The game of blackjack is popular for oh-so-many reasons. It’s one of James Bond’s favorites, for one. Played with the classic 52-card deck (or sometimes, more than one deck of cards), the aim of the game is to have a total of 21.
In order to play blackjack successfully, you really need to understand the game itself as well as the accompanying terminology.
But let’s start from the beginning.
What Exactly Is Blackjack?
Long ago, in the 17th century, when the world was a different place, a game was invented, and its popularity has not decreased. This game was called Twenty-One, and it is the forerunner of contemporary blackjack. Miguel de Cervantes, the author most famous for the legendary book “Don Quixote,” was the first to reference this game in a book. While this version is meant to be played with the Spanish card deck, it is modern blackjack’s direct ancestor.
So why isn’t the game simply called Twenty-One?
Well, it was called that back when it was first brought to the United States. The casinos believed the game would be a hit, but casino players weren’t interested in trying out some new European game. So to entice them, the casinos invented a bonus; if a player got a Jack of Spades or Clubs (the Black Jacks) and an Ace, they’d get paid out 10 to 1. They named this bonus hand, fittingly, “blackjack.” The name stuck, and the game got more popular just as casinos predicted even though they took the bonus out soon after. Sort of like how they took cocaine out of Coca Cola, yet the drink’s popularity never waned. Of course, nowadays, any combination of Jacks and other face cards with an Ace produce a blackjack hand.
Like most casino games, this one has a basic strategy that players use if they want to win. Unlike most games of chance, running count of the cards can be useful because it’s not too hard to calculate the probability.
Which Card Is Which?
The cards in a standard deck go from the Ace through to the King. But depending on the card game in question, the card values and meanings can change.
When it comes to card values in blackjack, cards from 2 to 10 are worth their face (or pip) value. The Jacks, Queens, and Kings are worth 10. Now, the Ace has a twofold value; it can either be worth 1 or 11, depending on the hand you have. If you get an Ace, you have a “soft” hand because you can change its value to suit you. If there is no Ace, then you’ve a “hard” hand on your plate, but we’ll get to what all that means in a jiffy.
Note that suits don’t actually play a role in blackjack.
How Exactly Do You Play the Game?
Alright, so we already know that the aim of the game is to get a blackjack hand which is where the sum value of your cards is 21. We also know that we can use the Ace to help us in that elusive quest. But what does the gameplay look like, exactly?
First of all, as it is a casino game, you play against the casino, not the other players. There can be multiple players, and usually, between two and seven are seated at the blackjack table.
Secondly, apart from getting a natural blackjack hand, you can win in two other ways — either you’ve a higher score than the Dealer (even though you both have a total that is less than 21) or if the Dealer’s total exceeds 21.
First of all, you place your bets in front of you on the table in the designated spot. You also have the option of making “side bets” at the start of the game or double the bet which has some caveats. You’ll probably only double your bet if you find you have two cards equalling 8, 9, 10, or 11 and/or when you have a soft 12–19.
To start off, the players get two cards and depending on the variation, they’re either dealt face-down or up. The Dealer gets one upward-facing card; an exception to this is a U.S. variation where the Dealer gets two cards with one facing up and the other turned face-down.
Now, if the sum of your original cards is 21 because you’ve a Queen and an Ace for example, then you’ve made a “natural” win, and you stop playing. If, however, you have an Ace and a 2, you can continue playing with your “soft” hand (because you decide if it’s 1+2 or 11+2). If you have a 3 and a 4, you ought to continue playing with your “hard” hand because the sum total of that is 7, and that’s nowhere near 21.
When all the players get their hands and if none win automatically, then the Dealer reveals the face-down card (if that’s the variation being played). If not, then the players proceed to either “stand” with the cards they’ve got, or they ask the Dealer to “hit” them with another one. You physically hit the table in front of you to indicate that this is what you want, hence the name. You can also make a “come hither” motion with your hand to indicate that you want another card. If you have a total of 7 like in the previous example, you’ll want another card. But if you have an 8 and a 9, you might want to consider “standing” so you don’t go over 21.
The players who don’t “bust,” i.e., have over 21 after their “hit,” move on with the game.
If it so happens that no one has a blackjack hand, but your sum total is the same as the Dealer’s (you both have a total of 17, for example), it’s called a “push.” In some variations, this means you neither win nor lose; in others, it means the Dealer wins.
When you’re happy with your total, you should wave your hand palm-down over your cards to indicate that you are done “hitting.” Once all the players have made their decisions, the Dealer can “hit” one last time or “stand.” If it’s the U.S. version, that’s the time the Dealer reveals the face-down card from the beginning.
If you win, you get the payout according to the outcome.
What Are the Payouts?
If your total card value equates to a blackjack, you get paid 3 to 2 by the Dealer.
If it’s a push, the chips stay as they are (or the Dealer takes them, if you’re playing that variation).
If no one has a blackjack, but your sum total is greater than that of the Dealer, they match your betting amount.
If you “bust” instead of the Dealer, and your sum total is lower than theirs, your chips go to the Dealer.
The Basic Strategy
Card counting is a legitimate way to make sure you come out a blackjack winner or at least to mitigate your losses. While it’s not technically illegal in most places because it’s hard to prove, casinos will ban you in a heartbeat if you’re ever caught trying to pull that off.
The idea is to memorize which cards came out and therefore, which remain. Then, knowing the concentration of low and high cards, you can calculate the probability of winning and bet accordingly.
Because there are only 52 cards to think about when using a single deck, card counters were able to easily remember how many cards were left. This allowed a relatively easy calculation of the odds of a certain card coming up in the next “hit.” People would keep a “running count” of the cards and the new information they entailed. You would count until the Dealer reaches the “cut card” and reshuffles.
Casinos saw that using only one “shoe” with a single deck was a problem, so they started using multiple decks to confuse card counters. In this game of one-upmanship, the card counters started calculating a “true count,” meaning the count per deck. This is a lengthy process but not impossible — we calculate the “true count” by dividing the “running count” with the total number of decks. Nowadays, blackjack is usually played with 6 decks, meaning we’ll divide it by 6.
Having a “running count” of +5 with 1 deck means that you know that five more 10-value cards and/or Aces remain in the deck. But if you’re playing modern blackjack, then you divide 5 by 6 decks, and you have less than one high card per remaining deck. In the first example, we have a positive “running count,” and in the second, it’s negative.
To reiterate, the player has the edge in the first example, while the Dealer does in the second. The count is positive if the probability is in favor of the player, and negative if it isn’t. It’s all about the remaining concentration of high or low cards. If there’s a higher concentration of low-value cards then there’s automatically less chance for anyone to “bust.” The player can then make “playing deviations” or adjust their betting accordingly.
We’ve outlined the basic gameplay when it comes to blackjack. However, there are many intricacies involved, and an overview of the terminology is called for.
Ace — this is the card with two potential values; it can either be worth 1 or 11. In a “natural” blackjack hand, it counts as a 1, and you can count it as an 11 if it doesn’t tip the sum total to over 21.
Blackjack — is when you have an Ace and a 10-value card, equalling to 21 points total.
Blackjack table — the table with the special blackjack layout used to play this game on.
Bust — when the player and/or Dealer get 22 or higher.
Counting cards — is what card counters do to calculate the winning probabilities and decide how to adjust their bets.
Cut card — the solid-color card the Dealer places back in the deck after the cards are cut. When they reach it while dealing, it indicates it’s time to shuffle after that hand.
Double down — is when you double your bet with extra chips right after you first get your initial two cards, but after this, you may get only 1 more card.
Doubling down — see Double down.
Early surrender — happens when the player gives up half their bet before the Dealer checks whether they have a blackjack hand on behalf of the player.
Even Money — if you get a blackjack hand and the Dealer has an Ace and a hole card, they can offer you even money instead of 3:2. If you decline and the Dealer also gets a blackjack, then it’s like a standard “push.”
Face cards — the value of face cards is 10, so the actual 10-card, as well as Jacks, Kings, and Queens in blackjack are face cards.
Face-up game — this is a variation where the Dealer doesn’t have a hole card, both their original cards are placed face-up.
Face value — the true number value is the card value. For example, a 2 card is worth 2 points. In blackjack, cards 2 to 10 are of face value.
Flush — when the player’s first two cards combined with the Dealer’s face-up card are suited. For details, see 21+3 side bet.
Hard hand — when you don’t have an Ace, just face cards or number cards.
Hit — when you choose to take another card. You may do this for as long as your sum total is under 21.
Hole card — the Dealer’s downward-facing card.
Insurance — is when the Dealer has an Ace, and you bet anew for a 2:1 payout that they won’t get a blackjack. If they do, then you break even, but if not, you forfeit your original 1:1 bet. This is a type of side bet; for details see side bet.
Late surrender — this happens after the Dealer reveals they have a blackjack, but it’s not possible after a “hit”; it must be while the player is still just on their original two cards. The player effectively chooses to forfeit half their bet so they don’t lose it all.
Natural blackjack — this is when someone immediately gets a sum total of 21 without any additional “hits” from the Dealer.
Number cards — The number is the value of the card.
Penetration — of the cut card, get your mind out of the gutter, people! The deeper the card penetrates the deck, the better the skilled card counter can calculate the odds.
Perfect pairs — if your two original cards are a pair, you can make this side bet. If it’s a mixed suit pair, your payout is 6:1; if they’re of the same color, the payout is 12:1, and if they’re of the same suit, it’s 25:1.
Pip value — see face value.
Playing deviations — when we change our game plan based on the new data our card counting provides.
Push — when the Dealer and player(s) have the same sum total that’s still under 21. It’s neither a win nor a loss, except in the variation where it means the Dealer’s won.
Running count — keeping track of the cards dealt and using the information to calculate winning probability. If it’s positive, it means the player has the advantage.
Stand — when you don’t want any more cards, you stand the ground you’re already on.
Shoe — a plastic contraption that’s able to hold several decks of cards, allowing for fewer reshufflings and makes life more difficult for card counters.
Side bet — you can place this additional bet at the start, in conjunction with the main bet. There are several types, insurance, perfect pairs, and 21+3 being the most popular.
Soft hand — when you have an Ace which you can interpret to be a 1 or an 11, whichever suits you better during that hand.
Split — this is something you can do if your first two cards are a pair or if they’re both 10-value cards (like a Queen and a Jack). You can “split” the pair into two independent hands, and you place another bet next to the original bet to do this. You then get two cards from the Dealer to complete each hand, and they’re played separately. If they both turn out to be winning hands, your money will be doubled. If just one of them wins, you will have broken even. If they both turn out to be losing hands, you will have lost all your money. It’s safest to split Aces because their value changes according to what’s best for the player.
Splitting — see split.
Stiff hand — see hard hand.
Straight — this is when you have three cards adjacent in value that aren’t suited. For details, see 21+3 side bet.
Straight flush — is when you have three cards that are adjacent in value and are of the same suit. For details, see 21+3 side bet.
Suited trips — is when you have three cards of the same suit. For details, see 21+3 side bet.
Surrender — the idea is that you fold and forfeit half your bet, rather than risk losing the whole thing. If the Dealer’s first card is an Ace, they must automatically check if their total is a blackjack. This can happen at different points; for details, see late surrender and early surrender.
Taking insurance — see insurance.
Three of a kind — is when you have equal three cards which don’t need to be suited. For details, see 21+3 side bet.
Tie — see push.
True Count — the count per deck. Divide your “Running Count” by the number of decks being used, and you’ll have your true card concentration calculated.
21+3 bet — this side bet involves the player’s original two cards and the Dealer’s card that we can see because it’s face-up. You can win in five different ways here. If you get suited trips (like Three Queen of Hearts), the payout is 100:1. If you get a straight flush (like Jack, Queen, and King of Spades), the payout is 40:1. If it’s three of a kind (like King of Spades, King of Hearts, and King of Diamonds), your payout is 30:1. If it’s just a straight (for example, you’ve a Five of Clubs, Six of Hearts, and Eight of Diamonds), then you get 10:1. Finally, if it’s a flush (three cards of the same suit), then it’s 5:1.
Some Final Thoughts
Blackjack has enjoyed so much popularity over time for a reason — it’s really quite simple to comprehend!
Even if you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to maths, you can still work out the probabilities fairly easily. And even if card counting isn’t your thing, just basic logic will tell you that you should probably “stand” if your total is 19 and “hit” if your total is 9.
This also makes it a game of chance that you feel you have some control over. Because you can mathematically ascertain the probability in such a straightforward fashion, you can hedge yourself from the winds of fate better.
We hope this glossary has helped you understand the ins-and-outs of blackjack terminology.
Good luck and play well!