Blackjack History

The popular game of Blackjack appeared first in the French casinos around 1700. Blackjack gained popularity in the US around the 1800s and it continues to retain its appeal till today, as the most popular casino table game.

The popular game of Blackjack appeared first in the French casinos around 1700. Gradually and over the years, it came to be known as Blackjack because of the way it is being played. When a player receives an Ace of Spades and a Jack of Spades, both black, he wins an additional amount of money.

Blackjack gained popularity in the US around the 1800s and it continues to retain its appeal till today, as the most popular casino table game.

Roman Origins

According to popular theory, the history of Blackjack actually dates back to ancient Rome even before it appeared in France in the 1700s. The Roman origin of Blackjack is based on the assumption that the people of Rome played a gambling game, very similar to what Blackjack is today.

However, instead of the cards, Romans used small wooden blocks with numbers written all over them. Even historians agree that Romans were fond of gambling and also, quite good at it. This theory is believed by many in spite of the fact that gambling was illegal in the then Holy Roman Empire. To date, there is no such confirmation of this Roman history of Blackjack though.

Vingt-Et-Un

Vingt-Et-Un is, in a true sense, the predecessor of the modern Blackjack game. It was the French card game, which emerged in the 17th century and was primarily played by the French aristocrats. Vingt-Et Un has very much in common with the modern Blackjack with a few glaring differences.

Some of the main features of the Vingt-Et-Un included the presence of 5 to 6 players in a game. Any player could be the dealer and only he had the right to double at the game. The situation determined whether the Ace would be a 1 or an 11. To begin with, one card is placed face down for both the player and the dealer. The player decides which bet to make and after this, the second card is dealt. The dealer then decides whether to double.

In situations where both the player and the dealer got a Natural 21, the gambler became the dealer. On the other hand, if the dealer has a Natural, all the players pay him triple and the payment is 2:1 if the player has a Natural.

The most interesting fact about Vingt-Et Un was that every deal of the game had a definite name. Accordingly, the second deal is Imaginary Tens, the third deal is Blind Vingt-Et Un, the fourth deal is Sympathy and Antipathy, the fifth deal is Rouge Et Noir, the sixth, the seventh and eighth deal called the Self and Company, Paying the Difference, and Clack, respectively.

Twenty-One

Twenty-One was again a variant of the Blackjack and it emerged in the 1800s, following the popularity of Vingt-Et Un. In the 18th century, Twenty-One became widely played in France and from thereon, spread its influence in Germany, Britain and even, America. In Britain, it came to be known as Pontoon too.

The game of Twenty-One went like this.

There were a banker and some punters, of which, the numbers could vary. The banker deals in two cards placed face down for each punter. Bets were placed after or at times, before receiving the cards. Following this, the punters picked and examined their cards and decided whether they would want a third card from the banker.

The ultimate idea was to score twenty-one points or come as close to the figure as possible, determined by the card values. The player lost his stake if he exceeded twenty-one. After the punter announced his decision or exceeded 21, it was time for the dealer to play. A player who achieved twenty-one in his first two cards got a “Natural Vingt-Et-Un” or a “Pontoon”, depending on the variant being played and it was a double win for him.

The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack

Roger Baldwin talks about the Optimum Strategy in Blackjack in his paper. Even today, it is considered the basic blackjack strategy for playing the game in a casino. It is a mathematically proven trick to give the player a competitive advantage while playing.

The chart below outlines how you can play the game optimally, based on the cards in hand and those dealt with. This Optimum Strategy applies to a game that has 4-8 decks, in which the dealer hits on a soft 17, a double is allowed following a split, and where original bets are lost on dealer blackjack.

basic blackjack strategy
The famous basic blackjack strategy chart.

Birth of Card Counting

Card Counting is a blackjack game strategy that came into play around the 1960s. The strategy was used to determine in advance, whether the next hand will give a relative advantage to the dealer or to the player. Card counters were the advantage players who tried to reverse the casino house edge. They would do so by keeping a running tally of both low valued and high valued cards, visible to the players. The strategy helped in minimizing losses when the count was not favorable.

The process was also referred to as card reading. And this is because it involved getting a sufficient count on the number to optimize trick winning. It was Edward O. Thorp’s Ten Count System that initially led to the Card Counting strategy in blackjack.

Edward O. Thorp

Edward O. Thorp was a mathematics professor at MIT and he is the man who gave birth to the card counting system. What he did was make the mid-1900s computers to run huge amounts of blackjack calculations. He then went to the casinos in Las Vegas to test his theories, which worked and made him win so much money that he was eventually barred.

Thorp has explained the Ten Count System he used in his book, “Beat the Dealer”, published in 1962. The system can be considered to be the very first publicly known, mathematically proven card counting system.

The Ten Count System went like this. The player sat down at the table and during the shuffle, had a mental count of zero. While the cards were dealt with, they were allotted a value that was added to the count. And this was irrespective of the hand the cards were in. These values were:

  • A, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 = +4
  • 10, Jack, Queen, King = -9

With this, the calculation became simple because the player was adding 4 or subtracting 9. One would start with a minimum bet and go higher as the count went positive and vice versa. Throughout the game, the player needed to be quick and just rely on this basic strategy while taking the primary playing decisions.

MIT Blackjack Team

The MIT Blackjack team, now famous in history, was a group of alumni and students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and a few other leading colleges. The team was initially formed when J.P Massar and Bill Kaplan met by chance after the former overheard a conversation on professional Blackjack at a Chinese eatery in Cambridge. The latter had even postponed his entrance to Harvard to try his fortune at gambling and was doing quite well in the Las Vegas casinos.

The MIT Blackjack team used card counting techniques and strategies to beat the casinos worldwide. The team operated successfully from 1979 right through the beginning of the 21st century.

In addition to the classic card counting and blackjack techniques, the team used ace tracking techniques as well as advanced shuffle. These strategies gave the players a competitive edge of about 2% to 4%. It was AI Francesco who originally developed the approach of the MIT team. He is known for having been elected by professional gamblers as one of the original 7 inductees to the Blackjack Hall of Fame.

The Griffin Agency

At a time when the Las Vegas casinos were at a loss as the use of the card counting technique was at its peak, the Griffin Agency or the Griffin Group of Investigators came into play. In 1967, Robert Griffin, a Las Vegas private detective devised the idea of developing a book of mug shots of card counters and gambling cheats. The aim of the agency, as its brochure stated, was to “provide surveillance and investigative services to casinos“.

The Griffin’s efforts were successful, leading to many blackjack players, playing under assumed names. Later on, in the 21st century, the Griffin Agency offered their original print book as well as an online database. This database not only included card counters but also jackpot winners. The intention was again to identify potential frauds. The agency even made use of biometric technology to catch players in disguise.

Modern Blackjack

Modern blackjack is quite different from its traditional forms and it is one of the most attractive card games today. Blackjack can be played online as well as in casinos. Side bets were added to make the entire experience more exciting. Auto shuffling is facilitated in the online versions of the game. In modern blackjack, while the standard 52-card pack is used, there are actually many more decks and in most games, several decks of cards are shuffled together.

The object is that each player attempts to beat the dealer by achieving a count as close to 21, without crossing the figure. Each player places a bet within the minimum and maximum limits which can be $2 to $500. The dealer shuffles the portions of the pack thoroughly till all the cards have mixed and combined with each other.

When all the players have placed their bets, the dealer gives two rounds of cards. Each player receives two cards face up while the dealer receives one card face up and the other, face down. When blackjack is played online, the players’ cards are all dealt face up on the condition that none of the players will touch any of the cards.

Blackjack History – FAQ

The discussion about Blackjack might seem to be never-ending and of course, because the game itself has so many facets. So, here are some of the common questions about Blackjack answered in brief.

Who invented Blackjack?

The card game of Blackjack as we know it today was inspired by the French card game called Vingt-Et-Un in the early 1700s. It transitioned to be Twenty-One (literal translation from French) and then Blackjack.

No particular name of a person has ever been associated with the game of Blackjack that evolved in the late 1600s.

Another theory hints that the Romans played a game with wooden blocks with different numbers. The rules were different from what blackjack is now.

Is Twenty-One the same as Blackjack?

No, Twenty One and Blackjack are not the same card games though there are some similarities in how both games are played.

Twenty One is a precursor of the modern blackjack. The main difference between blackjack and twenty one is that in blackjack, the player is playing against the dealer. He wins if the wager does not exceed 21 or is higher than the dealer’s total or if the dealer goes over 21. In Twenty One, on the contrary, a player is playing against both the dealer and the other players at the table.

In which country did Blackjack start in?

French is the country where blackjack is believed to have started. Although it is a matter of research and debate, it is widely established by theories that blackjack was played in the French casinos in 1700.

At that time, the French cards were called Vingt-Et Un, which also meant Twenty-One. These were probably derived from Chemin de Fer, a popular card game of those times.

Are Vingt-Un and Blackjack the same card game?

Vingt-Et Un is an earlier name for the card game of Blackjack.

Vingt-Et Un is considered a true predecessor of blackjack because of stark similarities in the game playing process. However, modern blackjack involves a lot more auto shuffling, multiple decks of cards, and can also be played online.

Why is blackjack called blackjack?

The word blackjack comes from a hand of cards that include the ace of spades along with either the jack of spades or the jack of clubs.

The color and the symbol of these cards that guaranteed a ten-to-one payout in the game led to the name blackjack. The ten-to-one system of bonus was later withdrawn but the name blackjack continued.

What is the official authority for the game of Blackjack?

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission authorizes and approves all types of table card games including Blackjack.

The Nevada Gaming Commission lays down the current rules of Blackjack.

Who is Professor Edward O. Thorp?

Edward O. Thorp was a mathematics professor at MIT and he gave birth to the card counting system.

In the mid-1900s, he made computers to run huge amounts of blackjack calculations. He then went to the casinos in Las Vegas to test his theories, which worked. Thorp has explained the Ten Count System he used in his book, “Beat the Dealer”, published in 1962. The system can be considered to be the very first publicly known, mathematically proven card counting system.

What does The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack say?

The Optimum Strategy in blackjack is a basic strategy for playing the game in casinos to gain a competitive advantage over the dealer and other players. It was first mentioned by Roger Baldwin in his paper.

This Optimum Strategy applies to a blackjack game that has 4-8 decks, in which the dealer hits on a soft 17, a double is allowed following a split and where original bets are lost on dealer blackjack. This strategy is a mathematically proven trick.

The most loved card game in casinos, blackjack, not only has a rich history but also, several interesting aspects attached to it. Blackjack players use their intelligence and expertise to get a competitive advantage over others. However, studies and researches about the different Blackjack techniques and their efficacy in the game continue in full swing to date and enrich blackjack historians and enthusiasts.