The history of blackjack begins nearly four centuries ago, and few of the game’s rules have changed since then. Other aspects, however, have evolved so much that the modern game barely resembles the one French and Spanish aristocrats once played in Baroque salons; from new names to variants, to surefire betting strategies and the introduction of Internet black jack, the history of blackjack is so long and varied its details could fill a casino vault.
Here at AceHoyle.com we certainly have no intention of using our “Blackjack History” section to relate every speck of blackjack history and have instead followed the ‘ole “skirt rule”: We’ve made it “long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep things interesting.” The reason for this is simple: Knowing about who invented what and what-for is hardly necessary to becoming an expert player. If, however, you are interest in learning about the history of blackjack, we suggest picking up David G. Schwartz’s encyclopedic history of gambling, “Roll the Bones.”
The History of Blackjack According to AceHoyle.com
Early Blackjack History: In the Beginning There was Veintiuna
Most game historians will tell you that blackjack history is clear-cut. Then, each will tell you a different story about how the game began. To date, nearly half a dozen tales have appeared in popular Internet gambling magazines’ black jack sections, while Wikipedia goes so far as to attribute the game’s invention to famed Spanish author Miguel Cervantes. Many of these accounts are entertaining to say the least. And yet, regardless of what you may have heard or read, knowledge of blackjack’s invention is actually quite limited.
What we do know is that all modern casino card games derive from paper-tile games invented in China as early as the 9th century. We also know that variations on those games reached Europe sometime in the 14th century and that the first mention in the West of a blackjack-like game emerged in a 17th century short story by Cervantes. In Cervantes’s story, “Rinconete and Cortadillo,” the title characters play a game called “Veintiuna,” which is nearly the same as modern Spanish 21. In fact, Cervantes’s description of the game is so precise you can still learn the basic rules of Spanish 21 just from reading it. It is highly unlikely, however, that Cervantes himself invented Veintiuna as references to other target-number casino card games like “Thirty-One” (akin to Gin Rummy) date back to the 15th century. Often, these earlier games do not include a betting element – likely due to the church’s ban on gambling during the early Renaissance – but aside from this they are obvious blackjack ancestors.
Meanwhile, gambling halls in Italy began offering a similar game called “Seven-and-a-Half.” As in blackjack, the goal of this game was to get as close to a target number as possible without going over. And yet, unlike Veintiuna, Seven-and-a-Half required players to get closer to—you guessed it—seven and a half points, not 21. It was played with only one deck’s worth of face cards and 7s, 8s and 9s so that the former were each worth half a point, and the latter one point. Many modern game historians say the blackjack term “bust” derived from Seven-and-a-Half, as the game used the Italian term “busto,” or “statuette of the head”—as in having one of these made for a funeral. It’s interesting for sure since many blackjack players assume the term comes from the word’s Old English-derived homograph, which means “to explode.”
By the 18th century, Veintiuna had made its way to France, where it was re-dubbed “Vingt-et-Un.” Rules-wise, Vingt-et-Un was nearly identical to modern blackjack, except only dealers could “double down” (See: AceHoyle.com’s Blackjack Glossary
). Also, in Vingt-et-Un players drew cards one at a time and had to bet each time, much like how modern-day poker is played. This, naturally, put a damper on the House’s take since players could look at their cards before determining how they would bet. But before you laugh at how silly our forebears were you have to consider how limited their mathematical understanding was. Heck, at the time it had been less than a century since Isaac Newton invented calculus. To the average casino owner of the day complex probability problems seemed as vague as astrophysics does today.
But the biggest difference between Vingt-et-Un and modern blackjack was the older game’s limited popularity. To be sure, this had nothing to do with a lack of interest. Rather, it primarily resulted from the fact that few people knew about it; up to the late 18th century, most European nations still had monarchies, and a majority of people simply had neither the time nor the money to gamble. Such games, then, were reserved for landed aristocrats, who could gamble away a year’s earnings in one night, then return to their estates and raise taxes to make up the difference. In fact, that’s often what they did in the court of Louis XV after the king’s mistress, Madame du Barry, reportedly fell in love with the game.
All this changed, however, with the French Revolution when France’s National Constituent Assembly did away with aristocratic entitlement and mandatory tithing. Soon, participating in activities that were previously beyond the average citizen—activities like gambling, for instance—became part of the revolution’s democratic principles. Once-exclusive salons were now open to all, and in the spirit of equality, the men and women of the revolution changed blackjack forever by making the point value of kings lower than that of aces.
The History of Blackjack in America
Blackjack probably arrived in North America around 1800. Before that, some average colonists may have played non-gambling blackjack precursors like Thirty-One. But because gambling games like blackjack were largely played in aristocratic circles—members of whom naturally had no reason to leave the comforts of Europe—it’s unlikely the game existed outside the drawing rooms of crown-appointed officials in Louisiana and Mexico. Furthermore, the game’s introduction to well-born British colonists was likely delayed half a century because of the Seven Years’ War; the lands that once comprised New France, after all, became part of the British colonies at war’s end in 1759, a decade before Madame du Barry’s introduction to the Court at Versailles (1769) and her subsequent popularization of the game among French aristocrats. Most gaming historians therefore place the introduction of blackjack in the English-speaking New World in or around the early 19th century. At this time, they argue, many French émigrés, or aristocratic refugees of the French Revolution, sought safety in the fledgling U.S., and it is entirely feasible that they brought their zeal for the game with them.
Proponents of this theory go on to say that, ironically enough, blackjack spread in the U.S. because of the country’s puritanical anti-gambling laws. These laws, they contend, fostered familiarity with the game by making it ideal for underground clubs throughout Britain’s former colonies; like the speakeasies that existed nearly a century later, frontier gambling halls needed ways of hiding illegal paraphernalia. And one way of doing this was to limit game selection to those wagers whose constituent parts were legal. In the case of casino card games like blackjack, for instance, players could pocket their wagers—usually cash—and dealers could shuffle up and start a non-gambling game, like euchre. As a result, such games proliferated. After all, if the only gambling games offered are card games, card games are bound to become extremely popular.
Game historians also debate what effect American players had on blackjack specifically. It’s certain for instance that card makers in the U.S. introduced lamination, jokers and rounded corners to playing cards. But contentions exist over whether American casinos introduced the Black Jack rule or if it existed prior to the game’s arrival in the States. Proponents of the former theory say American casino owners invented the rule in a bid to draw more players and that the rule’s popularity led to the game’s current name in English; others say the name “blackjack” was in usage in Britain earlier. Whatever the case, by the 1890s, the game was both extremely popular and extremely illegal in the U.S. And so it would remain for another half century.
The Advent of Card Counting in Blackjack History
America’s love of blackjack continued well into the 20th century, but it also continued to be a love confined to backroom card dens—the realm of blackguards and criminals. It wasn’t until 1931 when the state of Nevada legalized gambling that it finally gained some legitimacy, and not till after World War II that playing it became socially acceptable. By the 1950s, though, it had become one of Vegas’s biggest money makers. Part of the reason for this, of course, was players’ familiarity with the game. But, perhaps more importantly, American gamblers loved blackjack because it always seemed unbelievably easy to gain an edge in. Still, “seemed” was the operative word, and try as they might, those who played the game could not crack its code; time and again all they succeeded in doing was losing thousands to Sin City movers and shakers like Bugsy Siegel, and for those movers and shakers life was good.
All this changed, however, when Ed Thorp, an MIT mathematics professor, published “Beat the Dealer” in 1962. The previous year, Thorp had begun making weekend excursions to Las Vegas with his friend Claude Shannon and Shannon’s wife. The three won tens of thousands at the blackjack tables of several major casinos, and their new “Ten Count” system seemed unstoppable. Then, Thorp wrote his book, sharing card counting for blackjack with anyone curious enough to pick up a copy.
Needless to say, casino owners, who had been annoyed by their run-ins with Thorp’s team the year before, were now livid. They made every attempt to regain their edge by changing the way they dealt blackjack, but players simply boycotted these new versions. Finally, the two camps came to an uneasy agreement: Casinos, players conceded, could deal blackjack from multi-deck shoes and refuse to seat players who came to a table mid-shoe. This made it impossible for card counters to simply walk in during a high count, win thousands and walk away when the count petered out. It also increased the amount of time necessary to build a high count, thus ensuring that many counters would lose a sizeable chunk of change before they began winning. In return, players could still count cards to their hearts’ content—as long as the casinos’ personnel didn’t catch them….
The Rise of Internet Black Jack
The 1970s and ‘80s saw several famous card-counting schemes, forcing casinos to beef up their security and introduce table cameras. On the whole, though, card counting in blackjack actually helped Vegas more than it hurt it by drawing in foolhardy players who had neither the patience nor the brains to learn Ed Thorp’s system. As a result, casino gambling became an ever-expanding business, drawing in major developers like Donald Trump and long-time film studio MGM. It also spurred a new wave of growth and urban revitalization elsewhere as Eastern politicians sought to legalize gambling in their own states and replicate Vegas’s success. By the 1990s, casino gambling had become such a major facet of American culture that it only made sense to bring it into every household across the country. The only question was how. And the answer, felicitously enough, presented itself in the form of a system of networked computers developed by academics: The Internet.
The idea of creating Internet-based gambling videogames immediately garnered interest from investors and, at least in theory, seemed simple enough. A boom in home-console and computer game markets in the ‘80s and early ‘90s had spurred competition and innovation until, by the 1993, video games were becoming increasingly sophisticated. With the Internet, the reasoning went, a company could feasibly take bets on such Internet gambling games like black jack, allowing for sky’s-the-limit profits. There were only two problems with the idea: First, an Internet casino company would need to keep its servers someplace, and that place had to legally allow it to do so; secondly, and even more damning, no casino-game software existed. The reason for this second conundrum was that, till then, the videogame market had centered on selling consoles and games. So casino games, thought to be the epitome of boring without their gambling aspect, had never been produced. Whoever made the first foray into online gambling would have to start from scratch and, moreover, would be taking a major risk in doing so.
Still, the promise of immense profits prevailed, and in 1994, inchoate online casino companies had their “someplace” when legislators in Antigua and Barbuda enacted the “Free Trade and Processing Zone Act.” The only thing left was to develop the games and a payment system that allowed for secure funds transfers from players’ bank accounts to the online casinos’. Two companies, Microgaming and CryptoLogic, took up the challenge with Microgaming creating the first suite of online casino games and CryptoLogic producing security software that would prevent hackers from accessing players’ financial information. Both companies then partnered with London-based OIGE N.V. to create InterCasino, which launched in 1995.
The irony was, however, that the very game that had spurred the gambling boom of the latter 20th century wasn’t part of InterCasino’s original offering. In fact, it would be another year before the first blackjack software appeared on the scene, finally allowing online blackjack players to play black jack on line. One possible reason for the original suite’s lack of blackjack software was a fear that online blackjack players would use card counting in blackjack to take the era’s fledgling operators for all they were worth. Yet only the operators themselves know for certain why they didn’t allow their earliest customers to play black jack on line—and any explanation we here at AceHoyle.com can offer is mere conjecture.
At any rate, 1996 came and, with it, the first Internet black jack games. Interestingly, Microgaming incorporated a random number generator into their blackjack software, thus avoiding the much-dreaded possibility of online blackjack players card counting in blackjack. As a result, when you play black jack on line today each hand is an independent event. This, in turn, preserves the game’s House edge, because, unlike its card-based precursor, Internet gambling black jack’s hand compositions don’t depend on those of previous hands; each hand comes from a freshly shuffled shoe crippling most traditional blackjack strategies
Online Black Jack Tournaments and Beyond
Over the past decade online gambling sites have grown to rival their brick-and-mortar cousins by offering the same games more conveniently. As a result, they’ve also begun offering many of the events once found exclusively in large land-based casinos. Online black jack tournaments are one example of such events. Beginning in 1996, online black jack tournaments have drawn thousands more to Internet gambling, and their popularity shows no signs of ending.
Meanwhile, all online gambling got an immense boost in 2003 when previously unknown poker player Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker’s No-Limit Texas Hold’em
Main Event. At that time, many online casinos already offered online poker rooms, and many of those who rushed to such sites looking for poker stardom also played other games like blackjack. In fact, this influx of new players was so immense that even the U.S.’s Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 only slowed the industry’s momentum slightly. The recent worldwide recession—recessions always increase profits in “vice” sectors like gambling—combined with the financial woes of over-extended brick-and-mortar casinos have more than made up for these losses. Today online gambling rakes in billions, and at the heart of this boom is Internet black jack.