History of Blackjack
Blackjack has become one of the most popular games in modern casinos. Not only does the game offer significant strategy challenges to players, but blackjack has some of the best odds in any casino environment. The combination of strategy and low house edge makes the game a winner for smart players and casinos alike, since most gamblers will increase the house edge from lack of skill. In recent decades, card counting has become a factor in how blackjack rules and gameplay have evolved. Meanwhile, the desire of online gamblers for new game options means that new and old variants of blackjack have been packaged in online casino software programs, for the enjoyment of 21st century blackjack players. Today, I discuss the history of blackjack, while tracing the history of some of the popular game variations.
Spanish Blackjack – Ventiuna
The history of blackjack goes back at least four centuries, as “twenty-one” was first mentioned in the Miguel de Cervantes’s Novelas Ejemplares, which was written circa 1601. The game as described by Cervantes included aces which could be “1” or “11”, along with the premise of building a hand as close to 21 as possible. Even a version of the “Spanish deck” was used, as the 8, 9, and 10 cards were removed from the deck (only the 10s are removed from Spanish decks these days).
French Blackjack – Vingt-et-Un
Around the year 1700, French casinos began offering a game called “vingt-et-un”, which is French for 21. Many game accounts suggest the blackjack was invented in these French settings, but those amateur historians aren’t aware of Cervantes’ earlier account of the game. French casino games like chemin de fer and French ferme may have contributed to the early rules concepts, while a game called 31 was popular in Spain around the same time (1700). Vingt-et-Un became a popular game in the court of Louis XV (reigned 1715-1774). Twenty-one was thus played at the court of Versailles.
Another famous Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, enjoyed twenty-one throughout his life. The game was one of his more pleasant distractions during his five years exile on St. Helena, the tiny island in the South Atlantic the Allies had placed the former French emperor after his escape from Elba and his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
North American Twenty-One
Twenty-one came to North America with French settlers along the Mississippi River and in Canada. The early rules of blackjack were much different than the ones used today. Doubling was allowed, but only for the dealer or “house”. After every single card was dealt, a new betting round would ensue, which must have made for expensive hands of 21.
Blackjack and Las Vegas
To raise revenues during the Great Depression, the state of Nevada became the first of the United States to make gambling legal (in 1931). With automobiles being mass produced and with Los Angeles a growing metropolis, planners in southeastern Nevada decided to position Las Vegas as a gambling attraction for the rich and glamorous of LA. It was in one of the new Las Vegas casinos where the name “blackjack” first became associated with twenty-one.
At certain casinos in Las Vegas, twenty-one was offered where a 21 consisting of one of the black jacks (the jack of clubs or the jack of spades) and the ace of spades would pay off at 10:1. These nice payouts was eventually eliminated, but the name blackjack had become so associated with games of twenty-one that it became the generic name for all games of 21. As Las Vegas became the gambling capital of the world, this naming custom became a global standard.
Edward Thorp and Card Counting
In 1966, Edward Thorp published his book Beat The Dealer, which first taught the gambling public the art of card counting. While card counting systems may have been developed by other gamblers before Edward Thorp, Beat The Dealer was the first time the concept was introduced to non-professional gamblers. Card counters use various systems to determine when they should wager more than their standard bet, picking their spots to bet when they have a decided advantage. Given blackjack’s small house edge and the ability to increase the bet substantially, card counters turn blackjack into a positive expectation game–they expect to win more money than they lose. Professional and amateur card counters in the 1970s and 1980s began to try out these techniques, while often creating their own (perhaps improved) methods of counting cards.
Over time, casinos had to take measures to eliminate the advantages of card counting. This included the increase from single decks to multiple decks dealt from a shoe. When a person plays with 4 or more decks at a time, counting the high cards or low cards become a negligible tactic. More frequent reshuffles also became prevalent. Casinos began keeping black books with known card counters, so they could escort them from the premises and bar them playing again. Though card counting is not illegal, gambling houses have the right to ask any gambler to leave.
As the Internet became a mainstream phenomenon in the 1990s, online gambling began to pick up steam. Online casinos began appearing as early as 1994, while companies like Microgaming also started up in the years between 1994 and 1998. One of the first games converted to the Internet was blackjack. Since those early days, casino software design teams have added more and more variants of blackjack to their list of games. Older games like pontoon, European rules blackjack, UK blackjack, and Spanish blackjack were made into game options. Versions of blackjack played in the downtown casinos of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Strip, and Atlantic City also appeared.
New games of twenty-one were also invented. Games designed in various sources for online gamblers include games like super-fun 21, match-play 21, and face-up 21. Many of these games had side bets with lower odds, but higher payouts. The ultimate example of this trend is progressive blackjack, where a side bet incorporates a progressive jackpot into classic blackjack. Multi-hand blackjack also became prevalent.
Despite decades of online gambling and the use of random number generators, many gamblers have yet to embrace RNGs. Many technophobes and gambling industry paranoids consider RNG gaming too easy to rig. While testing and auditing of the casino software is constant, enough players don’t like simulated blackjack that live blackjack began to appear online. In these games, live streaming videos of real dealers from a dealer studio are sent to a computer screen, providing remote computer users with a live blackjack experience through tv-quality videos. Though Microgaming, Playtech, Evolution Gaming, and Net Entertainment each off some form of live blackjack, this remains an evolving process.
Online gambling has rolled all the history of blackjack into one compilation of games and alternate rules. By that, I mean that a list of blackjack games at a Playtech or Microgaming casino takes a sampling of the top historical twenty-one games and a handful of the best new blackjack games and gives them to players for their enjoyment. The online blackjack game options are a “best of blackjack” list for the past several centuries. The game of blackjack will continue to evolve, with new favorites replacing less popular selections. Every game of blackjack you play online is another vote on which direction you hope to see the game of blackjack evolve.