Blackjack is one of the most popular casino games in the UK, and indeed the wider world. A constant fixture at land-based casinos the length and breadth of the country, it’s hardly surprising blackjack has become even more popular for gamblers online and on mobile.
Blackjack is primarily a game of skill, and players who understand the strategic element of the game are better placed to profit over time. While there is still an element of chance in the cards you are dealt, knowing how to respond to different hands, when to play aggressively and when to pull back is fundamental to becoming a more successful player.
There are different versions of blackjack played worldwide, plus a number of online versions with their own twist on the concept. For the purposes of this article, we’re looking specifically at the UK version. However, many of the same principles apply, especially when it comes to discussing hand strategy and how to bet. So lets get into the meat and potatoes of how to play blackjack in a casino.
The object of blackjack is fairly simple – to beat the dealer. Players try to make the highest value hand they can, up to a maximum of 21. Hands valued at 22 or more automatically lose – this is known as going ‘bust’. Hands of 21 are the optimum, and players can usually stand when their hand value is a hard 17 or higher. In the UK the dealer must stand on a soft 17.
If you want to learn how to play blackjack, you first need to know the values of each card. Hand value is determined by the numerical value of the cards in your hand. Numbered cards are assigned their number in points – 7s are worth 7 points, 3s are worth 3 points, and so on. The high cards 10-K are all worth 10 points, while Aces carry a value of 1 or 11, depending on the value of your hand at any time.
While it is common for blackjack games to be played with multiple players around a table, each hand takes place between the dealer and the individual player only. So if the person to your left has a better hand than you, it’s irrelevant – all that matters is that your hand has a higher value than the dealer’s hand, without going over the 21 threshold.
The game moves in turns, with players invited to bet on the strength of the two card hand they are dealt. Players have the choice to hit or stand with every rotation until the game is complete, depending on their hand – to draw another card, or to stick with what they’ve got. The dealer has less room for manoeuvre, and plays in a more straightforward way, often sticking automatically at 17s and above.
It’s up to you to decide whether you want to push for a higher value hand with an additional card, or to stick with what you’ve got in the hope of winning. When the bets have been placed and you’ve drawn as many cards as you deem necessary, the dealer will play their hand to determine the benchmark. If you beat the dealer’s hand in terms of value (while remaining under 21), you win. The best starting hand available is a natural blackjack – an Ace and any 10 point value card. This cannot usually be beaten, and your worst result is a push if the dealer also holds blackjack.
Likewise, if the dealer goes bust, you win automatically (assuming your hand is still in the game). If the dealer’s hand is stronger, you lose. If the hands are tied, bets are pushed – i.e. returned at break even on the hand.
‘Soft’ hands are those where the player has probably room to draw another card without breaching 21. These invariably contain an Ace, which obviously fluctuates between 1 and 11 as required. ‘Hard’ hands are those where the player is already sitting with a high value hand, where in many cases the next hand will tip them over the edge. While you are free to hit until you have a competitive hand, the art of blackjack comes in knowing when to hit, stand, double down, split, or act in any way throughout the game.
Example of a soft 15
Aside from deciding whether to hit or stand and how much to bet at the outset of each hand, there are a number of other decisions open to blackjack players along the way.
Double Down: This is an opportunity to double down on your bet, best taken when you are sure you’re in a winning position. This should be reserved for very strong hands, but is a worthwhile mechanism for getting the biggest payouts from your strongest hands. The result is you double your stake, but also double your potential take if you do go on to win against the dealer’s hand.
Split Pairs: Whenever you have a pair of cards, the option to Split becomes available. This splits the pair to create two new hands of the same stake value, and an additional card is dealt to each of these hands. This is a strategy best used with Aces and 8s. Any hand with an Ace is in a very strong position, with the exception of a pair of Aces – together, these are only worth 12, but separately, they are worth two hands of 11 before the additional card is factored in. This creates ample opportunities for one or both of those hands to reach the high teens or even low twenties, without going bust on the next draw.
Similarly with 8s, two 8s together are worth 16 – too low to convincingly stand, but too high to comfortably draw another card without busting your hand. Splitting them up into two hands is therefore always a better strategy.
Example of splitting 8’s
Double Down After Splitting: There’s also the opportunity to double down after splitting pairs, doubling your bet on both hands. Again, it depends very much on the value of your hands and whether you think you have a realistic chance of beating the dealer with one or both. Both hands will be doubled in stake, on a stake that has already doubled from your initial bet (thanks to the creation of the second hand). It’s therefore recommended that you only double down after splitting where you are in a very strong position.
Insurance: There is also a side bet available when the dealer is sitting on a 10 or above starting hand. This is insurance against the dealer holding blackjack. In practicality, this isn’t recommended for serious players. While it can help conserve your losses in some cases, it serves to increase the house edge – therefore slimming down your chances of winning long-term. While it might pay off on a given hand, you’re best to stay away from the Insurance bet at virtually all times.
Given that blackjack is played between the player and the dealer only, it’s possible to play multiple hands at the same time. When players split, they are doubling the number of hands in play. However as a rule, some players choose to play multiple hands at any one time, to keep the game moving and to give more opportunities to bet and win.
Blackjack Basic strategy is a huge area of study, and the most serious players can devote years of time to refining their craft. In many situations, there is an obvious move to make, based on the probabilities of your hand and the likelihood of the cards remaining in the deck.
As a simple example, say you draw two cards at random from a 52 card deck – an 8 and a King. As a blackjack hand, this is worth 18. If you were to draw an additional card from the deck (which now contains 50 cards), you have a proportionately higher chance of drawing any other card over making a pair – because there is now 1 less 8 card, and one less King card in the deck. If you hit at 18, you need to draw a 2, 3 or Ace to stay within the 21 limit. Anything else will bust your hand.
From the deck we’re left with, there are 4 x 2 cards, 4 x 3 cards, and 4 x Ace cards remaining – so you have a 12 in 50 chance of drawing a helpful card – a little less than a 20% chance of improving your hand value. That means there’s a whopping 80% chance of going bust on the next card. While this is a simplistic example, it should be obvious that the strategic move here is to stand with your hand of 18.
Of course, not everyone can make split decisions based on the probability of the next card drawn, particularly when there are often multiple decks in play, and multiple players sharing cards from the same deck. This is where card counting comes in.
Some players try to keep running counts, or even a true count of the cards that have already been drawn, and therefore the cards remaining in the shoe. This is very difficult in practice, but there are a number of techniques players can use to approximate probability and deliver better outcomes than chance, simply by knowing how to respond to different valued hands in different game situations.
On the face of things, blackjack looks like one of the more simple table games. But looks can be deceiving and that’s why it is important you know how to play blackjack to maximise your chances of winning. While there are a number of straightforward, obvious moves you can make in some situations, others require split second judgement to play the probabilities in a way that is most beneficial to your game long-term. That’s why some of the best blackjack players devote so much time and attention to improving their strategy. If you want to test your skills you can play blackjack here at PartyCasino.
As a new blackjack player, it’s worth setting yourself some ground rules while you learn how to play blackjack. Specifically, there are several key ‘no nos’ you want to steer clear of, in order to keep your game on form and avoid rubbing the dealer up the wrong way.
There’s a rule in blackjack that says you shouldn’t risk busting your own hand when the dealer is showing a weak upcard and this is the case when you have a 12 and the dealer has a 5. The dealer has to hit at least two more times, so the best play is to stand and hope the dealer busts. You definitely do not want to be hitting in this situation, so not standing is a NO NO.
Similarly, if you’re looking at a 16 against a dealer 7, that’s a sign you want to be hitting. When the dealer has a 7, you have to assume he has a total of 17 and therefore your best option is to hit and hope you pull a small card to beat the dealers total. You definitely do not want to be standing in this situation and hitting is the best play.
This is one of the quickest ways to single yourself out at a blackjack table, and not in a good way. There’s always one guy hanging over everyone else’s shoulder, trying to give them advice where it’s not wanted. If someone wants your help, they’ll ask for it, and it’s considered pretty bad form to be too proactive in offering up your opinions.
Instead, you should focus all your attention on your own game, and make the best of your own calls on each hand. Not only is it far more likely you’ll be in the black by the end of the night, but you’ll also not have annoyed your fellow players in the process.
The only thing you should be touching on the blackjack table are your chips – anything else is down to the dealer. When the cards are dealt face up, players are not permitted to touch the cards under any circumstances – it’s probably one of the easiest ways of getting yourself ejected from the game. Instead, wait for the dealer to rearrange your cards as required.
This stems primarily from casino security. Overhead cameras monitor each game as it progresses, so need to be able to see all cards at all times. Touching cards could be construed as an attempt to cheat, and most casinos aren’t particularly accommodating if they suspect you were trying to scam them. It’s best avoided.
This is unfortunately an all-too common sight, particularly amongst less experienced blackjack players. A bad run of cards can and will happen from time to time, and it’s understandable that players might get frustrated when things aren’t going their way. But this is never an excuse to blame the dealer, or to otherwise vent your frustrations publicly at the table. Not only is it completely ridiculous and counterproductive, in some cases it might even constitute bullying and abuse of someone who’s simply doing their job.
It’s nice to be nice, and that includes towards the dealer – even if you’re having a bad day. If anything, you should be tossing them a chip or two as a tip for their service.
Side bets are in almost all cases biased towards the house – the house edge isn’t worth the upshot of the side bet. While there are some instances where players might enjoy a side bet, purely for the entertainment factor, this isn’t a logical route to be taking if you’re serious about your blackjack play.
Instead, focus on perfecting your strategy and developing your understanding of the game – this will make you a much better blackjack player, and if you stick with it, you’ll hopefully win more money playing blackjack as a result.