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Playing Blackjack to Win

The most popular casino game is blackjack because gamblers believe it is the one game that can be beaten by card counting strategies. Even though the house has become adept at circumventing these strategies, the belief persists, and more people play blackjack today than all other card games put together.

History of blackjack

When the game vingt-et-un (twenty-one) was first introduced in the US circa 1960s, casinos had to promote it to uninterested players by offering bonus payouts. One type of pay-out was 10-to-1 if the winning hand was an Ace and a Jack of spades or clubs, or a “black” Jack. Thus the hand was called a blackjack and it has since become the name of the game. A book by Edward O. Thorpe which described how one could win at Blackjack with a card counting strategy was released in 1963 entitled Beat the Dealer! which spurred public interest in the game, and the rest is history.

The Rules of Blackjack

Blackjack is a very simple card game to play. The goal of the game is to come as close to a card value of twenty-one without going over. Going over is called a “bust”. Face cards have a value of 10 and each of the number cards retains their face value. Aces can have the value of 11 or 1, depending on whether the hand is over twenty-one or not.

There are two kinds of blackjack games played in casinos, which can use up to eight decks. One is the single or two-deck game where the dealer holds the cards and deals them out face down to each player. In multi-deck games, a card shoe is employed which uses up to eight decks and shuffles the cards after each game. The cards are dealt out face up in front of the player and each player is not allowed to pick them up. A hand in either type is also dealt to the dealer, only one of which is face up in the initial deal, the face down card is called the hole, and the object of the game is to beat the dealer’s hand. In some Blackjack games, the hole is not drawn until all the players have played their hands.

No matter how many players are on the table, the hand to beat is the house or dealer hand. A player always goes first when deciding either to get hit (get more cards) or to stand (stay with the present hand) at each turn, and the dealer will draw more cards until someone comes up with a twenty-one (blackjack) or goes bust. All players who go bust automatically lose, whether the dealer goes bust or not. The dealer must draw if his cards are on 17 with an ace in the hand (called a “soft” hand because the Ace could have a value of 1 or 11) or 16 or less, and must stand at a hard (meaning no aces) 17 or more. If the dealer goes bust, all players who have not will win.

In casinos, the blackjack table is typically a half-moon shaped table with up to seven players possible for each game. Each player faces the dealer who is on the inside part of the arc. At each player’s place, the table is marked with circles where bets can be placed and the payout is usually even money, except for insurance bets. At one side of the table, a card is placed which may declare the house rules on blackjack, such as minimum and maximum wagers, splitting pairs and double down.

Splitting pairs gives Blackjack players the option to split a pair of identical value cards i.e. 2 sevens into two separate hands and a second bet to cover additional hand. The player who splits plays the original game until he wins or goes bust, in which case he can start playing the second hand. Some houses allow up to four splits and four bets in one round for each player.

A double down is when a player has the option to double the original bet prior to the deal and receives one more card. In a face down game, the cards must be revealed at this point. Some houses allow players to double down regardless of total hand value, while others restrict it to a hand value of 10 or 11.

Another Blackjack bet that may be allowed is insurance, in which a player bets the odds that a dealer’s hand, in which the face up is an Ace, has a 10-value card in the facedown card. The bet may be up to 50% of the original bet. The bet is placed on the insurance block of the table and must be placed after the initial hand is dealt and pays 2 to 1 if the player wins. Most dealers will advise places to take out insurance if the player already has a blackjack by calling out “Even money” because in case the dealer has a blackjack as well, the pay out would be the same as when the dealer has no blackjack. However, taking insurance in this case is not advisable because the probabilities of a 10-value card being in the face down card is only 30.8% as opposed to a 33.8% if the player hand has no 10-value card.

In all games, the Blackjack player is allowed the choice to ask for one or more cards depending on the value of the initial hand. This is called a hit. Blackjack players are not allowed to verbally call for a hit, but must merely wave towards himself or tap the table with the cards or his hand. The player can also elect to keep to the original cards and hope it beats the dealer’s hand. This is called a stand. The Blackjack player indicates a wish to stand by placing his hand flat on his cards in a face up game or sliding the cards under the bet in a hand held game.

Combination of cards

The best total is a two-card hand twenty-one, meaning an Ace and any face card, still called a blackjack or a natural regardless of suit. The pay out for a blackjack hand that wins is 3 to 2 instead of the usual even money, meaning the player wins 50% more than the original bet. If the dealer also holds a two-hand 21, this is a tie and the player just gets his money back. If the dealer’s hand is made up of three or more cards to make 21, the two-card hand still wins. All other card combinations that is less than or equal to 21 will win even money if the dealer goes bust or has a lower card value. The suit of the cards has no bearing to the value of the hand. In a multi-deck game, up to seven cards can make up a hand (e.g. seven aces add up to a soft 17)

Variations to blackjack

Some games of blackjack allow different combinations of options that may or may not benefit the player. Double downs after splitting reduces the house edge by 0.13%. Not so dramatic is allowing resplitting of aces, which cuts the house advantage down by .03%, although if the house allows yet another resplitting, the house advantage goes down by 0.14%. Early surrender allows players to half their bet before the dealer reveals the hole, and this reduces the house advantage by 0.624%. Late surrender allows players to half their bet after the dealer reveals the hole, and the house advantage loses .07% and .02% in a multi-deck and single deck game respectively.

House rules that work against the Blackjack player includes limiting the double down options of a player to a 10 or 11 hand, which increases the house advantage by 0.28%. Blackjack pay outs of 6 to 5 i.e. the player only wins $6 with a $5 bet increase the house advantage by 1.4%.

Strategies in Blackjack

The basic strategy in winning in Blackjack is making calculated guesses on the probable outcomes of the cards by considering the player’s hand and the card revealed by the dealer. This is the most reliable of strategies and most consistently favors the player. Because face cards comprise a significant percentage of the deck, the probabilities of it turning up in the hole is high. The simplest rule in Blackjack is that if the face up card of the dealer is 7or higher, the player must consider it likely the hole is a 10-value card, and must hit if the player hand is 16 or less. If, however, the dealer’s face up card is 6, and the player hand is 16, it would be best to stand.

In deciding to hit or stand, the Blackjack player has to consider whether the hands involved are soft or hand, meaning if aces are present. In a purely hard hand, certain generalizations may be followed:
• If the player hand totals 9 and the dealer reveals 2 or 7 and above, the player should hit. If the dealer hand is 3, 4, 5 or 6, the player should double down
• If the player had totals 10 and the dealer reveals a 2 up to 9, the player should double down. With a dealer hand of 10 or Ace, the player should hit.
• If the player hand is 11, and the dealer face up card is 2 through 10, the player should double down. A player should hit if an ace is the dealer card.
• If the player hand total 12, and the dealer has a 2, 3 or 7 and higher the player should hit. However, if the dealer shows a 4, 5 or 6, the player should stand.
• A player hand with a total of 13 through 16 should stand if the dealer shows a 2 up to 6, but should hit if the card is 7 and above.
• With a player hand of 17 to 21, stand at all times regardless of the dealer card.