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European Blackjack

Blackjack is one of the most player-friendly games in the casino. Anyone using a reasonable strategy can get pretty fair odds; learn how to play properly, and suddenly you could be dealing with a house edge of 1% or less. In some live casinos, players can even take advantage of card counting and other advantage techniques to gain the upper hand over the house – a rarity in the gambling world.

But while this game is played around the world, the rules governing it aren’t always the same. There are dozens of different variants, some of which offer minor changes and others that are wildly different from the basic version. Almost all of these games feature similarly fair odds for players, making which one you play largely a matter of choice.

One of the most popular variants is known as European Blackjack. This game is fairly similar to “standard” or American blackjack, the game that is played most frequently around the world and is familiar in North American casinos. However, there are a couple of minor changes that make this a unique experience, one that has been beloved by players across Europe for generations.

The Basics

If you’re not familiar with this family of games, that’s okay: we’ll go over the basic European blackjack rules first. In this card game, players compete against a dealer to have the better hand by getting a score that is as close to 21 as possible without going over. Numbered cards are worth their pip value, while face cards (and tens) are worth 10 points. Finally, aces are special: they are worth 11, but if that would take a hand’s score above 21, they can alternately count as just one point.

A hand starts out with each player making a bet and receiving two cards face up. The dealer will also be dealt a hand – in the American version of the game, they will get one card face up and one face down, while the European variant has them only receive the face up card at this point.

If any player has an ace and a ten-point card, they have immediately made the best possible hand, known as a “blackjack.” This hand will pay out at 3-2 odds, unless the dealer also has one; in that case, the hands will push.

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European Blackjack

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Any players who have less than 21 points will then be given the opportunity to play out their hands. Players may potentially take any of these actions:

  • Hit: The player is given one more card, adding its value to their hand score.
  • Stand: The player ends their turn, sticking with the hand they have.
  • Double Down: On their initial hand, the player doubles their bet in exchange for one more card, after which they must stand.
  • Split: If a player has two cards of the same value, they may split them into two separate hands, each of which will be played for one bet going forward.
  • Surrender: After viewing their initial hand, the player may be able to forfeit half of their bet in order to end play immediately (in order to avoid a likely total loss).

Hitting and standing work exactly the same in both versions of the game. However, the rules on when you can double down, split, or surrender will vary depending on what variant you are enjoying; we’ll talk a bit more about that in the next section. If a player’s hand is ever worth 22 or more points, then they have “busted” – their hand immediately loses, and the player forfeits all bets associated with it.

Once all players have finished with their hands, the dealer will either reveal or deal out their second card. The dealer must follow strict rules that determine how they will proceed. On hands of 16 or less, the dealer will always hit; on hands of 18 or more, they will always stand. Rules can vary on 17: in some games, the dealer will always stand on 17, while in others, the dealer will hit on “soft” 17s – those in which they have an ace that still counts as an 11, meaning they cannot possibly bust by taking a card.

Once the dealer has stood or busted, the hands are scored. If the dealer busts, then all player bets win at even money odds. If the dealer stands, then the player and dealer hands are compared, with the higher score winning. If the player has the higher hand, they win even money on their bets; if the dealer’s hand is better, the player loses their money. In the case of a tie, the two hands push, and no money is won or lost.

Players may also make a side bet known as insurance. This bet is offered when the dealer is showing an ace, and pays out at 2-1 odds should the dealer end up with a blackjack. Typically, players are allowed to bet half of their initial bet on insurance; the upshot is that they will break even for the hand if the dealer does show up with a ten as their second card. If the player has a blackjack, taking insurance guarantees an even money win regardless of the dealer’s hand: in most cases, the dealer will simply ask a player if they want to take even money, but it’s just another way of taking insurance.

A European Twist

While the above basic rules apply to just about any game, we were purposely vague about some of the details, as that is where different versions distinguish themselves. European blackjack in particular has some rule changes that may seem minor, but which have an important impact on gameplay.

The most important of these is the fact that the dealer gets only one card at the start of the hand. Regardless of what some superstitious players might believe, this doesn’t change the chances of them making a blackjack or busting, but it does make it impossible for the dealer to check for a blackjack should they start with a ten or ace showing, meaning you will not know if the dealer has made a natural 21 under after players have made all of their decisions.

This causes some issues that change the strategy of the game slightly. In the American rules, players can only ever lose their initial bet when the dealer makes a blackjack. In European rules, players may have split or doubled down before finding out that they also lose those additional bets when the dealer completes their hand in the end.

Several other rule changes also mix things up. Players are usually only allowed to double down when they have a starting hand of 9, 10, or 11. Typically, you will not be offered the option to surrender if the dealer is showing an ace (and in some cases, you may not be able to surrender at all). When aces are split, players normally only get one additional card.

The dealer normally stands on a soft 17, though this is not universal; when this is the case, it is slightly favorable to the player. Another popular rule is the use of just two decks in the shoe, though again, a variety of shoe sizes are used, and this isn’t a defining rule of European games.

Rules Cause More Conservative Play

Overall, these rule changes do not impact the house edge that much; most European games come in with a casino advantage of less than 1%, similar to their American counterparts. But the way players have to behave to get to that figure require a bit of a different approach.

In general, you’ll find that the basic strategy in this game is somewhat more conservative, particularly when you’re up against a dealer ten or ace. The reasoning is clear: since you won’t know if the dealer has made a blackjack until the end of the hand, it is very risky to put further bets out on the table, particularly against an ace. Remember that dealer blackjack will beat you even if you make a total of 21 later in the hand, so there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from that possibility.

This means that if you are familiar with the basic strategy in the American variation, you’ll have to relearn some of the borderline cases if you want to play perfectly correctly in this variant. For instance, you’ll be doubling less – both because of the 9-11 only rule, and because you should no longer double on 11 against a dealer ten. Splitting is also less common: in American games, you should always split eights or aces, but this is not the case under European rules.

Overall, this variant is a great option for those that are familiar with basic blackjack and want to try something a little different without going too far off the beaten path. It’s easy to quickly catch on with the minor differences, and many players will barely even notice that anything has changed.

In reality, though, the games are quite different in feel and strategy, and you may find that you enjoy one much more than the other. If that’s the case, you can feel comfortable playing whichever variation you like more, as both offer great odds and engaging, strategic gameplay. Unfortunately, you can only play this game online in Flash format - live dealer blackjack tables still only feature the regular form of the game, at least for now.

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