The purpose of this page is to serve as an introduction to the game of blackjack. It includes information about the history of the game, how to play, and how to win. Blackjack is one of the most popular casino games in history, and this is due in no small part to the element of strategy involved. Players in blackjack make decisions, and those decisions affect the outcome of the game. Most other casino games don’t offer this level of control.
The History of Blackjack
Most people don’t think of Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote when they think of blackjack, but it’s possibly the first mention of the game in literature. That’s quite a distinction when you consider that Don Quixote is also the first novel ever written—prior to Don Quixote, poems and plays were the primary literary form throughout the world.
The game mentioned in that book wasn’t called blackjack, though—it was called “ventiuna.” Little is mentioned about how the game was played in the book, but enough is discussed to make it clearly recognizable. The goal of the game, as described in the book, is to get a total of 21. Also, the book makes it clear that aces could count as either 1 or 11. It’s hard to find a more recognizable description of blackjack than that.
The game of blackjack grew popular because it spread via various port cities throughout the world. The name changed with the country, and so did some of the details of gameplay, but a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. For example, the British called the game “pontoon.” The game spread to the United States in the 1800s, and it traveled west with the rest of the country.
How to Play Blackjack
Blackjack is an easy enough game to play. My mom taught me the basics when I was ten years old.
The player and the dealer are each dealt two cards. All cards have a point value equal to their ranking. Face cards (the jack, queen, and king) are each worth ten points. An ace can be counted as 1 or 11, depending on which would be more favorable to the player.
The goal is to get as close as you can to 21 without going over. If your total exceeds 21, you lose immediately.
The main decision you make in a game of blackjack is whether or not to take another card. Taking a card is called being “hit,” while not taking another card is called “standing” or “staying.”
Rules variations at casino offer a couple of extra decisions to players. For example, players are often allowed to “double down,” which is a variation of hitting in which you take one (and only one) more card while doubling the size of your initial bet. Players are also allowed to split pairs by placing an additional bet. (A pair consists of two cards of the same rank—two kings, for example.) This creates two one-card hands which immediately are dealt an extra card to form two new hands of blackjack.
Most casinos in major gambling destinations like Las Vegas, Reno, and Atlantic City offer “classes” on how to play blackjack during the slower-traffic periods on the gaming floor. Taking one of these classes in order to learn how the game plays is an excellent way to get a feel for the game.
Another great way to learn how to play blackjack is to explore some of the free blackjack games that are available online. You can play for fake chips in order to understand how the action works, who goes first, and what order everything happens in.
How to Win at Blackjack
“Winning” means different things to different people. Some people feel like they’ve won even if they’ve lost a couple hundred dollars. Others just want to get lucky and put some money in their pocket. In any gambling game, there’s no sure way to book a win every time you play. These are games of chance, after all. But there are ways to win more often and lose less money over time.
The first step to becoming a winning blackjack player is to study the game and learn how to play. For example, a common novice mistake is to buy in at a table where the minimum bet is larger than their bankroll can afford. If you buy in for $100 at a $50 minimum table, you can only afford to lose twice in a row. Some people are so embarrassed by this mistake that they just go ahead and lose.
If you don’t understand the game well enough to keep up with the totals, you’re going to lose a lot more money than someone who knows the rules and gameplay inside out. This is one of the reasons I suggested playing some of the free games online.
The second step to becoming a winning blackjack player is to learn basic strategy. This step alone will reduce the house’s edge from 4% to less than 1%. (The house edge is the amount that the house expects to keep over the long run because of the rules of the game.) Basic strategy is the mathematically correct decision in every situation that comes up at the blackjack table.
Most people encourage players to memorize basic strategy using a chart or a table of some kind, but my preference is to learn the rules for how to play each hand individually. David Sklansky’s book, Sklansky on Blackjack, takes this approach, describing how to play every possible hand in every possible situation by looking at each possible total you could have.
Once you’ve reduced the house edge to less than 1% by using perfect basic strategy, you can start to take advantage of the many comps that casinos offer players. You can receive food, event tickets, and even travel perks just by making sure the casino tracks your play. These rewards have a monetary value, so even though you have a negative expectation against the casino, you get something back, making that negative expectation ever smaller.
The third step to becoming a winning blackjack player is to start learning some advantage gambling techniques like card counting. Once you’ve mastered a card counting system, you can actually get an advantage over the house. Counting cards isn’t as hard as you might think, either. Anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort can learn a simple count like the Hi Lo Count or the Ace Five count.
Blackjack is a great game. It’s fun, it’s a mental challenge, and it offers some of the best math in the casino. If you like making decisions that affect your outcome, blackjack might be the perfect game for you.