Blackjack is the most popular card-based casino game on the planet, and it provides a ton of opportunities for strategic decision-making. While it’s also easy for new players to pick up and learn, there are a ton of variations of the game, which gives players plenty of options to choose from. Here we explain how to win when playing Blackjack online and list the best casinos and their bonus offers.
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Introduction to Blackjack
In pop culture, blackjack is a game that has a certain aura about it. A lot of this aura has to do with the ability to count cards in some cases, which has been a point of focus in a number of books, films, television shows and other forms of media. Many people grow up playing a version of this game at the kitchen table with their families, so there’s a high level of familiarity with it overall.
While many people have some basic idea of how the game works, and while basic strategy can be picked up in less than an hour by most players, blackjack has a reputation for being one of the most difficult table games to learn how to play on a particularly high level for strategically minded players because there’s such an abundance of material to learn. Being easy to pick up and extremely difficult to master is the hallmark of many of the most popular games in the world, and this one is no exception.
The History of Blackjack
You’ll sometimes find this game referred to as Twenty-One, and a part of why that is the case is that it’s actually what it used to be called centuries ago. While there’s no way to know where it originally was developed, the earliest reference we have is a reference from Miguel de Cervantes’ book Rinconete y Cortadillo in which some characters are cheaters at the game of Twenty-One. That book was written in the first decade of the 1600s, so blackjack is at least 400 years old by that reference.
Something interesting about that reference is that the game was played with what’s known as a Spanish deck, which usually has 48 cards instead of the typical French deck that uses 52. This actually leads to a variation of the game called Spanish Blackjack that we’ll look at below.
Twenty-One eventually made its way to the USA, which had a very competitive gambling scene. To draw attention to the game, bonus prizes were given if players could make a natural 21 with a black (spade or club) jack and the ace of spades. This actually led to the renaming of the game into “blackjack,” which eventually turned into the versions of the game that we have today.
Basic Rules and Concepts
One issue when you look at the rules of blackjack is that there are tons of different styles of the game with some pretty substantial variation in the rules. As such, we’re going to look at the basic ideas here in terms of gameplay and map out the different key options and ideas that you may run into.
The Game Flow of Blackjack
Each hand of this game plays through the same sort of order of operations that almost always follows these steps:
- Players make a bet on the table in designated spots for blackjack hands.
- Cards are then dealt with two face-up to the player. One card is dealt face-up with another face-down to the dealer.
- Card values are the amount shown on the card with face cards (jack, queen, king) all being worth 10. Aces are given a value of 1 or 11 at the discretion of the player, and that value can change whenever they want (ie: it’s not set in stone at the beginning of the hand).
- Each individual player hand is going head-to-head against the dealer hand; the players’ hands are not going against each other and have no impact on each other whatsoever.
- Before the player is given a chance to act, if the dealer is showing an ace or 10-point card, then they’ll “peek” for blackjack. If the dealer has a blackjack, then none of the players get to make any strategic decisions. Any players with blackjack receive their bets back as a tie, and all other hands lose.
- The player is given different options to either “stand” (receive no more cards and end their betting turn) or to add other cards or bets to their hand. We’ll explore the specifics of those options below.
- If a player’s total goes above 21 (ie: a total of 22 or higher), then the player loses his or her cards and bet with no chance to win. This is called going bust or busting out.
- After all of the players have finished their betting rounds, the dealer turns over their face-down card and proceeds to add cards or “stand” based on house rules. The most popular house rule is that the dealer hits on anything 17 or lower.
- Once the dealer’s hand is resolved, it’s compared to each of the player hands. The highest hand wins, and in the event of a tie, the player’s bet is simply returned.
After the given hand is over, the process starts over again for the next hand of blackjack.
Player Betting Options in Blackjack
A variety of betting options can be used whenever it’s the player’s turn (point 6 in the list above). However, not all betting options are available in each style of play. We’re going to go through each of the given options and tell you what they do, how they work and when you can use them.
- Stand – When you stand, you decide that you are done with your hand and that you’re ready for the dealer to show their cards. You get no more cards, and you essentially just mark the end of a betting round. This is one of two options that are always available in any situation.
- Hit – Hitting is the most basic way of adding cards to your hand. When you hit, you’re given one additional card, and then you get to decide what to do next. You can hit as many times in the same hand as you want, and it’s the second betting option that’s always available.
- Double – Doubling is an option that affects your bet size and your hand. Exactly one card will be added to your hand, and you will double the size of your bet on the hand as well. However, this also ends your betting round like standing does, and you will not have the ability to do anything else for your hand afterwards. You usually only have this option when you have just two cards in your hand.
- Split – Splitting is available as an option when you have just two cards in your hand, but they are both of the same rank (eg: 2-2, 8-8 or J-J). When you split, the two cards are pulled apart and turned into two separate hands instead of just one. A second bet is added, so this effectively doubles your total bet size as well, and you’ll play through each of those hands one at a time.
- Surrender – Surrendering is the least commonly available option on this list, and many games don’t have it as an option at any point. When you surrender, you give up your cards and any chance of winning the hand against the dealer in exchange for getting back half of your bet size.
Blackjack strategy as a whole is about picking out which of the available options you should do in each situation that you’re given at any point in a hand. There’s a lot that goes into deciding when to pick each of these, and that’s why it’s such a strategically deep game.
Hard and Soft Hands
If you spend any amount of time reading about or playing blackjack online or in a brick and mortar casino, you’ll read or hear about soft hands and hard hands. They’re considered much different strategically, so being able to identify them is pretty important, but it’s not difficult at all to learn which is which:
A soft hand includes an ace that can be counted as 11 without the player going bust. All other hands are hard hands.
That’s really all there is to it. We’ll get more into the strategic importance of hard hands vs. soft hands further below.
In most situations in this game, the payouts are 1:1. That means if you play a hand with a Ä5 bet and win, then you’ll receive a payout that gives you a Ä5 profit. However, there are some exceptions to this.
The main exception is with a payout for something called a blackjack. A blackjack is when your first two cards in a hand consist of an ace with a 10-point card like a ten, jack, queen or king. The cards don’t have to include a jack, and they don’t have to be black. You essentially just have to be dealt a total of 21 on your first two cards.
If you get this hand, then you’ll be given a bonus payout. The size of this bonus depends on the game you’re playing, but it’ll usually be 2:1 or 3:2 with 6:5 in some cases.
For example, if you made a wager of Ä10 and scored a blackjack, a 2:1 payout would profit Ä20, a 3:2 payout would profit Ä15, and a 6:5 payout would profit Ä12.
Different Styles of Blackjack
Because there are so many different rule sets available for online blackjack games, it can be pretty easy to get mixed up. If you’re used to a strategy at one type of online blackjack table that performs well for you, and then you try to switch to a drastically different game, then you’ll often find that your strategy doesn’t do too well all of a sudden.
To give you an idea of what’s out there and what to look for, we’re going to take a brief look at some of the most popular variations of blackjack that you can find online and elsewhere.
The most popular style of this game is generally known as multi-deck blackjack. While a few of the rules can be a little different between different multi-deck games, most of them are minor points that won’t change a lot for the strategies involved.
A multi-deck game is exactly what it sounds like: Several decks of cards, usually six to eight of them, are included in a single shoe. The dealer will pull from this shoe until it gets down to a certain point (usually at a point at which 75-80 percent of the cards are dealt) at which time the shoe will be replaced with a fresh set of cards.
You’ll usually have splitting and doubling options available in this type of game, but surrendering isn’t as common.
Single-deck blackjack plays out just like multi-deck blackjack with a key exception: It only used one deck that’s shuffled after each hand. That doesn’t sound like it would make that big of a deal, and for many players it’s not. However, if you’re the type of person who likes to dive really deep into strategy, then only having one deck changes a whole lot about how certain key situations work.
In European blackjack, you’ll have multiple decks being used in a game that looks and feels much like traditional multi-deck blackjack. However, the key difference is that the dealer doesn’t peek for blackjack when holding an ace or 10-point card. That means that you could accidentally double or split into a dealer who is holding a natural 21, so the effect it has on the game is that players have to be more cautious when facing off against a dealer showing an ace, king, queen, jack, or ten.
Spanish blackjack is played with a 48-card deck instead of a 52-card deck. As we mentioned above in the History of Blackjack section, a 48-card deck is called a Spanish deck (the 52-card deck is called a French deck), and the difference is that it doesn’t contain any of the “10” cards.
Having a deck of cards with such a different composition than usual changes strategy quite a bit, but there are usually other rules that make it even more complicated. For example: the player being able to double with any number of cards and players always winning ties of 21 (even in the case of the dealer and player both holding a blackjack).
Playtech and some other software providers offer a game called Blackjack Surrender that uses a multi-deck style with the option to surrender on any number of cards. This game is notable because it offers one of the highest payout rates available in any online casino game if you learn how to play correctly with a house edge of just 0.39 percent available.
There’s a common way to cheat in blackjack in person, that involves playing two hands and switching cards between those hands when the dealer isn’t looking. Playtech and other developers offer a game called Blackjack Switch that plays on this idea by having the player always play with two hands at a time with the limited ability to switch cards between the two hands.
This switching allows for new elements of strategy and spices up the blackjack experience quite a bit.
Pontoon is a game offered by the Realtime Gaming software and some others, and it’s a blackjack variation where the dealer does not have either card facing up. In exchange for this lack of information about the dealer’s hand, players get a lot of extra flexibility in betting, like always winning with five-card hands that haven’t gone bust and being able to double on any number of cards (but only once during each hand).
Basic Blackjack Strategy
Strategy for blackjack involves a few different key components. You can get super deep into these various parts, but it’s also possible to get pretty good at the game without having to learn strategies that are particularly complicated. While you won’t get the best payouts possible without perfect play, you don’t need to play perfectly to get the house edge pretty far down.
The idea of “basic strategy” in blackjack is one of those components of strategy as a whole, but it refers to something specific instead of just “basic” in the general sense: Basic strategy in blackjack is knowing exactly which option to take with any possible situation that you can run into.
Even though it’s called “basic” strategy, it’s pretty complicated to learn on a high level, especially since it’s actually different for each individual type of blackjack out there. Because of this, we’re going to break down some overall fundamentals in what follows to give players a solid starting strategy that they can work on and adapt to fit just about any type of game out there.
To use the following suggestions, you need to know one thing: We’ll refer to “strong” dealer face-up cards as being a 7 through A, and we’ll refer to “weak” dealer face-up cards as being 2 through 6. This distinction is important because weak dealer cards are more likely to cause the dealer to go bust.
We’re going to break these strategic suggestions up into three parts: hard hands, soft hands and paired hands (ie: two cards of the same rank).
We’ll start with paired hands because this has to do with learning how to split in blackjack. Generally speaking, you should always split aces and eights, and you should never split fours, fives or tens.
With all of the other combinations (twos, threes, sixes, sevens and nines), you should only split if you’re facing a weak dealer face-up card.
If you don’t split, then you will just play the hand as if it’s a regular hard hand, which we’ll look at below.
Soft hands can be played pretty aggressively since you can never go bust by hitting once, and that’s why you’ll end up doubling with them a lot even when you have fairly high totals. With soft hands, you’ll always stand if you have 19 or higher, and you’ll always hit with 18 or lower with one exception:
If you’re facing a weak dealer card and have a soft total of 16, 17 or 18, then go ahead and double instead. This is because you have a huge edge over the house in these scenarios.
Soft hands don’t come up as often as hard hands, but they’re generally the most fun to play because you have much higher chances of winning.
The bread and butter of any strategy for online blackjack (or offline, for that matter) will come down to playing hard hands. These are the majority of the hands that you’ll run into, and learning to play them well is key to having a good payout rate overall.
If you have a total of nine or lower, then you generally always hit. The exception to this rule is if you can double with a total of 9, then you’ll do it against weak dealer cards. However, you’ll still hit a total of nine when up against a strong dealer card.
With a total of 10 or 11, you’ll almost always double. If you have a 10 against a 10-point card or an ace, then you’ll simply hit instead. You’ll also only hit if you have an 11 up against an ace.
Finally, for all totals 12 or higher, you’ll always stand unless you have a total of 12-16 against a weak dealer card. In those minority of cases, you’ll hit instead.
There are only a few possible scenarios that you can run into with hard hands along these lines, and they can generally be learned pretty quickly.
Card Counting Online
We want to touch on the concept of card counting for online blackjack because it’s a popular topic that a lot of players have questions about.
Card counting is a strategy that allows you to estimate what the remaining cards in a deck or shoe are like in the general sense. This usually involves a ratio of high cards to low cards, because that ratio is one of the most important things that determines if you have an advantage against the house or not.
Using a card counting strategy requires that the house deals down through a deck or shoe for several hands in a row before shuffling. Unfortunately, online games, even multi-deck blackjack tables, shuffle the virtual decks after every single hand. This renders card counting as an ineffective strategy overall that has virtually no use online whatsoever.
Live Dealer Blackjack
If you want to emulate the experience of playing blackjack in a brick and mortar setting, then the closest you can come to that is the live casino blackjack games found at a variety of casino sites. You’ll be able to enjoy these games as the cards are dealt out over a real table in real-time with an actual human dealer.
To watch the games, you’ll have HD audio and video feeds that you can view on your tablet, smartphone or computer screen. The streaming service for these feeds can adjust to any screen size and any connection speed, so even if you don’t have the best hardware or connection available, you’ll still be able to have a great time playing the live blackjack games.
A few features that you can have with these live games, that you may not see anywhere else with other blackjack tables online, includes the following:
- The ability to bet on the play of another player and simply “follow” their action.
- Having the option to tip your dealer while you chat to other players from across the globe.
- Some card counting options may be available depending on the games and software providers because they use deep shoes that typically have six or eight decks of cards with decent penetration.
We want to point out as well that the minimum bet sizes are traditionally larger in a live dealer game than when playing regular online blackjack tables, and a big part of that has to do with the fact that the overhead costs of running the live dealer games is higher. Even so, these tables are the overall favorites for many blackjack fans who prefer to play online.
Below is a screenshot of a real live blackjack game session at a casino with software from NetEnt:
The popularity of blackjack comes from its rich history and the fact that it’s pretty easy to learn while still offering a deep well of strategy to explore. Its depiction in a lot of movies and other types of media have also helped its image, and it’s seen as a “cool” game to play as a result as well.