Blackjack is the single most popular casino table game. With origins going all the way back to the 16th century, the modern game includes many variations and big money side-bets.
Part of the appeal of blackjack is its simplicity. You need to beat the dealer, either by getting a total closer to 21 than the dealer, or by having a live hand when they ‘bust’. The rules are simple enough that anyone can play. As you become familiar with blackjack strategy, you’ll be able to reduce the house edge to one of the lowest at the casino.
This page covers both online and live casino blackjack in depth. You’ll everything from the basics of game play to where to legally enjoy blackjack online below. There are sections on the different variations, side bets and live-dealer online blackjack games.
Play online blackjack for real money at the best US casinos
Playing legal online blackjack in the USA
Regulation of online casinos is now happening in many states. You can enjoy legal online blackjack games on both desktops and mobile devices in the following states:
- New Jersey Casinos
- Pennsylvania Casinos
- Michigan Casinos (online launch expected in 2021)
- West Virginia Casinos
In most of these jurisdictions, established online casino brands have partnered with the brick and mortar casinos. They have a mix of websites and apps, allowing you to enjoy blackjack, slots and many other table games. You’ll be able to gamble legally within state lines.
While regulation of online casinos is spreading, many states have opted for online sportsbooks only. If you are in a state without regulated casinos, you can enjoy blackjack at Sweepstakes Casinos.
Blackjack Strategy Basics: How a Typical Hand is Played Out
Blackjack tables have spaces for up to 7 players. Your objective is to beat the dealer, there are three ways to do this:
- Have a total closer to 21 than the dealer does when the hand is competed
- Get dealt a ‘blackjack’ (picture card or 10 with an ace) when the dealer does not have one
- Have a live hand when the dealer busts by hitting 22 or more.
Here is how a hand works in the most common (US) blackjack variation.
- Each player must place a bet before they are dealt into a hand.
- The dealer deals two cards to each player face up
- The dealer deals herself one card face up and one face down
- If the dealers ‘hole card’ is an ace, they will offer insurance to the players against a dealer blackjack (see below for more on this bet).
- The dealer will now ‘peek’ at the hidden card when a 2-card blackjack is possible, if they hit this then the hand ends. All players not getting a blackjack (which is a push) will lose their bet.
- Each player now chooses whether to stand on their current total, hit, double down (add an additional bet) or split their cards. In some games a surrender option, returning half of the bet, is also offered.
- If any player goes over 21, their hand is dead – and their bet is lost.
- Play continues until all players have either busted or stood on their current total.
- The dealer then turns over her hidden card. She will hit or stand depending on the specific rules of the game. For example, standing on a hard 17 or over and hitting on soft 17 or under.
- If the dealer does not bust, then her score is compared to those of each player to determine who wins, loses and where there is a push.
In blackjack, aces can count as either 1 or 11. You will hear ‘Soft 17’ (for example) when the dealer has an ace plus a 6. If the next card is a 4, you can revert to counting the ace as 11 – making your total a 21. If you get a 10-value card, then your hand becomes a ‘Hard 17’
Your Decisions Explained: Stand, Hit, Double or Split
There is an optimal blackjack strategy for each combination of your cards’ total and the dealer’s up-card. While there are small differences depending on the number of decks in use and the specific rules on splitting and doubling down – understanding ‘basic strategy’ will keep the casino house edge very low.
A strategy card will show you the exact strategy for each combination. Below are the basics to keep in mind.
When to Hit: You’ll be hitting most of the time when dealer has a high probability of making a total between 17 and 21 and you have 16 or under. When the dealer shows a picture card, ace or two, you will almost always hit. If the dealer has a 3, 4, 5 or 6 showing, they have a higher probability of busting. This means you won’t hit as often when you have a chance to bust yourself.
When to Stand: Any time you have a hard 17 or better, your best strategy is to stand. If the dealer shows a middle card (especially a 5 or 6), there are many spots where you will stand with a hand between 12 and 16. In most games, the best strategy with a soft 17 is to hit.
When to Double: Doubling, or Doubling Down, involves placing an extra bet equal to your initial wager on a hand. You are then dealt one more card. Rules vary on when you are allowed to do this. The ideal situation is when you have 9, 10 or 11 in your total, and the dealer shows a middle card.
When to Split: When your cards are identical (for example a pair or 10’s), your choice is between standing and splitting. If you split, you need to place an extra wager – effectively playing 2 hands. You now play these hands individually, hitting, standing, splitting or doubling down. The ideal time to split is with 2 high cards against a dealer middle card. You’ll usually stand with 20 if the dealer shows a picture card.
When to Surrender: Some games have an optional surrender. This allows you to ditch a terrible hand (for example 16) against a dealer picture card. You’ll pay half of your initial bet to surrender.
Types of Blackjack Game and Blackjack Variations
There are two main ‘core’ blackjack games, plus 100’s of variations which include side-bets and novelty games based on the original concept.
Here are the two main variations:
- US Blackjack: This was described in the typical hand above. The dealer takes two cards at the start of the hand and will ‘peek’ at the hidden card when a blackjack is possible.
- European Blackjack: The dealer only gets one card at the start of the hand. After all the players have completed their actions, the dealer takes another card. This means you won’t know whether the dealer has a blackjack until the end of the hand, which does affect your strategy.
Here are some of the other common real money blackjack variations you’ll find on casino floors and in online casinos:
- Double Deck / Single Deck: Usually reserved for the high rollers, these games use just 1 or 2 decks instead of the usual 6 to 8.
- Spanish 21: This variation removes the 10’s (though not the picture cards) from the deck, leaving 48 cards in each deck.
- Free Bet Blackjack: You can get a free bet token to double or split in this game. To balance, if the dealer hits 22, winning player hands are considered a push.
- Blackjack Switch: Here you get dealt 2 hands and can swap the cards between them to hit the best possible score.
- Pontoon: This game originated in the UK. It has similar rules, though uses different terms including ‘Stick’ and ‘Twist’.
Online Blackjack Side Bets
Blackjack does not have the possibilities of huge wins compared to casino poker games like Let It Ride and Ultimate Texas Hold’em. To balance this, many casinos offer side bets. These are optional bets, and the stakes don’t need to match the main bet in many circumstances. For example, you can bet $25 per hand in the main game, with an optional $5 side bet.
Popular options are ‘Perfect Pairs’, where you can win based on hitting a pair as your hole cards, with bigger payments for suited aces – or ‘Blazing 777’s’ which pays big prizes with 3 7’s as your first 3 cards.
Keep in mind that side bets have a higher house edge than the main game. Some live casino side bets have progressive jackpots.
Playing Live Dealer Blackjack Online
Online casinos in regulated states have introduced real money blackjack games against real dealers. These are provided in addition to the popular software-based games.
Live dealer casino games stream from studios, showing online blackjack and other games dealt in real time. You’ll find a spot at a table, and bet using an overlay. Side bets are available. Your decisions will be timed to keep the games flowing. If you time out, you’ll simply stand on your current total.
As well as providing a realistic casino feel, live dealer blackjack games have a social element. You can chat by typing with the dealer and the other players.
Blackjack Games and House Edge
The best blackjack games have a tiny house edge. This can be under 1% with the right mix of rules. Ideal games have as few decks as possible – the dealer should hit on soft 17, liberal rules including the ability to split and resplit, and to double down after splitting – plus a surrender option.
Most regular blackjack games have a house edge of around 2% to 3%. This assumes you are making ‘perfect’ decisions in line with the strategy card of the game you are playing.
A common change in live casinos is to pay 6:5 instead of 3:2 on a player blackjack. This increases their long-term house edge by almost 2%. The smallest stakes games rarely have the ideal rules these days, though if you are playing $50+ per hand (live) then you’ll be able to find games with a lower house edge.
Real money blackjack apps
Online casino apps are the perfect way to play a fews hands of blackjack for real money. A player can complete a hand in just a few seconds. Additionally, they can start and stop at any time.
Players have the same level of control using real money blackjack apps as they would in any other form. Legal, regulated online or mobile blackjack may even be better for both parties because less overhead is required to operate a game. More hands per minute mean the casino can choose to offer a fun and competitive game with a very low house advantage.
Blackjack Card Counting and Advantage Play
While card counting is not against the law, casinos will quickly ban players caught doing this.
The concept is simple, that a deck with more high cards as a proportion of the total is more favorable for the player. With enough high cards, the house edge can become positive for the players. Card counters employ different methods of keeping track of the cards dealt. When the count becomes positive, they increase their bet size significantly – taking advantage of the house edge.
The problem with this strategy is that going from $5 to $500 bets is very obvious to the dealers and pit bosses. While the MIT blackjack team had a signaling method in the famous movie, casinos are aware of this too – making counting very difficult.
There is nothing to stop you increasing your bet size online. To counter card counting, the games only use half of the cards in an 8-deck shoe. This makes getting a ‘true count’ very difficult. The count (whether you count high or low cards) is always divided by the number of remaining decks to account for variance in the spread of the high / low cards. Single or Double Deck games are ideal for counting – though in live casinos these games will be the most closely watched.
Though other table games have emerged in the 21st century, the blackjack win amount recorded by Nevada casinos has been around $1.1 billion annually. External factors, such as novelty table games and general economics, certainly impact blackjack revenue. Even still, data since 2000 shows blackjack has been a consistent profit source.
A sharp increase in revenue from baccarat, a table game popular among super-high rollers, has put blackjack in the No. 2 spot in the annual revenue category since 2009. This was a distinct and defining year for Las Vegas gaming revenue. It marked a national recession and the long-awaited opening of City Center. This new venue included two major casinos, Aria and Cosmopolitan.
Even though Nevada baccarat revenue surpassed blackjack revenue by more than $100 million in 2015, the annual win amount from craps was just a fraction of blackjack’s. Nevada casinos earned about $383 million from craps in 2015 compared to $1.09 billion from blackjack.
Blackjack across the US
Nearly every casino in the United States that offers table games offers blackjack.
Since this statement does not hold true for craps or roulette, it’s a testament to the game’s popularity and understanding among players and regulators alike.
Florida, for example, is an emerging gaming destination and jurisdiction. For the time being, a compact between Florida’s Native American tribes and the state government limits the presence of non-poker table games to tribal casinos. That exclusivity makes casino-resort properties like the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood one of the most lucrative in North America. The South Florida casino is home to over 100 table games and dozens of active blackjack tables at peak hours.
On the other coast, California has its take on the game of 21. In the 1980s, to get legislators and regulators to agree on the expansion of table games (mainly poker), card rooms began offering the game but only if non-licensees banked them. The California system stems from the acceptance of parimutuel wagering. (California is home to dozens of racetracks like the famous Santa Anita, which opened in 1934.)
California’s regulatory limitations require all wagering competitions to be parimutuel forces players to wager against each other. They do not wager directly against the house. State-sponsored card rooms and racetracks make money by taking a structured percentage out of the prize pool. The take is based on the total amount wagered.
To allow blackjack in a parimutuel-only gaming environment, the game in California is “banked” by other players. It can also be banked by a “corporation” that provides the service to the casino full time — a fee collected from each player before every hand goes directly to the casino. It is separate from the wagers (and subsequent wins and losses) on the table. It’s effectively an ante required to be dealt into a round of blackjack.
Charging a fee to play a hand of blackjack is not unique to California. In Oklahoma, tribal casinos collect what is commonly referred to as an “ante” (as opposed to “commission”). This equates to 50 cents from each player before every hand. At Winstar World Resort in Thackerville, just across the Texas-Oklahoma border, dealers collect blackjack antes 24/7 on one of the biggest casino floors in the country.
Though gaming laws vary from state to state, one is never too far away from a live blackjack table. Outside of Nevada and Atlantic City, blackjack players can find favorable gaming conditions in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. Riverboat and tribal casinos in Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana have been hotspots for decades.
Not all blackjack is created equal
To many players, blackjack is still blackjack no matter the rules or how it is dealt. Unfortunately, this perception is untrue.
Blackjack is a game where the host determines the conditions. Minor variants are common between casinos and even within the same casino. For players, it’s imperative to identify how the specific rules and/or paying a commission affect the overall game.
Some conditions are the result of legal regulation. Others are simply a mechanism to adjust the house advantage and, therefore, hold and win percentages.
Blackjack, the event of getting dealt a two-card 21 pays 3:2 or 1.5-to-1 on a wager. Sadly for players, 6:5 or 1.2-to-1 blackjack is a rapidly increasing occurrence.
One might wrongly assume 6:5 payouts exist only to offer single-deck games. Unfortunately, there are properties in Downtown Las Vegas that offer 6:5 shoe games — and eight-deck shoe games to boot. Avoid these games.
For the time being, plenty of authentic 3:2 games can be found within a short walk of a blasphemous 6:5 shoe game. On a positive note, the 6:5 trend seems to be concentrated in certain markets, like Las Vegas. Thankfully, it’s not a sweeping trend across the world.
Wrapping up: Transitioning from casino to online blackjack
Online blackjack has come a long way over the last few years. You can now find legal online casinos offering multiple blackjack variations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia. While we wait for more states to regulate casinos, online games are available at Sweepstakes casinos.
You’ll be able to choose between software-based blackjack and live dealer games. Both have their place. The software-based games are fast – and cover multiple blackjack variations. Live dealer games are like live casino blackjack, with a real dealer handling cards in real time.
If you learn basic blackjack strategy, and avoid those expensive side bets, blackjack has one of the lowest house edges of any game in the casino.