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:
- Get 21 points on the player’s first two cards (called a blackjack), without a dealer blackjack;
- Reach a final score higher than the dealer without exceeding 21; or
- Let the dealer draw additional cards until his or her hand exceeds 21.
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 This hand was called a “blackjack” and the name stuck to the game, even though the ten-to-one bonus was soon withdrawn.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 colors.
Rules of play
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 shuffled together. At the beginning of each round, up to three players can place their bets in the “betting box” at each position in play. That is, there could be up to three players at each position at a table in jurisdictions that allow back betting. 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.