History of Blackjack

Blackjack is truly one of the world’s most international games. Playing cards were invented in China in the early 12th century, and during the Middle Ages, Venetian traders brought them back to Italy. There, the original 25~30 card decks were expanded to 52 cards in fours suits—Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs. Each suit would also contain “picture cards” of a King, a Knight, and a Foot Soldier. During the Renaissance era, this so-called “Latin” deck became popular for a variety of games, including English Hazard and German Pochen, from which the game of poker derived.

By the 18th century, philosophically disposed French game makers had replaced the Knight with a Queen and declared that the lowest of all cards, the one, would rule over then all—the Ace. By then, a number of games had sprung up all over Europe, any one of which might claim to be the direct ancestor of Blackjack.

In early 15th century Italy, written records show a game named Trentuno (Italian for “31”) was played. A century later, the author of “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), wrote of a Spanish version called Veintiuno (Spanish for “21”). But it quite certain that the 18th century French game Vingt-et-Un, or “21,” made its to the then-gambling capitol of the United States, New Orleans, in the early 19th century. The object of the game was to draw cards whose combined values were higher than the dealer’s, but without going over 21.

Evolving the Game

Americans did not take to the new game immediately. Vingt-et-Un included betting rounds that slowed play. It also allowed the dealer to double the wagers when holding the advantage. And players wanted the opportunity to win more than a payout of 1-to-1 for a winning hand.

Obviously, changes were needed to popularize the game, so some enterprising gambling halls introduced fixed wagering and began offering 10-to-1 payouts for the Ace of spades drawn on the first two cards with a knave of clubs or spades. They named this variant “Black Jack,” and it quickly became a challenger to Faro in the private gaming parlors and on the riverboats of the West.

But as America entered the 20th century, its views of morality were changing. Gambling, including Blackjack, became seen as a vice, associated with usury, prostitution, alcohol, and drugs. State by state, laws were passed outlawing all forms of table games. During the decade of the 1920s, Blackjack, like bootleg whisky, survived mainly in secret clubs—so-called “speakeasies” and illicit brothels.

Then, in 1931, the state of Nevada bucked the trend and legalized casino gambling. Reno and Las Vegas became tourist destinations almost overnight, attracting card players and dice throwers from both coasts and also from abroad. Before long, Blackjack had made its way to Monte Carlo and the casinos of Europe, where it was embraced by Baccarat fans who were eager to try something novel.

World War II all but shut down most of the world’s gambling activities. However, when they resumed during the booming post-war economy, lavish new casinos were constructed in Las Vegas and Blackjack was one of the featured table games, right alongside Roulette and Craps. The game was still new enough to be an attraction, and casino operators were more than happy to take advantage of the public’s willingness to learn how to play.

Modern Blackjack

In 1956, strategist Roger Baldwin published an article entitled “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” in the Journal of the American Statistical Association. It was the first detailed analysis of how a player’s choices can decrease the house edge and improve the probability of winning. The piece was read with relish by UCLA mathematics professor, Edward O. Thorp, who tested its theories in real play and believed it could be improved.

Thorp obtained access to an IBM 704 computer for a rigorous analysis of the game He came up with ways of reducing the house advantage to a just 0.21%. He also developed a method of tracking the cards that had been played, which would actually set the odds in the player’s favor. This was the birth of card counting.

In subsequent years, casinos have introduced countermeasures to make it difficult for Blackjack card counters from succeeding, but it still didn’t stop a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from winning millions at casinos in the 1990s, before being thwarted by Griffin, a private investigative firm hired to ferret out cheaters working as a team.

Today, Blackjack continues to be one of the most popular table games in the world. It is now enjoyed not only in casinos but also in cyberspace, where software developers have introduced continuous shuffling that renders card counting ineffective. There are many variations of Blackjack, too, from Spanish 21, Perfect Pairs Blackjack, and Super Fun 21 to Double Exposure, which allows players to see both of the dealer’s cards. For sheer entertainment value, plus the chances of winning big, this well-traveled game is hard to match.