Blackjack History

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Roughly 500 years ago, a wide variety of card games were popular in Europe, any one of which might claim to be the direct ancestor of Blackjack. For example, the 15th century Italian game called Trentuno (“31”) and the 16th century Spanish game known as Veintiuno (“21”) both have characteristics of the casino table game played round the world today.

It is known for certain, however, that the 18th century French game named Vingt-et-Un (“21”) was introduced to the gaming tables of New Orleans in the early 19th century. The object of Vingt-et-Un was to draw cards with combined values higher than those of the dealer, but without exceeding a total of 21.

Surprisingly, Americans did immediately embrace the new game. Vingt-et-Un featured betting rounds that made play slow. It also permitted the dealer to double the wagers whenever an advantage was held. Payouts were nominal, too, and players wanted to be able to win more than even money for a successful hand.

To popularize the game, several changes were made, beginning with the creation of a 10-to-1 payout for the Ace of spades drawn on the first two cards along with a Jack of clubs or spades. This variant was dubbed “Black Jack,” and it soon began to appear in gaming parlors and on riverboats well beyond Louisiana.

As the 20th century began, many U.S. states began banning gambling, including Blackjack. By the 1920s, the game could be found only in secret clubs known as “speakeasies” and in the card rooms of illegal brothels. It was not until 1931, when the state of Nevada legalized casino gaming that Blackjack emerged as one of the most popular table games of Reno and Las Vegas. Soon after, Monte Carlo and the casinos of Europe added Blackjack to their gaming floors, where fans of Baccarat swarmed the new tables.

In 1956, a specialist in card game strategies named Roger Baldwin published an article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association entitled “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack.” This was the first in-depth analysis of how a Blackjack player’s decisions could lower the House edge and increase the odds of winning. The article inspired UCLA mathematics professor Edward O. Thorp to test Baldwin’s theories in real play and then to improve upon them.

With access to an IBM 704 computer, Thorp conducted a thorough analysis of the game. He devised methods of cutting the House edge to merely 0.21%. The professor also came up with a way of tracking all of the cards that had been played, knowledge of which could actually tip the odds in the player’s favour—the origin of “card counting.”

Over the years, casinos have come up with countermeasures that make it hard for Blackjack card counters to succeed. Of course, that did not dissuade a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who used card counting to win millions at casinos in the 1990s. Eventually a private investigative firm called Griffin was hired to expose the cheaters who were working as a team. The true-life saga became the basis for a 2008 Hollywood movie called “21” starring Kevin Spacey.

Today, Blackjack ranks among the world’s most popular table games. It is enjoyed not only in land-based casinos but also on the Internet, where software developers have programmed games with endless shuffling to render card-counting ineffective. Similarly, multiple decks and continuous shuffling machines have been introduced at many bricks-and-mortar casinos to thwart card counters.

Blackjack has spawned an entire family of variations over the past 80 years or so, including Spanish 21, Perfect Pairs Blackjack and Super Fun 21, to name just a few. In Double Exposure Blackjack, players can see both of the dealer’s cards, and in Blackjack Switch, cards can be exchanged between two hands held by a single player. For its entertainment value, ease of learning and the possibility of big wins, Blackjack can be expected to continue its long reign as the “King of Casino Card Games.”

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