The Greatest Gambling Guide to Live Dealer Blackjack
The Origin of Blackjack
In most of the world baccarat is the most popular card game at casinos. In North America, however, blackjack remains not only the most popular card game but the favorite table game. It is well known beyond the casino and the majority of American adults have at least some concept of the rules. The true origin of the game is unknown though there are a number of theories. Most believe that the game evolved from an earlier game possibly the Spanish game of ‘twenty one’. It is clear that this game dates back to last least the 1600’s in Spain due to it’s mention in the works of author Miguel de Cervantes. Many of the competing theories of origin predate the 1600s so the true story of the game remains shrouded in history.
The story about how blackjack or one of its predecessors came to America has some debate as well though most think it came from either French or Spanish sailors that landed in New Orleans during the 1800s. It quickly spread East and West and by the end of the 19th Century was being played by a variety of different cultural, social and economic groups. When Nevada legalized gambling in the early 1900’s, a modified version of ‘21’ was quickly added to the casino mix.
Seasoned gamblers of the period were always skeptical of new games and so casinos began to offer bonus payouts on certain hands as a way of drawing more interest. One popular bonus offered a ten to one payout if the player’s hand was a black jack (spades or clubs) combined with the ace of spades. Gamblers called this hand the “blackjack” and even after this bonus scheme disappeared the name stock. In modern blackjack, the term refers to any hand that is an ace and ten value card, regardless of colors or suits.
How the Game is Played
Blackjack is a very easy game to play though difficult to master at a very high level. In this section we’ll outline the basic format of the game. This is what you can expect if you play at a land based casino, an online casino or at a live dealer game. We’ll go into a more detailed look at the rules later on but these are the absolute basics.
Blackjack is played at a table with five or seven spaces for players. These spaces are arranged in a semicircle with the dealer stationed directly across from the players. In front of the players is a circle—that’s where bets are placed before each hand. In some casinos there may be other spaces for ‘side bets’ or other wagers unique to their game.
Every hand begins with bets being placed in the designated circle. The dealer then deals two cards to each player (these can be face down or face up depending on the specific game rules). He then deals two to himself, one face up and the other face down. The object of the game is well known: to combine cards to equal 21 or as close to possible to this number without going over. Aces can be worth either 1 or 11 depending on which makes the most favorable hand. All face cards are worth 10. Every other card is worth the number on its face.
Having been dealt their first two cards players have a decision to make. They can stand and keep their first two cards. They can ‘hit’, receiving another card from the dealer. Assuming the new card doesn’t make their hand go over 21 (this is called a ‘bust’) they can choose to hit again or to stand. In some situations depending on the rules at a specific casino a player can double down, split or surrender (fold) their hand.
Once every player at the table has played their hand the dealer finishes his hand. His hand is played by a specific rule set that can vary slightly from one casino to another. One common ruleset of this type has the dealer hitting if his hand totals 16 or lower, and standing if the hand is between 17 and 21. The players win when their hand totals higher than the dealer’s, or if they have 21 or less when the dealer busts (has over 21).
Important Terms to Know
Like many games, blackjack has a unique terminology so you’ll want to know the meaning of several words and phrases that you might hear at a table. You might encounter some regional variation in some of these but if you’re familiar with the definitions below you’ll know what they’re talking about.
Soft Hands and Hard Hands
A ‘hard hand’ is any dealt hand that doesn’t contain an ace or alternately does contain an ace counted as ‘1’. For example, a 10 and a 7 is a ‘hard 17’. A six, ace, two and ten make a ‘hard 20’. Any hand that contains an ace counted as ‘11’ is a ‘soft hand’. For example, an ace and a seven is a ‘soft 18’. A three, two, four and ace is a ‘soft 20’.
Depending on the cards you’re initially dealt and how you play them it is possible to start with a ‘soft hand’ but have a ‘hard hand’ by the end of the round. For example, if you’re dealt a five and an ace you’ve got ‘soft 16’. If you take another card and get a six you’ve now card a ‘hard 12’. The difference between hard and soft hands is important for basic and advanced blackjack strategy.
Busting (sometimes called ‘busting out’) is the term for any time that a dealer or player goes over 21. A bust by a player prior to the dealer playing his hand is an automatic loss. So let’s say you’re dealt a 10 and a 3 for 13. You decide to ‘hit’ and the dealer gives you another card—a nine. Since 10+3+9=22 you have busted and lost the hand.
If you play blackjack in a land based casino or with a live dealer there’s a good chance you’ll see a ‘shoe’ in play. If a game is played with one or two decks, the dealer typically holds the cards in one hand and deals with the other. With more decks, however, that’s not really possible. For games with four or eight decks a ‘shoe’ is used—it’s a box with an opening at one end that allows the dealer to easily distribute the cards to each player as needed. If a shoe is used it isn’t uncommon for the dealer to deal both opening cards to the player face up. If one or two decks are used the first two cards are typically dealt face down.
Betting Box or Spot
The circle on table in front of each player is where they place their bets before each hand. You might hear this referred to as the ‘betting box’ or ‘betting spot’.
Rules of The Game
Since we explained the basics of card valuation and gameplay above we can now look at the rules for specific situations that you’ll encounter during the game. You may encounter variations of these rules unique to a specific casino but the ones we’re outlining below are the most commonly encountered.
As defined earlier, you indicate to the dealer that you want to ‘hit’ if you want them to deal you an extra card. In some informal games you can just say ‘hit me’ but that doesn’t work in a busy casino. At a blackjack table in a land based casino the way you indicate this varies depending on whether the game is dealt out of a shoe or from the dealer’s hand. In a shoe based game, you just tap on the table with your finger on or close to your cards. In a handheld game, you scratch the edges of your cards on the table felt. In online blackjack play or live dealer online play you’ll have a button in your game interface that indicates that you want to ‘hit’.
Standing (sometimes called ‘staying’) means that you’re happy with the total of your cards and would like to ‘stay put’ or ‘stand pat’ and finish playing your hand. In a land based casino game, the way you indicate this varies between hand dealt and shoe dealt games. In a hand dealt game, you tuck your cards under your chips in the betting box. In a shoe dealt game, you wave one hand over the card palm down. In an online game or game played at a live dealer casino you’ll just use the button indicated on your computer screen.
If you’re dealt two of the same value card (eg: a 7 of hearts and a 7 of clubs) you have the option to split your hand. To do this you make another bet equal to your original bet by placing the appropriate amount of chips on the table right next to your original bet chips. The two 7’s are then ‘split’ into separate hands and another card is dealt for each one. The result is that you now have two hands which are played out independent of each other. Most of the time, you’re allowed to hit the split hands as many times as you’d like though there are some exceptions at some casinos. At an online or live dealer casino you’ll have a button on your screen to indicate a ‘split’.
At most casinos you’ll encounter a special rule for splitting a pair of Aces. When this happens you can split your hand but you will be dealt only one card face down on each hand. Very rarely you might find a casino that allows you to re-hit split aces.
Another possible exception: say you’re dealt two 7’s, decide to split and are dealt a new card for each hand. One hand gets dealt a King for a total of 17 but the other is dealt another 7 for a total of 14. At some casinos, you have the option of ‘re-splitting’ the two 7’s that resulted from the previous split. Other casinos won’t allow you to re-split hands. If you are allowed to re-split hands you just repeat the process as outlined above. Most casinos have a maximum limit of times that you can re-split a hand.
In some circumstances, a player has the option to ‘double down’ after he is dealt his first two cards. If a player wants to double down he places an equal bet next to his initial wager the same way as outlined in the information about ‘splitting’ above. He is then dealt one more card to determine the outcome of the hand. In a shoe dealt game, you just place your bet next to your original two cards to indicate you’d like to double down. In a hand dealt game, place your initial two cards on the table face up and then place a second bet next to them. At an online or live dealer casino there will be a button on your screen to indicate to the dealer that you’d like to double down.
Some casinos limit a player’s ability to double down to certain first two card totals with 9, 10 and 11 being the most common. Some casinos only allow doubling on a 10 or 11. If a casino doesn’t have a rule of this sort you can double down on any two cards.
You don’t see this option often but when you do it is extremely advantageous to the player. To ‘surrender’ a player just ‘folds’ his hand after his first two cards. In return, the dealer returns half of the original bet. Most casinos only allow a surrender after the dealer has checked their cards to see if they have a blackjack. Once you draw a third card the ‘surrender’ option is no longer available. It is also not available if the dealer does hit a blackjack with his first two cards. There are a variety of ways to indicate a ‘surrender’ that vary from game to game and one casino to another. If you’re playing blackjack at a online casino or live dealer casino that allows surrender there will be a button on your screen.
If a player hits a ‘blackjack’ with his first two cards and the dealer has an ace as his upcard he might ask if the player wants to be paid off at ‘even money’ instead of the usual, more generous price for a blackjack. The dealer will ask a player with a blackjack if they want to take an even money payout before he checks his hole card. If a player takes even money, he’s paid off and done with his hand regardless of what the dealer has for a hole card. If he doesn’t take the even money payout, play continues as usual.
This is another option for a player when the dealer has an Ace showing as his upcard. The dealer will ask the players at the table if they want ‘insurance’ before checking his hole card. If a player wants to take insurance, he places a wager equal to half of his initial stake. If the dealer has ‘blackjack’ you’ll lose your initial bet but you’ll get a 2 to 1 payout on your ‘insurance’ bet. At an online or live dealer casino there will be some type of on screen prompt if insurance is an option on a given hand.
Every game, sport or endeavor in life comes with their own set of behavioral expectations, traditions, superstition and etiquette. Gambling in general has more than their share and blackjack is no exception. In this section we’ll run through a number of key etiquette points specific to the game of blackjack. Note that some rules won’t apply to specific versions of the game. For example, the tips about interacting with other players only apply to land based and live dealer casinos—not online casinos where you’re playing against a computer.
Betting in The Middle Of A Hand Or Shoe
This is a bigger issue at land based casinos than anywhere else though it may be applicable to some live dealer games. The basic point here is that you want to join a table and place your bet at the right time. It’s good form to wait until the game is between hands to join a table. If you want to get even more points you might even want to ask the players currently at the table if they ‘mind if you join them’. Nine times out of ten they’ll be happy to add another player to the game. If there’s any grumbling, however, it’s probably not a table you want to play at anyway. If you do take a seat at the table midhand don’t place your bet for the next hand in the betting spot. Also, don’t start laying out money for the dealer to change at this point. Just wait until this hand is done and the dealer will make sure you’re taken care of.
Betting during a shoe is far less ‘cut and dried’. Some casinos actually have a rule against joining a game mid-shoe as they think it protects them against some advanced card counting strategies. Otherwise, there’s really nothing wrong with joining a table mid-shoe. That being said, there are some superstitious players that still believe that new players joining mid-shoe ‘mess up’ the flow of the cards. Anyone who understands basic probability theory knows that this is nonsense but some less sophisticated players actually think that if a new player sits down to his left and is dealt a winning hand that it was actually ‘meant for him’. Once again, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you can join a game.
Second Guessing Other Players’ Strategy
Most blackjack games in any setting will have some back and forth chitchat between the players and the dealer. Keep it light and superficial. There’s nothing more irritating than having someone else at the table question how you played a previous hand or give you advice for playing a current hand. Sometimes the ‘advice’ is well meaning while other times players actually get upset if you play a hand a particular way claiming it ‘screws up the deck’. There’s no validity to that whatsoever but if you don’t find yourself at a table with someone who buys in to this misguided concept it can make your game unpleasant.
Don’t Talk the Other Players’ Excessively
As noted above, keep table talk light and superficial. Some players like to engage in some friendly banter while others prefer to be quiet and focus on the game. Decent social skills go a long way here. This can apply to land based casinos as well as live dealer games. Although online casino platforms may employ a chat box interface the same concept is at play—take a cue from the other players at the table and if they’re not making comments after every card or hand it is a good indication that they don’t want you to do it either.
Don’t Monopolize the Dealer’s Attention
This can be an issue at a land based or live dealer casino. Most dealers are taught to be friendly to players but that doesn’t mean they want to hear your life story or have you unload your marital problems on them. As is the case with conversation between players the best plan is to keep the conversation light. This is particularly true at a busy table. If you’re playing ‘heads up’ with a dealer there might be room for a little more back and forth but once again they’re not their to listen to your problems. Also, don’t expect the dealer to hold your hand through the entire game. Most dealers (and for that matter most players) are happy to help newcomers but if you’re asking multiple questions on every hand you might be better off finding a table specifically for new players or even taking a blackjack class.
Know What You Should and Shouldn’t Touch
This is a problem that doesn’t exist online in software based or live dealer games. For that reason, we’ll cover these quickly. Generally speaking, don’t touch your cards or chips during play. Obviously, you can hold your cards in a hand dealt game in a land based casino and you might need to touch your chips to double down or split. Every casino has their own rules but most of these suggestions are just good form. Don’t hold cards with both hands (hand dealt game) or touch cards on the table (shoe dealt game). Make sure your cards are always in full view of the dealer and security cameras. Don’t place large personal objects (wallet, bag or purse) on the table. If you have a drink, use a coaster or drink holders. If you need chips don’t hand money directly to the dealer—put your money on the table in front of the betting spot and the dealer will take care of you between hands. Avoid touching your chips during a hand and if you’re betting with more than one value/color chip the custom is to put the larger value chip on top. At online and live dealer casinos the game interface won’t allow you to do most of these things.
No matter where you play blackjack you’ll likely encounter some variations on the game that go beyond mere differences in house rules. There are countless variations of blackjack with new ones popping up all the time. Some employ a bonus for certain hands, others involve a ‘side bet’ to qualify for a jackpot and others have completely different gameplay. If you’re looking at a game that is anything other than basic blackjack the dealer will gladly explain the rules to you before play begins. Here are some of the most common blackjack variations that you might come across at a land based, online or live dealer casino.
Vegas Strip, European And Atlantic City Blackjack
These aren’t technically game variations but you might hear certain types of rulesets referred to by these terms no matter where you’re playing. At one point, you’d occasionally hear the term ‘Downtown Las Vegas’ rules but not so much any more. These terms refer to the game rules that are (or at least were at some point) most common in these well known gambling venues.
Vegas Strip blackjack is played with four decks. On a soft 17, the dealer commonly stays. Doubling by players is allowed on any two cards chosen. Doubling after the split is allowed. Re-splitting is allowed, but surrendering is not allowed. In Vegas Strip blackjack, the dealer can peek on tens and aces.
Atlantic City blackjack is played with eight decks. On a soft 17, the dealer commonly stays. Doubling by players is allowed on any two cards chosen. Doubling after the split is allowed. Re-splitting is allowed, and surrendering is also allowed. In Atlantic City blackjack, the dealer can peek on tens and aces.
European blackjack is played with six decks, but can vary. On a soft 17, the dealer commonly stays. Doubling by players is allowed on only nine, 10, and 11. Doubling after the split is allowed. Re-splitting is not allowed, and surrendering is not allowed. In European blackjack, the dealer cannot peek at any time.
Generally speaking, none of these terms are as popular as they used to be. They’re still good to know so you won’t be in the dark when you do hear them used plus the different variations are good illustration of how the game is seldom the same from one casino to another.
Progressive Jackpot Games
Casinos began to add progressive jackpot side bets to blackjack to better compete with slot machines. Some players enjoy the possibility of hitting a big score at long odds and within the fundamental rules of blackjack that doesn’t exist. The specific rules of progressive jackpot blackjack games can vary widely even within the same casino. The basic premise is usually the same—to qualify for the jackpot a player must make a small ‘side bet’ for each hand. If the side bet is made the jackpot condition occurs the player is a winner. There is also a game variation referred to simply as ‘progressive jackpot’ that pays bonuses based on the number and color of aces in the initial hand deal of each player.
Double Exposure Games
This is arguably the most common blackjack variation at casinos online and off. As the name suggests, the dealer’s cards are both ‘face up’ giving the players much more information with which to make decisions. This is obviously a benefit to the players but it comes at a price in the form of less advantageous rules. Typically, double exposure blackjack games have a rule that the dealer wins all ties or ‘pushes’. Some will make an exception for hands where the dealer and player both have blackjack while others won’t. Another common ‘concession’ to the house in double exposure games is that all winning ‘blackjack’ hands are paid out at even money. Unlike many variations, double exposure games end up having a reasonable house edge relative to ‘traditional’ blackjack. If you’re looking for something different this is a good game to play.
Blackjack switch was first seen in Nevada casinos well over a decade ago. It’s popularity has resulted in the game spreading not only to land based properties outside of the ‘Silver State’ but to online and live dealer casinos as well. The twist here is that each player is dealt two hands simultaneously (obviously for two equal bets). Once the two hands are dealt the player can elect to ‘switch’ a card between hands which allows them to create a stronger hand (or possibly make both hands stronger). Once again, there are other rule changes that make this less advantageous than it first seems. Blackjacks are paid at ‘Even Money’. Other games have a rule that if the dealer ‘busts’ with a hand total of exactly 22 all bets in play carry over to the next hand. When everything is said and done, blackjack switch has a reasonable house edge and is a fun change up from the traditional rules of the game.