Black Jack (or 21)
By Abigail Hartung, David S. LewisPublished October 1, 2012
As you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the rules of Blackjack, we’ll hurry through this bit, and get to the strategy stuff as quickly as possible.
The goal of this card game is to get as close to 21 as possible without going over (referred to as “going bust”), while the dealer makes the same attempt. You win if you get closer to the magic number of 21 than the dealer. If the dealer gets closer to 21 than you, then you lose. If you bust, you lose even if the dealer busts, too.
Cards with between 2 and 10 pips are worth exactly the number printed in the corner. Face cards (Jacks, Queens, and Kings) are all worth 10, and Aces are worth either 1 or 11, whichever would bring the total closer to 21 without going over. If you have a 4 and an 8 for a total of 12 and hit to an Ace, you have 13, not 22.
Each player places their wager in the circle in front of them, and receives two cards face up, while the dealer gives himself one card face up and the other one face down. Don’t touch the cards – just let them sit there. If the first two cards are an Ace and any card valued at 10, then you have a Blackjack, and you win, which pays out 3 units for every 2 that you wagered.
If a player feels like the total of his or her hand can beat the dealer based on his revealed “up” card, the player “stands”; the total of those first two cards will be played against whatever the dealer ends up with, and the player receives.
To stand, just wave your hand over the table, palm facing down. If a player feels the dealer’s hand is likely to get closer to 21 than the total of those first two cards, he or she may “hit” and receive another card. To “hit” just scratch your index finger on the table’s felt (toward yourself). After assessing the new hand, the player must indicate they either want to “stand” (hand wave) or “hit” to receive a fourth card (again, the little scratchy gesture).
Eventually, you will either be satisfied with your total’s chance of winning, or you will have drawn one card too many, putting your hand over 21 and going “bust.” After the other players have gone through the same process with their hands, the dealer shows his or her “hole” card. Unlike the players, the dealer must hit on 16 or less, and must stand on 17 or greater. Some tables force the dealer to hit on “soft” 17 (when an Ace is one of the cards, it’s considered “soft,” because it can be used as either 1 or 11). If you can’t tell which kind you’re playing, just ask the dealer whether they hit on soft 17.
Remember, in Blackjack, everyone is individually playing against the dealer. If the dealer’s cards total less than a player’s, then that player wins. If the dealer hits to more than 21, then he’s “bust” and all players who did not bust win even money.
If a player’s hand ties with the dealer’s, it is a “push,” and no one wins or loses.
Those are the basics, but with a loose knowledge of a few extra bets and the “Wizard’s” strategy at left, you can increase your likelihood of winning … or at least losing less.
The Wizard of Odds (wizardofodds.com) has worked out a fantastic general strategy that is not only easy to remember, but easy to tear out of this magazine and hold in your sweaty little hand while you navigate the naivete of a new blackjack player. Most casinos sell some kind of business-card-sized laminate strategy guide, and you are welcome to refer to this while actually sitting at the table and playing. While this is mathematically imperfect, it’s an easy system to utilize that, if strictly adhered to, will minimize your total loss expectancy to a bare minimum over 12 hours. For maximum effectiveness, do not deviate. If you think you've got good hunches, then you clearly don't need a strategy system.
This is an additional bet that is advantageous to play whenever you’re confident that you only need one additional card to win.
Players may double down on any two cards except when they are dealt 21, or “blackjack.” You can bet up to the total of your original bet next to the first wager, and the dealer will give you one card, after which you must stand.
If a player’s first two cards is a pair, he or she has the option of splitting the pair, essentially playing two hands at the same time. Again, just place a second wager next to the first one (this must be an equal amount). The dealer will deal another card to each of the original pair, giving you two hands to play, one at a time. The player may hit on each hand until each hand is as close to 21 as they wish (or until the hand goes “bust”). If the next card also makes a pair, the player can split again, if he or she wishes (up to a total of four hands).
Split Aces can only “hit” for one card each, and if either of the split Aces is paired with a card worth 10, it pays as 21, not a natural “blackjack,” which generally pays more.
If the dealer’s “up” card is an Ace, players are offered “insurance,” essentially hedging the original wager by betting that the dealer has a blackjack. After each player at the table in turn either places an insurance bet or declines the offer, the dealer checks his hole card. If he has a blackjack, he’ll show you the hole card and take your original bet then and there, without unnecessarily going through the motions. If you bought insurance, then the insurance bet wins, and typically pays 2-1, but you forfeit the original wager. In a word, don’t. Never buy insurance. It is a sucker bet with an extreme house advantage. Other Strategy
According to gaming website wizardofodds.com, there are three commonly held belief systems about blackjack, all of which are wrong and cede an unnecessary edge to the casino. Of all the table games played against the house, Blackjack is the one with the least built-in house edge, but many common playing strategies actually increase that edge:
Assuming the dealer’s hole card is a 10. This system is propagated on the reality that there are more 10s than any other value in the deck, so if the dealer shows a 6 you assume he has 16; if you have 15, you would stand, assuming he is liable to hit on a hand likely to bust. This “system” would give the house an edge of just over 10 percent … not so great. By this logic, if the dealer shows a 9 and your cards total 18, you would have to hit to beat the dealer … and hitting on a hard 18 is suicide by bust, as there are precious few cards that won’t bust you. A slightly better variation of this is to assume the dealer has a ten and play accordingly until you either bust or reach 17 – 21. Mimic the Dealer (House Rules). The idea here is to essentially follow the house rules, so hitting on all 16s and soft 17s and standing on hard 17 and over. This strategy assumes that you would receive the same benefit the house gains. This would theoretically work, if it weren’t for the built-in house advantage that comes of you losing busts even if the dealer busts, too. As any good Euchre player will tell you, if you never go bust, you’re playing too tight, and you’re letting go of some wins that you didn’t need to, driving the house edge up to 5.48 percent. Never bust. Another of those “genius” strategies out there, for folks who don’t like complicated strategies and don’t wish to memorize the basic strategy of the game. In shorthand, the idea of this strategy is to never risk exceeding 21, allowing the dealer to either bust or beat you instead. It aims to reduce the greatest house advantage in the game, which is that, if you go bust, you definitely lose … even if the dealer busts, too.
The problem with this strategy is that, once you hit 12 or higher, you can’t take any cards, for fear of receiving that deadly busting 10. The problem with this strategy is that 10s only make up roughly a third of the blackjack deck, and many of those smaller cards will safely better your hand without busting you. If you stand on a 12, the dealer has to go bust to lose. This flawed plan will only give the house a 3.91-percent edge, which is the least crippling of the three worst common strategies, but it’s still much greater than the .5-percent-or-less house edge that serious blackjack players are looking to get the game down to.