The Playing Card Game

With the exception of Poker, Blackjack is the most popular gambling card game. Equally well known as Twenty-One, the rules are simple, the play is thrilling, and there is opportunity for high strategy. In fact, for the expert player who mathematically plays a perfect game and is able to count cards, the odds are sometimes in that player's favor to win. But even for the casual participant who plays a reasonably good game, the casino odds are less, making Blackjack one of the most attractive casino games for the player.

While the popularity of Blackjack dates from World War I, its roots go back to the 1760s in France, where it is called Vingt-et-Un (French for 21). Today, Blackjack is the one card game that can be found in every American gambling casino. As a popular home game, it is played with slightly different rules. In the casino version, the house is the dealer (a "permanent bank"). In the home game, all of the players have the opportunity to be the dealer (a "changing bank").

Blackjack with a Permanent Bank

Number of Players. Up to eight people can play. The dealer plays against up to seven players who play for themselves. In casino play, the dealer remains standing, and the players are seated. The dealer is in charge of running all aspects of the game, from shuffling and dealing the cards to handling all bets.

The Pack. The standard 52-card pack is used, but in most casinos several decks of cards are shuffled together. The six-deck game (312 cards) is the most popular. In addition, the dealer uses a blank plastic card, which is never dealt, but is placed toward the bottom of the pack to indicate when it will be time for the cards to be reshuffled. When four or more decks are used, they are dealt from a shoe (a wooden box that allows the dealer to remove cards one at a time, face down, without actually holding one or more packs).

The Layout. The casino Blackjack table is semicircular. There is ample space for each player to keep his chips. On the green felt surface of the table each player has a circular area about the size of a coaster for placing a bet. There is another rectangular area for each player, where the dealer places the cards as they are dealt.

Object of the Game. Counting any ace as 1 or 11, as a player wishes, any face card as 10, and any other card at its pip value, each participant attempts to beat the dealer by getting a count as close to 21 as possible, without going over 21.

The Shuffle and Cut. The dealer thoroughly shuffles portions of the pack until all the cards have been mixed and combined. He designates one of the players to cut, and the plastic insert card is placed so that the last 60 to 75 cards or so will not be used. (Not dealing to the bottom of all the cards makes it more difficult for professional card counters to operate effectively.)

Betting. Before the deal begins, each player places a bet, in chips, in front of him in the designated area. Minimum and maximum limits are established on the betting, and the general limits are from $2 to $500.

The Deal. When all the players have placed their bets, the dealer gives one card face up to each player in rotation clockwise, and then one card face up to himself. Another round of cards is then dealt face up to each player, but the dealer takes his second card face down. Thus, each player except the dealer receives two cards face up, and the dealer receives one card face up and one card face down. (In some games, played with only one deck, the players' cards are dealt face down and they get to hold them. Today, however, virtually all Blackjack games feature the players' cards dealt face up on the condition that no player may touch any cards.)

Naturals. If a player's first two cards are an ace and a "ten-card" (a picture card or 10), giving him a count of 21 in two cards, this is a natural or "blackjack." If any player has a natural and the dealer does not, the dealer immediately pays that player one and a half times the amount of his bet. If the dealer has a natural, he immediately collects the bets of all players who do not have naturals, (but no additional amount). If the dealer and another player both have naturals, the bet of that player is a stand-off (a tie), and the player takes back his chips.

If the dealer's face-up card is a ten-card or an ace, he looks at his face-down card to see if the two cards make a natural. If the face-up card is not a ten-card or an ace, he does not look at the face-down card until it is the dealer's turn to play.

Drawing. The player to the left goes first and must decide whether to "stand" (not ask for another card) or "hit" (ask for another card in an attempt to get closer to a count of 21, or even hit 21 exactly). Thus, a player may stand on the two cards originally dealt him, or he may ask the dealer for additional cards, one at a time, until he either decides to stand on the total (if it is 21 or under), or goes "bust" (if it is over 21). In the latter case, the player loses and the dealer collects the bet wagered. The dealer then turns to the next player to his left and serves him in the same manner.

The combination of an ace with a card other than a ten-card is known as a "soft hand," because the player can count the ace as a 1 or 11, and either draw cards or not. For example with a "soft 17" (an ace and a 6), the total is 7 or 17. While a count of 17 is a good hand, the player may wish to draw for a higher total. If the draw creates a bust hand by counting the ace as an 11, the player simply counts the ace as a 1 and continues playing by standing or "hitting" (asking the dealer for additional cards, one at a time).

Dealer's Play. When the dealer has served every player, his face-down card is turned up. If the total is 17 or more, he must stand. If the total is 16 or under, he must take a card. He must continue to take cards until the total is 17 or more, at which point the dealer must stand. If the dealer has an ace, and counting it as 11 would bring his total to 17 or more (but not over 21), he must count the ace as 11 and stand. The dealer's decisions, then, are automatic on all plays, whereas the player always has the option of taking one or more cards.

Signaling Intentions. When a player's turn comes, he can say "Hit" or can signal for a card by scratching the table with a finger or two in a motion toward himself, or he can wave his hand in the same motion that would say to someone "Come here!" When the player decides to stand, he can say "Stand" or "No more," or can signal this intention by moving his hand sideways, palm down and just above the table.

Settlement. A bet once paid and collected is never returned. Thus, one key advantage to the dealer is that the player goes first. If the player goes bust, he has already lost his wager, even if the dealer goes bust as well. If the dealer goes over 21, he pays each player who has stood the amount of that player's bet. If the dealer stands at 21 or less, he pays the bet of any player having a higher total (not exceeding 21) and collects the bet of any player having a lower total. If there is a stand-off (a player having the same total as the dealer), no chips are paid out or collected.

Reshuffling. When each player's bet is settled, the dealer gathers in that player's cards and places them face up at the side against a clear plastic L-shaped shield. The dealer continues to deal from the shoe until he comes to the plastic insert card, which indicates that it is time to reshuffle. Once that round of play is over, the dealer shuffles all the cards, prepares them for the cut, places the cards in the shoe, and the game continues.

Splitting Pairs. If a player's first two cards are of the same denomination, such as two jacks or two sixes, he may choose to treat them as two separate hands when his turn comes around. The amount of his original bet then goes on one of the cards, and an equal amount must be placed as a bet on the other card. The player first plays the hand to his left by standing or hitting one or more times; only then is the hand to the right played. The two hands are thus treated separately, and the dealer settles with each on its own merits. With a pair of aces, the player is given one card for each ace and may not draw again. Also, if a ten-card is dealt to one of these aces, the payoff is equal to the bet (not one and one-half to one, as with a blackjack at any other time).

Doubling Down. Another option open to the player is doubling his bet when the original two cards dealt total 9, 10, or 11. When the player's turn comes, he places a bet equal to the original bet, and the dealer gives him just one card, which is placed face down and is not turned up until the bets are settled at the end of the hand. With two fives, the player may split a pair, double down, or just play the hand in the regular way. Note that the dealer does not have the option of splitting or doubling down.

Insurance. When the dealer's face-up card is an ace, any of the players may make a side bet of up to half the original bet that the dealer's face-down card is a ten-card, and thus a black jack for the house. Once all such side bets are placed, the dealer looks at his hole card. If it is a ten-card, it is turned up, and those players who have made the insurance bet win and are paid double the amount of their half-bet - a 2 to 1 payoff. When a blackjack occurs for the dealer, of course, the hand is over, and the players' main bets are collected - unless a player also has blackjack, in which case it is a stand-off. Insurance is invariably not a good proposition for the player, unless he is quite sure that there are an unusually high number of ten-cards still left undealt.



Many years ago, when dealers did not shuffle the cards until the pack ran out, there is a story – how true it is no one knows for sure – of a brilliant Blackjack player who, counted all the cards perfectly until there were just four left. On this particular hand, only he and the dealer were left, and the player had a king and a queen for a total of 20. The dealer’s upcard was a 10, and the player knew that the remaining four cards plus the dealer’s hole card were comprised of three aces and two ten-cards. Since the dealer, after looking at his hole card, did not reveal that he had a blackjack, the player knew for sure that he must have one of the ten-cards, and thus a total of 20. Throwing all caution to the wind, the card counter asked for a hit, and an ace was turned up. That was enough for the player, who was paid off. The pit boss was then summoned, and the expert player was politely asked to leave. It is not often that a player with 20 on the first two cards takes a hit!


Basic Strategy

Winning tactics in Blackjack require that the player play each hand in the optimum way, and such strategy always takes into account what the dealer's upcard is. When the dealer's upcard is a good one, a 7, 8, 9, 10-card, or ace for example, the player should not stop drawing until a total of 17 or more is reached. When the dealer's upcard is a poor one, 4, 5, or 6, the player should stop drawing as soon as he gets a total of 12 or higher. The strategy here is never to take a card if there is any chance of going bust. The desire with this poor holding is to let the dealer hit and hopefully go over 21. Finally, when the dealer's up card is a fair one, 2 or 3, the player should stop with a total of 13 or higher.

With a soft hand, the general strategy is to keep hitting until a total of at least 18 is reached. Thus, with a an ace and a six (7 or 17), the player would not stop at 17, but would hit.

The basic strategy for doubling down is as follows: With a total of 11, the player should always double down. With a total of 10, he should double down unless the dealer shows a ten-card or an ace. With a total of 9, he should double down only if the dealer's card is fair or poor (2 through 6).

For splitting, the player should always split a pair of aces or 8s; identical ten-cards should not be split, and neither should a pair of 5s, since two 5s are a total of 10, which can be used more effectively in doubling down. A pair of 4s should not be split either, as a total of 8 is a good number to draw to. Generally, 2s, 3s, or 7s can be split unless the dealer has an 8, 9, ten-card, or ace. Finally, 6s should not be split unless the dealer's card is poor (2 through 6).

Blackjack with a Changing Bank

With a few variations in the rules, Blackjack can be a wonderfully entertaining game to play at home. The objective is the same as in the casino version: to get 21 or as close to it as possible. Depending on the region, there are a number of Pontoon versions, but in all of them, every player gets the opportunity to be the dealer.

Number of Players. While two to 14 people can play, the game is best for up to seven participants.

The Pack. The standard 52-card pack is used. (A single pack is always used.) As in the casino game, an ace is worth 1 or 11 at the holder's option, and any face card is worth 10. All other cards count their pip value.

Determining First Banker. Any player picks up the pack and deals the cards in rotation, face up, until a jack of spades or jack of clubs falls to one of the players. That player becomes the first dealer.

The Shuffle and Cut. The dealer shuffles the pack, and any other player may cut. The dealer then turns up the top card of the pack, shows it to all players, and places it face up, at the bottom of the pack. This is called "burning a card." After each hand, the discards are gathered up and placed face up under the burned card. When the burned card is reached during a deal, there is a new shuffle and cut before the game continues.

Betting. Each player places a bet, which may not be less than one chip nor more than the betting limit established for the game, usually no more than five chips.

Dealing. The dealer gives one card face down to each player in rotation, including himself. He then deals a second round of cards face up in the same order.

Naturals. If the dealer has a natural (ace, and face card or ten), every player pays him double the amount of his bet. If the dealer and a player both have naturals, the player pays just the amount of his bet, not double. When a player has a natural and the dealer does not, the dealer pays that player double the amount of his bet.

Drawing Cards. When the dealer does not have a blackjack, he starts with the player to the left and gives each player in turn as many cards as that player requests, one at a time, until that player goes over 21 and pays, or stands. If a player goes bust, he declares so and turns up the hole card. The dealer collects the bet that was made.

When all players have stood or gone bust, the dealer turns up his face-down card and may draw cards until he wishes to stand. The dealer is not bound by the rules to stand on or draw to any total. If the dealer goes over 21, he pays all players who have stood. If the dealer stands on a total of 21 or less, he pays all players who stood with a higher total and collects from all players who stood with a lower total or the same total - "ties pay the dealer."

As in the casino game, a player against the dealer may split a pair or double down, and the dealer does not have this option.

Bonus Payment. Any player who forms one of the following combinations collects immediately from the dealer, and cannot later lose the bet he made, even if the dealer has a higher total:

A player who has five cards that total 21 or under (often called a "Five-Card Charlie"), collects double the bet made. With six cards totaling 21 or under, he collects four times the bet made, and so on, doubling for each additional card.

A player who makes 21 with three 7s receives triple the amount of the bet made.

A player who makes 21 with an 8, 7, and 6 receives double the amount of the bet made.

The dealer does not collect more than the amount of the players' bets for making any one of these combinations, nor does he necessarily win with five or more cards that total 21 or under.

Changing the Bank. The player who is the dealer continues in that capacity until another player is dealt a blackjack and the dealer has no natural. When this happens, the player who had the natural becomes the next dealer, after all bets in the current deal have been settled. If two or more players have naturals and the dealer has none, the one nearest the dealer's left becomes the next dealer. A player entitled to deal may, if he wishes, give or sell the privilege to another player.

Back to Card Game Menu