strategy would be based on the Oscar system where you raise your bet by one coin every time you win. If you lose, you keep the bet at the same amount.

Finding a betting approach that works for you may take time. Always remember to gamble responsibly. This means never drinking and gambling or gambling when very tired.

Stacks of poker chips in multiple colours on a green surface

Side bets

If the blackjack jackpot is still too small for you, there are additional ways to make money off of a hand. These are known as side bets. Insurance is an example of a side bet. Other examples include betting that the player’s initial hand will be a pair, that the initial hand totals 20, or even that the dealer’s upward facing card is between the value of the player’s two cards. The odds on these bets strongly favor the house, but it can be a fun way to maximize your earnings on a hand.

Blackjack tournaments

Blackjack tournaments have grown in popularity, especially with the rise of the World Series of Poker. More blackjack players are entering competitions online and at casinos in the hope of winning a large blackjack jackpot.

For most blackjack tournaments, all players enter with the same amount of chips. The top performing players will progress to the next round, while those with the least chips are eliminated. The players will progress until the best player(s) remains to take home or split the pot.

Home blackjack

A woman and a man playing poker at home
Blackjack has often been enjoyed amongst friends and family. A frequently asked question is how home blackjack works in terms of the dealer. Traditionally blackjack is played against the dealer, and many players could play against the dealer at one time. If the dealer loses or goes bust, they need to pay out every other player. This sounds like a daunting prospect unless the dealer has a lot of money. So how does home blackjack differ from casino and online blackjack?

The main difference is that the dealer rotates. There are different approaches to selecting the dealer, and in some games, players decide to remain as the dealer until they hit a losing streak, in which case they nominate someone else. In most cases, the dealer is the first person to draw an ace.

In terms of the gameplay, usually, each player receives their first card face down. This includes the dealer. The bets are then placed with the dealer placing their bet last. The second card is then dealt to everyone face up. If the dealer has blackjack 21, the hand ends and the dealer takes the pot. If not, each player tries to beat the dealer. In most home games, there are no “double down” bets or “splits”. This is mainly for simplicity and to ensure that the dealer doesn’t lose too much money in one go.

In many ways blackjack is as much fun as poker in informal social environments. Its quick turnaround time and easy learning curve make it quite a fun game to learn and enjoy, all in the same evening.

Video blackjack

Blackjack’s rules are fairly straightforward. This has meant that it is possible to create a computer dealer. Video blackjack is a version of blackjack that you’ll often find in casinos. Players have a lower chance of winning but the barrier to entry is far lower compared to the bets at a blackjack table.

Video blackjack generally uses one 52-card deck. The cards are shuffled after each hand. This makes card counting pointless. While the odds might be lower, some video blackjack games do payout large sums of money. If you are interested in refreshing your blackjack skill-set before hitting the table, it’s a cost-effective way to make your mistakes before taking your seat at the blackjack table.

Online blackjack

Someone on a laptop placed on a poker table
Blackjack has spawned many different variations since the days of Veintiuna. Most have not differed much from the core principle of getting as close to 21 as possible. You will find many of the different casino blackjack rules are nuanced on the types of bets you can make or at what point you’re allowed to “double down” or “split”.

With many casinos offering online games, blackjack has well and truly reached a global market. Like poker, casino blackjack rules and online blackjack rules are slightly different. Not necessarily in terms of the game itself, but more in terms of the bets and payouts.

What are the main differences between blackjack online and blackjack in a casino? The first has to do with scale. Online games can scale more than in a casino, so you can play a lot more blackjack online. Some players open up multiple games at once in different tabs. This helps to maximize your earnings in the time that you are playing.

Online casinos also remove some of the human aspects of blackjack that may help you decide on whether to “hit” or “stay”. The dealer is computerized, so there are no tell signs that they have a weaker hand. Online poker, like video poker, nullifies card counting and shuffle tracking.

For people who are new to blackjack, casinos might be a more intimidating space to learn than online. Online blackjack tables have cheaper barriers to entry. This means that you can get to know the rules of the game and develop your own strategy without losing a lot of money.

Another benefit of playing online blackjack is that you can use a blackjack chart while you play. This is a fantastic way to train yourself to understand the different hands and how to play against the dealer. After a while, you’ll be familiar with most of the situations where you’ll “hit”, “stand”, “double down” or “split”. From there you can challenge your friends or take your new-found talent to the casino for bigger winnings.

In many ways, online blackjack is where blackjack players should start. Some players prefer online blackjack to in-person blackjack, especially those with jobs and families that are not conducive to spending time away at the casino. Some enjoy the speed of the game online much more to the casino tables. There are a host of blackjack games available to play online. Register with Bogata to experience the game that Miguel de Cervantes wrote about over 400 years ago. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player, the selection of table games at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa has something for everyone.