***Updated: November 15, 2018***
Did a new century really need a new variation of blackjack? Probably not, but it actually makes sense once you know that 21st Century Blackjack started in California and was created in order to get around existing state gambling laws. Although, the game certainly does seem a little “out there” at first glance, once you learn the nuts and bolts you realize that it’s not as crazy as it first appears.
Card rooms were popular in California even before the world arrived to chase gold in 1849. At the height of the California Gold Rush gambling plots in San Francisco were selling for upwards of $40,000 and only had enough space for a canvas tent with a card table underneath it. Dealer-run games were all the rage back then, with Faro and Three-card Monte being the most popular.
When gold fever died down so to did the taste for gambling and laws were passed in 1860 to end all banking games played against the house. So the state said “bye-bye” to Faro and Three-card Monte, as well as the beloved game of blackjack, which had won over the hearts of every gambler in the state.
Fast forward to the end of the 1900s and California card rooms were beginning to feel the effects of full-blown Native American casinos in the Golden State. It sure would have been nice to deal some blackjack…which had been illegal for the last 140 years. This is when an idea struck Casino Gaming Concepts of Irvine, California and a solution to circumvent the laws was hatched: a game that was “similar enough to Twenty-One” that players would recognize it, and “different enough” that it would be legal in California card rooms. After some final brainstorming and testing, 21st Century Blackjack was born.
The Deck. The first difference players will notice is that 21st Century Blackjack uses the entire deck, Jokers included. The Joker is a wild card that immediately makes a player’s hand worth 21 whenever it is dealt, however, that “21” is the hand’s total and is not considered a “true blackjack” that pays out at normal odds.
The other obvious difference from the original version is that Two Jokers or a Joker and an Ace form a “Natural 22”, which is the strongest hand in the game, even beating a dealer 21.
The Table. The game can be played with as many as ten players. The house dealer distributes cards and plays hands, but handles no money because 21st Century Blackjack is a rotating banker game amongst the players at the table. When the dealer button (usually labelled BANK) reaches the player, he or she has the option of serving as non-playing banker for one or two hands.
The dealer plays the banker’s hand and the “banker-player” receives no cards. The table plays against the dealer’s hand as normal and all money won is turned over to the banker-player. However, all losses sustained by the dealer must be paid from the banker-player’s own chip stack so it’s a bitter/sweet position to be in.
All winning hands are reconciled from left to right and if the player-dealer cannot cover all of the bets there are players who may not receive payouts, even if they hold a winning hand. This is absolutely one of the craziest rules of 21st Century Blackjack and it’s almost hard to believe that it happens. At some places the House will make up the difference with wins and losses that are split accordingly with the banker-player.
This is not a benevolent endeavour for the House and they make their money by charging a commission on the players’ hands, just like they do for poker. Usually the juice that’s paid to the operator is around 1% of the table limit, but the number can differ from place to place.
No Busting. The only other rule that may surprise those unfamiliar with the game is that in 21st Century Blackjack a busted hand is not necessarily a losing hand. This is because rather than being mucked, the cards will wait in hopeful anticipation of the dealer’s hand. Then if the dealer busts with a higher total than the busted player, the hand is a “push” and the original wager is retrieved. However, if the dealer busts with a total equal or lower to the player then the hand is finally a loser.
Players receive two cards to start, but since there can be as many as ten players, all 21st Century Blackjack games must be dealt from at least two decks. Doubling and splitting options are exactly the same as standard blackjack, however, players are obligated to hit on totals less than 11 and the dealer has to hit on everything up to a “Soft 17”. Natural blackjacks still pay out, but only at 6:5 odds.
Backline Betting refers to the ability of multiple players to wager on a single hand at an already full 21st Century Blackjack table, with the player with the most amount of money invested controlling the game play. The interesting twist is that backline betters do not have to agree with the players that they’re wagering on. So for example, if a double-down is ill-advised, the backer can choose to only play the initial bet, or if a split looks foolish the backer can choose to have only the original bet count, with the first of the two split hands resolving the bet.
When you factor in all of the edges for the player in this rotating bank game, the player actually holds an advantage over the House, especially if a table can be found with people who aren’t using basic blackjack strategy, or constantly shying away from banker responsibilities. Of course, that’s before the commission is extracted because the size of the rake is often the main determinant in the overall profitability of the game, so always make sure to confirm what the House is taking before sitting down.