Blackjack is one of the most dramatic games on any casino floor. It’s player vs. dealer - both trying to play as close to breaking point as possible without going over. It’s become one of if not the most popular card games in the world because it’s easy to understand and play as a beginner while also being complex enough that seasoned gamblers study statistical probabilities all for a chance to beat the casino.
While blackjack is a favorite for the casual and serious gambler alike at casinos, the game has also exploded on-line which means it’s now being played all over the world. Blackjack has also been in the headlines over the past few decades because of the notorious use of card-counting that some gamblers have used to try and beat the game.
The history of blackjack is as complex as some of those card-counting strategies. While blackjack resembles many card games that originated in Europe, it didn’t become the game we know until it came to the U.S.A.
Even though there may be a few players at one blackjack table, they are all playing against the dealer. Each player is dealt two cards and they try to get as close to 21 as possible without going over. You can then “stand” with what you have or ask the dealer to “hit” you with another card. One of the dealer’s two cards is dealt face up which will help you make the decision between hitting or standing. Make the right decision, and you’ll get closer to 21 than the dealer which means you’ve won the hand.
The roots of blackjack trace back to Europe shortly after the first standardized decks of cards were printed in 1440 by Johann Guttenberg. Many of the earliest games played with these early decks have a lot in common with modern day blackjack.
Some of those games that have similar qualities to blackjack include Baccarat, Quinze, Seven-and-a-half, One-and-Thirty, Vingt-Un, and Trente-et-Quatre. All of these games required players to win by getting to a specific number.
For example, Baccarat began in Italy in the 1490s and to win players had to have a card count total of 9. Seven-and-a-half shared the “bust” element that exists in blackjack where players would lose automatically if they went over seven and a half. In the game all cards higher than a 7 counted as half a point.
In Spain in the late 1500s one of the more popular card games was “One and Thirty” where players tried to get as close to 31 as possible. However the game play had little in common with blackjack as each player was dealt three cards and then three community cards were dealt as well. Players in turn could trade one of their own cards for a community card if they thought it would get them closer to the magic number of 31.
Fast forward a few hundred years to France and the comparisons to blackjack become even closer. Popular games in the 1880s included Quinze where players tried to reach a total of 15 and Trente-et-Quarante which required the use of six decks. Trente-et-Quarante saw the dealer separating the black and red cards into rows, with players betting on the rows. Cards were then dealt from each until the row went over 30, then whoever bet on the row that was closest to 31 was the winner.
Probably the closest predecessor to blackjack was a French game called Vingt-Un (which translated means “Twenty-One”). Like blackjack, the object of the game was to reach 21. However the gameplay was quite different. The cards were dealt in rounds followed by a round of betting until someone reached a “natural” 21 and if that winner was the dealer it was bad news for the rest of the table because they would all have to pay triple the bet.
From Vingt-Un to Blackjack
In the late 1800s games of Vingt-Un started being played in the United States. Instructions on how to play were written in an 1875 version of “American Hoyle” and in 1905 in “Foster’s Hoyle.” The games started privately among friends but shortly after 1910 under the English name “Twenty One” it started appearing in gambling halls. The first record of Twenty One being played in a gambling hall came from Evansville, Indiana.
It was in those gambling halls that the change was made from Twenty One to Blackjack. The change was made to solve a problem. Twenty One wasn’t being played as much as the owners of the gambling halls wanted. So in an effort to increase its popularity gambling halls offered various bonuses and higher payouts. One of the most popular was a payout for hands that had an Ace of Spades and a black Jack (club or spade). A player with that hand would automatically receive ten times what they bet and it became known as the blackjack hand. The game’s popularity increased rapidly and the name stuck, even though most gambling halls got rid of the bonus payouts a few years later.
Blackjack Becomes American
So that’s where name came from. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is how it became a casino staple.
With the evolution of the gameplay now resembling today’s version of blackjack, its popularity grew quickly across the U.S.A. It was popular with both casual and seasoned gamblers. Beginners liked how easy it was to learn and play, while the professionals saw a game that could potentially be beaten. It didn’t hurt that as the 1900s began there wasn’t any form of government regulation on gambling which meant blackjack was being played all across the country.
However, around 1910 the government changed its tune. It felt gambling was leading to widespread corruption and a source of income for organized crime. This forced blackjack dealers and players to have to take part in illegal underground games if they wanted to keep playing.
It’s hard to believe now but in 1910 gambling was even illegal in Nevada. Two decades later, after the Great Depression, Nevada was looking for ways to help its struggling economy rebound and gambling was made legal in some areas of the state. Government committees were set up to monitor the newly legal industry and laws were also made to protect the rights of the gambler.
Nevada’s newly legal gambling industry and the game of blackjack was a match made in heaven. Blackjack became one of the card games that led to the rebirth of Las Vegas. With other states choosing to keep gambling illegal, Nevada and Las Vegas became the nation’s betting capital.
Other Names for Blackjack
With its popularity cemented in the U.S., blackjack began to spread internationally. The Russian version of blackjack is called Ochko or 21 and is a popular game there. In other places it became known as Pontoon and sometimes California Aces.
Along with inspiring hardcore gamblers and casual card players, blackjack also attracted interest from the scientific community. Scientists in the 1950s were intrigued by the mathematical elements of the game and began to calculate the statistics and study strategies to help players prosper. The quest to best the game actually yielded results. Mathematician Roger Baldwin and his team put out a basic blackjack strategy in the Journal of American Statistical Association consisting of the ideal combinations and moves.
The Birth of Card Counting
These early studies inspired another American mathematician Dr. Edward Thorp to come up with the controversial strategy of card counting. Card counting is designed to give the blackjack player an advantage over the casino. The way it works is the card counter keeps track of how many high cards have been dealt and how many low cards have been played in order to better guess the cards that are coming next. If the deck still has a better ratio of high cards to low cards it’s thought to be good for the player based on winning blackjack hands. When the deck is stacked towards the player it’s in their interest to make higher bets in order to win more. If there are more low cards in the deck the smart card counter will make smaller bets because they reduce the chance the dealer will go bust.
Dr. Thorp also published his findings in the book “Beat the Dealer” which came out in 1962. It outlined a few different betting and playing techniques to try and give the player the advantage. While the theories behind his work were mathematically sound, casinos eventually made many changes to make it much harder to have any success counting cards. But before those changes came into place, many expert card counters succeeded in beating the system. Throughout the 50s and 60s card counters such as James McDermott, Jess Marcum, Roger Baldwin, Joe Bernstein, Herbert Maisel, and Wilbert Cantey made themselves a mint. Some of them went on to publish books detailing their successes, while others kept their strategies a secret so that the casinos couldn’t catch on.
Fighting Card Counting
The measures put in place in the 1970s and 1980s by Las Vegas casinos made life difficult for the professional card counter. This era marked the beginning of computerized dealing systems and the use of multiple decks making card counting much more of a challenge. Even when using a single deck the dealers shuffled the cards far more often.
The battle against card counting was both high-tech and low-tech. Complex video surveillance and computer analysis was brought in by some casinos in an effort to detect betting patterns that would indicate card counting was taking place. Less complicated techniques were also brought in to distract card counters from their game. These included free alcoholic drinks and loud background music or shows.
Introducing Online Blackjack
The newest evolution of blackjack isn’t taking place in a casino and doesn’t even use real cards. Like Texas Hold'Em, blackjack has exploded on the internet with the advent of online gaming, which took off in the mid-1990s. It has now become big business on the internet with fierce competition between gambling web-sites.
The online casinos wanted to get people gambling from the privacy of their own home, so they used games everyone already knew how to play like poker and of course, blackjack. The games don’t require a lot of instruction which allow players to get started quite easily.
There are over 2000 online casino sites now offering a wide variety of games but blackjack remains a favorite. There are also specialized sites that only offer blackjack featuring every kind of table possible from betting high stakes to mere pennies. It’s worth the time to research a few different sites to see which have the best bonuses and some will even post information on betting and playing strategies.
The bonus structure of an online blackjack site is a great advantage for the player. Beginners can practice on tables with low betting limits to get familiar with playing before moving to tables where they will play for higher stakes. Many sites even allow you to play for free with fake money or points. While any winnings you take are also only play money, it’s a good idea to practice before you play for the real thing.
One thing to be careful of is to know the rules of the online casino you are playing at because they can differ from land casinos. Some sites have their own house rules that can greatly affect the outcome. For example the dealer can fold on some sites or players aren’t always allowed to split certain cards.
Blackjack has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Now the future of the game both online and in the casinos looks bright as its popularity shows no signs of waning. Trends come and go in every aspect of life including gambling, but rest assured people will be saying “Hit me” to dealers for decades to come.