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.
The Rules of The Game
The object of blackjack is fairly simple. 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 16 or higher. 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.
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.
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.
Basic Strategy For Better Blackjack
Blackjack 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 – a 7 and an Ace. 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 7 card, and one less Ace 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 3 x Ace cards remaining – so you have an 11 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. 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.