Comprehensive History of Blackjack | LeoVegas

Blackjack History Explained

Blackjack is one of the most popular gambling games played in casinos today.

Before Blackjack, a game known as Vingt-Un (meaning 21) existed, likely of Spanish origin (called Veintiuna in Spain). This precursor was first mentioned in a novel by the Spanish author and gambler Miguel de Cervantes.

Interestingly, the earliest documented card games in history take us back to the Tang Dynasty, however table games like blackjack weren't invented until much later. The first records of the blackjack game take us back to Britain and France between the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.

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Blackjack aims to draw cards that total as close to, but not over, 21. Players don't play against each other, but rather, they are up against the dealer. Back when the game began to rise in popularity, legend has it that casinos began to offer bonuses as a marketing ploy to increase interest in the game. In the case where a player drew a Jack of Spades or Clubs (a ‘black’ Jack) and an Ace, the awarded payout would be 10:1. This is one of a few theories about how blackjack got its name.

Origins of Blackjack

Some historians will argue that a form of blackjack was played in Ancient Roman times, where wooden blocks were used instead of playing cards, to represent the values involved. However, there's no concrete evidence or documentation to validate this story. Blackjack’s origins are therefore pinned down to Europe, specifically in France in the 19th century, where the first records of the game were discovered.

Although the history of blackjack was put on the map in the 19th century, records show that card games came into existence during the 16th century. They first appeared in Europe and gradually made their way to the USA.

One of the earliest card games known is France’s Piquet, the country’s national card game that is still played to this day. In the 1550s, its popularity extended beyond France’s border as it became one of the most popular games in Britain, alongside Cribbage. It's a two-player game, where the goal is to land the highest score from six deals. Points can be scored through sets, sequences, and taking tricks. Naturally, Cribbage is often considered an aristocratic card game.

Whist, a four-player card game established in England, was played extensively during the 18th century. In the game, players form two partnerships (of two) aim to land the majority of the points first. It may be considered a complicated game for new players, particularly because so many variations exist.

Another early card game to add to the list is Euchre. Its origins are unknown, though it was often played in gaming houses around Europe during Napoleon’s time, with the earliest records of the game taking us back to 1810. Other documentation also confirms its presence in 19th-century America, and it's often referred to as an American classic of European origin. Like Whist, it's a four-player game played by dividing into two partnerships. In this game, the goal is to win three tricks at a minimum.

Blackjack’s predecessor, Vingt-Un, eventually made its way from France to Britain, and in 1800, an English version of the game was established. After French colonists made their way to the USA in the late 17th century, the English Vingt-Un inspired an American version of the game, which was coined as blackjack in 1899.

The first reference to blackjack in literature was vis-à-vis Miguel de Cervantes’ Rinconete y Cortadillo, which was written between 1601 and 1602. In his novel, he refers to his protagonists as card cheats who are experienced in cheating at Veintiuna (21).

In terms of the blackjack strategies-related literature, Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel, and James McDermott’s published paper ‘The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack’ (1956), is regarded as one of the finest. Their paper provided strategies in blackjack that favoured the player’s odds and paved the way for Ed Thorpe’s ‘Beat the Dealer’ in 1963.

The Rise of Blackjack in Europe

Most card games originated in Europe and their prevalence is reflected in the large amount of variations present in modern society. The traction of games like Piquet, Whist and Euchre laid the foundation for card games we know and love today.

The French version of Vingt-Un was made up of characteristics of Veintiuna, and other well-liked card games including Chemin De Fer and Ferme. They came together to create one new game configuration. The game would continue to adapt and develop as it made its way to Britain and then America, with the rules, and eventually its name, changing as the game migrated.

Vingt-Un was enjoyed immensely by those of high society. Fans of the game even included Napoleon Bonaparte, who's rumoured to have indulged in a round or two post-battle as an act of relaxation and celebration. When King Louis XV reigned over France, the game was so in fashion that it was played at the Royal Courts, and even at that time, many variations of Vingt-Un existed.

Blackjack Crosses the Atlantic

Gambling first became part of American and Canadian culture in the 19th century when travellers would gather in saloons to gamble. New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco became known as gambling hotspots during that time.

Blackjack was a huge success across the Atlantic. Its forerunner, 21, was available to play in gambling halls all over New Orleans back in the 1820s, as it was the first legalized banking game. At the time, casinos introduced the concept of awarding large prizes to players who drew a blackjack, to entice new clientele. Over time, the game’s rules evolved into the blackjack we know more commonly today.

From 1931 onwards, casino games and blackjack continued to grow in popularity as Nevada became the first legalized gambling state in the USA. As a result, in the 1940s, Las Vegas established itself as the place to be for gambling and entertainment. Blackjack was considered guaranteed income for casino owners, offering a house edge of 0.5% over the player.

After the introduction of blackjack card counting, casino owners raised the edge to 2%, out of fear of large loss. For a moment, player intake dipped, so casinos brought back the original 0.5% and were happy to see a gain in profits. The lure of blackjack was so strong, that the thrill of winning seemed to be enough to attract players to the game.

Evolution of Blackjack Rules

European Blackjack is one of the two most common versions of blackjack played all over the world. Its defining characteristic as a blackjack variation is that it is stricter on a player’s decision-making than American Blackjack. Some blackjack rules that are specific to European Blackjack include that the dealer stands on a Soft 17, players can only split once, and if the dealer lands a blackjack, they win over any hand with a total of 21.

There are several tweaks gamblers in the USA have made to the game over time. For example, in American Blackjack, you can double down on any hand regardless of the hand's value.

You also have the option to split three times within the game, contrary to the rules of European Blackjack, where you can split a hand only once.

Across the board, the basic aim of blackjack is to land a hand as close to, but not over, 21. You may choose to hit or stand on each round. If you land a hand over 21, you go bust and lose the game. The same goes for the dealer, as it is the dealer that you are playing against.

Casinos nowadays tend to have similar modern rule variations across the board. Generally, these variations favour the house edge, like the dealer hitting a Soft 17 and the no doubling after splitting rule (DAS). The increase in the number of decks being used within the game has also helped to hinder card counting and ensure better randomization of cards.

Blackjack History FAQs

What is the origin of blackjack?

The origins of modern blackjack itself are unclear, but references to the game’s predecessor Vingt-Un (21) date back to 17th-century Spain, whilst the earliest records of blackjack take us back to 18th-century France.

Who invented card counting in blackjack?

Ed Thorpe introduced card counting as a strategy for playing blackjack in his book ‘Beat the Dealer’, which was first published in 1963. However, card counting has been practiced by a small number of professional gamblers since the 1950s.

Did Blackjack ever pay 2:1?

Yes, this was known as blackjack insurance. It's rare to find a casino that offers this rule nowadays, as the 2:1 payout favours the player over the house.

Why was 21 chosen for blackjack?

Blackjack was built on the format of the card game Vingt-Un, where players had to score an amount as close to 21 as possible, from the cards dealt. Although the rules of Vingt-Un adapted and developed over the years into the blackjack we know today, the game's basic premise stuck.

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