The History of Blackjack
The Origins of Blackjack
Unlike many other card games we play today, the actual true origins of Blackjack are vague and unsubstantiated. There are a lot of theories around - many of which are hotly disputed by scholars - about when and where this game first appeared. However, there has still been no clear-cut and widely accepted evidence produced by researchers to identify Blackjack's starting point.
While playing cards were believed to be in use as early as the 7th Century in China, it’s not from that part of the world that Blackjack is thought to have originated. In fact, the earliest mentions of Blackjack surface a lot later than that and are found in Europe.
The most well received theory of Blackjack's genesis is that it originated after playing cards migrated to Europe from Egypt. David Parlett in his book, "The Oxford Guide to Card Games", noted that the Egyptian Mameluke card decks, which date from around 1400, actually resemble somewhat the deck of cards we use today. In fact, these medieval decks have three court cards: the 'Malik' (King), the 'Na’ib Malik' (Deputy King), and the 'Thani Na’ib' (Under-deputy). In addition, they also have four suits and number 52 cards in total.
What is known is that a form of Blackjack was played in European casinos in the 18th century. While Blackjack still had yet to be given its moniker, a card game using similar rules was being definitely being played. Baxter Wray, in his book "Round Games with Cards" which was first published in 1891, makes reference to a game called "Vingt-Un" or "Twenty-One". Wray goes on to describe the game as being popular at the time of writing.
“Its name would seem to imply that it is of French origin; but in reference to this, as well as in regard to the date of its introduction into the country, we have no definite details. The manner of playing it at the present time is very little different from that practised at the earlier date mentioned, although modifications have been introduced in some minor points, and the tendency is to make yet further departures from the methods adopted in years gone by.”
The Evolution of the Game of Blackjack
Vingt-Un" or "Twenty-One" was thus a forerunner of what we today know as the modern game of Blackjack. However, while they shared similarities, this game did have some differences to the game we play today. For example, the old form saw a betting round between each card being dealt and the dealer was the only person allowed to double down. However, other than that the rules would be easily recognised by any modern day casino player.
There was also another early game that had similarities to modern Blackjack. This was known as "One and Thirty" and originated in Spain. In this unique game the idea was to get 31 with three cards, but otherwise had a similar formula to "Vingt-Un".
When the game crossed the Atlantic to America it was still called 21. The change in name occurred when new casinos in Nevada, which became the first US state to legalise gambling in 1931, began promoting a special bet that offered 10 to 1 odds. You could collect if your winning hand included the Ace of Spades and a Jack of either Clubs or Spades (i.e. a black Jack). Soon the game gained the name of Blackjack and has stuck with us ever since.
The Ace is a little unique in Blackjack in that it actually has two separate values: one and 11. This card’s flexibility, however, wasn’t always so and was once the lowest card in the deck. There are many reasons given for this dichotomy and we shall look at some of the most popular.
Its single pip was alleged to have been associated with the single pip on the die used in games that were popular in medieval times. In addition, the single pip was the lowest result, so the ace became the lowest card and was thus generally associated with bad luck.
It is rumoured that the church requested that the Ace be placed in value above the king, for in their eyes the one God was superior to even the king. However, there is no specific reference to this being a fact, although the oft quoted “Soldier’s Almanack, Bible and Prayerbook” which dates back to 1778 references the Ace as representing God. This contrasts with the sermon given by St Bernard of Siena in 1423 in which he stated playing cards were the invention of the Devil.
The French Revolution is also claimed to be the course of the peasants (represented by the lowest card in the deck) rising up and overcoming the king. Again, there is no hard evidence of this event causing the change in the Ace’s value and some games indicate that the Ace was used as a higher card before the revolution.
Whatever the meaning, the word “Ace” is actually derived from the Latin word “as” which was used to signify a unit. Thus, the Ace may simply have been the number one and nothing more. Thus any variations in its value were merely incorporated to add new flavour into developing card games such as Blackjack.
Today, Blackjack has spawned many variations: Spanish 21, Pontoon, Dual Blackjack, Surrender Blackjack and others have all become popular casino games.
Spanish 21 differs from regular Blackjack in that the often-spot cards are removed from every deck used (Blackjack normally uses around six to eight decks when played in a casino). Just like regular Blackjack, the dealer hits on 16 and stands on 17 but if a player is dealt a Blackjack then the player always wins. In addition, a player obtaining a total of 21 always wins. Finally, players can also split up to a maximum of four hands. While the removal of the for ten-spot cards increases the casino advantage, the liberal rules in this variant go a long way to negating that edge.
Blackjack Switch is a very modern variant, having been patented by Geoff Hall in 2009. In this fast paced game you have to play at least two hands simultaneously. These may be doubled and split like regular Blackjack hands, but you are also allowed to switch the two top cards between your two hands.
Pontoon is an English version of Blackjack. It’s played the same, but the terminology is different and can be confusing for non-UK players. You may sometimes see this game advertised under the name "UK Blackjack".
An Australian version of Pontoon can also be found. This game is actually played like Spanish 21 with the tens removed from the decks.
There are many other variants, with some casinos having more than others. Given Blackjack's popularity it is likely that we will see many more variants developing in the future.
After reading an article in a journal about Blackjack, Edward Thorp became interested in the game. But Dr Thorp was not just anyone though. He was a Doctor of Mathematics and Master of Physics, having taught at prestigious institutions such as MIT and UCLA.
Originally, he simply was not interested in the gambling aspects. Instead, he was absorbed by the idea that a mathematical technique could be applied to beat the dealer and the casino. Thorp thought it was possible to keep count of the cards being dealt to know which cards were still in the deck. This method known as the Ten Count System gave the player an increased chance of winning and greatly reduced the house advantage.
He tried putting his theory to the test by visiting casinos in Las Vegas to see if it worked. He was joined on these trips by friend and fellow mathematician and engineer Claude Elwood Shannon, who was actually a keen gambler and Blackjack player. They soon discovered, to their good fortune, that the theory did indeed work and the pair were soon regularly winning at the casinos they visited.
In fact, they were so successful that some casinos actually banned them for winning too much. With verification that his card counting technique did indeed work Thorp decided to bring his ideas to the public and in 1962 published the book "Beat the Dealer", which was based on the game of 'Twenty One' and which went on to become a bestseller.
Different methods and strategies involving card counting have emerged over the years, some of which supersede Thorp's own. However, they are all derived from his initial work. Thorp is still regarded as a pioneer and father of the card counting method.
Six students from MIT then famously used card counting techniques to win millions from casinos over a period of 12 years. They employed team tactics to gain an advantage and to spot when and on which table to make their bets. Their exploits were even turned into a 2008 movie titled "21" which starred Kevin Spacey.
In 2002 Edward Thorp was inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame for his contribution to the world of Blackjack. The Blackjack Hall of Fame can be found at the Barona Casino in Lakeside California. It honours the top names from the world of Blackjack and exhibits many of the devices, such as hidden cameras and trick cards, that have been used over the years to try and get the upper hand over casinos.
Today you don’t need to go out of your way to visit a casino to play Blackjack. You can play in a virtual environment online for cash without even leaving your home. Almost every online casino offers Blackjack as a table games and many offer some custom variations as well - although these can vary widely in the house edge they give to the casinos.
Apart from the convenience of being able to play anytime, anywhere the online casinos also allow players to play for small stakes. Purely recreational players can also play for free, while seasoned players can use the free games to test new theories.
The highest stake many online casinos will accept is in the region of $20,000. For high-rollers with plenty of money to spend, a 'live' venue will generally see stakes of up to $50,000 accepted. Many players still like the live casino, as the atmosphere and tension cannot be fully recreated online. But the online option does mean that Blackjack has become a whole lot more accessible to the general public and that has to be a good thing.
We may not have a definitive answer on where Blackjack came from or who devised the game, but one thing we know for sure is that it isn’t going away. The popularity of the internet and mobile devices has opened up a lot of new interest in online gambling and especially in card games like poker and Blackjack. A whole new generation are playing the game today and, with online casinos offering tournament play and the chance to win big cash prizes, we’re sure Blackjack will remain a popular game for future generations to enjoy.
For a comprehensive history on the origins and development of gambling, we recommend this excellent website - History of Gambling in the United States.
21: Internet Movie Database. (2008). Retrieved from Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478087/
eBook of Round Games with Cards . (2009, January 16). Retrieved from Gutenburg.org
Parlett, D. (1990). The Oxford Guide to Card Games . Oxford University Press.
Wray, B. (1891). Round Games with Cards.