Blackjack, also known as twenty-one or Pontoon, is one of the most popular casino card games in the world. Much of blackjack’s popularity is due to the mix of chance with elements of skill, and the publicity that surrounds card counting (keeping track of which cards have been played since the last shuffle). Blackjack’s precursor was vingt-et-un (“twenty-one”), which originated in French casinos around 1700, and did not offer the 3:2 bonuses for a two-card 21.
When blackjack was first introduced in the United States it wasn’t very popular, so gambling houses tried offering various bonus payouts to get the players to the tables. One such bonus was a 10-to-1 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 bonus payout was soon abolished. As the game is currently played, a “blackjack” may not necessarily contain a jack at all.
Blackjack hands are scored by their point total. The hand with the highest total wins as long as it doesn’t exceed 21; a hand with a higher total than 21 is said to bust. Cards 2 through 10 are worth their face value, and face cards (jack, queen, king) are also worth 10. An ace’s value is 11 unless this would cause the player to bust, in which case it is worth 1. A hand in which an ace’s value is counted as 11 is called a soft hand, because it cannot be busted if the player draws another card.
The goal of each player is to beat the dealer by having the higher, unbusted hand. Note that if the player busts he loses, even if the dealer also busts (therefore Blackjack favors the dealer). If both the player and the dealer have the same point value, it is called a “push”, and neither player nor dealer wins the hand. Each player has an independent game with the dealer, so it is possible for the dealer to lose to one player, but still beat the other players in the same round.
The minimum bet is printed on a sign on the table and varies from casino to casino, and even table to table. The most common minimum in the U.S. is $5 although these games can be difficult to find on the Strip in Las Vegas. After initial bets are placed, the dealer deals the cards, either from one or two hand-held decks of cards, known as a “pitch” game, or more commonly from a shoe containing four or more decks. The dealer gives two cards to each player, including himself. One of the dealer’s two cards is face-up so all the players can see it, and the other is face down. (The face-down card is known as the “hole card”. In European blackjack, the hole card is not actually dealt until the players all play their hands.) The cards are dealt face up from a shoe, or face down if it is a pitch game.
A two-card hand of 21 (an ace plus a ten-value card) is called a “blackjack” or a “natural”, and is an automatic winner. A player with a natural is usually paid 3:2 on his bet. In 2003 some casinos started paying only 6:5 on blackjacks; although this reduced payout has generally been restricted to single-deck games where card counting would otherwise be a viable strategy, the move was decried by longtime blackjack players.