Blackjack History

All card games have unique history that rolls down the centuries beyond the days of history itself, unfortunately not always can historians and researchers discover the full trace of a game, such is the case of blackjack, which eludes scholars till these days.

Today it is commonly agreed that the first roots of blackjack appeared during the 17th century in France, where a game called Vingt En Un was played in French casinos. The name Vingt-en-Un means “21” in French, which evidently was not the first ancestor of blackjack, but it’s clear that blackjack did originated from it, thought the blackjack rules do not resemble it in all aspects.

Vingt en Un was very similar to blackjack, with few minor differences: only the dealer was allowed to doubling-down and the betting method was that you would have to bet after each round, which is not like in modern blackjack. But as in the traditional blackjack and other blackjack variants, Vingt-eb-Un’s goal was to reach a ‘natural’ or a total of 21 by using blackjack’s hand ranking system. The English name blackjack came from a special feature of Vingt en Un, which was a special payout when one had a hand of a Jack and an Ace of spades, hence the term Black Jack. It’s the ideal hand of Vingt en Un.

At that time a game called Seven and a Half was played in Italy. In this card game, which was played with face cards and the 7’s, 8’s and 9’s cards, your goal was to reach a hand of seven and a half points. Regular cards (7’s, 8’s and 9’s) were valued as one point while face cards valued half a point. The King of Diamonds could substitute any card, like a Joker card and it was basically a wild card. When players exceeded seven and a half points they were “busted”. It is believed that the term “bust” of blackjack derived from “Seven and a Half”.

Another strong point of turn in the history of blackjack was after the French Revolution the game migrated to North America; there it gained much popularity since no laws prohibited card games during that time. Professional gambler understood the huge potential that lays dormant in the, and soon they developed the basic blackjack strategy for improving their winning odds. The game had started to gain popularity as in the beginning of the 19th century the government of the US had banned and outlawed gambling activities. The US government believed that gambling corrupted society and encouraged organized crime.

And so, with numerous laws against it and Federal Marshals on its tail, blackjack became an underground game. It became even more popular as government’s restriction tightened around it during the 20’s, and eventually Nevada decided to legalize gambling in 1931 and Las Vegas was born. The game attracted more and more interest as the years passed, until science had decided to investigate it as well.

In 1953 the first attempt to study blackjack was made by Roger Baldwin and his associates, a great turn in the history of blackjack as well. They used statistics theory and calculating methods in order to reduce blackjack’s house edge. In 1956 they published their findings in the American Statistical Association under the title “Optimum Strategy in Blackjack”, the first ever blackjack strategy guide.

But the tools Baldwin and his associates used were not as sophisticated as needed in order to fully investigate blackjack’s statistics. The next step in this road to understand blackjack via math and science was made by Professor Edward O. Thorp. He polished their findings and used new calculating systems and machines. In 1962 Thorp published his book – “Beat the Dealer” – in which there was written down the first actual system – the blackjack card counting system.

“Beat the Dealer” became a huge success and in 1963 it took the first place of the New York Times’ seller list of books. Not only Thorp’s work had impact on blackjack players and blackjack’s history, but it also hit the casinos with terror. Casinos across the US devised plans to reduce the damage and soon after “Beat the Dealer” was written and published they modified the blackjack rules.

Thorp’s Ten-Count was hard to learn by average blackjack players, his book was uneasily read or understood by the public and the main effect it had was raising blackjack’s popularity up into to the sky. The public of blackjack players were raged upon the casinos’ new ‘bogus’ blackjack variations. And so the casinos, after realizing that “Beat the Dealer” was no threat to them, and losing much money on the way, reinstated the use of the ‘traditional’ blackjack. During the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s blackjack was the rising star of card games among the casinos.

Julian Braun, an IBM employee, used his computers skills and studied blackjack with a simulator, was another great contributor to blackjack. His work was put in the second edition of “Beat the Dealer”. Another contributor is Lawrence Revere who published “Playing Blackjack as a Business” that inspired thousands of blackjack players.

The hero of blackjack, Ken Uston, had also a great part in blackjack’s history as he inspired millions of people in his books “Million Dollar Blackjack”, “Ken Uston on Blackjack” and “The Big Player”. Ken Uston and his colleagues used computers that were inserted to their shoes, and by using them they made thousands of dollars every month while playing blackjack at Nevada’s casinos.

Ken Uston wasn’t the last to use such methods and in the 1990’s another group of players hit the casino halls using card counting techniques – The MIT Blackjack Team. The members of this team made millions of dollars until 1997 when they were banned from the casinos after they were detected by the Griffin Investigation, a private detectives company that identify card counters and secure casinos around the world from gamblers that cheat.

Today blackjack is a classic game played in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and many other places on the globe. Internet blackjack is growing in popularity during the last few years, and hopefully blackjack would continue to be the classic game it is today.

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