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|Players||2+, usually 2–6|
|Players||2+, usually 2–6|
Blackjack, also known as twenty-one, is the most widely played casino banking game in the world. Blackjack is a comparing card game between a player and dealer, meaning that players compete against the dealer but not against any other players. It is played with one or more decks of 52 cards. The object of the game is to "beat the dealer", which can be done in a number of ways:
The player or players are dealt an initial two-card hand and add together the value of their cards. Face cards (kings, queens, and jacks) are counted as ten points. A player and the dealer can count his or her own ace as 1 point or 11 points. All other cards are counted as the numeric value shown on the card. After receiving their initial two cards, players have the option of getting a "hit", or taking an additional card. In a given round, the player or the dealer wins by having a score of 21 or by having the highest score that is less than 21. Scoring higher than 21 (called "busting" or "going bust") results in a loss. A player may win by having any final score equal to or less than 21 if the dealer busts. If a player holds an ace valued as 11, the hand is called "soft", meaning that the player cannot go bust by taking an additional card; 11 plus the value of any other card will always be less than or equal to 21. Otherwise, the hand is "hard".
The dealer has to take hits until his or her cards total 17 or more points. (In some casinos, the dealer also hits on a "soft" 17—e.g., an initial ace and six.) Players win if they do not bust and have a total that is higher than the dealer's. The dealer loses if he or she busts or has a lesser hand than the player who has not busted. If the player and dealer have the same point total, this is called a "push", and the player typically does not win or lose money on that hand.
Many rule variations of blackjack exist. Since the 1960s, blackjack has been a high-profile target of advantage players, particularly card counters, who track the profile of cards that have been dealt and adapt their wagers and playing strategies accordingly.
Blackjack's precursor was twenty-one, a game of unknown origin. The first written reference is found in a book by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, most famous for writing Don Quixote. Cervantes was a gambler, and the main characters of his tale Rinconete y Cortadillo, from Novelas Ejemplares, are a couple of cheats working in Seville. They are proficient at cheating at ventiuna (Spanish for twenty-one), and state that the object of the game is to reach 21 points without going over and that the ace values 1 or 11. The game is played with the Spanish baraja deck, which lacks eights, nines and tens. This short story was written between 1601 and 1602, implying that ventiuna was played in Castilla since the beginning of the 17th century or earlier. Later references to this game are found in France and Spain.
When twenty-one was introduced in the United States, gambling houses offered bonus payouts to stimulate players' interest. One such bonus was a ten-to-one payout if the player's hand consisted of the ace of spades and a black jack (either the jack of clubs or the jack of spades). This hand was called a "blackjack" and the name stuck to the game, even though the ten-to-one bonus was soon withdrawn. In the modern game, a blackjack refers to any hand of an ace plus a ten or face card, regardless of suits or colours.
At a casino blackjack table, the dealer faces five to seven playing positions from behind a semicircular table. Between one and eight standard 52-card decks are shuffled together. At the beginning of each round, up to three players place their bets in the "betting box" at each position in play. The player whose bet is at the front of the betting box is deemed to have control over the position, and the dealer will consult the controlling player for playing decisions regarding the hand; the other players of that box are said to "play behind". Any player is usually allowed to control or bet in as many boxes as desired at a single table, but it is prohibited for an individual to play on more than one table at a time or to place multiple bets within a single box. In many U.S. casinos, however, players are limited to playing two or three positions at a table and often only one person is allowed to bet on each position.
The dealer deals cards from his/her left (the position on the dealer's far left is often referred to as "first base") to his/her far right ("third base"). Each box is dealt an initial hand of two cards visible to the people playing on it, and often to any other players. The dealer's hand receives its first card face up, and in "hole card" games immediately receives its second card face down (the hole card), which the dealer peeks at but does not reveal unless it makes the dealer's hand a blackjack. Hole card games are sometimes played on tables with a small mirror or electronic sensor that is used to peek securely at the hole card. In European casinos, "no hole card" games are prevalent; the dealer's second card is neither drawn nor consulted until the players have all played their hands.
Cards are dealt either from one or two handheld decks, from a dealer's shoe, or from a shuffling machine. Single cards are dealt to each wagered-on position clockwise from the dealer's left, followed by a single card to the dealer, followed by an additional card to each of the positions in play. The players' initial cards may be dealt face up or face down (more common in single-deck games).
The players' object is to win money by creating card totals that turn out to be higher than the dealer's hand but do not exceed 21 ("busting"/"breaking"), or alternatively by allowing the dealer to take additional cards until he/she busts. On their turn, players must choose whether to "hit" (take a card), "stand" (end their turn), "double" (double wager, take a single card and finish), "split" (if the two cards have the same value, separate them to make two hands) or "surrender" (give up a half-bet and retire from the game). Number cards count as their natural value; the jack, queen, and king (also known as "face cards" or "pictures") count as 10; aces are valued as either 1 or 11 according to the player's choice. If the hand value exceeds 21 points, it busts, and all bets on it are immediately forfeit. After all boxes have finished playing, the dealer's hand is resolved by drawing cards until the hand busts or achieves a value of 17 or higher (a dealer total of 17 including an ace, or "soft 17", must be drawn to in some games and must stand in others). The dealer never doubles, splits, or surrenders. If the dealer busts, all remaining player hands win. If the dealer does not bust, each remaining bet wins if its hand is higher than the dealer's, and loses if it is lower. In the case of a tied score, known as "push" or "standoff", bets are normally returned without adjustment; however, a blackjack beats any hand that is not a blackjack, even one with a value of 21. An outcome of blackjack vs. blackjack results in a push. Wins are paid out at 1:1, or equal to the wager, except for winning blackjacks, which are traditionally paid at 3:2 (meaning the player receives three dollars for every two bet), or one-and-a-half times the wager. Many casinos today pay blackjacks at less than 3:2 at some tables.
Blackjack games almost always provide a side bet called insurance, which may be played when dealer's upcard is an ace. Additional side bets, such as "Dealer Match" which pays when the player's cards match the dealer's up card, are sometimes available.
After receiving an initial two cards, the player has up to four standard options: "hit", "stand", "double down", or "split". Each option has a corresponding hand signal. Some games give the player a fifth option, "surrender".
Hand signals are used to assist the "eye in the sky", a person or video camera located above the table and sometimes concealed behind one-way glass. The eye in the sky usually makes a video recording of the table, which helps in resolving disputes and identifying dealer mistakes, and is also used to protect the casino against dealers who steal chips or players who cheat. The recording can further be used to identify advantage players whose activities, while legal, make them undesirable customers. In the event of a disagreement between a player's hand signals and their words, the hand signal takes precedence.
Each hand may normally "hit" as many times as desired so long as the total is not above hard 20. On reaching 21 (including soft 21), the hand is normally required to stand; busting is an irrevocable loss and the players' wagers are immediately forfeited to the house. After a bust or a stand, play proceeds to the next hand clockwise around the table. When the last hand has finished being played, the dealer reveals the hole card, and stands or draws further cards according to the rules of the game for dealer drawing. When the outcome of the dealer's hand is established, any hands with bets remaining on the table are resolved (usually in counterclockwise order): bets on losing hands are forfeited, the bet on a push is left on the table, and winners are paid out.
If the dealer's upcard is an ace, the player is offered the option of taking "insurance" before the dealer checks the hole card.
Insurance is a side bet that the dealer has blackjack and is treated independently of the main wager. It pays 2:1 (meaning that the player receives two dollars for every dollar bet) and is available when the dealer's exposed card is an ace. The idea is that the dealer's second card has a fairly high probability (nearly one-third) to be ten-valued, giving the dealer blackjack and disappointment for the player. It is attractive (although not necessarily wise) for the player to insure against the possibility of a dealer blackjack by making a maximum "insurance" bet, in which case the "insurance proceeds" will make up for the concomitant loss on the original bet. The player may add up to half the value of their original bet to the insurance and these extra chips are placed on a portion of the table usually marked "Insurance pays 2 to 1".
Players with a blackjack may also take insurance, and in taking maximum insurance they commit themselves to winning an amount exactly equal to their main wager, regardless of the dealer's outcome. Fully insuring a blackjack against blackjack is thus referred to as "taking even money", and paid out immediately, before the dealer's hand is resolved; the players do not need to place more chips for the insurance wager.
Insurance bets are expected to lose money in the long run, because the dealer is likely to have blackjack less than one-third of the time. However the insurance outcome is strongly anti-correlated with that of the main wager, and if the player's priority is to reduce variation, it is reasonable to pay for this.
Furthermore, the insurance bet is susceptible to advantage play. It is advantageous to make an insurance bet whenever the hole card has more than a chance of one in three of being a ten. Advantage play techniques can sometimes identify such situations. In a multi-hand, face-up, single deck game, it is possible to establish whether insurance is a good bet simply by observing the other cards on the table after the deal; even if there are just 2 player hands exposed, and neither of their two initial cards is a ten, then 16 in 47 of the remaining cards are tens, which is larger than 1 in 3, so insurance is a good bet. This is an elementary example of the family of advantage play techniques known as card counting.
Bets to insure against blackjack are slightly less likely to be advantageous than insurance bets in general, since the ten in the player's blackjack makes it less likely that the dealer has blackjack too.
The rules of casino blackjack are generally determined by law or regulation, which establishes certain rule variations allowed at the discretion of the casino. The rules of any particular game are generally posted on or near the table, failing which there is an expectation that casino staff will provide them on request. Over 100 variations of blackjack have been documented.
As with all casino games, blackjack incorporates a "house edge", a statistical advantage for the casino that is built into the game. The advantage of the dealer's position in blackjack relative to the player comes from the fact that if the player busts, the player loses, regardless of whether the dealer subsequently busts. Nonetheless, blackjack players using basic strategy will lose less than 1% of their total wagered amount with strictly average luck; this is very favorable to the player compared to other casino games. The loss rate of players who deviate from basic strategy through ignorance is generally expected to be greater.
|Number of Decks||House Advantage|
Surrender, for those games that allow it, is usually not permitted against a dealer blackjack; if the dealer's first card is an ace or ten, the hole card is checked to make sure there is no blackjack before surrender is offered. This rule protocol is consequently known as "late" surrender. The alternative, "early" surrender, gives player the option to surrender before the dealer checks for blackjack, or in a no-hole-card game. Early surrender is much more favorable to the player than late surrender. Most medium-strength hands should be surrendered against a dealer Ace if the hole card has not been checked.
For late surrender, however, while it is tempting opt for surrender on any hand which will probably lose, the correct strategy is to only surrender on the very worst hands, because having even a one in four chance of winning the full bet is better than losing half the bet and pushing the other half, as entailed by surrendering.
In most non-U.S. casinos, a 'no hole card' game is played, meaning that the dealer does not draw nor consult his or her second card until after all players have finished making decisions. With no hole card, it is almost never correct basic strategy to double or split against a dealer ten or ace, since a dealer blackjack will result in the loss of the split and double bets; the only exception is with a pair of A's against a dealer 10, where it is still correct to split. In all other cases, a stand, hit or surrender is called for. For instance, holding 11 against a dealer 10, the correct strategy is to double in a hole card game (where the player knows the dealer's second card is not an ace), but to hit in a no hole card game. The no hole card rule adds approximately 0.11% to the house edge.
The "original bets only" rule variation appearing in certain no hole card games states that if the player's hand loses to a dealer blackjack, only the mandatory initial bet ("original") is forfeited, and all optional bets, meaning doubles and splits, are pushed. "Original bets only" is also known by the acronym OBO; it has the same effect on basic strategy and house edge as reverting to a hole card game.
Each blackjack game has a basic strategy, which is playing a hand of any total value against any dealer's up-card, which loses the least money to the house in the long term.
An example of basic strategy is shown in the table below, and includes the following parameters:
|Player hand||Dealer's face-up card|
|Hard totals (excluding pairs)|
The bulk of basic strategy is common to all blackjack games, with most rule variations calling for changes in only a few situations. For example, if the above game used the hit on soft 17 rule, common in Las Vegas Strip casinos, only 6 cells of the table would need to be changed: double on 11 vs. A, surrender 15 or 17 vs. A, double on A,7 vs. 2, double on A,8 vs. 6, surrender(if not allowed, then hit) on 8,8 vs. A. Also when playing basic strategy never take insurance or "even money."
Estimates of the house edge for blackjack games quoted by casinos and gaming regulators are generally based on the assumption that the players follow basic strategy and do not systematically change their bet size. Most blackjack games have a house edge of between 0.5% and 1%, placing blackjack among the cheapest casino table games. Casino promotions such as complimentary matchplay vouchers or 2:1 blackjack payouts allow the player to acquire an advantage without deviating from basic strategy.
Basic strategy is based upon a player's point total and the dealer's visible card. Players may be able to improve on this decision by considering the precise composition of their hand, not just the point total. For example, players should ordinarily stand when holding 12 against a dealer 4. However, in a single deck game, players should hit if their 12 consists of a 10 and a 2. The presence of a 10 in the player's hand has two consequences:
However, even when basic and composition-dependent strategy lead to different actions, the difference in expected reward is small, and it becomes even smaller with more decks. Using a composition-dependent strategy rather than basic strategy in a single deck game reduces the house edge by 4 in 10,000, which falls to 3 in 100,000 for a six-deck game.
Blackjack has been a high-profile target for advantage players since the 1960s. Advantage play is the attempt to win more using "honest" skills such as memory, computation, and observation. These techniques, while generally legal, can be powerful enough to give the player a long-term edge in the game, making them an undesirable customer for the casino and leading to ejection or blacklisting if they are detected. The main techniques of advantage play in blackjack are as follows:
During the course of a blackjack shoe, the dealer progressively exposes cards which are dealt to his or her own and the players' hands. Careful accounting of the exposed cards allows a player to make inferences about the cards which remain to be dealt, and use these inferences in one of two ways:
A typical card counting system assigns a point score to each rank of card (e.g., 1 point for 2–6, 0 points for 7–9 and −1 point for 10–A). Whenever a card is exposed, a counter adds the score of that card to a running total, the 'count'; the count is used to make betting and playing decisions according to a table which they have learned. The count starts at 0 for a freshly shuffled deck for "balanced" counting systems. Unbalanced counts are often started at a value which depends on the number of decks used in the game.
Card counting is most rewarding near the end of a complete shoe when as few as possible cards remain. Single-deck games are therefore particularly susceptible to card counting. As a result, casinos are more likely to insist that players do not reveal their cards to one another in single-deck games. In games with more decks of cards, casinos limit penetration by ending the shoe and initiating a reshuffle when one or more decks remain undealt, or by using a shuffling machine to reintroduce the exhausted cards every time a deck has been played.
Card counting mentally is legal and is not considered cheating. However, it usually needs to be done discreetly; if a player is detected while counting, the casino may inform them that they are no longer welcome to play blackjack there, or they may be completely banned from the property.
The use of any external devices to assist with counting cards is illegal in all US states that license blackjack card games.
Techniques other than card counting can swing the advantage of casino blackjack toward the player. All such techniques are based on the value of the cards to the player and the casino, as originally conceived by Edward O. Thorp. One technique, mainly applicable in multi-deck games, involves tracking groups of cards (also known as slugs, clumps, or packs) during the play of the shoe, following them through the shuffle, and then playing and betting accordingly when those cards come into play from the new shoe. Shuffle tracking requires excellent eyesight and powers of visual estimation, but is more difficult to detect since the player's actions are largely unrelated to the composition of the cards in the shoe.
Arnold Snyder's articles in Blackjack Forum magazine brought shuffle tracking to the general public. His book, The Shuffle Tracker's Cookbook, mathematically analyzed the player edge available from shuffle tracking based on the actual size of the tracked slug. Jerry L. Patterson also developed and published a shuffle-tracking method for tracking favorable clumps of cards and cutting them into play and tracking unfavorable clumps of cards and cutting them out of play.
The player can also gain an advantage by identifying cards from distinctive wear markings on their backs, or by hole carding (observing during the dealing process the front of a card dealt face down). These methods are generally legal although their status in particular jurisdictions may vary.
Many blackjack tables offer a side bet on various outcomes including:
The side wager is typically placed in a designated area next to the box for the main wager. A player wishing to wager on a side bet is usually required to place a wager on blackjack. Some games require that the blackjack wager should equal or exceed any side bet wager. A non-controlling player of a blackjack hand is usually permitted to place a side bet regardless of whether the controlling player does so.
The house edge for side bets is generally far higher than for the blackjack game itself. Nonetheless side bets can be susceptible to card counting. A side count, designed specifically for a particular side bet, can improve the player edge. Most side games do not offer a sufficient win rate to justify the effort of advantage play; exceptions include "Lucky ladies" and "Over/Under".
In team play it is common for team members to be dedicated toward counting only a sidebet using a specialized count.
Blackjack can be played in tournament form, where players start with equal numbers of chips and the aim is to finish among the top chip-holders. Depending on the number of competitors, tournaments may be held over several rounds, with one or two players qualifying from each table after a set number of deals to meet the qualifiers from the other tables in the next round. Alternatively the Elimination Blackjack format drops the lowest-stacked player from the table at pre-determined points in the tournament, for instance after every four deals. Good strategy for blackjack tournaments can be very different from non-tournament strategy, and has the added dimension of choosing the amount to be wagered. As in poker tournaments, players pay the casino an initial entry fee to participate in a tournament, and re-buys are sometimes permitted.
Some casinos, as well as general betting outlets, provide blackjack among a selection of casino-style games at electronic consoles. Video blackjack game rules are generally more favorable to the house; e.g., paying out only even money for winning blackjacks. Video and online blackjack games deal each coup from a fresh shoe, rendering card counting much less effective.
Blackjack is a member of a large family of traditional card games played recreationally all around the world. Most of these games have not been adapted for casino play. Furthermore, the casino game development industry is very active in producing blackjack variants, most of which are ultimately not adopted for widespread use in casinos. The following are the prominent twenty-one themed comparing card games which have been adapted or invented for use in casinos and have become established in the gambling industry.
Examples of the many local traditional and recreational blackjack-like games include French/German Blackjack, called Vingt-et-un (French: Twenty-one) or "Siebzehn und Vier" (German: Seventeen and Four). The French/German game does not allow splitting. An ace can only count as eleven, but two aces count as a blackjack. It is mostly played in private circles and barracks. A British variation is called "Pontoon", the name being probably a corruption of "Vingt-et-un".
Blackjack is also featured in various television shows. Here are a few shows inspired by the game.
In 2002, professional gamblers around the world were invited to nominate great blackjack players for admission into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. Seven members were inducted in 2002, with new people inducted every year after. The Hall of Fame is at the Barona Casino in San Diego. Members include Edward O. Thorp, author of the 1960s book Beat the Dealer which proved that the game could be beaten with a combination of basic strategy and card counting; Ken Uston, who popularized the concept of team play; Arnold Snyder, author and editor of the Blackjack Forum trade journal; Stanford Wong, author and popularizer of the "Wonging" technique of only playing at a positive count, and several others.
Regulation in the United Kingdom