Blackjack Games & Variations
Blackjack might be a classic, but you can still find a baffling number of attempts to improve on it. Most of these are just simple rules variations, but others are different games with different names. The difference seems to have something to do with how many rules variations are used.
We'll explain the most common rules variations below, and also provide broad overviews of the most popular blackjack games.
Please note that some of these games are interesting enough and offer enough complexity to warrant their own page. In addition to the overviews below, there are also individual pages on each of the following games.
The Effect of Rule Variations
Before we explain about all the rule variations in blackjack, we should start by explaining one of their biggest effects. There are lots of little aspects of the game that can be varied by the casino, and most of these changes affect the house edge. In some cases, it provides the player with better odds, but in others, it hurts the players' chances.
If you're not familiar with what the house edge is, you should read our detailed article explaining it. For the purposes of right now, we'll provide a quick explanation.
The house edge is the percentage of each bet that the casino expects to keep over the long run. Most blackjack games offer a house edge of between 0.5% and 1%--assuming you use perfect basic strategy. So you're expected to lose an average of between 50 cents and a dollar for every $100 you spend.
Here's an example.
- You're playing blackjack for $100 per hand.
- You're playing 50 hands per hour.
- You're putting $5,000 into action per hour. ($100 x 50)
- If you have a 1% game, you're expected to lose $50 per hour.
You'll win some hands and lose some others, but eventually, as the number of hands you've played grows, you'll get closer to the expected results.
Common Blackjack Rules Variations
The following are some of the most common rule variations you'll see in blackjack games.
Blackjack is normally spread using anywhere from a single deck of cards to using 8 decks of cards. The more decks in play, the worse the odds are for the player. The difference between a single deck game and an 8-deck game is about 0.25%.
You'll find different rules for how the house plays soft 17 from casino to casino. You'll even find some casinos which have different rules for this from table to table.
If the dealer stands on soft 17, that's better for the player. If she hits on soft 17, the house gains about 0.2%.
You've probably heard that you should always split aces and eights. That's because if you have an ace as your first card, you have a good chance of getting a blackjack and the corresponding 3 to 2 payout. If you can double down after splitting, you can get more money into action.
This doesn't come into play as often as you might think, though. If you can double down after splitting, you gain a little more than 0.1%.
In other words, can you split again if you get doubles again? Obviously, if you can, it's in your best interest. Here's another example:
You get a pair of aces and you split them.
On those two new hands, you also get aces, so you split them again.
Now you have four hands, each of which is starting with an ace, so you have four hands with fairly good odds of getting a blackjack.
Of course, this doesn't come into play often. It's rare to get a pair and then get another pair. So the difference in the house is relatively small—0.05%. But every 1/100 of a percent counts.
In some casinos, you're only allowed to double down on a total of 10 or 11, or on a total of 9, 10, or 11. Obviously, you want the flexibility to be able to double down any time you want to.
This is a significant rule variation. It can result in a 0.2% change in the house edge.
For years, the standard payout for a blackjack has been 3 to 2. But enterprising casinos love to take advantage of the unsophisticated, so they've begun spreading a blackjack game where you only get paid out 6 to 5 for a blackjack.
This is a huge difference.
Imagine you're playing for $100 a hand. Would you rather get paid out at $150 for a blackjack, or $120? The difference in the house edge is staggering. You lose 1.3% by accepting the lower payout for that hand.
Our best advice is to stay far away from any 6 to 5 blackjack game you come across.
Popular Blackjack Games
In "Blackjack Switch", players make two bets and get two hands. The player then has the option of trading the 2nd card of each hand.
With any blackjack variation where the player gets concessions, the casino makes up for it with other variant rules. In the case of Blackjack Switch, a dealer 22 is no longer a bust—now it's a push.
The strategy implications are many, and we go into more detail about those on the game's complete page.
Chinese Blackjack is a regional variation with multiple other names, varying based on region. It's also known as 21-Point, Ban-luck, Ban-gan, or Kampung Blackjack. It's played with one or two decks of cards and multiple players. It's usually played among a group, and the person acting as the dealer rotates.
Your goal is to get closer to 21 than the dealer without going over. But each variation also has special hands which are also winners.
One example of these special hands is called "Ban-luck". This is just what we'd call a "blackjack" or a "natural", but it pays off 2 to 1 instead of 3 to 2.
Another example is the "free hand". This is any two cards which total 15 points. If the player or dealer has this hand, she can stop the round and immediately reshuffle. This hand is an effective counter to a "Ban-luck".
You'll find the additional special winning hands and strategy advice on the page devoted entirely to that game.
Double Attack Blackjack is popular in Atlantic City. It has multiple rules differences from a standard game. It uses what's called a "Spanish" deck, which is a 48 card deck where the tens are removed. The jack, queen, and king are still included, though, and they each still count as 10 points.
The reason it's called "Double Attack" is because the player has an opportunity to double his bet after he sees the dealer's up card. A natural only pays even money.
The game also offers a side bet called the "Bustit" wager. This pays off if the dealer busts with exactly three cards. The payout varies based on which three cards the dealer has—for example, if the dealer has a suited 888, the payoff on this bet is 200 to 1.
You'll find complete details for Double Attack Blackjack, including the correct basic strategy, on the appropriate page.
Double Exposure Blackjack is a variation where the dealer gets both her cards face up. This is a big bonus for the player, but there are lots of additional rules to compensate for this. For example, the dealer wins on all ties, and a natural only pays even money instead of 3 to 2.
The house edge for this game is excellent, but it also requires multiple adjustments to your strategy. You'll find complete details on the appropriate page.
Match Play 21 is another blackjack game that uses a Spanish deck. (See our notes on Double Attack Blackjack above.) The big difference in this version of the game and the traditional game is the payout structure.
Here are some examples:
- If you get a blackjack, you get paid off 3 to 1 instead of 3 to 2.
- If you get three 7s in your hand, and if the dealer also has a 7, then you get paid off 40 to 1.
- If you get the 6, 7, and 8 of spades, you get paid off at 3 to 1.
Those are just examples of the bonus payouts. You'll find complete rules and strategy advice on the page devoted entirely to Match Play 21.
Perfect Pairs Blackjack plays just like regular blackjack, but it offers an additional "perfect pairs" side bet. This side bet has to match your original bet. You win this side bet by getting dealt a pair.
The payout for this side bet varies based on which pair you get. For example:
- If you get a pair of jacks that have different colors and suits, your payoff is 5 to 1.
- If you get a pair of jacks of the same color but different suits, the payout is 10 to 1.
- A "perfect pair" is a pair of the same suit, and it offers a 30 to 1 payout.
This barely counts as a blackjack variation, as it's really just an available side bet with a relatively high house edge of 6%. You could ignore this side bet entirely and just play regular blackjack at a perfect pairs table.
Players Edge 21 is almost identical to Spanish 21, but the differences are great enough that it warrants its own entry and its own page. Look further down this page for an overview of Spanish 21, or check out the complete details for Spanish 21 on its own page.
When you finish, realize that Players Edge 21 has the following additional rules:
- Insurance pays 5 to 1 for a suited blackjack.
- Two cards of the same suit and rank are automatic winners no matter what.
You can find more details, including an analysis of the game's probabilities, detailed rules, and strategy on the appropriate page.
Pontoon is an Australian variation of blackjack that resembles Spanish 21. You'll also find an online blackjack game called pontoon, but it's a completely different game. The overview here is for the land-based, Australian version of the game.
Pontoon uses Spanish decks (see my notes on Double Attack Blackjack above). You also get bonus payouts for the following hands:
- Any five card hand that totals 21 pays out 3 to 2.
- Any six card hand that totals 21 pays out 2 to 1.
- Any seven (or more) card hand that totals 21 pays out 3 to 1.
- Any hand of 678 or 777 with mixed suits pays out 3 to 2.
- Any hand of 678 or 777 with the same suit pays out 2 to 1.
- Any hand of 678 or 777 of spades pays out 3 to 1.
- Any hand of 777 of the same suit pays out extra if the dealer also has a 7 showing.
- The bonus payout is $1,000 on bets of less than $25.
- It's $5,000 on bets of $25 or more.
In the event of the big bonus payout, all the other players at the table get a $50 envy bonus regardless of how their hands play out.
You don't get any of these bonus payouts if you double down on your original hand, though.
You'll find more details about the rules, house edge, and appropriate strategy for pontoon on the appropriate page.
Internet pontoon is available at most online casinos. The five card 21 pays out 2 to 1, but the dealer doesn't show an up card. The dealer also wins all ties. The Internet variation has multiple other rules changes which are covered in detail on our main pontoon page.
Spanish 21 is a popular blackjack game that sometimes offers a player better odds than regular blackjack. It depends on the rules variations at the casino where you play. Like pontoon and Double Attack Blackjack, Spanish 21 removes the 10s from the deck, leaving 48 cards.
Of course, removing four of the 10s from the deck decreases a player's chances of getting a natural, but Spanish 21 makes up for it with other generous rule variations. Most of the rules variations are just the most generous aspects of standard rules, like allowing doubling after splitting and allowing re-splitting aces.
A player blackjack always beats a dealer blackjack, too, which is a big improvement over a push. In fact, a player 21 always beats a dealer 21.
Spanish 21 also offers a number of bonus payouts for various hands. These are similar to the bonus payouts in pontoon.
You'll find complete details, rules, and strategy advice on the Spanish 21 page.
Super Fun 21 is a popular game in Las Vegas casinos. Blackjack only pays even money, but the game offers lots of other rules that are favorable to the players.
A player total of 20 always wins if the player has six or more cards. A player total of 21 always wins when it's made up of five or more cards—in this case, it pays out 2 to 1, too. Player blackjacks always win, and player blackjacks of diamonds pay 2 to 1.
Super Fun 21 doesn't offer the best odds in the casino, but it can be an entertaining variation to try. You'll find detailed strategy advice, all the rules, and how to play on the Super Fun 21 page on this site.
Blackjack comes in a lot of different varieties with a lot of different rules. One blackjack game might have significant differences from another game, based on how the dealer has to play her hand or which options the player has available to him. Other blackjack games feature rules that are significantly different enough to warrant their own names.
Many of these games offer interesting side bets or bonus payouts for specific hands. Sometimes they'll also change the nature of the game by allowing the player to see the dealer's hole card or allowing the player to play two hands and swap cards from either hand.
But in all cases, when a casino giveth, it also taketh away. Often this takes the form of a lowered payout on a natural—even money payouts on a blackjack are common in these game variations. Strategy decisions vary based on the options in play. This site offers additional pages with specific strategy advice for the games with significant changes.
Author: Brad Johnson
Updated: November 2015
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