Beginner’s guide to Blackjack Strategy

Before blackjack, there was ‘twenty-one’, a game whose origin is unknown. You can find the first printed reference in the book “Rinconete y Cortadillo”, by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who also wrote “Don Quixote”. It seems Cervantes himself was a gambler, so it’s easy to understand why a couple of cheats working in Seville turn out to be the main characters of this tale. This short story, written between 1601 and 1602, implies that twenty one (veintiuna in Spanish) was played in Castile from at least the beginning of the 17th century.

Once twenty-one got to the United States, the gambling houses put up bonus payouts to attract players. One of these was a ten-to-one payout for any hand with the ace of spades plus one more black jack (the jack of spades or the jack of clubs). Of course, this hand became known as the “blackjack”, and soon the name became attached to the game, even after the original ten-to-one bonus was phased out. For the contemporary game, blackjack now refers to any hand with an ace plus a ten or face card of any suit or colour.

The Journal of the American Statistical Association published ‘The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack’, the first attempt to come up with an optimal blackjack strategy using mathematics, in September 1956. Ed Thorp’s famous book, ‘Beat the Dealer’ (1963) was also inspired by this publication.

Nowadays online blackjack, together with poker, is one of the most popular casino games you will find in the internet environment.

Online Blackjack: overview and scoring

As a beginner, you’ll need to know that players compete in turn, comparing cards against the dealer. You can check most frequent mistakes in online blackjack in this other post.

The game’s objective is to beat the dealer by one of these methods:

– Score 21 points on the player’s first two cards (known as a “blackjack” or “natural”), but without the dealer achieving a blackjack;

– Achieve a final score which beats the dealer’s, but without exceeding 21; or

– Allow the dealer to draw further cards (hopefully) until their hand exceeds 21.

Each player, in turn, is dealt two cards and these will be faced up or down according to the casino and the table you choose. When played in the U.S., the dealer too has two cards dealt – usually one face up and the other hidden face down. (However, in European online blackjack, the dealer receives just one card, face up, and so draws only once the player’s hand is complete.)

The card values two through ten are their traditional pip values (2 – 10). Of the ‘face’ cards, Jack, Queen, and King are each worth ten, and an ace can be valued at either one or eleven. So what a hand is worth is the total of the card face values. Players can draw extra cards to improve their hand in an effort to reach 21.

How many versions of Online Blackjack are there?

The most common blackjack variants are:

– Blackjack switch – Players play two combinations with two cards at once. And here, a player can choose to swap his second card between the two hands. Should the dealer reach 22, the player’s bet is returned. That means the player doesn’t win (which would be the case in a game played by standard rules), and this effectively becomes a drawn game. In addition, the player’s payout for blackjack is in a 1:1 ratio, not a ratio of 3:2 which would be the case in a game of standard blackjack.

– Vegas strip – A variation of blackjack played with four decks of cards. A player can split two aces once but yet can double down on any two cards. Once a player splits cards, the insurance is forfeited. Following a split, the player may double the bet only if those cards were two aces. A 21 total after a split does not count as blackjack. When players split two aces, they receive just one extra card. There is no option to receive a further card.

– Double exposure blackjack – Here, the dealer’s cards will both be face up, which increases the player’s advantage. So other rules are adjusted to compensate: Players lose their bets when tied with the dealer and blackjack will only pay out in a 1:1 ratio. A player may split cards only once.

– Perfect pairs: This is standard blackjack plus the option to place a side bet on receiving a “perfect pair”. To win this, the player’s first two cards must form a pair (e.g. two sixes, two tens etc.). The win total increases if the pairs are the same colour, and is maximised if the cards are from an identical suit.

What is a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ hand?

Any hand in which the ace is valued at 11 points is called “soft”, which means that the hand will not bust on taking another card (because the value of the ace can become one, so the hand then won’t exceed 21). Otherwise, the hand is described as “hard”, in which case there is always the risk that taking a further card may overshoot the 21 maximum.

What does hit and stand mean?

– Hit means to ask the dealer for another card.

– Stand means to ‘stick’ or take no further cards.

The soft 17 rule

Each game needs a rule concerning whether the dealer must hit or stand on soft 17. This is usually shown on the table itself. Where the dealer must hit soft 17, the abbreviated code is “H17”. And where the stand-on-soft-17 variation is used, the abbreviated code is “S17”. Switching from an “H17” rule to “S17” benefits the player, otherwise the house benefits.

What is double and split in Online Blackjack?

– Double down: Here, you choose to double your original bet and take just one more card, regardless of its value. Some casinos may restrict doubling down to a hand where the sum of your first two cards is 10 or 11. Double down by taking chips equivalent to the value of your original bet and placing them beside your bet. This play can be an advantage when your first two cards total 10 or 11.

– Split: When your first two cards are the same value, you can choose to make a second bet equal to your first, and then split the pair in order to use each card as the first card of a separate hand. So you then get the chance to play out two separate hands in turn. Players with modest skills are advised not to split.