Blackjack is a favorite game at California tribal casinos and card rooms. While you cannot legally play blackjack online for real money in the state, there is an option to play online blackjack at social and sweepstakes casino sites.
Blackjack players who visit California should be aware that blackjack plays a bit differently in card rooms as opposed to casinos. In the state’s tribal casinos, you’ll find the same “Vegas style” blackjack games as in casinos across the country. However, California law prohibits card rooms from offering house-banked games. As a result, in card rooms blackjack operates as a “player-banked” version of the game. The game plays similarly, but instead of playing against the house, players play against one another. You may hear people refer to this altered version of the game as “California blackjack.”
Read on for an overview of blackjack in California, including information about legality, explanations of how the game works in both CA casinos and card rooms, and answers to other frequent questions about blackjack in the Golden State.
Is blackjack legal in California?
Yes, blackjack is legal in California tribal casinos. Tribes that have gambling compacts with the state can offer a number of Class III casino games, including blackjack. Technically speaking, tribal casinos are the only places where traditional house-banked blackjack can legally occur in California.
As mentioned above, California has a number of card rooms where you’ll also often find blackjack among the available games. The card rooms distinguish their version of blackjack from what the casinos offer by having players take turns occupying the position of the “dealer” against whom other players compete in the game. Thus, rather than players competing against the “house,” they play against one another (much as in a poker game).
That change technically avoids violating the prohibition against offering house-banked games, something only the tribal casinos can legally do in California.
Over the years, the tribes have brought several legal challenges against the card rooms. Most recently, California regulators have attempted to draft more specific rules in order to eliminate current ambiguities regarding what the card rooms can and cannot offer when it comes to blackjack and card games that resemble blackjack. Unsurprisingly, there have been many voices arguing all sides of the issue, thereby making the task especially challenging.
For now, both traditional Vegas-style blackjack (in casinos) and California blackjack (in card rooms) are fully legal and available in the state.
Can I legally play blackjack online in California?
You cannot legally play online blackjack for real money in California. Unlike New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or other states where online casinos are legal, California law prohibits online gambling.
That said, you can play blackjack online at social casinos that invite players to play for fun. You can also play blackjack at sweepstakes casinos that allow players to use virtual currencies to play casino games and potentially claim real money prizes.
Social and sweepstakes casinos with blackjack in California
Pulsz Slots and Casino is an example of a popular social casino that invites players to play blackjack online for fun.
When it comes to sweepstakes casinos, most offer slots but do not necessarily have table games. However, one of the most popular of these sites, Chumba Casino, does have blackjack as well as other casino table games among its offerings. At Chumba Casino you can play blackjack using virtual currencies and your winnings can be redeemed for cash prizes.
Chumba Casino’s blackjack games play a lot like the ones you’ll find in California casinos. There is a version called Back Blackjack that incorporates side betting on whether the dealer or player makes blackjack.
Blackjack at California tribal casinos
California is home to nearly 70 tribal casinos, offering a variety of games including blackjack. CA casinos advertise that they offer “Las Vegas-style” blackjack, which distinguishes the game from the version that you might find in California card rooms (discussed further below).
In other words, California casinos offer the same dealer-versus-player blackjack game you’ll find in Nevada and in casinos across the country. It’s a game that involves luck but also an element of skill as you try to beat the “house” and win money.
How to play blackjack
Blackjack uses a traditional deck of 52 playing cards, sometimes employing multiple decks at once with the cards shuffled together and dealt from a “shoe.” In traditional casino blackjack, the object of the game is to beat the dealer. There might be several players sitting around the typically semicircular table, but each one competes individually against the dealer (and not against one another).
You win by collecting cards that total more than the dealer’s cards without going over 21. Cards ranked 2 through 9 are worth the number shown. The 10, jack, queen, and king are each worth 10, and the ace can be worth either 1 or 11 (the player gets to choose).
Both you and the dealer initially receive two cards, with both of your cards face up and one of the dealer’s cards face down. You act first. You can hit and draw an additional card (or cards). At any point, you can also stand and keep the cards you have. The dealer then does the same. In the end, whoever has the highest total without exceeding 21 wins the hand. If you and the dealer tie or if you both bust by going over 21, the hand is a push and neither side wins — that is, you get your bet back.
If your first two cards add up to 21 (e.g., a king and an ace), that’s a natural blackjack and an automatic winner — unless the dealer also gets a natural blackjack, in which case the hand is a push.
There are no blackjack rules governing whether you hit or stand. You are always free to do either (unless you bust, of course).
Meanwhile, house rules obligate the dealer to keep hitting when the cards add up to 16 or less, and usually to hit as well when they add up to a “soft 17” (meaning the hand contains an ace that is counted as 11). In that case, the dealer must stand with a “hard 17” or above. Most California tribal casinos require dealers to hit on a soft 17, including at Yaamava’ Resort & Casino, Pechanga Resort Casino, and Morongo Casino Resort & Spa.
In some California tribal casinos, the dealer will hit on 16 or less and always stand on 17. That’s the case at Cache Creek Casino Resort, for example.
How to bet in blackjack
In blackjack, you place a bet before the hand begins. That’s when you decide how much you want to wager, and you can adjust the amount from hand to hand. Typically a blackjack table will have limits, meaning you can only bet within a certain range (a minimum and a maximum). It’s up to you, though, how much you want to risk on each hand.
There are other betting decisions that can come up after a blackjack hand begins. The three most common are as follows:
- Double down — Double your initial bet and take just one additional card.
- Split — If dealt two cards of the same value, make a second bet and “split” the two cards into two hands, with the dealer dealing you a second card to go with each.
- Surrender — If you don’t like your first two cards, you can give up at that point and only lose half your initial wager.
Different casinos often allow various side bets in blackjack as well, the most common being to take insurance. If the dealer has an ace showing, you can “take insurance” by betting half your initial wager that the dealer’s down card is worth 10, giving the dealer blackjack. There are many other types of side bets, too, some of which we discuss below.
Note that all California casinos offer the American version of blackjack. In American blackjack, the dealer receives two cards (one up, one down) just like everyone else. If the dealer’s up card is an ace or is worth 10 (a 10 or a face card), the dealer will always immediately peek at the down card. If the down card gives the dealer blackjack, the dealer will immediately turn over the card and the hand is over with the dealer winning unless the player also has a “natural” blackjack in which case the hand is a push.
In European blackjack, the dealer only receives one up card initially. Only after all players finish playing their hands will the dealer receive a second card. Thus players won’t know until after they’ve played their hands (and potentially doubled down or split their hands) whether the dealer has made blackjack.
Blackjack payout odds in California
When you beat the dealer and win your hand when playing blackjack in a California casino, what do you win?
Simply winning your hand pays out at even money or 1-to-1. That is to say, you double your money. If you bet $50, you’d win $50 (getting back $100 total).
In most California casinos, if you get a natural blackjack (making 21 with the first two cards), you receive a 3-to-2 payout. In that case, if you bet $50, you’d win $75 (1.5x your wager, giving you $125 total). Sometimes in certain blackjack games (e.g., single-deck blackjack), the payout for a natural blackjack might only be 6-to-5 (i.e., you bet $50, get blackjack and win $60).
Side bets, meanwhile, payout in various ways, including some that have very long odds.
Popular blackjack variants in California tribal casinos
You’ll discover many blackjack variants in California casinos, including both single-deck and multi-deck blackjack. There are variants that feature different rules and/or side bets, as well. Here are some of the more popular of these variants:
- Buster Blackjack — Players can make a side bet on whether the dealer goes bust.
- Blackjack Switch — Players receive two hands and can switch cards between the hands to improve them before choosing to hit or stand.
- Free Bet Blackjack — Players can double down and split without putting any additional money at risk.
- Lucky Lucky — Includes a pre-deal side bet on whether the player’s first two cards and the dealer’s up card will add up to 19, 20, or 21.
- Spanish 21 — Blackjack with the 10s removed from play plus numerous other rule changes.
- King’s Bounty — Includes a pre-deal side bet that the player’s first two cards will add up to 20. Win even more (e.g., 100x your wager) if your two cards are both the king of spades (in this multi-deck game) and a huge prize (e.g., 1,000x your wager) if the dealer also has blackjack
- Blackjack Spin — Includes a side bet that involves spinning a bonus wheel.
- Push 22 — If the dealer busts with exactly 22, all bets are pushes.
What is California blackjack?
California blackjack describes blackjack as it is available in California card rooms. There are almost 100 card rooms in the state. Most of them primarily focus on poker, but many also offer additional card games often described as “California games,” with blackjack among them.
As we noted above, the primary distinction between the card rooms’ version of blackjack and what you’ll find in the casinos has to do with the fact that players do not compete against the house, but against one another. The difference is necessary for the card rooms to be able to offer real money blackjack legally.
The California Gambling Control Act of 1998 established a statewide system to regulate card rooms. Soon after that, the state amended the California Penal Code to reflect that a “banking game” or “banked game” as prohibited by the Gambling Control Act did not include games that featured a “player-dealer position” that was “continuously and systematically rotated amongst each of the participants during the play of the game” and that would, therefore “preclude the house … from maintaining or operating as a bank during the course of the game.” That amendment, Section 330.11 of the California Penal Code, went into effect at the start of 2002.
Playing blackjack with a ‘player-dealer’
In California blackjack, the players sitting around the table each take turns occupying the dealer position. However, there is typically a card room staff member who actually deals the hands and helps facilitate the betting. The difference is that the staff member does not play for the “house.” Instead, the “player-dealer” (aka the “player-banker”) plays against all of the other players.
If you think about it, this method of blackjack creates a unique circumstance. Normally the rules of the game and the payout odds give the house a small edge over the players. Here, though, the player who occupies the player-dealer position gets to experience that edge. The downside is that if that player loses, he or she has to pay the winning player(s).
A button indicates which player is the player-dealer. The button moves around the table clockwise, much like in poker, although typically the button moves every two hands. Players can choose not to be the player-dealer, in which case the button moves on to the next player. In recent years, some have proposed a rule change that would remove the option for players to decline the player-dealer role. However, that change has not come to pass.
Common blackjack variations in California card rooms
Also, note that California card rooms that offer blackjack also often feature additional variations that can make the game different from Vegas-style blackjack.
Some of these variations add jokers to the game. In fact, in some cases, there will be several jokers (e.g., four jokers to a 52-card deck).
Some variations (especially those that include jokers) will also make the highest possible hand worth 22, not 21. In these games, a “natural 22” can consist of your first two cards being two jokers, two aces, or one of each. A natural 22 usually pays out like a natural blackjack in regular blackjack.
Another common version of blackjack in California card rooms is 21st Century Blackjack, sometimes called No Bust 21st Century Blackjack. In this game, if the player and player-dealer both bust, the hand is a push if the dealer’s point total is higher.
All of which is to say, if you are used to playing blackjack in Las Vegas or in California’s tribal casinos, you should definitely review the rules before sitting at a blackjack table in a California card room.
California blackjack FAQs
What is the difference between standard blackjack and “California blackjack”?
California tribal casinos offer the standard form of blackjack that you’ll find in Las Vegas and elsewhere. California card rooms, meanwhile, offer “California blackjack,” which can feature different rules and variations. The biggest difference, however, is that in the card room version, the players do not play against the “house” but rather against one another, with players taking turns occupying the “player-dealer” position.
What is the difference between single-deck blackjack and multiple-deck blackjack?
You can play blackjack with a single deck of cards or with multiple decks, with some games featuring two, four, six or even eight decks. As the number of decks increases, the house advantage goes up. That’s because your probability of making a natural blackjack goes down slightly with each additional deck. As a result, you might sometimes find single deck blackjack games in which the payouts for making blackjack are less than they are in multi-deck games (e.g., 6-to-5 instead of 3-to-2).
What is counting cards in blackjack, and is it allowed in California?
You’ve likely heard of “card counting” in blackjack, a strategy that involves keeping track of what cards have appeared in order to estimate with more precision what cards are left. Usually, card counting is not illegal, although casinos reserve the right to stop players from doing it and even will ban repeat offenders. That is essentially the case in California casinos and card rooms. You can mentally keep track of the cards and try to use that information to your advantage, but press that advantage too greatly and you might be invited to leave.
That said, do not try to use your phone or some other means to keep track of the cards as they go by. California Penal Code Section 330v explicitly makes it “unlawful for any person at a gambling establishment to use, or to possess with intent to use, any device to assist … in keeping track of the cards played” or to help analyze probabilities and/or improve one’s strategy.
Can I play blackjack online in California?
No, you cannot play blackjack online casino games for real money. Online gambling for real money is illegal in California, which includes all casino games like blackjack. You can, however, play blackjack online at sweepstakes sites like Chumba Casino that use virtual currencies.
Do I have to pay taxes on blackjack winnings in California?
Yes, you have to pay taxes on just about all of your gambling winnings in California, including on any money you win playing blackjack. (One exception is lottery winnings, for which you have to pay federal taxes but not state taxes in CA.) Click here for an overview of all the ins and outs about how California taxes gambling winnings.