Fueled by the instant riches generated by America’s most famous Gold Rush, card rooms have been a part of the California cultural scene since statehood itself in 1850. At the pitch of the fever gambling space for a simple canvas tent in San Francisco just large enough to cover a dozen card tables cost $40,000 annually – provided the fee could be paid up front and with gold dust.
The games of choice back then were Faro and Three-Card Monte, dealer-run forms of the gambling arts that enjoyed particularly unsavory reputations. When the inevitable legislative outrage erupted against gambling it was these types of dealer games that were targeted. In 1860 California laws were passed that banned all banking games – games where the player bet against the house. Games like blackjack.
California card rooms trundled on, enjoying boom years and not-so-good times. Stud poker, which had been banned because of something called “horse stud poker,” was legalized in the late 20th century when no one was left alive who could testify as to what horse stud poker actually was. All poker, including the crushingly popular Texas Hold’Em, was then legalized and new blood poured into California card rooms. There were then some 150 legal card rooms in California, more than any other state. The Commerce Casino outside of Los Angeles is the largest card room in the world with 240 tables. But still blackjack is illegal.
In the late 1990s the advent of full-blown Native American casinos in California began squeezing profits out of card rooms. Their numbers fell below 90. The task of finding some way to incorporate the world’s most popular casino table game into the card rooms was undertaken by Casino Gaming Concepts in Irvine, California. The private company patented a variation of blackjack that was familiar to players but just different enough for the game to not be considered “21” and thus legal. Their name for the new game for a new century was 21st Century Blackjack.
What is this New Game for a New Century?
Let’s begin with the deck. Both jokers are left in play. A joker has no value but when drawn by the player immediately creates a total of 21 – not a blackjack, however. Two jokers or one joker and one ace do create what in 21st Century Blackjack is a “Natural 22,” a hand that beats even a dealer 21, rather than pushing.
21st Century Blackjack is a rotating banker game – the house dealer is just that – a card distributor. The “dealer button,” most often inscribed BANK, circulates around the table with each player opting to serve as non-playing banker for one or two hands. The banker’s hand is the dealer’s hand. If the dealer wins the money is turned over to the banker/player. If the dealer loses, the banker/player must pay all the other players from his or her own stack of chips.
In some card rooms if it becomes obvious the banker/player can not cover the table bets the house provides access to an employee with enough chips to make up the difference. The wins and losses are then split with the player accordingly. In other casinos the winning players are paid in order from left to right and the banker/player pays out until all bets are covered or until “the bank does not cover.” When the bank is empty players may not get action on their bets. That’s blackjack in the 21st century. The house makes it money by charging each player a fee per hand – most often a 1% commission.
The number of players found at a 21st Century Blackjack table is eight but can go up to ten, a sufficiently large number to require that a game must be dealt with at least two decks. Backline betting is in effect with multiple players able to back a single hand. Only the player with the largest amount wagered can determine game play; if a decision is made to split or double that the backer does not agree there is an option to continue with only the original bet. In the event of a split the first hand would resolve the backer’s original stake.
21st Century Blackjack is also a no-bust variant of the game. When a player’s hand goes over 21 it can still push if the dealer busts with a higher number. If the dealer busts with the same number or lower, the player’s busted hand loses. Players must hit any total less than 11 and the dealer must hit a soft 17 or lower. Doubling and splitting options are the same as regular blackjack. Natural blackjacks pay 6:5.
This new blackjack for a new century is most profitable when banking at a table where most players are not employing basic blackjack strategy and also refuse the opportunity to serve as banker. As a player, using basic strategy should actually result in an edge over the house – before the per hand commission. In this brave new almost-blackjack world the amount of the rake can be the deciding factor on joining the game.