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Millions of players can't get enough of the casino card game blackjack. The game's excitement is surpassed only by its simplicity.
Blackjack's exact origins are still being debated by historians and gambling experts, although one thing they can all agree on is that it developed into something close to its current form in the French casinos of the early 18th century. "Vingt-et-Un", literally "21" was derived from popular card games of the time such as Chemin de Fer and French Ferme. As the story goes, French colonists brought the game with them to the North America, where the game developed into what we now know as Blackjack.
Like French Fries (which are actually Belgian in origin), Blackjack's beginnings were likely in a different place and a different century. The first written reference to the game is found in a book by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes (he of Don Quixote fame). His description of a game called "Ventiuna" (again, "21") being played by gamblers in Seville at the beginning of the 17th century suggests that the French and Spanish games have common origins.
So where did it really begin? We can't know for sure, but there are a few popular theories: one is that it began with the Romans, who bet on a game with wooden blocks of varying numerical values. Another is that it emerged from ancient China, India or Egypt, where we know the original card games were played.
Whatever the origin, it was in the good old US of A that Blackjack (or Twenty-One as it was originally) known really took off. When 21 was first played in the States, casinos offered bonus payouts such as 10 to 1 if a player's hand consisted of the ace of spades and a "blackjack" (either jack of clubs or jack of spades). The bonus eventually disappeared from the scene by the name "Blackjack" stuck, although its meaning changed to refer to any hand of an ace plus ten or face card.
Blackjack's big opportunity came in 1931, when Nevada (who else!) became the first state in the union to legalize gambling. As casinos popped up in Las Vegas and all around the state, Blackjack's modern rules were drawn up and it became one of the most popular casino games - rivalled only by a couple of others such as poker and roulette.
Today, the game is enjoying another resurgence thanks to the online gambling era. Since the mid-1990s online gamblers all over the world have been enjoying this simple game formerly known as 21. In the US, Nevada is once again leading the way by legalizing intrastate online gambling - with Blackjack set to be at the forefront.
Like most card games, Blackjack is rich with its own glossary of terms. Below are the most important words you will need to know, including the ones that represent the options a player has after cards are dealt.
Blackjack: There are two literal meanings: the first is that it is the name of the card game itself; the second is that this is what you call the best possible hand, consisting of an ace and a card valued at 10 (10, or face cards Jack, Queen and King).
Bust: Cards totalling over 21, which translates to an automatic loss.
Double Down: Players may increase their initial bet by up to 100% (double) in exchange for agreeing to stand down after receiving an extra card. Their double-down bet is placed with the original bet. Note that some Blackjack operators allow players to increase their bet by less than 100%, while others only allow 100% exactly. To request a "double-down", players place their extra chips beside their original bet and point to it with one finger to get the dealer's attention.
Hit: Refers to taking another card from the dealer. Players can request a "hit" by tapping the table, waving their hand toward their body or scraping the cards against the table.
Holecard: The dealer's second card, which is dealt facedown and not revealed until players have made decisions on their hands.
Insurance: If the dealer has an ace, the player may take "insurance" before the dealer reveals his hole card. Insurance pays the player 2:1, and covers for the loss of the original bet.
Push: A tie between player and dealer.
Soft: A hand that includes an ace valued at 11 (rather than being valued at 1).
Split: If a player's first two cards have the same value, they are permitted to split them into two separate hands by making a second bet equal to the value of the first. The dealer separates the two cards and draws an extra card for each. The player then plays out two separate hands simultaneously. Casino rules vary on how ten-value cards are treated following a "split", so make sure to check that you know the rules at your establishment of choice. The signal is universal though: place the additional chips next to the original bet (but outside the betting box, for land-based casinos) and point with two fingers spread apart to indicate they are "split".
Stand: Means the player will not take more cards. Also known as "stay" or "stick", the player indicates a "Stand" by waving their hand sideways (as you would to say "no") or by placing the cards under their chips.
Surrender: Some casinos offer this fifth option, which allows a player to stand down at a certain point and collect cashback on half their bet.
Upcard: The card the dealer has facing up.
The most basic principle of Blackjack is that the player and dealer compete to see which can achieve a hand value closer to 21, without actually exceeding 21. Players seated next to you at a Blackjack table - whether at a land-based casino or online casino - are of no concern to you. Your hand is playing only against the dealer's hand, and your only aim is to beat him.
Cards are valued as follows: Numbered cards from 2-9 are all taken at face value. The 10, Jack, Queen and King (face cards) are all valued at 10. An ace is valued at either 1 or 11 - you do not need to declare which of the two values you would like it to have, as it is always assumed to have the more favorable of the two.
At the beginning of each game, players place their bets in the "betting box". Each box is dealt an initial hand of two cards, both of which are facing up. The dealer deals himself two cards - the first card always faces up, but in "hole card" games the second faces down.
The player wins money by building a card value which is higher than the dealer's card value but does not "bust" 21. After the cards have been dealt, players must elect to "hit", "stand", "double" or "split" their cards (see terminology above). Once all players have finished, the dealer draws cards until his hand busts or achieves a value of 17 or higher. The dealer can only hit or stand - they cannot double, split or surrender. If the dealer busts or stands with a lower total value than the player/s, the player/s win. In the event of a tie, the player's bet is returned.
The best possible scenario for a player is to hit "blackjack" on their initial hand. A blackjack is a total of 21 on the first two cards, made up of an Ace (value 11) and any ten-valued card (10 or face cards). Casino rules vary, but usually a Blackjack is paid out at higher odds of 3:2.
One of the reasons Blackjack is so popular is that it is so straightforward. There are all sorts of methods for those who study intermediate and advanced strategy, many of them made famous by movies such as "21" with Kevin Spacey.
New players should always get a grip on basic strategy before playing. Because of the finite nature of statistical probability, the following rules are basically universal (it can vary slightly depending on who you are talking to and who their maths professor was). They are based on a game played with a single deck, where the dealer has an upcard and a hole card, and where the casino does not allow doubling down after pair splitting. The number given on the left-hand side is the value of your first two cards, and the information on the right is the basic strategy you should choose dependant on the dealer's upcard.
9: Hit. Or double when dealer's upcard is 3-6.
10: Hit. Or double on 2-9.
11: Hit on Ace. Double on everything else.
12: Hit. Or stand on 4-6.
13-16: Hit. Or stand on 2-6.
A, 2 to A, 5: Hit. Or double on 3-6.
A, 6: Hit. Or double on 2-6.
A, 7: Hit on 9-A. Stand on 2, 7 or 8. Double on 3-6.
A, 8: Stand. Or double on 6.
A, 9: Stand.
A, 10: Congratulations, Blackjack!
A, A: Split.
2,2 or 3,3: Hit. Or split on 2-7.
4,4: Hit. Or Split on 5-6
5,5: Hit. Or double on 2-9
6,6: Hit. Or split on 2-6
7,7: Hit. Or split on 2-7.
9,9: Stand on 7, 10 or A. Split in all other cases
Here are a few of the things you can do to turn yourself from a blackjack novice into a professional:
- If you're just starting out, it's worth playing similar games like Pontoon and Spanish 21 to hone your skills. Then you'll be even more prepared when you finally hit the online blackjack tables.
- The "Strategy" section above is a guide to basic strategy. Once you get more involved in the game, it is worth delving further into more advanced systems, some of which can be found in the Blackjack Guides section on the OCR site.
- It is always worth checking the odds offered by your online casino or land-based casino or choice. While most of the rules are standard, odds can vary for certain things such as achieving a "blackjack" - some casinos pay out a favorable 3:2 while others only pay out at 6:5.
- As with all forms of online gambling, we suggest starting out with play-money before heading for real-money. Most of the top online blackjack operators offer fun-play mode, and the Internet is full of free blackjack games which require no deposit (tip: most airlines also have Blackjack in the Games section of their console - it's a great way to pass a long-haul flight). This way, you'll be more prepared before you put your hard-earned on real Blackjack.
- Check out the list of online casinos that provide blackjack through the OCR site. The rules are generally the same, but promotions and bonuses vary - if you've already made the decision to play, why not do so with some free playing money courtesy of a generous welcome bonus, deposit bonus or monthly promotion.
- Remember to have fun: This rule is universal, whether you're playing at a bricks-and-mortar casino, online or through a live roulette platform. Remember to chat (or use the chat function) to socialize with dealers and your fellow players. Blackjack is a social game, and while we'd all like to win money, sometimes it's easy to forget to have fun.