Twenty-One, known as Blackjack is among the most widespread casino card games. Nowadays you it is almost impossible to find online casinos, which does not offer any blackjack variation.
The rules are relatively easy to learn but more importantly, blackjack is a beatable game, especially when one takes the time to at least master basic strategy. The latter is said to reduce the house edge, tilting the advantage in favor of the player. If interested to learn more about blackjack and the types of hands one can potentially get dealt in the game, we recommend you take a quick look at the following article.
Basic Rules of Play
Blackjack is a casino banking game in the sense of players are not competing against each other but against the table’s dealer. The number of players the game can accommodate ranges between one and seven.
At the start of the game, the dealer shuffles the cards and “burns” the top card by placing it at the very bottom of the deck. Then everyone at the table, dealer included, is dealt two cards that constitute their starting hands. In single and double-deck games, the cards of the players are dealt facing down.
This is not so in multiple-deck variations (these are rather common at casinos and involve anywhere between four and eight 52-card decks, placed in a “shoe”), where the players’ cards are dealt face up. The dealer, on the other hand, always receives one up card and one hole card that is facing down.
The game’s object is simple – the players aim at obtaining a hand’s total that exceeds the total of the dealer but without going over 21. Once everyone is dealt their two cards, the players are provided with several options. They can either hit (draw more cards from the deck or shoe) or stand (in which case they decline drawing additional cards). Depending on the rules of the game and their hand’s total, players can also choose to split pairs of numerically identical cards or double down by increasing the size of their initial bets. These two options include making side bets and will be discussed in further detail below.
In blackjack, the suits of the cards are practically irrelevant. Face cards, alongside the Ten, are all assigned a value of ten, while the Aces can be counted either as 1 or 11. The ranks of all remaining cards coincide with their face values.
If both the player and the dealer get the same hand total, they “push”. In other words, there is a tie, no one wins nor loses.
If the dealer shows an Ace as their up card, the player is offered Insurance just in case the dealer has a natural or blackjack, which consists of an Ace paired with a face card like King, Queen, Jack or a Ten. Blackjack is the strongest hand one can possibly obtain and as such, usually pays 3 to 2.
In casinos, the dealers are put at a slight disadvantage as they are forced to play by fixed rules and are required to always draw to and then stand on certain hand values (all 17s, soft 17, soft 18 and so on). Please note the rules of the game may differ depending on the table and the gambling venue one is playing at.
Soft vs. Hard Hands
In blackjack, the Ace is one of the most important cards you can possibly get dealt. This is so because, when combined with any other card in a starting hand, it can be counted either as 1 or as 11, thus preventing players from going bust or exceeding 21 on the next hit.
We can generally distinguish between two types of hands in this game, namely soft and hard hands. Soft hands are those which contain an Ace that is counted as 11 without causing the player to go bust or exceed 21. The only exceptions to this rule are the naturals which contain an Ace with ten-value cards like Kings, Jacks, Queens or Tens.
If you are dealt a soft starting hand of an Ace and a 4, its value can be counted either as 5 or 15. This practically renders it impossible for the player to bust by drawing a third card, which is why soft hands are generally considered advantageous to players, unless, of course, their dealer also shows an Ace as their up card. However, if the third card the player draws has a value of 10, the soft hand automatically becomes a hard hand and the Ace is no longer counted as 11.
Logically, it follows that a hard hand is any hand that does not include an Ace. That is to say, a starting hard hand comprises of two cards that are ranked according to their face values. For instance, a [Q] and  both stand for a total of hard 16, which increases one’s chances of going bust by drawing a third card.
In blackjack, the term “a stiff hand” is used to refer to any starting hand than can potentially lead to a bust if the player hits. To be more precise, the total of a stiff starting hand is less than 17. Some of the most common hands that fall into this category are those, whose two cards add up to the values of 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. The only exceptions to this rule are the starting hands that actually constitute pairs of 6s, 7s, and 8s as these can be split and played separately.
In general terms, the two worst starting hands a player can possibly get add up to values of either 15 or 16. This can be explained by the fact there is a greater number of ten-value cards in a standard deck (16 to be more precise) that can potentially cause the player to bust should they hit and draw a third card.
At many landbased casinos and in online blackjack variations, players are provided with the option to split pairs consisting of two cards that are numerically identical. Please note, that splitting actually involves a side bet, which is to say players need to contribute with an additional wager that is equal in size to their initial bet.
Once the pair is split, the two hands are played separately and one after the other as usual, with splitting Aces being the only exception.
In some cases, splitting a pair works to the advantage of the player, while in others, it can actually reduce one’s chances of winning, causing them to lose twice as much money. Here are a few basic rules to follow:
- Split pairs of Aces whenever the rules of the game allow. In this case, the player will receive only one additional card for each Ace. Note that if the rank of the second car is ten, the hand will not be counted as a natural or blackjack, which is to say the payout will not be 3 to 2. When Aces are split, the total of such hands is considered to be 21 which means they pay 1 to 1 or even money.
- A pair of 8s should always be split as well and the reason behind this is beyond simple. It was previously mentioned hard 16 is the single worst starting hand in the game of blackjack. Drawing a third card is likely to result in a bust for the player, but at the same time 16 is still not a good enough hand total. Yet, if you split your 8s, it would be impossible for you to bust on the very first hit and you will have an opportunity to potentially improve your two hands.
- If the rules at the table allow it, players should also re-split Aces and 8s, provided they are dealt yet another pair of those after splitting their starting hand. In most cases, players are allowed to split up to three times.
- Players are recommended to avoid splitting pairs of 10s or other ten-value cards as these already constitute good enough starting hands. Why ruin them?
- Splitting 4s and 5s is an equally bad idea as it often results in players actually reducing their chances of winning. Besides, it is not possible to bust with a third card on pairs of 4s and 5s, which renders splitting them nonsensical for recreational players.
The term doubling down refers to players doubling the amount of their initial bets after which, they are entitled to receive only one more card from the dealer.
However, players must try and remember the reason why they are actually doubling down and no, it is not improving a starting hand. With a double down, players are actually aiming at increasing the amount of money they bet against the dealer when the latter is showing an up card that puts him/her at a disadvantage. Some of the basic rules include:
- Doubling down on starting hands that total hard 10 is recommended unless the dealer shows an Ace or a Ten.
- Players should double down if their starting hand adds up to a total of 11, the only exception being when the dealer’s up card is an Ace.
- When having a soft starting hand that ranges between 13 and 18 in total value, players are advised to double down provided that the dealer shows a 5 or a 6, which are usually the dealer’s bust cards in such situations.