How to Play California Blackjack

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California law forbids playing many familiar card games such as Baccarat, Blackjack and Pai Gow Poker. According to State Penal Code 330, dating back to 1873, “house-banked games,” including the game of 21, are illegal throughout the state, with the exception of gaming facilities on Native American land. To get around this ban, most California card rooms have developed variants of traditional games that pit players against one another instead of the dealer.

Such is the case with the game known as “California Blackjack,” invented in 1989 by an entrepreneur named Roger Wisted. He managed to patent and a version of blackjack that has players compete against each other rather than against the casino. The game is still widely offered today in the San Francisco Bay Area card rooms, as well as at the Garden City Casino in Saratoga. In the Los Angeles area, it is often played under the name “No Bust Blackjack.”

Players will immediately notice three big differences between California Blackjack and the common form of the game seen in Las Vegas, London and Monte Carlo. First, players take turns being the banker. Second, the objective is to come as close as possible to 22, not 21. Third, jokers are included among the cards used for play. In fact, using six 53-card decks is standard, so there are typically six jokers in each shoe, each valued as a wild card that turns any hand into a 22.

The best possible hand in California Blackjack is a “natural 22,” which can be made up of two jokers, two aces or a joker and an ace. All other hands are ranked according to their proximity to 22. When both the player’s and the player/banker’s hands are “natural 22” or under, the hand closest to 22 wins. For example, a player’s 21 beats the player/banker’s 20. When they have the same value, it is a tie (push), and no wagers are exchanged.

However, there is no busting in California Blackjack, and the rules are quite different when both the player’s and the player/banker’s hands are greater than 22. If the player’s hand is lesser in value, such as 23 versus 24, it is a tie (push) and no wagers are exchanged. If the player/banker’s hand is lesser in value, the player/banker wins. When both hands have the same value, the player/banker also wins.

Quite often, either the player or the player/banker will have a total exceeding 22, while the other has a total less than 22. In such cases, the lower hand wins, regardless of how close the hands are to 22. Hence, a 20 beats a 23 as does a 17. House rules may force players to draw on totals of 11 of less, just as the player/banker may be forced to draw to

To start the game, each player makes a wager. As many as eight players may be seated, one of which is designated as the player/banker. The player/banker may wager any amount up to the table limit, which will be used to cover the other players’ bets. The player/banker position may only win or lose the amount posted at his/her position.

Once the wagers have been made, starting with the player in the first seat clockwise from the dealer button position, the casino dealer distributes the cards from the shoe, one card at a time face up, until all wagered seats have received two cards. The player/dealer receives only one card in the first round of dealing.

From this point on, the game plays out in the much same manner as traditional Blackjack, with players allowed to hit, double down, split, stand or surrender. One exception is made for hands containing a joker, which may not be split, doubled or surrendered.

Because California Blackjack players compete against one another, House has no opportunity to profit from the results of each hand, so a “rake” or “commission” is charged, similar to poker. This typically amounts to one percent taken from each player to play, but the value is rounded up to the nearest whole unit. That means a €20 would incur a €1 rake, which a five percent, not one. The solution is for players to wager €100 per hand, which makes this a rather high stakes game.

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