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Worldwide, Blackjack is one of the most extensively played online casino games.
It is a game known by many names, such as Pontoon, Twenty-One and Vingt-Et-Un, but that’s only natural for a game that has been played in so many countries, and for so long. Those last two names sum things up nicely for the novice, too: the aim in Blackjack is to get as close to a total of 21 without exceeding it. In simple terms, the game involves a player being dealt two cards, and then, if they choose, receiving one or more additional cards in the hope of reaching 21. Whilst the player’s cards total less than 21, more cards may be taken, until the player either reaches 21, ‘busts’ by exceeding 21, or ends up with a total they feel will be a winning one. The game is won by beating the dealer’s score – not by beating the other players at the table – and any players who beat the dealer are winners.
Although the rules can differ in casinos around the world, and at online casinos with their many variations of the game, the major differences will be in the odds on offer, and in how the dealer plays (usually to a set of house rules): the basic premise is the same.
Blackjack has become the most popular casino game in existence partly due to its simplicity, but also because it has become ubiquitous in popular culture, with too many films and books to mention here all dedicated to the game and the mystical art of card-counting that is almost synonymous with it. Many believe that they can beat the house at Blackjack: card-counting is not illegal. It is, however, ‘frowned upon’ by pit bosses, and could easily get you thrown out of a casino. Some casinos, such as Perth’s Burswood Casino, have introduced special equipment to eradicate the possibility (we’ll come back to Card Counting below).
Miguel Cervantes’ Novelas Ejemplares, published way back in 1613, contains the first written reference to Blackjack, referring to it as veintiuna (which sounds like the Spanish for 21 to us). Cervantes, of Don Quixote fame, was a gambler himself, and wrote about a pair of grifters, Rinconete and Cortadillo, who were plying their underhand trade in Seville. One of the games at which they cheated was 'veintiuna', and Cervantes describes it as a game in which the aim is to reach 21 without going bust. It also had the rule, familiar to modern Blackjack players, of an Ace equalling either 1 or 11, although it was played without 10s, which would make it more similar to the Spanish 21 game played today.
More recorded instances of Blackjack appeared in 17th century France, called Vingt-et-un, and there were minor differences, such only the dealer having the option to double (which seems odd now), and allowing betting after each round (see the Rules section below for more on modern betting options). Blackjack was clearly gathering pace: it had different names and local rules, but it was more popular than ever all around the world. The game was still known as 21, in whatever language, when gambling was first made legal in Nevada in 1931, but people soon began to call it Blackjack because of a special bet that was then offered: if a player’s hand was made up of the Ace of Spades and either of the black jacks in the pack, the casino would pay out odds of 10-1. Sadly, casinos have long since stopped offering these extra payouts, but the name Blackjack stuck.
The aim of the game has always been the same: to reach a total of 21 or as close as possible by using two or more cards, but ‘going bust’ (exceeding 21) is thought to have its origins in an Italian game from the 1600s called Sette e Mezzo (Seven and a Half) which involved players trying to get as close to seven-and-a-half points as possible, with bust the expression of choice when they exceeded that total (Sette e Mezzo is played with a 40-card deck, the faces are worth a half a point each, and the number cards 1 through 7 carry their own values: the Italians still play it, especially at Christmas, and it’s fun!). After the French Revolution, Blackjack migrated to America, and flourished due to the lack of laws against gambling. It continued to thrive until the early 1800s and a gambling ban that sent the game underground – but that just made it more popular than ever. Of course, when the casinos took off in the States, Blackjack was front and centre in their success, and the modern game was born. The rest, as they say, is history...
The dealer (that smartly-dressed casino employee hosting the table) uses a shoe (great big card-holder) of between one and eight decks of cards. Cards from 2 to 10 are counted at face value, an Ace can be 1 or 11, and face cards (your Jack, Queen and King) are all valued at 10 points. Each player – and there will usually be more than one, and as many as seven at a table – begins by selecting how much they want to bet within the house limits (most games will have a maximum and minimum bet), and is then dealt two cards, face up. The dealer also takes two cards, but only one is dealt face up (the Hole card). The aim of the game is to score more than the dealer without exceeding a score of 21.
There are differences between casino resorts and in the many online casino variations: Casino Canberra, for instance, uses the European ‘no Hole card’ rule, but makes up for it by being the only casino allowing the player to split regular pairs (not aces) to four hands...
When play reaches them, a player may choose to either 'Hit' or 'Stand'. A player who ‘hits’ receives another card, and may do so again to get more cards. If your total goes over 21, of course, you are bust and out of the game for that round. You cannot be bust from your starting two cards, but every hit carries that risk. A decision to ‘stand’ suggests that a player is happy with their total, and play moves on around the table. When all players are either bust or have stuck with their cards, the dealer plays his hand according to the house rules, (which predetermine when he should hit and when he should stand, usually hitting until he reaches 17 or higher). If the dealer’s total is lower than the player’s, the player wins, if not, the player loses. At most Blackjack tables – real ones or at online casinos – your winnings are equal to your initial bet, so if you bet $10 and win, you come away with $20.
Most casinos (and pretty much all online casinos) include an additional rule that if your first two cards total 21, a 10-card and an Ace, you win one-and-a-half times your initial stake for having Blackjack – this is the modern (watered down) version of the Blackjack rule which gave the game its name.
Aside from Hit or Stand, players have some more options to make things interesting: in certain circumstances it is possible to Double Down or Split.
Doubling Down is a way of increasing your stake, and is essentially committing to taking one more card (and only one). The time to Double Down is when you think your initial two cards have a good chance of winning the hand with a single extra card added (if, for instance, they total 10 or 11 – so that an added face card gives you a hand of 20 or 21). To Double Down, the player places an equal bet on top of their initial bet, receives one more card, and stands to win twice as much!
If a player’s first two cards are the same, they may Split. This requires an extra stake, but the two cards are separated, and have a card added to each of them, effectively creating two hands for the player to play as normal. The player still has the option to double down on either hand from a split.
Some casinos will offer players a further option: the chance to Surrender. It will usually be clear whether this option is available or not, (and it’s worth checking at an online casino) and it involves you giving up half your stake before the dealer has revealed their hand. It is generally only used if you think you have no chance of winning and want to reclaim some of your stake – if you see an ace face-up in front of the dealer, you might think about a surrender, for instance...
As we’ve already mentioned, rules can vary from casino resort to casino resort, and also between online casinos, and across the many online Blackjack variants. It’s usually worth checking out the house rules of your destination casino in advance, because the last thing you want is a surprise. Crown Casino in Melbourne, for instance, offers players a side bet called Perfect Pairs that could be a great little bonus for you.
Side Bets are those extra wagers that players may place before receiving their cards. In the case of Perfect Pairs, the wager is won if your initial two cards are paired, with bonus payouts if they are also of the same colour or suit (it is possible to get two identical cards, of course, when you are playing with more than one deck). Sky City Casino in Darwin offers a similar side bet that pays out big on a pair of sevens...
The other main difference between casino resorts, and across online casinos, is how the house advantage is managed – the advantage is effectively controlled by the manner in which the dealer plays their hand and by the number of decks in play. The house advantage is always there, but Blackjack is such a popular game because of the impression that a good player can cut that advantage down to just about as low as it will go. The casino will always have an advantage (it keeps them in business!), but with Blackjack there is a real feeling that a strong strategy gives the player a chance to bet on a more-or-less even footing.
Blackjack strategy is a more complicated – and would need more space – than we’re able to tackle here. It’s a well-researched field, and there are some impressive mathematical models available, but at its heart, basic Blackjack strategy is easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Best of all, it works pretty well. Strategy guides are available in lots of places, from the internet at online casinos and on sites devoted to Blackjack, and in the many, many books published on the game. They will usually be in the form of a table, showing the possible starting hands along one side, and the dealer’s possible Hole card along the other. The idea is to simply cross reference the two to find out what is the recommended way to proceed. One of the best things about playing your Blackjack at an online casino is that you can play with a guide in front of you, and that lets you try out a few different ones, finding the one that you like best, and seeing which ones work for you.
Beyond published Blackjack guides, there are a few basic bits of advice that can’t hurt you – ones that are true for lots of casino games, and ones that are specific to Blackjack. Here are some of them:
give yourself a bankroll, and stick to it. Blackjack is fun, and it’s best to keep it that way. If you leave the table richer than you arrived at it, then that’s brilliant, but don’t try to spend your way out of a bad streak: set your limit and keep to it and you’ll find that you’re enjoying your Blackjack all the more...
side bets are there for you to enjoy, but be aware that they’re not always the best chance statistically to win your bet. Treat them right, and they’re a nice little addition to the game, but they’re called side bets for a reason – they shouldn’t take too much attention away from the real action.
split pairs of aces and pairs of eights, but not tens or faces. Hit hard hands (those without an ace) to 17, and soft hands to 18 if the dealer shows a 10. Stand over 17. Easy. Nothing more to it...
Basic Blackjack strategy is one thing, and settling on a few rules you’re happy with will increase your enjoyment of this great game, whether it’s at a table at one of Australia’s world-beating casino resorts, or at your online casino of choice. But card-counting is another thing entirely, and will take a lot more brain power. Bear in mind that card counting is not illegal by any means, but also remember that casinos take a very dim view of the practice, and you should be aware that you won’t be able to continue enjoying a casino resort’s facilities if they think you’re counting cards – they’ll ask you quite persuasively to leave!
Again, this isn’t the place for an exhaustive discussion of card counting and the various methods available. Suffice it to say that if you can keep in your head a good estimate of which cards have come out of the shoe and which ones are still in it, then it helps you make some decisions: you might double down on tens if there are lots of faces still in the shoe, for instance. Most casino resorts in Australia will let you watch the play at a table without betting for three hands – to let you make a decision about joining that table – and you can enjoy the same at the excellent live-streamed online casino tables that are widely available now. We’d offer a word of caution about card counting, though: remember that your Blackjack should be fun, and you might have more fun leaving the maths to the boffins and just enjoying it!
One of the great things about Blackjack is its flexibility. There are enough variants of this classic game to keep it fresh and keep it interesting for you pretty much indefinitely. Here are a few that we think you should try if you haven’t already!
21 Duel Blackjack: This is a game that’s closely related to its cousin, but the tactics, at least at the start of the game, are quite different, so it is worth approaching it with an open mind. After placing your initial bet, you are dealt two cards, one face up. The dealer takes two cards for themselves, both face down, and a further two cards are dealt face up in the centre of the table – these cards are the community cards and are used by you and the dealer. You will choose one of the community cards to join your own and form your starting hand, or fold. If you play, you double your ante, and then you have to either stand or hit. If you hit, your third card is the remaining face-down card you were initially dealt.
If you don’t go bust (over 21), the dealer then exposes one of their cards and selects a community card to play with. If the dealer cannot make a total of 13, then you win automatically. If the dealer does qualify, he then decides whether or not to use